Fast growing trees — are they out of bounds?

Departments - Straight Talk | Honest insights from an IGC expert

Consider the potential drawbacks before adding fast-growing species to your product mix.

Narrow-growing, or columnar, tree species that retain a compact shape provide space-appropriate solutions. They can create a privacy hedge and fit into smaller spaces larger shade trees can’t.

Word on the street is that customers no longer have the patience for trees to grow in their urban landscapes. Many are hesitant to spend the money on large B&B tree specimens, but they also want privacy now. To feed their need for instant gratification, retail garden center shoppers are increasingly asking for fast-growing container grown trees. Where do these specimens fit into your selection — or should they?

The reasons for choosing fast-growing trees are obvious and understandable. Creating privacy quickly is often the primary reason for choosing fast-growing species. Creating shade is equally important, especially in hot climates. Sometimes, customers just want the aesthetics of a mature specimen. While these goals are rational, they aren’t always achievable — without consequences.

Fast failures

As professionals, we know there are often negative trade-offs when planting fast-growing trees. I can’t count the times that, as a horticultural consultant, I’ve warned against many popular fast-growers. Fast-growing trees are often invasive, have weak-wood that splits easily in high winds or storms, and are prone to disease and pest problems. Some are serious water guzzlers. In general, a fast growth rate usually translates to a relatively short life span.

Even so, urban living demands things of our trees that nature does not. Urban dwellers want fast solutions to immediate problems such as nosy neighbors, noise and urban heat. Many consumers I talk to these days don’t seem concerned with how long the tree is going to live. “I’ll be dead by then” is a common, and morbid, response when I warn about shorter tree life spans.

Okey dokey.

Tight squeeze

Consumers are also trained to think of certain tree species as the “right” shade tree or privacy screen, regardless of the space they have available. Sometimes, growing smaller might be a wiser and equally effective choice. Urban yards don’t typically have the space required to adequately accommodate large shade trees, such as live oaks. A smaller growing species might be a better choice for the space, surrounding structures and utilities.

An 80-by-100-foot live oak in an urban neighborhood usually ends up crowding your neighbor’s roof line or getting butchered for power line clearance. A Chinese pistache that grows more quickly than a live oak (but to a more manageable size of 30 to 50 feet tall and 15 to 30 feet wide) might provide exactly the amount of shade a customer needs, where they need it. Why plant 100 feet of tree if you only need 40 feet to get the job done?


Small rewards

Another benefit of many mid-size or small trees (or dwarf varieties or cultivars) is that they’re going to reach their mature size faster than their full-sized counterparts. Teaching customers that they can get a mature tree (that fits in their available spaces and provides the benefits they seek) in less time by choosing a smaller species can be a win-win. Smaller species are easier for garden centers to stock in container sizes manageable by most homeowners. Plus, many mid- to small-sized trees — including fruit trees — offer bonus blooms.

Skinny trees

Narrow-growing, or columnar, tree species that retain a compact shape may also provide space-appropriate solutions. Columnar trees are perfect for creating privacy in tight urban spaces, if there is enough light exposure for the selected species. We’ve seen some new varieties of columnar trees coming on the market the last few years, such as Slender Silhouette Sweetgum, Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress, or Dragon Lady Holly. There’s a big opportunity to expand sales of “skinny” trees to urban dwelling customers with tight spaces.

Space appropriate

As independent garden centers, we want to encourage our customers to choose the right plant for the right place. Hopefully, we can also recommend a plant that is also an environmentally sound choice. That may mean redirecting consumer focus to “space appropriate” tree species instead of “fast growing” ones. Trees that are smaller, or narrower, but reach the mature size necessary to accomplish the homeowner’s goals.

Now is a great time to reevaluate your tree selection and marketing with a focus on space appropriate plantings. Depending on your region, many cities are pushing reforestation efforts in urban communities and many homeowners are replacing trees destroyed by drought or storms. Be sure to offer your customers new tree options — and education — that help them solve common urban problems, without growing out of bounds.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.