Choosing Lawn-Friendly Trees for Your Yard

You can grow almost any tree successfully in a lawn, provided you properly take care of the tree and the lawn. You can prune densely growing tree branches to let more light through so that grass can grow underneath. You can also find ways to protect young trees from the meanest lawn mower.

To get you started, the following lists suggests some common trees that get along with lawns. All are capable of growing in many different regions with many different climates:

  • Japanese maple (Acer palmatum): Delicately lobed leaves and brilliant orange, red, or yellow fall color are the Japanese maple tree’s claims to fame. Many varieties are available that offer foliage other than green (usually purplish or red); tree shapes (some are very small and weeping); and leaf patterns (some are very finely cut, almost feathery). Japanese maples prefer well-drained soil and ample water. In hot summer, arid climates, Japanese maples need some afternoon shade, such as the east side of the house, and protection from wind. The most common, unnamed varieties grow to about 20 feet high.

  • Birch (Betula): Loved for their striking bark and bright yellow fall color, birches make fine lawn trees — that is, if you live in an area with summer rainfall and relatively cold winters. In the dry summer West and mild winter deep South, birches are pest-prone and usually short-lived.

  • Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis): The Eastern redbud has lovely red flowers in early spring and lobed leaves. It grows about 25 to 35 feet high and does best in areas with some winter chill. The Forest Pansy variety has purplish red leaves.

  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): One of the most beloved spring-flowering trees, flowering dogwood (see color insert section) is native to the eastern United States, which is where it really does best. In alkaline soils or dry heat, dogwoods do better in partial shade. Keep the lawn mower away from this one. Wounds to the trunk invite borer infestations. Dogwoods usually grows about 20 to 30 feet high.

  • Ash (Fraxinus): This fast-growing, tough tree comes in many types. Most have divided leaves, which cast nice shade and turn bright colors in fall. Autumn Purple, which is a variety of white ash (F. americana) grows to about 40 feet high; and Moraine ash, a selection of F. holotricha with yellow fall color and growing to about 35 to 40 feet. The leaves of both break down quickly after they drop.

  • In recent years, the emerald ash borer has decimated the ash tree population by tens of millions in the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and further. This imported beetle has no natural predator (so far) in the United States and the infestation continues to spread.

  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): Grow the ginkgo for its stunning yellow fall color and neat-looking fan-shaped leaves. Ginkgos grow slowly, but can eventually get huge, upwards of 80 feet high. Leaves drop all at once, making for easy, one-time cleanup. Make sure that you get a male variety such as Autumn Gold. If the tree isn’t labeled as being fruitless, ask your nursery person. Female trees drop fruit that is messy and smelly.

  • Thornless honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis): The thornless honeylocust’s very finely cut leaves cast wonderful shade, turn yellow in autumn, and then dissolve cleanly into the lawn after dropping. Unfortunately, honeylocusts have some fairly serious pests in some climates, so you need to check with your nurserygrower before planting.

  • Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata): Brilliant yellow flowers bloom in midsummer, followed by unusual, papery, Japanese lanternlike fruit. This tree is tough once it gets established (three to four years after planting), reaching 35 to 40 feet high at maturity.

  • Chinese pistache (Pistachia chinensis): Glorious red, yellow, or orange fall color and finely cut leaves that cast wonderful shade make this one of the finest lawn trees. Widely adapted to all but the coldest climates, Chinese pistache has a spreading habit, reaching at least 50 feet high, and nearly as wide.

  • Purple robe locust (Robinia ambigua ‘Purple Robe’): Lovely, dangling clusters of deep purple, fragrant flowers open in spring. Finely cut leaves turn yellow in fall and cast light shade. This upright to slightly spreading, very tough tree grows to about 40 feet high.

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