I hired a local tree company to plant a 20-foot-tall ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) in my yard, and the tree’s leader has died back about 5 feet. Can I train a new branch to become the leader, or should I have the tree replaced?
Kirk Doncan, Overland, KS
The ginkgo tree is popular in cities. Its leaves are bright green all summer, then turn a striking golden-yellow in autumn.
Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Blume
Lee Reich, Fine Gardening contributing editor, and author of The Prunning Book, replies: The ginkgo is a tree that naturally develops a strong, central leader. A new branch, growing from a bud in the upper portion of the tree, will probably take over the role of the leader on your tree, even without your coaxing it to do so. If you want to train a young shoot upward, you can use the dead leader as a temporary support, tying the young shoot to it as it grows. Once the new leader is established and is a foot or two long, cut back the dead leader to healthy wood.
Hardy in Zones 4 to 9, ginkgo trees can ultimately reach 50 to 80 feet in height. They are tolerant of a wide range of conditions, and they also stand up well to air pollution, making them popular in urban areas. The ginkgo’s most distinctive feature is its fan-shaped leaves, which turn yellow in autumn.
This tree does have a downside, though. Female specimens produce a fleshy fruit that smells incredibly bad once it ripens and drops to the ground. Even though female trees may take 20 years to fruit, you’re better off planting male ginkgoes to avoid that eventual unpleasantness.