Choosing free City tree for front lawn in Toronto

(Question)

We’re trying to choose a free tree from the city of toronto, and having difficulty deciding. We live on a main street (Lansdowne) but the front lawn is raised. We’re also planning on putting in a rock garden once we know the location of the tree, and would like it to complement well.

We’ve narrowed it down to: black gum, red oak, ginkgo, tulip tree, or yellowwood.

Looking for a nice green, and fall colour, not messy, a nice bloom a plus (but they won’t likely bloom for 10 years, right?), but i’m confused about whether the size of the tree really matters. Wouldn’t the width of the tree be of more concern than the height on a smaller property? The lawn is maybe 6×4 metres, but the front property an additional 2 metres on one side and between the house.

Any advice on choice of tree would be much appreciated.

(Answer)

Toronto’s Free Tree brochure includes 34 trees – it’s hard to narrow down what is best for your yard!  All the trees you are considering are good “street trees”, which will help increase the tree canopy over the city, provide shade, reduce the effects of pollution and provide homes for birds and other animals (among other advantages).

See an earlier Q&A Looking for a recommendation for a city tree, which discusses the merits of a few trees, including yellowwood and tulip tree. Another previous Q&A, Tree replacement on City property, includes several links (also previous questions we have had – each a bit different) for you to explore.

I’d suggest that you take a look at photos and information about each of the trees in order to help make your final decision.  Below, I’ve included links to Missouri Botanical Garden summaries of each tree – each includes helpful information like height and spread, when they bloom, sun requirements, maintenance, pest/disease problems and much more.  Each summary includes “noteworthy characteristics” about the tree, i.e., what sets them apart from others — the information provided in these descriptions may help you select from among your choices.  At the bottom of each summary page are photos of the tree in different seasons or closeups of certain features of the tree.  As well, there is a star ratings/”comments” link where you can see comments by individuals who have had good/bad experiences with the trees.

The trees you are considering are: Nyssa sylvatica (Black Gum), Quercus rubra (Red Oak), Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo), and Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip tree).  As well,  Cladrastis kentukea (Yellowwood) is another tree you are interested in — you’ll see that the Tree Planted in Honour of Toronto Master Gardeners last year was the yellowwood, which will grow to 30-50 feet, has smooth grey-brown bark and long sprays of fragrant white blossoms in early summer and attracts birds and bees.

Cornell University’s Recommended Urban Trees: site assessment and tree selection for stress tolerance also has helpful information about each of your trees (including height/width and management issues that may arise).  Many of these summaries also include recommended cultivars (e.g., some of the cultivars may be narrow form, and more of interest to you – although it is not clear from the City brochure which cultivar(s) are available for each tree).

Try calling 311 to see if you can speak with someone in the Urban Forestry Branch – these are the people who work with the trees on a daily basis, and they may provide practical information (including the name of the tree cultivar) to help you make your decision. You may also want to ask if they can give you nearby addresses where each of the trees has been planted, so you can drive by and look at the trees.  You’d best choose at least a “top 2” list, since the City’s “request for free tree” form asks for your first 2 choices.

I’d suggest that both tree height and width (spread of canopy) would be something to consider in any yard, especially a small one.  As well, the bushiness of the tree when it is in leaf is important, as the tree can create significant shade in the yard or over your house.  Of the trees you’ve selected, the black gum and yellowwood seem to grow “only” to 30-50 feet (the others can grow well over 50 feet in height).   However, the trees likely will grow quite slowly, so it will take years to attain their final height.