Shade tree suggestions for heavy clay soil?

larjoranjJuly 11, 2007

Moved into my new house in Tennessee this spring. Not a single tree on my property. Back yard is appx. 1/2 acre and soil is heavy orange clay and fairly rocky. The most commonly ocurring trees in this area are Hickories,Cedars, Scrubby type Oaks and Locust ( I think, there are thorns on them). Would like to plant a few different large growing shade trees other than these. First priority is to survive the soil, second is not to be a nuisance tree and third is fall color. Nurseries in this area typically carry Red and Silver maples ( Silver too brittle for my taste ), Pin Oaks, Sycamores, Birches and Tulip Poplar. I may have to mail order to get a better selection. Any suggestions are welcomed.

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Red maples, tulip poplar and sycamores are my amongst my favorite trees. They are large trees but can grow fast to give you shade and privacy relatively quickly. Ginkgo has great fall color and so does sugar maple but they are slow growers. You can mix both fast and slower growing species.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 9:53AM
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One more thing. Don't rush into buying any trees just yet. Give it some more time until you establish what your needs are and also develop a for taste in trees you will like the best. Once you plant them, it's really difficult to move them or change your mind so take this time to research and shop the nurseries and take a look at all your options. You have many options. Clay soil is not your enemy.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 9:56AM
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A tough native,INCREDIBLE fall color....Nyssa sylvatica(Black Gum,Rabbit Gum,Black Tupelo..common names for the south). Hope you can find something, the nursery industry in Tenn. was HAMMERED by the cold this year)

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 10:14AM
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I planted a 6' tulip tree last year and it is doing great in our heavy clay.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2007 at 9:17PM
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I planted a Black Tupelo at my daughter's house in the heavy white clay soil of Fort Worth, TX. Only thing is that on top of the soil, I pile up a two foot deep and 6 foot wide bed of straight horse manure compost for the tree to establish well in, which I expected to sustain the tree while it got strong enough to begin adapting to the normal clay soil.

It is now about 3 years later, the tree is doing the best ever, and shows no signs of stressing as its roots are continuing to venture into the virgin, white clay soil.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2007 at 2:03PM
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Michman and Katrina mentioned they have clay soil with trees doing okay. I dug a hole about 2 1/2 feet in diameter and 2 1/2 feet deep on Monday. It rained that afternoon, filling the hole up. It was still half full on Saturday without any additional rain. I'm thinking of digging for a small lake instead of planting trees.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 6:54AM
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And it is for that reason many trees will grow well. Clay soil retains water. If you were able to dig a hole with a shovel, you can grow a tree there. What part of TN are you in?

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 9:39AM
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    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 1:37PM
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My river birch are also doing well in a low spot in clay soil.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 7:54PM
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jqpublic(7b/8a Wake County NC)

I suggest taking a look around the area you're in. In my area if I have heavy clay everyone else does too. Take a drive around old neighborhoods with established trees and see what you like. Black gums are nice, have great fall color, but slow growing. Maples are quicker and have good fall color, but roots can be a nuisance. Red oaks are great (Northern or southern should do well there).

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 8:58PM
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We have hard clay in DC. The white oaks and the
tulip poplars in some yards always amaze me by how
little root flare they have at their base. The tulip
poplars look like telephone poles at the base. Limbed up
it can shade the roof of a large house, yet provide tons
of light (and space) for gardening or lawn underneath.
Some yards have very old silver maples. Huge trunks
(great for tree-houses), but 1/3 of the drip line seems
to be surface roots. As for other 'play' trees,
I grew up where the woods were full of beeches. Best climbing tree ever. Solid branches that go all the way down the trunk, so a kid can actually go up like on a ladder. Slow growing though, so maybe for the grandkids.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2007 at 9:48PM
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quirkyquercus, I am in Wilson county, 1 county over from Nashville, in a small community called Gladeville.

    Bookmark   July 17, 2007 at 6:59AM
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Scarlet Oaks do nicely in slightly acidic clay soil.

You found out when digging the hole, the fact that clay not only holds on to water very well, it also quickly releases the moisture it contains into voids in the soil. You dug a hole and not only the rain filled it with water, but all the water in the clay soil around the hole kept filling the hole until the water pressure in the hole became close to the same as the water pressure in the soil. Then as evaporation occurs the water which turns into vapor and rises away is replaced with more moisture from the soil, until there is not enough water in the clay soil to replace that which has evaporated. At that point the clay will begin to absorb enough of the water in the hole to once again bring the pressure of the water in the soil to be equal with the water pressure in the hole. Only once that process begins to happen will you be able to notice the water level in the hole beginning to lower.

This is the very reason why it is a bad idea to dig a hole in clay, plant the tree, and backfill with a different kind of soil. In that case the backfill soil will remain full of water, not only from rain and your watering but also from being kept filled with water that the virgin clay soil is holding.

The backfill soil needs to be the same as the virgin soil which came out of the hole. By doing so the pressures remain more even and the there is much less of a void in to soil situation presented. This is also why it is bad to plant a root ball that is full of potting soil directly into clay. Instead as much as possible of the potting soil need to be washed away from the rootball mass and refilled with the virgin clay soil as what is found around the planting hole. That is why it is best to plant trees when they are in their dormant stage.

If for any reason you want to amend the clay soil where your tree is to be planted, there must be amendment fairly evenly mixed into the virgin soil for a very wide spreading area. The more clay ratio in the virgin soil the farther spreading you planting bed needs to be that you amend. The amended area needs to be at least 6 times, if not more the width of the tree's rootball.

Also, plant the tree with the rootflare about 3 to 4 inches above the soil level. After the tree is securely planted, and staked if needed, only then back fill the exposed 3-4 inches of raised rootball with a good quality and fairly finely shredded cedar mulch. Just make certain you do not pile any mulch above the topmost part of the rootflare. The trunk should not appear to look more like a post sticking out of the ground. Instead you should be able to just see where the topmost part of the root flare is growing out of the trunk.

Finally never pile any mulch all the way against the trunk, make certain to leave all mulch at least 4 or more inches away from the base of the tree's trunk.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2007 at 12:14AM
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Taxodium distichum 'Shawnee Brave' would be on my list and will do very well in your pool!

Nyssa would be on my list as well.

Carya ovata (Shagbark Hickory) is a winner!

These are all water tolerant:
Taxodium distichum, Nyssa aquatica, Salix, Carya aquatica, Forestiera acuminata, Planera aquatica, Nyssa ogeche, Itea virginica, Quercus lyrata, Larix species (evidently some but not others), Sycamore.

You'd also be best off to plant small trees as they establish themselves much easier (less losses) than larger rootsystems/trees.


    Bookmark   July 18, 2007 at 8:09AM
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Sure wish I had read y'rall wisdom before I planted. Instead read the labels and did it all wrong.

I planted lots of swamp trees, got 3 tiny Nyssa Aquatica seedlings from and these are GROWING very fast. They're supposed to be slow but these are literally faster than the weeds nearby were growing.

It is totally true that small trees planted in fall when dormant do much better.

In my swampiest land areas I planted sweetgum and it's thrived. Gorgeous long-lasting fall color. For willows, try the Prairie Cascade for the fastest growing tree with glowing golden trunk in winter and big glossy exuberant leaves in summer. Plant this willow in your wettest possible places.

If you have a cool sheltered dip try Picea mariana, the black spruce that likes water, very pretty trees, dark green color, unusual looking, great backdrop for vibrant-color bushes.

Black cottonwoods grow fast and well in water. Sequoias here seem to crave water. Coast redwoods like water. Do Japanese maples grow where you are? They like water and can be wonderful smaller trees. Fun to create a canopy of different heights and textures.

The purple robed locusts I've planted love water and clay and sun and grow fast, very fast.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2007 at 10:45AM
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Cottonwoods and Quaking Aspen also crossed my mind and I had forgotten about Black Hills Spruce. Those three can certainly be added for both heavy clay as well as poor drainage.

I believe that the Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens 'and' Sequoiadendron giganteum) need good drainage, and certainly the Acer palmatums, shirasawanum, japonicum, sieboldianum, pseudosieboldianum unfortunately, need good drainage. So all these should be omitted.

Sweetgum, indeed are a fine selection for this Tennesee clay situation. These can be added as well.

Acer circinatum I would believe would be another good choice but it will need cool conditions (more shade). You might double check me on that though. Drainage again may be the downfall for these. Otherwise in their natural habitat, they are swamp trees.

Lastly, it's always a great idea to check with a university extention (U of Tennesee or similar) to find which trees they recommend.

See ya all,


    Bookmark   July 18, 2007 at 10:56AM
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