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Garden Plot: The best trees, the worst trees

Friday - 10/5/2012, 7:16am  ET

Willows are on of the trees that made the worst list. They may be pretty, but are notorious for invading sewer lines and water pipes. (Courtesy Missouri State)

Mike McGrath,

Warning: These trees are for avoiding!

The National Association of Realtors has just released a great list of not-so-great trees that homeowners should avoid.

Taking these recommendations to heart can save you money, misery and headaches — and I mean headaches in the literal sense. Some of these losers are known for dropping heavy branches on nearby noggins.

The trees D.C. area residents should most avoid: Silver maples. These can drop branches, break up driveways and invade underground pipes.

Hybrid poplars also made the list. These are so disease prone they rarely live longer than 15 years.

Willows are famous for invading sewer lines and water pipes. But my personal least favorite are Bradford pears. These cheap, short-lived trees are so brittle they'll crack if you look at them too hard.

Fall is a great time to plant new trees, just not these trees.

The 10 best trees for the D.C. region (with a possible rebate)

After naming the worst for our region, we'd be remiss if we didn't provide a list of good choices, courtesy of Casey Trees, a non-profit organization "committed to restoring, enhancing and protecting the tree canopy in the nation's capital" that offers rebates of $50 or $100 to folks who plant a recommended tree on residential property in the District. Click here for rebate details.

Now, Casey's list of recommended trees is long, which means there are plenty of great choices, but Mr. Short Attention Span here can only handle so much information at one time. I asked the staff at CaseyTrees to name their top five in two categories: Shade trees, which have a large canopy at maturity, and somewhat smaller ornamental varieties that reach at least 15 feet in height at maturity.

Their top five shade tree picks, named exclusively for WTOP:

  • Hickory
  • Beech
  • Tulip poplar
  • Bald cypress
  • Basswood

Picky me would substitute oak for the tulip polar, as I find that with age, the poplars can develop a tendency to drop branches.

Top five ornamental trees:

  • Hornbeam
  • Yellowwood
  • American holly
  • Hophornbeam (aka Ironwood)
  • Virginia pine

There are no arguments there.

Don't forget that rebate if you're a D.C. resident.

Also be aware that fall is the best time of year to plant new trees everywhere in our region, and the CaseyTrees website is a great resource for tree selection and proper planting and care instructions.

Above-ground tree roots can safely be covered

Catherine in Wheaton has a common question: "I have a large maple tree in my front yard which provides great shade. But there are surface roots from the tree one to two inches high in at least three quarters of my yard - with very little grass in between the roots. I love the tree but hate the yard. Can anything be done?"

Absolutely, Cath!

Maple roots have a tendency to poke up above ground over time. It's nothing unusual, but it can be a nuisance and it make grass cutting close to impossible - if you have grass, that is.

Luckily, it doesn't harm the tree one bit to get those roots back where they belong. Have a big load of compost or high-quality top soil delivered and spread it just deep enough to cover those roots. Then, you can spread new seed in that new soil - but be warned that the window for sowing grass seed successfully (ideally Aug. 15 through Sept. 15) will soon close. If you miss it, wait until next August as spring-sown seed just doesn't work.

Also be aware that even the most shade tolerant types of grass (the really fine fescues) still requires a minimum of four hours of sun a day. If you don't get that, you won't get grass.

There's no conflict. Wisteria is super invasive!

Jennifer in Silver Spring writes: "I've heard conflicting stories about wisteria being an invasive species. I love the vines and the fragrant purple flowers, and would like to grow it in my back yard to create a ‘wall' of vines that blocks my view of the adjacent lot. I know that ‘good fences make good neighbors' but I would prefer a pretty and flowery fence over a tall, unattractive wooden one. What are your thoughts?"

Jen, I think wisteria is a poor choice.

First, wisteria isn't self-supporting, it needs a very sturdy trellis or arbor to climb as unsupported wisteria vines are floppy, low growing and unattractive.

Ah, but trellised wisteria vines grow rampantly, eventually tearing down all but the strongest supports and any other structures they can reach. The plant also sends up adventurous shoots in nearby areas, and regrows from cut stumps, making removal almost as difficult as that of the notorious running bamboo.

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