The 11 Best Shade Trees and Flowering Trees for Lawns in Georgia

Grasslands punctuated with trees and shrubs: in nature they’re called savannas, and they’re thought to be the original natural habitat of humankind. No wonder the park-like combination of lawn and trees is so popular in landscaping!

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Combining trees with turf takes some planning. You can’t plunk just any tree down into your lawn and expect it to work out well

Here are some features to consider when looking for the best trees to plant in a lawn in Georgia and beyond:

  • Deep roots. Shallow-rooted trees can be a pain to mow around, are more likely to compete with turf for water, and may topple more easily in a strong wind.
  • Minimal seed broadcast. Your lawn is a fertile environment, and trees will take advantage of it. If you don’t want to deal with constant upstarts, avoid trees that seed freely.
  • Aesthetic appeal. Look for species that have a nice form in all seasons, interesting bark, and seasonal color.
  • Longevity. Once established, a mature tree adds significantly to your property value. Longer-lived trees are a better investment over time.
  • Tidy trees. All trees come with baggage, but we want to keep it to a minimum. Avoid those that are brittle, or likely to drop a lot of twigs, branches, or messy fruit.

Best Trees For Lawns In Georgia

If you know your trees, you will soon realize that many popular shade and ornamental trees don’t make the cut.

For instance, river birch is beautiful, but it drops tiny limbs, twigs and leaves on a daily basis. Bradford pear is also a nice looking tree, but it’s prone to splitting. And the ever-popular maple, despite its wonderfully reliable fall color, is definitely not on my list of best shade trees for lawns in our area. Maples are shallow rooted trees that consistently suffer sunscald and bark split in central and southern Georgia. (If you must plant maples in the Southeast, do so only in association with other trees, preferably in a location with late afternoon sun protection, and never, ever in a parking lot island.)

Let’s set these aside and explore some better-suited alternatives. Here are a few of my favorite shade and ornamental trees for Southern lawns:

Best Shade Trees For Lawns

live oakOak - It’s hard to beat an oak for permanence, beauty, and stability. Hybrid Red Oaks are some of my favorites, The University of Georgia has developed a number of wonderful cultivars that are grown right here in-state by Select Trees and Bold Springs nurseries. They exhibit a nice pyramidal form early in life, and spread out a bit broader in maturity. One notable variety is Bloodleaf, which has a gorgeous deep red fall color.

Live oak is another classic Southern shade tree that does well in lawns if you have the space. One problem with live oaks is that they spread so much there’s often not enough room for them in the average yard. The Highrise cultivar is an exception. It has a more upright form that provides shade and foliage without the need for a 200’ diameter area.

Tupelo - Do you have a low-lying lawn with overly wet soil? It’s often hard to find trees that will grow in these conditions, but this native tree frequents swamp bottoms in the wild, and it thrives in wet soil. (The name “tupelo” actually means “swamp tree.”) There’s a cultivar called Wildfire that has the most brilliant red fall color of any tree in the South. I think it’s definitely overlooked for its landscape potential. Bold Springs Nursery does a beautiful job growing these versatile trees; we recently planted one just south of Atlanta on a high clay soil, and it’s doing fine. Don’t be afraid of this one, even if your soil isn’t very wet!

Liriodendron_tulipifera-467259-edited.jpgTulip Poplar - This is another overlooked tree, in my opinion. It sports a large leaf with nice yellow fall color, and is a fast upright grower. Tulip poplar looks nice in clusters of three. It is especially well suited for rural or estate homes, where it makes an eye-catching border. It mixes very nicely with Tupelo for an exciting splash of color in the fall landscape.

Princeton Elm – This is a classic, stately, large-leafed elm that doesn’t have the seed issues we see with some of the Chinese elms. This one is a fast grower with a much larger leaf, a nice oval head and yellow to gold fall color. 

Gingko – I can’t say enough about the Gingko as a landscape tree. Gingko trees are beautiful and tidy, establish easily, and can handle just about any adverse condition you want to throw at them. There is no better bright yellow than Gingko for the south. This Asian tree is a slow grower but it’s worth it. Just be sure to buy your Gingko trees from a reputable grower, because you want male trees only. The females produce a copious yearly harvest of fruit that smells like dog waste and vomit combined - not exactly the kind of thing you want to be famous for in your neighborhood.

Chinese PistacheChinese Pistache – This is one more tree that’s worth mentioning because of its absolutely stunning fall color. The Chinese pistache is another Asian native that’s hardy and tough as nails. It’s often used in xeriscaping because it’s so drought tolerant. Its one drawback is that it’s not the prettiest tree during the growing season, so plant it alongside other trees where it won’t be the center of attention - until it steals the spotlight in autumn.

Best Flowering Trees For Lawns

Sweetbay - A member of the magnolia family, this evergreen broadleaf is something of a bonus tree because it provides excellent shade as well as floral beauty. The sweetbay is native to swamp areas but very adaptable to other soil conditions as well. It’s a very ornamental tree all around. Its leaves are a nice medium green, with a beautiful silver color on the back side so it shimmers when the wind blows. The flower is wonderful to bring inside as a cut flower – one of my favorites.

Sweetbay-768582-edited.jpgIn my opinion, the sweetbay has the most incredible fragrance of any tree in the world. Its exquisite nighttime fragrance is lighter than that of the Magnolia, with an elusive citrus tone. I remember as a boy in the summertime, just as the sun was going down you could smell the sweetbays and hear the whippoorwills. It’s a quintessential memory of growing up in the South.

Saucer Magnolia – This is a wonderful tree that historically was used quite a bit, but has been overlooked in recent years. There are a number of fantastic hybrid saucer magnolias available, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. One of my favorites is Anne. This cultivar is a little more petite than the old fashioned saucer magnolia, with a deeper color form. I personally have an Alexandrina, which has an incredibly beautiful bloom but does bloom a bit early. Any of these trees can bloom in late February and get hit by frost, but it’s worth it even if you only have the blooms for a week.

White-dogwood-054823-edited.jpgWhite Dogwood - The dean of Southern understory trees, this is a classic pick where you have some shade. There are many varieties; my personal favorite is the Kousa. I recommend sticking with the white dogwoods.  Pink dogwoods are considered a sign of poor taste by those in the know; unless used solely as an arboretum piece they will lead your Southern neighbors to question your upbringing.

Redbud – This delicate blooming tree is sun tolerant and will also tolerate partial shade. It is a fantastic alternative to dogwood in areas with too much sun for the latter. Several very worthwhile varieties have been introduced in recent years. One is Forest Pansy, This sun-tolerant cultivar sports the normal pink bloom but its leaves have a beautiful burgundy blush - an interesting combination. Also worth considering are the white redbuds with their green leaves and white blooms.

pink-crepe-myrtle-184109-edited.jpgCrepe Myrtle - I would really prefer not to mention the crepe myrtle because it is so overused, but because some of you are going to plant this tree anyway we’ll talk about it. While it has become something of a cliche, it is our most dependable flowering small tree for full sun. If you pick the right variety it’ll have gorgeous foliage, incredible fall color, beautiful bark, and showstopping blooms... IF you plant it in full sun. Crepes get really “leggy” in shade and may not bloom at all in heavy shade.

If you intend to plant a crepe myrtle you must sign a contract stating that you will never, ever cut the top out of it or hack it up with a chainsaw.

Just google “Crepe Murder” to find out why. My personal recommendation is to choose Natchez or Sarah’s Favorite for the most elegant Crepes of all.

Choosing The Best Trees For Your Lawn

While I can attest to the value of the trees mentioned above, this is just a sampling of the many suitable species available for Southern lawn plantings. Choosing the right one for your unique lawn area will depend on many factors, including soil type, sun exposure, available space, and aesthetic preference. If you would like expert help in choosing the trees that will best enhance your home and lawn, contact us here. Or, call our East Dublin office at 478-272-3878, or our Macon office at 478-750-7733.

We’d be delighted to help!

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Topics: Commercial Landscape Maintenance