Why this glorious tree has survived through the ages and how to grow your own.

Deborah Jaffe

Come autumn, Washington, D.C., is ablaze in bright yellow from the majestic ginkgo trees that line the avenues. The light green leaves begin turning gold in October and last until mid-November, when heavy rains shake them from their branches, blanketing the sidewalks with fan-shaped foliage. This radiant show has been coloring the earth since almost the beginning of time. Robert Shaut, director of tree planting at Casey Trees (a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the city’s tree canopy, including ginkgoes), explains, “They are ideal for growing in urban environments. They’re adaptable, and that’s why they’ve been around for millions of years.” About 200 million, to be more exact—in fact, ginkgoes are living fossils, because the earliest traces of their unique leaves date back to the Permian period, when they lived among the dinosaurs. And they haven’t changed very much since. Present-day ginkgo leaves resemble fossilized ones from prehistoric times. 

Deborah Jaffe

Ginkgoes managed to survive one of the largest mass extinctions in history, so chances are, they’ll prosper wherever they’re planted today. These hardy trees are tough enough to withstand harsh elements like pollution, salt, pests, heat, drought, and disease. “Ginkgoes do well in a lot of different zones and soil scenarios,” says Jessica Sanders, director of science and policy at Casey Trees. “Wherever they’re given the chance, they’ll survive and thrive.” They’re easy to grow, require minimal maintenance once planted, and can live up to 1,000 years. Read on for Sanders’ and Shaut’s best tips for cultivating ginkgoes in your yard.

Deborah Jaffe

Bide Your Time  

“Ginkgoes can reach 80 to 100 feet tall, and their canopies can spread anywhere from 25 to 65 feet,” says Sanders. Young trees don’t become giants overnight. They are slow and sparse at first, but once established, they’ll grow more quickly. 

Choose a Smart Spot

Like most canopy trees, ginkgoes do best in a location with full sun. They prefer loose, well-drained, sandy soil and can tolerate acid or alkaline conditions. “They don’t like super wet feet, so add rocks or compost to clay soil to help with drainage,” says Sanders. “If your yard is small, don’t plant too close to the house, as they can grow very large and wide.”  

Be Picky with Your Type

Female ginkgo trees are notorious for producing fleshy, messy, foul-smelling fruits. Avoid them by planting only male selections like ‘Autumn Gold’ (Casey Trees’ go-to pick), ‘Windover Gold,’ ‘Fairmount,’ ‘Saratoga,’ and ‘Golden Colonnade.’ Casey Trees cultivates ginkgoes and then transplants them in the city. You can find affordable, ready-to-transplant ginkgoes (about 8 to 10 feet tall) at your local nursery. “Smaller ones do have success, but you run the risk of someone cutting them with a lawn mower,” says Shaut.

Deborah Jaffe

Make Them Happy

Upkeep is generally inexpensive and low-maintenance. Water young trees regularly until they reach 15 feet tall, and then rely on rainfall. “They need only simple pruning,” says Shaut. “Do it early so they have a strong central leader shooting straight up.” 

Grow Them in Containers 

Ginkgoes can thrive nearly everywhere—even in pots. “Pick a planter with good drainage, and add a nice layer of rocks or compost at the bottom. Choose a large pot so the roots have enough space to acclimate. Ginkgoes don’t get nearly as big or live as long in containers,” says Sanders. Potted ones need more frequent watering. Shaut recommends planting ‘Gnome,’ which is a dwarf selection.

Advertisement