The Pros & Cons of Fast-Growing Shade Trees

Many homeowners, especially new homeowners, turn to fast-growing shade trees in Northern Virginia to add aesthetic flair and shade to their landscapes. These trees give you more immediate results and provide trees you can enjoy more quickly than other, slower-growing species.

Despite the many benefits, there are also reasons to avoid fast-growing shade trees. In this article, we cover at the pros and cons of fast-growing shade trees to help you better decide if planting one is right for you and your property.

Key Takeaways

  • Weeping willows, American elms, silver maples, American sycamores, and ash trees are fast-growing shade trees that thrive in Virginia.
  • These trees provide noticeable benefits sooner than others, including more privacy, lower cooling costs, and providing resources for wildlife.
  • Some drawbacks include higher water needs, shorter lifespans, proneness to diseases, and brittle wood.
  • You can mitigate the problems with fast-growing shade trees by planting them alongside other trees, fertilizing regularly, and pruning trees regularly.

An American sycamore, a fast-growing shade tree.

The fast-growing American sycamore. Photo courtesy of Richard Webb,

Understanding the Basics of Fast-Growing Shade Trees

There is no hard-and-fast definition of a “fast-growing shade tree,” but arborists generally use the descriptor for trees growing more than two feet per year. Others may use a more long-term definition and say they are trees that grow to at least 25 feet tall by their 10th year.

Some popular fast-growing shade trees in Northern Virginia include:

  • Weeping willow (Salix babylonica)
  • American elm (Ulmus americana)
  • Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
  • American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
  • Ash (Fraxinus spp.)

LEARN MORE: Want to learn more about other fast-growing trees that thrive in Northern Virginia? Check out our article on the best fast-growing trees for our area.

Benefits of Fast-Growing Shade Trees in Northern Virginia

We wouldn’t want to waste your time if we didn’t think there were benefits to fast-growing shade trees for homeowners in Northern Virginia. Let’s examine some of the most important reasons to consider growing them in your yard.

The most obvious benefit is the rate of growth. Instead of waiting decades for a tree to reach its mature height, a fast-growing shade tree will achieve full size in a fraction of the time. Many of the other benefits are similar to other shade trees, but you’ll get to enjoy them faster.

Large Shade Trees Save You Money on Cooling Costs

Shade trees are more than just an aesthetic choice for your yard; they can also save you money in the long run. Shade trees can protect your house from getting as much direct sunlight during the summer. Northern Virginia summers often get hot and sunny, and a shade tree will help keep your home cooler. Studies show having trees on the western or southern side of your property can decrease your cooling costs by about five percent in the summer.

Fast-growing shade trees will provide these economic savings faster, saving you more money.

Fast-Growing Trees Give You More Privacy

Trees can act as natural privacy fences for your property. Waiting decades for a tree to grow large enough to block the line of sight from another property can be agonizing. A fast-growing shade tree will provide these benefits more quickly.

You can also use these fast-growing shade trees to create natural barriers on your property instead of a fence for a more natural look.

You Get Faster Protection from Soil Erosion with Fast-Growing Shade Trees

Heavy rainfall or melting snow can contribute to soil erosion in your yard, draining your yard of precious resources and leaving it looking ragged. Worse yet, according to a study by Cornell, about 60 percent of eroded soil ends up in rivers. This eroded soil carries fertilizer and pesticides into the water and increases the chances of flooding.

Once established, trees act as a natural bulwark against erosion as their roots help keep the surrounding soil in place.t

Fast-growing shade trees often have large root systems, allowing them to protect against erosion faster than tree species that take a long time to reach maturity.

Wildlife in Northern Virginia Love Shade Trees

In Northern Virginia, we are blessed with diverse and abundant wildlife. Growing trees on your property benefits wildlife and gives you a chance to see a broader range of animals when taking in the beauty of your yard.

Planting fast-growing shade trees in your yard encourages new wildlife to visit your yard, including:

  • Small mammals: Chipmunks and squirrels enjoy the shade and nuts from trees.
  • Birds: Birds will create nests in trees or use material from your trees to build their nests elsewhere.
  • Butterflies: Many species of caterpillars eat leaves from trees.

PRO TIP: Noticing woodpecker activity on your shade trees? Check out our article about woodpecker damage and what it means for your tree.

A stethoscope on a tree trunk, indicating the importance of regular tree maintenance.

Disadvantages of Fast-Growing Shade Trees

While the shorter growing time is convenient, fast-growing shade trees have drawbacks and generally need more maintenance than slower-growing trees.

Fast-Growing Trees Can Be More Susceptible to Pests and Diseases

Northern Virginia is host to many pests and diseases that threaten trees. Some of the common problems for trees in our area include:

While every tree will have to fight to survive against these diseases and insect pests, fast-growing trees are in more danger. New growth from a tree is more susceptible to insect damage and destructive diseases, and a fast-growing tree will have more material insects can attack.

Ash trees, in particular, face unique problems, as the emerald ash borer (EAB) can kill untreated ash trees in just one or two years. Dead ash trees become very brittle and present immense danger, necessitating rapid removal.

PRO TIP: Learn more about some of the common pests and diseases we see in Northern Virginia with some of our articles on the topic:

Fast-Growing Trees Are Often Weaker Than Ones With Average Growth Rates

As a tradeoff for its rapid development, fast-growing trees generally have weaker wood than trees with more typical growing rates. The silver maple is a popular fast-growing shade tree but highlights one of the primary problems these types of trees face. The wood is quite brittle, can easily break from storm damage, and is prone to decay.

You Must Provide Additional Water to Fast-Growing Shade Trees

Faster growth will require more resources to maintain, and many popular fast-growing shade trees require lots of water to thrive. We recommend planting fast-growing trees in moist areas or where you have irrigation. The weeping willow is a perfect example of these water demands, as it needs more water than the average tree and is very sensitive to drought conditions. If you plant a weeping willow, keep it supplied with plenty of water throughout the year.

Many Fast-Growing Trees Don’t Live Long

The lifespan of trees differs on a case-by-case basis, but many popular fast-growing shade trees will have shorter lifespans than trees with average growth rates. Some trees in the fast-growing category have long lifespans, like the American elm (if Dutch Elm Disease doesn’t kill it first) and American sycamore, but other trees, like some ash varieties and weeping willows, have much shorter lifespans.

Weeping willows especially embody this short-lived nature, as the average tree will only live for 30 years.

A member of the Riverbend team pruning dead branches in Bethesda, Virginia.

Pruning out dead material will help make your fast-growing shade trees safer.

Counteracting and Mitigating Fast-Growing Shade Tree Downsides

Make no mistake, there are drawbacks to planting fast-growing shade trees in your yard. However, you shouldn’t let that discourage you, as there are ways to mitigate some of these problems and enjoy the benefits. Some techniques to diminish the downsides include:

  • Prune to avoid storm damage: The weaker wood on many popular fast-growing shade trees is more prone to breakage during a storm. Hire a professional tree pruning service to make your tree more resistant to punishing weather conditions and to remove any dead or diseased material before it causes damage or an injury.
  • Monitor for early signs of disease or pests: The more quickly you identify a potential pest infestation or disease outbreak, the better chance of preventing severe damage or death. Look for typical warning signs, such as discolored leaves, increased insect activity, early leaf drop, bark cracks, or fungal growths on the trunk.
  • Plant a variety of trees: To counteract the shorter lifespan of many fast-growing shade trees, plant longer-lasting trees along with them. Once trees like weeping willows die, the remaining trees will still provide shade to your property.
  • Plant trees properly: A fast-growing shade tree is going to spread out much faster and farther than you may think initially. Consult an arborist on the space needed for each tree to prevent them from fighting each other for resources like water, sunlight, and nutrients.
  • Give trees the resources they need: Have a tree care professional conduct a soil test to see if your fast-growing shade trees are getting enough nutrients. If they lack macro or micronutrients, fertilizer can help them get what they need to continue growing. Likewise, ensure your trees get enough water, especially during droughts. Just be sure to avoid overwatering.

Riverbend Tree Service Can Help With Your Tree Issues

Planting a fast-growing shade tree in your Northern Virginia yard is something you should do with an understanding of the pros and cons. These trees may take more work and maintenance, and you’ll need to monitor them for signs of disease, drought stress, or nutrient deficiency. But, if you’re willing to put in a little work, these trees will provide numerous benefits, such as decreased cooling costs and increased wildlife activity.

If you need help picking out new shade trees for your property or notice problems with your established shade trees, our team at Riverbend Tree Service would love to help. Call us at 703-402-9366 or request an estimate online to schedule an appointment with a Riverbend arborist.


Give Us a Call at 703-402-9366

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Logan Jones

Landscaping is in Logan’s blood. Growing up in Great Falls, Logan’s passion for the field was fostered by his family of professional landscapers. This early introduction gave him an appreciation for both the science and aesthetic aspects of the field. After earning his business management degree form the University of Mary Washington, Logan combined his academic and practical landscaping experience to found Riverbend Landscape and Tree Service.