Low-Maintenance Trees for Your Yard

Owning a home brings the responsibility of managing the yard space around the home. That task involves more than mowing the lawn and pulling the weeds. It also entails landscaping a yard that matches your desires.

For young families, the perfect yard often means a fenced-in area for kids to roam free. For retired couples, the perfect yard could include a well-maintained garden and a deck for entertaining. Whatever your situation in life, your yard should reflect you. But, you don’t want spending time in your yard to feel like a chore.

Luckily, in Alberta and British Columbia, you have options for low-maintenance trees that allow you to personalize your space and enjoy it without too much work. Read on to discover the best low-maintenance trees you can plant to transform your yard into a personal haven.

For Shade

With their wide branches and large leaves, shade trees create a cozy place to enjoy summer weather. These trees will shed many leaves you’ll have to rake and bag before the winter, but they are otherwise easy to maintain. Most large shade trees work best in wider yards.

Choose trees from this list to grow hardy shade trees in your yard:

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). This tree can grow up to be massive – roughly 30 m tall (100 ft.) and 30 m wide – so it creates ample shade for a large backyard. Its strength allows it to survive more polluted city atmospheres without adverse reactions.
  • American Yellowwood (Celtis occidentalis). This tough tree has few problems with insect infestation or plant diseases, so it requires minimal hands-on care. Mature trees grow 15 to 22 m (50 to 75 ft.) high with a similar-sized foliage spread.
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Red oaks grow quickly and are receptive to transplantation. Those qualities make it a great option if you want to enjoy shade right away rather than waiting for your tree to grow from a sapling.
  • Tamarack Larch (Larix laricina). Grows slowly and may be only 15 to 18 m in height. On moist, well drained soils however, it can grow to heights of 25 m. The bark is rough and dark grey in colour and there are numerous small rounded reddish winter buds.
    • Leaves: Needle-like, 12 to 20 in feather-like clusters, soft and slender, 2 to 4 cm long, light green turning bright yellow in the autumn when they fall from the tree. In fact, larches are the only needle leaved tree to shed needles in the fall.
    • Cones: Pollen cones (male) quite small, yellow; seed cones (female) 1 to 2.5 cm. Long, reddish when young, becoming brown and almost spherical when mature; seeds small and winged.
    • Distribution: Occurs throughout central and northern Alberta, usually in muskeg and boggy areas. Rarely found in pure stands, it typically occurs in mixture with black spruce. On better sites it can form a component of virtually any type of stand.
    • Wood and Uses: Wood is moderately hard and heavy, somewhat oily, decay resistant, and yellowish brown to reddish brown in colour. It is used for lumber for rough construction, fence posts, poles, railway ties, and pulpwood.
  • Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia). A tall, slender pine with little taper and a straight trunk; can grow to 30 m or more in height. It has a thin bark, which is yellowish brown and somewhat scaly.
    • Leaves: Needle-like, in bundles of two, produced in dense clusters towards the ends of the branches, 2.5 to 7.5 cm long, yellowish green.
    • Cones: Pollen cones (male) borne in small terminal clusters; seed cones (female) conical-shaped woody and closed/sealed (serotinous), usually straight, pointed backwards towards the base of the branches, yellowish brown often borne in clusters, 2.5 to 5.0 cm long, scales thickened and with a sharp spine at the tip of each scale; seeds winged.
    • Distribution: The most common and abundant tree in the Rocky Mountains and foothill regions. Occurring on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains where it frequently forms dense even-aged stands as the result of fire. In areas adjacent to jack pine, the two species integrate.
    • Wood and Uses: Wood is moderately light, soft to moderately hard and white to yellowish brown in colour. It is used for lumber and plywood as well as pulp. Lumber is used mainly in general construction; other uses include furniture, siding, flooring and panels. After pressure treatment with preservatives, lodgepole pine makes excellent railway ties, utility poles, and mine timbers.
  • Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii). Large tree, sometimes reaching up to 35 m; crown is narrow, symmetrical, lower branches usually drooping; bark thin, scaly, reddish brown.
    • Leaves: Needle-like, 4 sided, stiff, 2.0 to 2.5 cm long; bluish green.
    • Cones: Pollen cones (male) dark purple, 1.2 to 1.6 cm long; seed cones (female) brown to yellowish brown at maturity, 2.5 to 7.5 cm long; cone scales broadest near the middle, irregularly toothed on outer edge with prominent bracts; seeds small with wedge-shaped wings.
    • Distribution: Higher altitudes in high valleys and on slopes of Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta. Often mixed with firs, larches, and pines.
    • Wood and Uses: Wood is light, soft, resilient, straight-grained and white in colour. It can be used for pulp and lumber.
  • White Spruce (Picea glauca). A large tree reaching up to 45 m; rough scaly bark, brownish to silvery grey.
    • Leaves: Needle-like, 4 sided, stiff, sharp-pointed, 2.5 to 3.0 cm long, bright green.
    • Cones: Pollen cones (male) small, yellow; seed cones (female) usually at the ends of young twigs, drooping and turning brown at maturity, 4 to 5 cm long; scales thin, somewhat rounded with smooth margins; seeds with thin wings.
    • Distribution: Widespread throughout south-central and northern Alberta, succeeding Aspen poplar and pine in burned over areas.
    • Wood and Uses: Wood is light, soft, resilient, straight-grained, and white in colour. In Alberta, it is the main species used for lumber, plywood, and pulp.
  • Northwood Red Maple (Swamp Maple or Scarlet Maple). A very hardy selection of the popular red maple from northern Minnesota, this shapely shade tree features brilliant red fall colour and showy red flowers along the branches in early spring; intolerant of alkaline soils.
    • Ornamental Features: Northwood red maple has green foliage which emerges red in spring. The lobed leaves turn an outstanding red in the fall. It features showy red flowers along the branches in early spring before the leaves. It produces red samaras in late spring. The furrowed silver bark and brick red branches add an interesting dimension to the landscape.
    • Landscape Attributes: Northwood red maple is a deciduous tree with a shapely oval form. Its average texture blends into the landscape, but can be balanced by one or two finer or coarser trees or shrubs for an effective composition.
    • This is a relatively low-maintenance tree and should only be pruned in summer after the leaves have fully developed, as it may ‘bleed’ sap if pruned in late winter or early spring. It has no significant negative characteristics.
    • Northwood red maple is recommended for the following landscape applications; accent and shade.
    • Plant Characteristics: Northwood red maple will grow to be about 50 ft. tall at maturity, with a spread of 30 ft. It has a high canopy with a typical clearance of 7 ft. from the ground, and should not be planted underneath power lines. It grows at a medium rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 80 years or more.
    • This tree should only be grown in full sunlight. It is quite adaptable, preferring to grow in average to wet conditions, and will even tolerate some standing water. It is not particular as to soil type, but has a definite preference for acidic soils, and is subject to chlorosis (yellowing) of the leaves in alkaline soils. It is somewhat tolerant of urban pollution.
    • This is a selection of a native North American species.

Shade Trees for the Prairies

  • Manchurian Ash (Fraxinus mandshurica). Large shade tree with dense canopy. Textured green leaves that turn bright gold in the fall. At maturity, this tree can be more than 12 m tall with a spread of 6 – 8 m so it’s better suited to larger yards. Distinct oval to round shape.
  • Dropmore Linden (Tilia flavescens ‘Dropmore’). This is the hardiest of the Lindens for Zone 3. Pyramid shaped crown with uniquely shaped dark green leaves, turning bright yellow in the fall. Creamy white flowers in the summer, although not very fragrant. This tree is approximately 12 m tall and 5 – 7 m wide at maturity.
  • Brandon Elm (Ulmus Americana ‘Brandon’). This cultivar has more compact, vase shape canopy than other Elms. Dark green serrated leaves that turn yellow in the fall. Flowers are insignificant in the spring, but this tree will offer lots of shade and tolerates both wet and dry conditions. This tree can grow to be 15 m tall with a 10 m spread, again making it more suited to large yards.
  • Laurel Leaf Willow (Salix pentandra). Probably one of the best shade trees on the Prairies, due to its large, broad canopy and fast growth rate. This tree also tolerates wet and dry conditions and can grow to more than 12 m wide and 12 m tall, making it more suited to larger yards, acreages and parks. It has narrow dark green leaves that turn yellow in the ladder half of fall.

For Fruit
You might not mind a bit of tree-related yard work if it yields a tasty snack when you finish. Many fruit trees are well-suited to Western Canada’s quick growing seasons.

Try planting these varieties:

  • Evans Cherry Tree (Prunus cerasus). Unlike many cherry trees, this variety requires no paired tree for cross pollination. Its cherries are sour or sweet and taste delicious in pies.
  • Norland Apple (Malus ‘Norland’). This apple tree bears fruit early, so you won’t have to worry about a short growing season ruining your yield. The tree itself grows to a more manageable size, typically less than 6 m (20 ft.), for easy pruning and harvesting.

Saskatoon Berries

Saskatoon berries are native to Alberta. The Plains Indians ate the fruit both fresh and dried in their dietary staple, pemmican.

Today, the Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) is valued for its fruit and as an ornamental shrub or hedge. The shrub is tall and upright with a spreading form. Early in the spring, before the leaves are fully out, clusters of white blossoms appear. The fall colour of this shrub also makes it an outstanding addition to the landscape. Saskatoons are self-fertile, but they seem to do better when grown in groups.

The fruit is excellent when eaten fresh, cooked in pies and desserts, canned, frozen, or made into wine or juice. Thousands of acres are now commercially produced on the Canadian prairies, but this factsheet will focus on home garden Saskatoon berry production.

Location and Soils

Saskatoons thrive on most soils with plenty of organic matter. They need good drainage as the plant does not like wet roots. They prefer slightly acidic soils, but will grow reasonably well on alkaline soils with a pH of up to 7.5.

Saskatoons bloom early, making them highly susceptible to early spring frosts. Locations with a gentle slope and good air drainage are ideal for cultivation.

Propagation

Saskatoons can be propagated from seed, root sprouts (suckers), or tissue culture plants. Seedling and tissue cultured plant material is available from numerous nurseries throughout the province. Some amount of variability will exist between seedling plants, whereas tissue culture or other vegetatively propagated plants are identical.

To gather seeds, collect the fruit as soon as it ripens, and clean the fruit pulp from the seeds. Clean seeds can be sown in the fall, and germination will occur in the following spring.

Plant material is collected in early spring when plants are dormant. Dig out young suckers with as many fine roots as possible.

Cut back tops to a height of 5 cm, plant, and keep them well watered.

The first (small) crop may be expected in about four years from planting. Peak production will take another two or three years, if plants develop well.

Planting

Plant Saskatoons in hedge rows 0.6 to 1 m apart with 4 to 6 m spacing between rows.

Annual Fertilization

Measure 150 mL of 23-23-0 or 27-14-0 fertilizer with a liquid measuring cup, and apply under the branches and to 30 cm beyond each plant. Fertilize between flowering and harvest time.

Cultivation

Cultivation controls weeds that compete for moisture, and it also destroys or covers up any diseased berries on the ground. This practice helps control disease and insect problems in the crop. Shallow cultivation prevents damage to the fragile roots.

Pruning

Saskatoons produce fruit on the previous year’s growth and on older wood. Generally, the younger, more vigorous branches yield the best quality fruit.

Pruning should be done early in the spring after the danger of severe cold weather has passed, but before bud break. Prune to control the height of the bushes; a height of 2 m is ideal. Pruning out branches that are the thickness of a toonie or greater will help keep the plant height manageable. Remove all diseased, damaged and weak growth. Cut off low branches and thin the center to keep it open.

After the plants are 6- to 7-years old, prune out a few 5- to 7-year-old branches yearly to encourage new and vigorous shoot growth. Older shrubs can be rejuvenated by cutting them back to ground level and allowing new sprouts to grow.

To find the perfect spot in your yard for a fruit tree, look for an area protected from wind so blossoms can preserve their petals and yield a good crop. You’ll also want a slightly elevated area with soil that drains easily. Fruit trees require regular pruning, but you can get help with that task from a tree grooming service.

Trees for Colour, Fruit & Flowers

Green is the colour most frequently associated with trees, but many trees blossom with bright-coloured flowers during the spring and transform into warm, leafy wonders during fall. Give your yard a pop of colour during spring, summer, and fall with these trees:

  • Toba or Snowbird Hawthorn (Cragegus x mordensis). This tree produces bunches of small, tight flowers hardy enough to survive early spring freezes. Blooms are either white or pink.
  • Showy Mountain Ash (Sorbus decora). An excellent selection for its winter value. This tree, although slower growing, has a more compact, round canopy than other varieties. It produces large clusters of white flowers in late spring, turning to clusters of bright red berries that will carry into winter. This tree also has a nice red/orange fall colour. It grows to 6 m tall and 5 m wide.
  • Ussurien Pear (Pyrus ussuriensis). A larger pear tree with glossy green leaves that turn a vibrant burgundy in the fall. This tree produces a nice show of white flowers in the spring. Its yellowish/green fruit is also good for canning or eating. It grows to 6 m tall with a 4 m spread.
  • Thunderchild Flowering Crab (Malus x ‘Thunderchild’). This is a very popular ornamental tree. Its powerful show of deep pink flowers in the spring is followed by small dark red fruit. Dark purple leaves turn a deep red in the fall. This tree is 5 m tall and approximately 4 m wide. Note this tree is highly resistant to fire blight.
  • Amur Cherry (Prunus maackii) . The Amur Cherry is mostly planted for its winter effect value. The bark is a shiny deep bronze colour and can be a nice contrast against the snow. It flowers white in the spring, with insignificant small fruit in late summer. The leaves are green, slightly serrated and turn yellow in the fall. This tree is slower growing and can reach 8 m in height and 5 m across.

For Easy Watering

Perhaps you want to enjoy the view of a tall tree outside your kitchen window without worrying about how frequently to turn on the sprinklers—or without having to install sprinklers at all. In that case, YardSmart trees are your best bet.

YardSmart trees grow well in Canada’s short summers and harsher winters. After a few years of growth, they can survive on rainfall alone. The Calgary Horticultural Society lists many YardSmart trees and shrubs here.

Prepare Your Yard for Low-Maintenance Trees

Now that you know the best low-maintenance trees for your yard, you’re almost ready to head to the nursery. Before you choose trees, you should evaluate your current landscaping. Identify trees you want to keep but that might need reshaping or pruning. Also decide on trees and tree stumps that you’d like removed. Call a professional tree services team to handle these complicated preliminary processes. Their work can give you the perfect canvas to design your backyard oasis.

When you finalize your new yard, select the trees that will become part of your landscaping for years to come. To keep maintenance low, hire a tree services team to provide on-going care for your trees. When someone else handles tree care, your yard becomes a place to relax, not a place to work.

* (Northwood Red Maple info taken from www.millcreeknursery.ca/plant/587/Northwood.)
* (Saskatoon berry info taken from www1.agric.gov.ab.ca.)