Fall is the best time for appreciating the beauty of shade trees. It's also the best time to plant them. Cool temperatures mean minimal transplanting shock. And after the leaves drop, you can let nature take care of watering until spring. Plus, even though the above-ground part of the tree is dormant, the roots can keep growing all winter in the South. This results in faster growth the following spring.
Now, there are lots of shade trees for sale out there. Some are great; some are garbage. How can you tell which is which? Ask me, the Grumpy Gardener. For the next few weeks, I'll be profiling some truly superior shade trees for the average yard. Being generous to a fault, I'll also tell you which trees to avoid.
'October Glory' red maple is hot, hot, hot!
Glorious, Simply Glorious
If someone asked Grumpy to name one tree that absolutely guaranteed glorious fall foliage in the South, it would have to be 'October Glory' red maple (Acer rubrum 'October Glory'). Although its name says "October," it turns color later than that in Birmingham -- usually the first week of November. I shot the tree above this morning. Can you believe the sizzling, electric scarlet of the leaves?
'October Glory' is one of two very popular selections of our native red maple chosen for outstanding fall color. The other is 'Red Sunset.' Both grow rather quickly, reaching 50-60 feet tall with an oval to pyramidal shape. They make excellent lawn and street trees, due to their ascending branches and lack of problematic surface roots. Both feature handsome, silvery bark.
So what's the difference between them? Well, 'October Glory' is more heat-tolerant, while 'Red Sunset' is more cold-tolerant. Plus, 'Red Sunset' grows a little faster (more than 2 feet a year) and colors up two weeks earlier in fall.
Grumpy's recommendation -- if you live in the South, plant 'October Glory.' If you live in the Midwest or North, go with 'Red Sunset.' If you live on the West Coast, do whatever the heck you want.
For the best fall color, plant in full sun. Red maple tolerates most soils, even wet ones, but does not like drought and will be among the first trees to scorch, defoliate, and die back if it doesn't get enough water in summer. Don't plant it where its roots will be restricted (like those little islands in parking lots) or near hot pavement. Prune it in summer, not winter or spring, or the cuts will bleed sap.
Both of these red maples are widely available at garden centers and nurseries.
Don't Plant This
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is one of the best retorts I know to the specious argument that just because a plant is native, it's necessarily better. Silver maple is native. It's also a horrible tree.
Why do so many people plant it? One reason. It's among the fastest growing shade trees around (3 to 5 feet a year), so if your treeless yard is broiling you alive, you may not think far enough ahead. You should, because like many skyrocketing trees, silver maple is beset with a host of problems.
It's weak-wooded and breaks up in storms. It develops a hungry net of surface roots that cracks sidewalks and invades water and sewer lines. Its fall color is poor. It's also incredible weedy.
Anybody need about a million silver maples? My neighbors have plenty to share!
Just look at this pair of silver maples up the street from me. In late spring, each drops about one billion seeds. That's enough to cover the entire lawn! And all of them will germinate somewhere.
Now -- aren't you glad you have Grumpy around to save you from such disaster? You're welcome. It's what I do.