Neil Sperry

Thinking about adding a tree? Measure twice, plant once

Huge magnolia trees stand against an urban skyline.
Huge magnolia trees stand against an urban skyline. Special to the Star-Telegram

“How big is that tree going to grow, anyway? Is it going to get huge?”

Those are questions more people ought to be asking. They could save a lot of time wasted and a lot of hearts broken. I know it’s a sensitive issue, but I’m going to try to approach it objectively.

All living beings have their own unique expected mature sizes to which they will grow unless something steps in to intervene. When you’re standing there in the nursery, you need to know how tall and how wide trees and shrubs can be expected to grow before you plunk down your money and take the plants home. I tell people it’s like buying a puppy. All little puppies are cute. But if you buy a St. Bernard, and if you live in a tiny house, there’s going to come a day when something has to change, and it’s probably going to be the dog.

But that’s where my analogy breaks down. No one would think of pruning a dog, but the first thing people ask about overgrown plants is, “How far back can I cut them?” And that’s where the heartbreak begins. Pruning doesn’t change genetic predisposition of expected mature size. They whack their overgrown plant, but it simply grows back.

Many Metroplex homeowner associations require two shade trees in each front yard, and live oaks are high on their lists. But the people who draw up those rules fail to note that live oaks grow to be 60 to 70 feet wide. One neighborhood in our town has tiny front yards and two-story houses. Those whose yards on are on the north sides of their houses all have trees that lean out away from the houses seeking daylight. It makes for a really unattractive look to the neighborhood.

Developers are required by cities to use trees in parkways. Those are the narrow strips between sidewalks and streets. Really, folks? Is that where we need trees the most? Yet that’s where live oaks get planted. Just 8 or 10 years later, those trees are flat-sided and perhaps even square-topped. Other fine large trees aren’t much better. Cedar elms, pecans, Shumard red oaks, bur oaks, chinquapin oaks, even Chinese pistachios – they’re all fabulous large shade trees, but they really have no business being planted closer than 25 or 30 feet from our houses or streets, and they need to be 40 or 50 feet back from the power lines.

So with all that in mind, I thought it might be useful to discuss expected mature heights of some of our better shade trees to help you choose the best ones for your specific needs.

Best Small Trees

(to 30 ft., in order of increasing height)

• Yaupon holly. Evergreen. No spines on small leaves. Actually it’s a shrub, but we use it trained tree-form. Female plants bear small, showy fruit.

• Teddy Bear southern magnolia. Very dwarf form to 12-15 ft.

• Japanese maple. Many varieties of varying sizes with either purple-red or green foliage. Do best in shade.

• Redbud. Many unusual varieties now on the market. Mature heights vary 10-25 ft.

• Mexican plum. Coarse-textured native plum with fragrant white flowers early each spring. Grows to 20-25 ft. tall, wide. Fruit matures in fall. Good for jellies.

• Golden raintree. Bright yellow flower clusters in May. To 20-25 ft. tall and wide. Often has good fall color.

• Ginkgo. Unusual tree that grows at moderate rate. Taller in northern U.S., but to 30 ft. in Texas. Buy grafted male (fruitless) selection. 

Best Large Trees

(taller than 30 ft., in order of increasing height)

• Little Gem southern magnolia. Popular dwarf form to 35 ft. tall.

• Shantung maple. Grows to 30-35 ft. Great fall color.

• Eastern redcedar. Outstanding native evergreen to 35-40 ft. tall.

• Lacebark elm. To 35-40 ft. tall and wide. Highly susceptible to fatal cotton root rot. Not a tree I can recommend in Metroplex. I included it here only because people ask.

• Live oak. Growth forms vary tree-to-tree, but 35 to 40 ft. tall and 50-70 ft. wide.

• Chinese pistachio. To 45 ft. tall and wide. Great fall color.

• Cedar elm. Outstanding native to 45 ft. tall, wide.

• Bald cypress. Deciduous conifer to 50 ft. tall. Produces troublesome “knees” (root structures above ground) and highly susceptible to iron deficiency yellowing. Again, not a tree I find myself recommending for Metroplex soils, but mentioned because of its frequent use.

• Chinquapin oak. Fine large native oak to 50 ft. tall, wide.

• Bur oak. Very large native oak with coarse textures to leaves, trunk. Grows to 50-55 ft. tall, wide.

• Shumard red oak. Beautiful native oak with fine fall color most years. Grows to 50-55 ft. tall and wide.

• Southern magnolia. Evergreen. Huge white flowers. In deeper soils can grow to 60 ft. tall and 40 ft. wide.

• Pecan. Our largest tree in Metroplex landscapes, to 60 to 70 ft. tall and wide.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: