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Unique trees and shrubs offer many benefits

I have a small acreage near St. James, MN that is surrounded by corn and soybean fields on three sides and our township road to the north. I have always loved to plant trees and shrubs, and my long driveway has become somewhat of an arboretum with many species of trees and shrubs planted on each side.

Last year I planted five large, bare root ginkgo trees given to us from our neighbor who is from China. Ginkgo is a prehistoric tree that is resistant to insects and disease, but has one major drawback: the female trees produce nuts with a pungent smell. Although the nuts are a delicacy in China, not too many people here are fans. These were unsexed trees, so to be safe I decided that my long driveway would be a good place for them. Far enough from the house and close enough to the squirrels just in case they produce nuts.

Further along the driveway bloom the yellow flowers of forsythia shrubs and the catkins of the hazelnuts. But that’s just the beginning! I have black chokeberry, a cherry tree, Juneberry, American cranberry, elderberry, honeyberry, a Turkish filbert (hazelnut) tree, white pines, a redbud, hawthorns, black walnuts, crabapple trees and an Osage orange tree.  

The Osage orange tree is out of its hardiness zone (south of I-80 through the center of Iowa) but I started these tree seeds from the hedge ball I collected at my mother and uncle’s farm in southern Iowa. The trees seem to die back every other year, but it is fun to grow unique trees in my landscape. Since our climate is warming, test-planting some southern zone trees and shrubs may be practical and beneficial. Certainly be aware of plants that could become invasive and refrain from purchasing these species, but experimenting with species fit for zones one or two steps south of your own may be appropriate.

This year I am planting two bald cypress, three sweet gum and two romance series cherry shrubs.  Yes, bald cypress are the trees you see in Florida and other southern states, in wetlands and waterlogged soils with the roots flaring out, looking like multiple stilts holding up the trees.  Iowa State Extension promotes diversification and notes that this tree can also grow in well drained soils and urban areas. Maybe you’d like to try one in your yard?

I have been promoting edible landscapes in windbreaks, yards and gardens for years and the interest has only increased during COVID. I have currents, Juneberries, raspberries, hazelnuts, black chokeberry, apple trees, honeyberries, cranberries and elderberries. Of the fruits, I love to pick the Juneberries off the shrub, they are sweet, not bitter, and so good! Fun fact, Juneberries, serviceberries and saskatoons are all similar in the same family. And don’t forget, most of the fruit bearing shrubs are wonderful food sources for our pollinators.

In my silvopasture where we graze my son’s small cow herd, I have planted honey locust, Kentucky coffee tree, hickory, catalpa, and DED-resistant elms. Last year I planted a few persimmons and paw paws in the pasture. I also have trees that could provide potential income in the future, including chestnut and heartnut trees. 

I think it’s important to diversify your landscape and plant many tree and shrub species. Many people and communities have overplanted green ash trees after our elms were killed by Dutch elm disease, and are now planting too many maple species after emerald ash borer has come to Minnesota. A diverse landscape also brings diverse wildlife, and there are many other benefits to planting interesting and unusual trees and plants. I hope you consider planting something in your yard or community garden and enjoy watching it grow!

Gary Wyatt, Extension agroforestry educator

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