Worst Trees to Grow in Your Yard

Finding the Best Alternatives to Messy Specimens and Other Undesirables

Pyrus calleryana Autumn Blaze
David Beaulieu

What are the worst trees to grow in your yard? The criteria used to decide this question will depend on your own, unique needs and wants. Here are some examples of reasons you may have not to grow a particular tree:

  • It is messy.
  • It has weak branches.
  • It causes allergies.
  • Its roots have water-seeking tendencies that render it a potential risk to septic tanks, etc.

Exploring These Reasons Further

The neighbors recently had a red oak tree removed and now display, in its place, an artificial palm tree in their yard. Talk about doing a 180! They went from having a messy specimen to one that sheds not a single leaf, flower, nut, fruit, seed pod, or strip of bark.

Red oaks are messy on multiple counts. Everybody knows about the large leaves and acorns they drop in autumn. Incidentally, the acorns -- if they fall from a great enough height -- can even put small dents in your car. These nuts are also a potential health hazard, as you can easily slip and fall on them. But what you may not know if you have never grown a red oak in your landscaping is that they are also messy in spring. Large specimens can shed a massive amount of catkins (they look a bit like those on a corkscrew filbert) composed of tiny, staminate flowers.

Besides red oaks, you need to be warned about some other messy trees. Perhaps more importantly, you will learn about some substitutes below. None of the alternatives will be as clean as that artificial palm tree, but that's all right. Most of you, doubtlessly, have too much of a love for nature to turn to artificial substitutes, even if it does mean a bit more landscape maintenance on your part.

But messiness is only one possible reason for avoiding growing certain types of trees. There are other trees that you should avoid growing because they have weak branches. Meanwhile, there are others that have such vigorous root systems that they can wreak havoc underground with pipes, etc., costing you a lot of money in repair bills. And if you are an allergy-sufferer, then a specimen's being allergenic is surely reason enough for you to classify it as one of the worst trees to grow (for you). Examples of all of these problems are provided below.

  • 01 of 08

    Eastern White Pines

    Eastern white pine
    David Beaulieu

    There are varying degrees of messiness. It can also take different forms. All deciduous trees are infamous for one form of messiness: namely, the numerous leaves they dump into your yard all at once come autumn that must be raked up. Some of the other forms that messiness can take are falling flowers, shedding bark, fruits, etc. Which mess is worst? The opinion will vary on this from individual to individual.

    What is indisputable is that the pitch dropped by eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is one factor that makes it one of the messiest trees. Have you ever gotten this sticky stuff on your fingers? Not pleasant, is it? By the way, rub mayonnaise on your hands to remove it (the vinegar in this product acts as a solvent).

    But what if you really want to grow a pine? For small yards, you will be much happier with dwarf Japanese white pines.

  • 02 of 08

    Maidenhair Trees (Female)

    Ginkgo biloba fruit
    David Beaulieu

    Because the foliage of Ginkgo biloba resembles that of maidenhair fern, this beauty is sometimes commonly called "maidenhair tree." It sounds refined, doesn't it? But there is a problem: This maiden is an awful slob.

    Using the common name, "maidenhair trees" will help you remember an important fact: It is specifically the female that is messy. Male trees do not shed the fleshy, stinky golden balls (shown in the picture) that bring Ginkgo biloba into this discussion of messy trees.

  • 03 of 08

    Sweetgum Trees

    Rotundiloba sweetgum tree
    David Beaulieu

    American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is so called because of the seed pods or "gumballs" that it drops, which make it messy. These seed pods are round, hard, and spiky, as are those dropped by another high-maintenance plant, the horse chestnut​ (Aesculus hippocastanum). Another commonly found plant with rounded seed pods is the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), also called the "western planetree." Those globular seed balls yield yet another common name: "buttonball trees."

    The type of sweetgum shown in the photo, namely, the 'Rotundiloba' cultivar, does not produce gumballs, making it a clean substitute.

  • 04 of 08

    Honey Locust Trees

    Sunburst honeylocust
    David Beaulieu

    Their small leaves give honey locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos) the potential to be relatively clean trees. But there is a problem with many types: The flattened seed pods are a bother to rake up. But the kind shown in the picture is podless -- problem solved. That is why you will often see this particular type planted in parks and along roadsides: namely, Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis 'Suncole,' better known as "Sunburst" honey locust.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Catalpa Trees

    Catalpa tree bloom
    David Beaulieu

    Unlike locust trees (see above), the messiness of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is not relegated to its bean-like pods. Its large leaves add to the litter. Nor are the fallen leaves pretty enough that you'll be tempted to let them lie where they fall to contribute autumn color to your yard: By the time catalpa leaves fall, they will likely have been blackened by the frost, transforming what had hitherto been respectable foliage into something hideous.

    But their orchid-like flowers are lovely. If you must have them (but want a cleaner specimen), turn to a cultivar of the southern catalpa: Catalpa bignonioides 'Nana.' Whenever you see the cultivar name, 'Nana,' you know you're dealing with a dwarf. This tree stands 10-12 feet high, with a slightly greater spread. It is recommended for growing zones 5-9, as is its golden-leafed version, Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea Nana.'

  • 06 of 08

    Bradford Pear Trees

    Pyrus calleryana Autumn blaze tree
    David Beaulieu

    What makes Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford') one of the worst trees to grow in your yard is not the mess that it creates but, rather, its weak branches. It shares this flaw with many other trees, including silver maple (Acer saccharinum).

    If you are an owner of a Bradford pear, here is a typical scenario that you can expect:

    1. You fall in love with the tree for the multitude of white flowers that it produces in spring and the gorgeous foliage color it achieves in fall.
    2. Then, one year, a particularly harsh winter comes along. Snow and ice accumulate on the branches of your Bradford pear.
    3. Two or three of the major branches eventually succumb under the weight of the snow and ice, breaking and falling to the ground.
    4. Your once beautiful specimen is disfigured forever.

    Want the beauty of an ornamental pear without having to undergo such heartbreak, potentially? Grow a Pyrus calleryana 'Autumn Blaze,' instead. It serves as one of the best alternatives to Bradford pear.

  • 07 of 08

    Aspen Trees

    Image: fall foliage color of aspen trees.
    The golden fall color of this pair of quaking aspen trees contrasts starkly with the color of the surrounding evergreens. David Beaulieu

    Aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) are popular specimens for fall foliage in the West. But they are also members of the willow family, as is Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra), for example. This family of shrubs and trees is infamous for having vigorous root systems that seek out water. This makes them a threat to do damage to pipes, etc. Instead, research the best alternatives to grow over septic systems.

  • 08 of 08

    White Ash (Male)

    Ash tree leaf
    David Beaulieu

    White ash (Fraxinus americana) makes the list of the worst trees to grow in your yard if you are an allergy sufferer. But it is only the males that you have to worry about, because it is the male of the species that produces pollen. Feel free to grow the females, which are not allergenic. Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and mulberry (Morus spp.) are examples of other popular trees with separate male and female plants -- and whose males are highly allergenic. Research choices for hypoallergenic trees to avoid severe allergies.