April 27th, 2006
There’s this one West Shore couple that had a wonderful, 18-foot flowering pear tree in the back yard.
They liked the white spring flowers, the evening shade and the brilliant fall foliage enough that when they built their new deck, they left a hole in the middle so the tree emerged from it like a living patio umbrella.
Great idea… until late summer when the little pear fruits started dropping.
What a mess.
The staining and mush got so bad that it came down to a choice of removing the tree, removing the deck or rigging up some kind of giant hairnet.
The tree lost out, the shade is gone, and the deck hole had to be patched.
Joe Ziccardi, coordinator of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal Plant program, saw a Philadelphia-area couple do the same thing with a saucer magnolia tree.
The bark and shade was magnificent, he says, but the big flower petals “created a slippery, slimy mess all over the deck.” And in a few years, the trunk outgrew the hole.
Both of these tales of woe illustrate how important it is to choose those trees wisely. (Also why you should be careful around garden writers because they’ll publish your blunders.)
Trees usually are welcome additions to our yards because of their cooling shade, the privacy they give and, of course, their sheer beauty. We like having them around.
But the choice becomes especially tricky near decks and patios. There’s little margin for error when trees, people and structures all converge on the same space.
The mess from falling fruits and slimy petals is just one issue.
Also trouble is when more painful objects fall, such as walnuts, chestnuts, horse chestnuts, those spiky seed balls from sweetgums and even acorns from oaks.
“Nobody wants to be out on their deck wearing a hard hat,” says Mike Guarino, a certified arborist at Longwood Gardens in Chester County.
Then there’s the issue of birds and bugs dropping their own little “gifts” from within the tree.
“I’ve seen really excessive honeydew (the nice term for bug waste) and sooty mold covering patios and patio furniture as a result of tulip trees,” says Eric Vorodi, a consulting arborist from Boiling Springs and owner of About Trees. “The real kicker is when the yellow jackets show up in late summer. That’s about when people want to use their patios. The same goes for lindens.”
Vorodi also warns against the vomit-like odor of female ginkgo trees, the incredibly staining fruits of mulberry trees and the piercing prickers of hawthorn trees.
Size can be trouble, too.
Shade is nice, but you don’t want a tree that’s going to soar to 100 feet, drop leaves in the gutters and grow branches that whack into the second-floor windows.
“We just did some research and found that one of the biggest reasons people top their trees (decapitate them) is that they plant too-big of a tree too close to their house,” says Dr. Bill Elmendorf, assistant professor of urban and community forestry at Penn State University.
Big trees also tend to produce big roots, so stay away from aggressive surface-rooters that could push up your pavers and/or crack your new concrete in a few years.
Some of the most aggressive rooters are big maples (especially the silver and Norway types), black locust, tulip trees and beech.
If you look hard enough, just about any tree could pose some kind of nuisance near a deck or patio. But some cause less strife than others.
Drive yourself crazy weighing all the options if you like, or consider one of the following pretty-darned-good choices suggested by arborists, landscape designers and horticulturists whom I pestered for opinions.
* Korean and Japanese stewartias (Stewartia koreana and Stewartia pseudocamellia). “Stewartias have got to be at the top of my list,” Vorodi says. “Even though they attract bees, it’s usually honeybees or bumblebees that don’t bother people. So you can sit and watch them work.”
Stewartias are small, slow-growers that typically top out in the 20- to 25-foot range and get white flowers with yellow centers in July after most other trees are long done blooming.
Their best features, though, are the striking kaleidoscope of fall leaf colors and then the soft, mottled bark as the trees age. (Likes sun or part shade, slightly acidy soil and damp but not soggy soil.)
* Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’). PHS’s Ziccardi likes this one for its sleek habit, fragrant white flowers, drought-tolerance and lack of bug and disease problems.
“Look for a single-stem specimen,” he says.
‘Ivory Silk’ is a taller than most lilacs – topping out at about 20 feet with a 12-foot spread – and it also blooms in mid-summer, not late spring as with most lilacs. (Best in full sun. Tolerant of most soils.)
* American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). Longwood’s Guarino picked this native that looks a bit like beech, only its roots and size are better suited for smaller spaces
“It’s a neat tree that doesn’t make much mess, except a little when it goes to seed,” Guarino says. “The bark is nice (smooth and bluish-gray), and it doesn’t get real big (typically 20 to 30 feet tall and wide).”
Also known as musclewood and ironwood, hornbeams often have a blend of fall foliage and well behaved roots. (Fairly versatile but prefers moist, slightly acidy soil in shade or part shade.)
* Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). This native is Elmendorf’s patio favorite, mainly because of its stunning early-spring flowers and heart-shaped leaves.
“It’s also a relatively hardy tree,” Elmendorf says. “Redbuds prefer moist soil and part shade, but they’re fairly adaptable and also will take full sun.”
Most redbuds grow about 20 feet tall (with a bit wider spread) and flower a pinkish-purple. ‘Forest Pansy’ is a popular dark-leafed variety. Seedpods drop, but at least they’re small.
Elmendorf also likes hornbeam and the hedge maple (Acer campestre), a small, durable maple that tolerates dry and alkaline conditions.
* Paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Joe Levendusky, owner of Joseph Levendusky Nursery and Landscape Contractor of Wellsville, gives top nod to this under-used maple with the peeling, cinnamon-colored bark reminiscent of a birch.
“I really like the texture of its bark,” he says. “It’s a small maple, too, and stays in the 20-foot range.”
The roots are well behaved, it’s seldom bothered by any bugs or disease, the small size limits the leaf drop, and the fall foliage is a nice bronzy-red. It’s only “patio flaw” is the “whirlybird” seed drop. (Likes sun or shade and is tolerant of most soils.)
* Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). Hampden Twp. certified arborist Bob Carey likes this small native that gets edible blue June fruits.
“It’s adaptable, aesthetically pleasing and has a pretty habit that won’t overpower the space,” Carey says. As for the fruits, he says birds usually polish them off before they have a chance to hit the ground.
Serviceberries flower white in April, grow about 15 to 20 feet tall and wide, and get showy red/yellow leaves in fall. (Takes sun or part shade and prefers moist, acidy soil.)
* Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). HGTV personality and former Victory Garden host Roger Swain likes this native that gets drooping white panicles in late spring.
“It’s a beautiful small tree,” he says, “and its fall color is spectacular.”
Sourwoods turn a flaming pinkish-red in fall and grow slowly to about 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide. (Prefers moist, acidy soil in sun or part shade. Best fall color is in sun.)
* Rutgers hybrid dogwoods (Cornus rutgersensis). Count me in for these. Dogwoods can be finicky, but the Rutgers hybrids are crosses that blend the beauty of the American dogwood with the durability and bug- and disease-resistance of the Chinese (Kousa) type.
My favorite is the white-blooming ‘Aurora,’ but the pale-pink ‘Stellar Pink’ also is nice. All six in this series – bred by Dr. Elwin Orton at Rutgers University – grow about 18 to 20 feet tall and wide without pushing up decks and patios.
Both spring flowering and fall foliage is beautiful, and these are all sterile hybrids, which means no fruit (a patio plus). (Afternoon shade is ideal with moist, slightly acidy soil.)