12 Messy Trees You Should Avoid Planting in Your Yard (Trust Us on This)

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Trees are beautiful! That is, until they’re getting on your last nerve, dropping sticks constantly, crowding other plants or sneaking their roots into your sewage lines. No, we’re not haters: You just have to do a little homework before you plant a tree in your yard. “There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ tree, just a tree that’s planted in the wrong place,” says Jim Barborinas, consulting arborist with Urban Forestry Services and Urban Forest Nursery in Mount Vernon, Washington. “The first step is investigating how big that tree is going to get. Believe me, if it’s happy in its new home, it always gets bigger than you think it will.”

Trees may be a problem for a lot of reasons, including when they crowd utility lines, interfere with gutters and rooflines, or drop messy seeds and nuts, which can damage cars parked beneath them. “Before you buy, read the plant tag to learn size, growth rate and its water needs,” says Tom Smiley, senior arboricultural researcher with Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory, and vice president of the International Society of Arboriculture. “You may spend hundreds on a young tree, so you don’t want to create a maintenance nightmare and have to remove the tree later.” Also, make sure a tree is suited to your USDA Hardiness zone (find yours here) so you know it will survive winters in your area.

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Now save yourself some headaches down the road and avoid planting these messy trees in your yard. (And, just to ensure we’re setting you up for success, scroll all the way to the bottom of the story for a few tips on planting the right trees for you so they thrive.)

messy trees southern magnolia
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1. Southern Magnolia

This stately, classic beauty is delightful if planted in a large space, but that’s the key. They get 60 to 80 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. They also drop their large flowers and large, leathery leaves, necessitating frequent cleanups, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

Look for smaller magnolia cultivars, or cultivated varieties, which means a plant has been bred to bring out its best qualities, such as size, form and improved disease and pest resistance. ‘Little Gem’ magnolia is a good choice because it maxes out at roughly 30 feet tall with smaller leaves and flowers.

messy trees mimosa
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2. Mimosa

These trees have feathery foliage and fluffy pink flowers, but they’re considered an invasive species, which means they outcompete and displace native trees and wildlife. They also have weak wood and are prone to disease, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

If the lacey foliage and fluffy flowers appeal to you, consider the lovely American fringetree, a native which has oodles of show-stopping white flowers in mid-spring, says Barborinas. It does get small blue-black berries that birds and wildlife love, but you can look for male cultivars such as ‘Emerald Knight,’ which does not get fruit.

messy trees catalpa
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3. Catalpa

This handsome tree has pretty heart-shaped leaves and fragrant white flowers, but it drops dark brown seedpods in large numbers, which makes it a messy tree for lawns and home gardens.

What to plant instead:

If you love heart-shaped leaves, consider redbud, a much smaller ornamental tree with gorgeous white, pink or red flowers in spring before the leaves emerge. Look for ‘Forest Pansy’ or ‘Oklahoma’ cultivars.

messy trees silver maple
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4. Silver Maple

This is a fast-growing tree that developers used to plant frequently to create shade in a hurry. But its roots often grow on the surface, making it difficult to mow, and it’s a tree with weak wood and long, heavy branches which have a tendency to break and come crashing down, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

Consider a basswood, or other native maples, such as the red maple. Look for cultivars such as ‘October Glory’ or ‘Autumn Blaze.’

messy trees norway maple
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5. Norway Maple

Norway maple is another problematic maple, which was overplanted as a shade tree. It has an incredible number of widely spreading winged seeds, so it has become invasive in some areas, outcompeting trees such as sugar maple, says Barborinas.

What to plant instead:

Stick with native maples. Consider a stunning red maple cultivar such as ‘Crimson Sunset,’ which has a nice upright oval habit or the gorgeous ‘Flashfire,’ a sugar maple cultivar for southern climates.

messy trees gingko
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6. Gingko

Despite its beautiful fan-shaped leaves and bright gold autumn color, this tree is a real stinker. Yes, the fruit smells awful, and, by the way, you can’t tell if you’re buying a female tree until it starts producing fruit years down the road, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

If you have your heart set on this tree, seek out a male cultivar, which will not bear fruit. Look for ‘Autumn Gold,’ or ‘Goldspire,’ suggests Barborinas.

messy trees weeping willow
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7. Weeping Willow

The beautiful weeping form of this tree is undeniably attractive, but it gets massive. Plus, its roots can invade plumbing, and it’s also vulnerable to disease, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

Consider other smaller trees with a weeping shape, such as the weeping cherry or weeping birch. These have a beautiful form but will maintain a more compact shape in your garden.

messy trees river birch
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8. River Birch

This is a beautiful tree with attractive bark, but it has messy catkins in the spring and likes to drop sticks—and we mean a lot of sticks!—every time the wind blows. River birches also are extremely large, reaching 40 to 70 feet tall and wide, so it doesn’t work in most front yards, says Barborinas.

What to plant instead:

Heptacodium, also called seven son flower, is a small, ornamental tree with some of the same features as river birch. It features clusters of fragrant white flowers hummingbirds love, followed by red bracts. Look for ‘Temple of Bloom’ to create an amazing focal point in your garden.

messy trees cottonwood
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9. Cottonwood

This fast-grower offers shade in a hurry, but it also creates a big, fat mess when it releases its fuzzy, white seed capsules, which clog screens, gutters and AC units, and they generally make a nuisance of themselves by reseeding everywhere. It’s also a weak-wooded tree, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

The black gum tree is not as well-known as many landscape trees, but it has great fall color and interesting branches, which make it an attractive accent in the garden.

messy trees bradford pear
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10. Bradford Pear

Once the darling of developers everywhere, this tree is no longer recommended anywhere because it has smelly flowers and weak wood, which causes the tree to split down the middle, says Barborinas.

What to plant instead:

Opt for beautiful native trees such as dogwood ‘Venus’ or ‘Starlight’ or flowering crabapple cultivars such as ‘Royal Raindrops.’

messy trees leyland cypress
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11. Leyland Cypress

Developers often plant these evergreens right up against houses because they’re fast-growers. But they get way too big, way too fast, creating maintenance issues, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

There are many different evergreens with a similar upright form, so you have lots of choices! Look for dwarf varieties, and read the tag or plant description so you know its mature size. Consider evergreens with upright forms such as such as ‘Sky Box’ Japanese holly or Hinoki Cypress ‘Gracilis.’

messy trees lombardy poplar
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12. Lombardy Poplar

In some parts of the country, such as the Northwest, these are beautiful trees. But in much of the rest of the country, they’re messy, short-lived trees that tend to get raggedy looking on top, says Smiley.

What to plant instead:

If you like the slender, upright form of these trees, look for other trees that are columnar in shape. There are many different types, but consider ‘Swedish Columnar’ aspen or ‘Armstrong Gold’ maple.

Found Your Perfect Tree? Here’s What To Know Before Planting It:

When it’s time to plant, dig a hole about two to three times the size of the root ball. Remove all burlap and string (no, it doesn’t biodegrade as fast as you think, and it’ll eventually will choke the tree). Unwind roots that were circling around in the pot and stretch them out in the hole; also, rough up the root ball surface with your gloved hands, then place the tree in the hole so that the root flare, where the trunk starts to widen, is above ground. No tree should ever look like a telephone pole after planting! Tamp down the soil, and water well. Mulch, but not right up against the tree’s trunk, which invites diseases and pests. That’s it. Not so difficult, huh?

purewow author

Freelance Gardening Editor

Arricca Elin SanSone is a gardener with more than 15 years of experience. In addition to PureWow, she writes for Prevention, Country Living, Veranda, The Spruce and many other...