The Best Trees for Growing in Northern Gardens

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An Autumn Blaze is stunning in fall with its deep red foliage.
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“The Northern Gardener” by Mary Lahr Schier is a compilation of tips, techniques, and stories from gardeners over the years about successfully growing plants and flowers in the wretched winters, humid summers, and tough soils of the north.

The Northern Gardener(Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017) by Mary Lahr Schier is an A-Z resource guide for reader’s wishing to garden in the north that may not have grown up with a garden or family members with green thumbs. Complete with a little history, how-to, and many accounts of trial and error, this book is for anyone looking for information and advice on what to plant and how to do it effectively in a climate that is not the most forgiving. Detailed in this book are the best plant varieties for the climate in the north along with techniques from the past that worked well and continue to benefit gardens today, especially when paired with modern gardening advances.

Small Trees (under twenty-five feet at maturity)

Crabapple (Malus sp.).

Dozens of cultivars of crabapple trees grow well in the North, some as short as eight feet tall, with most in the fifteen- to twenty-foot range. These blossom in the spring, and unless they are bred to be sterile will produce fruit in the fall. Birds love the apples, though you can make crabapple jelly, too, with the tart goodies.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.).

This plant can be grown as a shrub or a multi-stemmed tree. It has sweet white flowers in spring, and fruit forms in June. (Sometimes they are called june berries for that reason.) Service berries can grow in light shade as well as full sun.

Northern strain redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Northern Strain’).

Bred at the University of Minnesota, this plant looks stunning in early spring. It can be grown with a single trunk or multiple stems. Prune it only after it flowers.

Hazelnut (Corylus americana).

These nuts are not the same ones you find in mixed nuts or chocolate nut spread: Those trees, sadly, are not hardy in Minnesota. But this North American tree is, and it produces ornamental catkins that hang down all winter, while growing only about fifteen feet tall. You may see some tiny nuts on the tree, though more likely squirrels will get them first.

Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana).

Bark is the main point of interest on this small tree, which is common in forests in southern Minnesota. The bark may break and curl, giving the tree a ragged look. It grows best in moist soil with taller trees nearby to shade it slightly.

Midsized Trees (thirty to sixty feet)

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos).

Be sure to get the thornless version of this shapely tree, which is a favorite of arborists. Its tiny leaves grow along narrow stems and fall late in the season. Sometimes you don’t even have to rake them.

Autumn Blaze maple (Acer x freemanii ‘Jeffsred’).

A hybrid maple that grows rapidly to reach up to sixty feet tall, Autumn Blaze is stunning in fall.

Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata).

This is a popular tree for boulevard plantings because it has a neat shape and can stand up to road salt. It grows to about fifty feet in height and has a fragrant bloom in early to mid-summer that bees love. This is the European and shorter cousin of the American linden (also called a basswood).

Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor).

This oak grows fifty to sixty feet tall and can handle wet conditions. Its large leaves are impressive, but it does best in southern Minnesota. North of the Twin Cities, go for its fast-growing cousin, the pin oak (Quercus palustris).

River birch (Betula nigra).

Native birch can grow to seventy-five feet tall, but most of the hybrids available in nurseries today are significantly shorter than that. As its name implies, river birch likes a moist soil. New varieties come in columnar or rounded shapes. Look for birch that are resistant to the bronze birch borer.

Large Trees (the sky’s the limit)

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa).

These beautiful native trees will live long past you or even your children, but plant one for the future. If you have the room, the massive trunk is impressive.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba).

The unusual shape of the ginkgo’s fanlike leaves along with its pretty yellow color in the fall and complete resistance to disease make this a good choice for urban yards. While it can grow to eighty feet in its native China, most trees stay under sixty feet here. The trees on the market are largely seedless male specimens. Female ginkgo trees produce a very stinky seed and should be avoided in home landscapes.

Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus).

The Kentucky coffee tree is a slow-growing tree with a lovely shape. It grows well in all kinds of soils, including those that may be polluted. The tree produces a five- to ten-inch-long pod, which earlier settlers thought resembled a coffee bean. Despite its name, the tree is native to Minnesota.

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).

Mature hackberries have a form and shape similar to elms and often replaced elms after Dutch elm disease hit. They grow to about seventy-five feet tall and have bark that is often described as corky or warty. The best thing about hackberries, though, is their toughness. Road salt, wind, flooding, dry soil, wet soil, ice, heat — they can take it all.

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Excerpted from The Northern Gardener by Mary Lahr Schier and published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017.

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