Storms in the South can topple lots of shade trees, opening yards to the searing summer sun. Faithful readers asked me to suggest replacements that wouldn’t take 50 years to reach a decent size or cause problems like invasive roots or messy litter. OK, Grumpians, here you go. These are good trees for young homeowners just starting out too. Keep in mind that unless you have a big property, one big shade tree on the sunny side of the house may be enough. Allow 1,600 square-feet per tree (40’ x 40’), so it’ll have room to grow naturally and won’t swallow the yard. Fall is the best time to plant.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
This popular tree grows 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide with a loosely pyramidal shape. It boasts silvery bark and three-lobed leaves that that turn bright yellow, orange, or red in fall. My favorite selection for the South, ‘October Glory,’ (shown above) turns brilliant scarlet. Red maple likes acid, moist soil; don’t plant it in dry, compacted, alkaline soil. Grow it in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
‘Allee’ Chinese Elm (Ulmus parviflora ‘Allee’)
This release from the University of Georgia has everything going for it. It resists insects and disease (including Dutch elm disease), tolerates drought, and grows in just about any well-drained soil. Its ascending branches leave lots of head room beneath. They form a rounded canopy 40 to 60 feet tall and wide. Leaves turn a pretty, soft yellow in early fall and keep that color for weeks. In the winter, you’ll enjoy its speckled orange, olive, and gray bark. Grow it in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
WATCH: Trees That Will Ruin Your Yard
Nuttall Oak (Quercus texana, formerly Q. nuttallii)
You may have to search a bit for this one, as garden centers seem stuck on the inferior pin oak (a lousy tree for most yards as its branches hang all the way to the ground). But it’s worth it, because I think it’s the best oak for most people. It grows 70 feet tall with a symmetrical, rounded form. Leaves shine bright red in fall. It thrives in almost any soil, including compacted and poorly drained ones. Grow it in USDA Zones 6 to 9.
Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis)
About the only negative thing you can say about this tree is it doesn’t bear edible nuts like its cousin, the pistachio. It’s a great medium-size shade tree for smaller areas, growing 30 to 35 feet tall and wide with a rounded shape. Fall foliage is amazing, ranging from fiery orange to red. It has no serious pests and thrives in almost well-drained soil. It’s also good for urban planting. Grow it in USDA Zones 6 to 9.
Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata)
Related to elms, this tree displays a distinctly vase-shaped form with ascending branches, leaving lots of head room under it. Like Chinese elm, it’s disease- and-pest resistant and grows in almost any well-drained soil. Expect it to reach 50 to 70 feet tall and wide at maturity. Leaves turn yellow, orange, and russet-red in fall. Look for the selections ‘Green Vase’ and ‘Village Green.’ Grow it in USDA Zones 5 to 8.