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Fast-growing trees for shade

Q: I would like to plant fast-growing shade trees of medium height (no taller than 50 feet). Are willows a good choice? If not, what should I grow?

Arnold Hecker, Ravenna, NE

A: Richard Sutton, associate professor and landscape architect at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, replies: Laurel willow (Salix pentandra) might be a good choice, but first let me caution that fast-growing trees typically have weak wood and may drop their branches in the early spring snowstorms that are not uncommon in ­Nebraska. In general, fast growth and strong wood are mutually exclusive qualities in trees. I would recommend the following: go ahead and plant a fast-growing tree, but also plant a slow-growing shade tree 20 feet away on the sunny side of the fast-growing one. Regularly prune the weak crotches out of the fast-growing tree. In 15 or 20 years, should you still be gardening at that location, remove the fast-growing tree. You will have had the fast shade you needed while the stronger, more desirable tree matured.

Fast-growing trees that should work well for you ­include laurel willow, river birch (Betula nigra), hybrid poplar (Populus canadensis ‘Nor’Easter’), Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila), and box ­elder (Acer negundo). Slow-growing trees I would recommend include any of the nonseed-producing cultivars of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), thornless honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), and burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa).

From Fine Gardening 55, pp. 20