How to Select Shade Trees in Montana

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Brutal winters, scorching summers, fierce winds, prolonged droughts, nutrient barren soils and a short growing season are but a few of the challenges faced by Montana gardeners.


Peter Kolb, Montana State University Extension Forestry Specialist, reports "Parts of Montana have some of the most difficult conditions in the lower 48 United States to grow trees. However, careful tree selection, planting and maintenance will help keep your trees healthy."

Things You'll Need

  • Shovel
  • Water
  • Fertilizer
  • Tree stakes
  • Pruning shears
  • Tree trimming saw
  • Protective fencing

Choosing Your Trees

  • Graceful, healthy shade trees are both a monetary and aesthetic asset to any residential property. Choose trees wisely and with considerable forethought; they are a living legacy. Select hardy, wind resistant, low maintenance specimens that are drought tolerant and rated for Growing Zones 3 or 4. Fast growing trees that offer superior resistance to wildlife, pests and diseases and are adaptable to different types of soil and climate changes will produce the most rewarding results.

    Trees that flourish in Montana's harsh conditions come in many different sizes, shapes, colors and foliage types. Research trees that best suit your needs. Talk to your neighbors and learn from their tree planting experiences.

    Trees with spring flowers may be the showiest; long-lasting ornamental fruit may extend the display into the winter, while an unusual growth habit or form provides eye-catching interest when the tree is not in bloom or bearing fruit. Trees that surprise us with flowers when other trees are not in blossom merit special consideration.

    A blaze of fall foliage color is a dramatic statement before the tree's more subtle winter characteristics are displayed. Deciduous trees offer a variety of brilliant fall colors including scarlet red, glowing orange and yellow as well as dramatic purple hues. Choose trees with patterned or textured bark for a bold contrast against a snow covered winter landscape. Distinctive tree forms are more noticeable after the leaves fall in autumn.

  • Consider the size of the area selected for your tree planting. All trees need room to spread their roots and stretch their branches to the heavens. How large will the tree be when it reaches maturity? How fast does it grow? Not all trees retain their natural beauty and form after a severe pruning when they outgrow their allocated space. Give them room to grow.

  • All shade trees require full sun to excel. Is your planting location shaded by other trees or buildings? Winter days are short in Montana. Select a planting site that meets the light requirements of the tree species you choose to plant.

    Prior to planting prepare an overall landscape plan for your property and project how different trees will interact and contrast when they reach maturity.

Evergreen Shade

  • Montanans place a high premium on evergreen trees. Valued for their year-around foliage and ornamental qualities, evergreen trees delight the eye while other trees rest and rebuild their energy for the coming spring. Evergreen trees are an integral part of the spectacular landscapes in "Big Sky Country" and a glorious green backdrop to many Montana gardens.

  • Blue Juniper is an outstanding tree in the dull winter months and retains is vibrant color throughout the year. Fast growing junipers are ideal trees for patio shade, windbreaks and privacy hedges. Junipers are virtually care free, never requiring staking or aggressive pruning. A strong, vigorous grower, a Juniper Tree will grow 12 to 18 inches each year and reach a mature height of 15 to 20 feet within the first 10 years. Plant junipers in an area that is well drained and receives full sun.

  • While their are several species of cold hardy spruce trees, the Norway Spruce is a Montana favorite. Providing deep rich color year around, this dense, drought-tolerant tree blocks out wind and neighbors while it creates a safe habitat for wildlife. Serious disease or insect problems that often kill other spruce trees do not affect the Norway Spruce.

    Norway Spruce is a vigorous, fast growing tree that will soon reach a mature height of 50 feet. Norway Spruce makes a regal statement when planted as a traditional showpiece. Its dense growth makes a perfect shady privacy barrier or wind screen.

Deciduous Shade

  • Unlike evergreens, deciduous trees shed their leaves in autumn. Developing interest in the garden year around is an objective for many Montana gardeners. Select trees that have attractive attributes for all four seasons. Many shade trees have characteristics that exhibit ornamental interest all year long.

  • Poplar trees are one of the fastest growing and most attractive shade trees available. Poplar trees offer dense, lush summer foliage, amazing autumn color and are one of the easiest trees to grow. Poplars tolerate poor soils including alkaline, acidic or soggy wet soil. Due to the tree's fast growing height of up to 50 feet, poplars can be strategically planted to block your home from direct sunlight, lowering air conditioning costs and providing cooling shade during those hot Montana summers.

  • Well known for thriving in Montana's cold climate and poor soil, Quaking Aspens offer brilliant yellow leaves in the fall; a stunning statement against their white bark. Quaking Aspen gets its name from its delicate heart-shaped leaves that tremble or quake when a light breeze passes through the tree. Quaking Aspen is highly adaptable to various soil types, drought resistant and offers spectacular autumn foliage.

Tips & Warnings

  • Deer, elk, moose and rabbits love to munch on the tender growth of new trees. Provide protective fencing to protect your newly planted trees until they are firmly established.

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