15 July 2011

My Love Hate Relationship with Swedish Columnar Aspen

You see them everywhere.  They hit the popularity charts about 10 or so years ago as homeowners set their sights on tall narrow trees for screening in the residential garden.  The Swedish Columnar Aspen is an excellent screening tree for privacy or as a sole specimen because they are so tall and narrow, taking little room in the garden visually while providing for the homeowners or commercial management's desires for treescaping.  (think of the Cypress in Italy to visualize the form)

Here are a few particulars about this columnar aspen:

Name:  Populus tremula (Swedish Columnar Aspen)
Zone rating:  2 (Canada)
Height:  30-45 feet at maturity (9.1--14 m tall)
Width:   5-8 feet wide (1.5--2.4 m)
Fast growing:  interpret as more than 1 foot per year
Lifespan:  average
Description:  A nice columnar tree with a dense canopy.  Excellent wind break or screen for privacy. Leaves are green on both sides and have somewhat wavy edges.  Tend to branch near to the ground.  All trees sold are male so they will not produce the fluff to which so many are allergic.  Note: Lois Hole's book, Favorite Trees and Shrubs, states it "can be planted next to a house as its smaller shallow roots are not invasive." (page 85)
Sound ideal? 

That was the love part... 

now for the hate.....

A few years ago my next door neighbour planted Swedish Columnar Aspen (populus tremula) near his fence, between our properties and that of his and his other neighbour's yards.  These saplings were maybe 5-6 feet tall and you could only see the tips over the fence.  At that time I was working at the garden centre and the staff were in discussions with horticulturists to determine just how suitable the Swedish Columnar Aspens were for foundation plantings.  One or more horticulturists had the idea that these are fine to plant, even next to a house, because their roots are supposedly non-invasive.  The Alberta Tree Nursery (a government funded agriculture and tree research site), however, disagreed citing 'they are members of the poplar family'.  They would not recommend planting them anywhere near buildings.  All of us in the nursery/greenhouse business have heard of the damage poplars can cause to sewers and foundations.  But these were different, or so we thought.  So, it was unclear then....................

Now, perhaps 8 years later, these same trees have nearly reached their mature height of 30 feet (maturity can range between 30-45 feet) and I must admit I like the appearance of them.  They are tall and narrow and the sound of their leaves rustling in the slightest breeze is soothing to hear.  

PROBLEM......Those roots are not non-invasive!  They have meandered over to our property, with shoots sprouting up in the lawn and next to the foundation of our house (some 15 feet away).  Needless to say, I am not terribly impressed.  Now, logically it makes sense that the roots would spread outward as they must anchor the tree in place.  The Swedish Columnar Aspen does not have tap roots, therefore, lateral roots are necessary to retrieve nutrients and to act as anchors.

If  you were to look over the neighbour's fence, you could see several more shoots coming up in their poorly maintained lawn.  So, one tends to rethink the non-invasive label -- does one classify the roots as non-invasive only if they don't enter the sewer lines?  All the lines are in the front of the houses in our subdivision so that is not a concern.  The foundation is a major concern, though.  Based on the evidence I have witnessed first hand, I would not consider these non-invasive!  

Has anyone else had experiences like this with Swedish Columnar Aspen?  Would you still plant Swedish Columnar Aspen in your garden, or as a foundation plant, after seeing this?  I suggest the ideal location to plant this tree would be on the back perimeter of the property where roots cannot interfere with foundations or lines.  Yes, I would.  It's the whole love/hate thing.

If a Swedish Columnar Aspen is planted in a parking lot, surrounded by concrete, is it then non-invasive?  I'm just asking.....  (tongue in cheek)


Rambling Woods said...

There always seems to be something we don't consider...I hope that doesn't cause a problem for your property...

Teresa Johannesma Wood said...

I was just reading your article and chuckling to myself because I was just at my sisters place cutting back suckers and pruning back the Swedish Columnar Aspen that I planted there about five years ago. Love/Hate , so true, but I too love the rustling of the leaves and it brings back fond childhood memories of my deceased Grandma and the summers we spent out at her cabin at MA-ME-O beach. I brought some of the suckers back and planted them here at Skihist provincial park, where we work, in a little corner of our garden , surrounded by the wild and concrete... let it run free, it will look nice with the ponderosa pine and will be make a nice noise block from the highway. :-)Derek. My wife also has a blog http://alifemadesimple.blogspot.ca/

Shirley @ The Gardening Life said...

The relationship continues a year later here.

Shirley said...

Michelle, I hope not too. Thanks for visiting!

Shirley said...

Derek (Theresa...)

I am glad to read that I am not alone in this experience. The problem continues in my garden, as you can read here. Thanks for stopping by! (ps, I visited your wife's blog yesterday. :))

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

How timely. I just got done mowing down all the suckers popping up from our aspen. An arborist, btw, recommended taking it down b/c it was a danger to the house in high winds. It has already damaged our gutter and soffits.

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Unknown said...

dang! i was going to plant some of those in the yard of a new house we're closing on next month. Are they a danger to septic tanks?? Also, does anybody have a suggestion for an alternate species which would provide for the same awesome columnesque look? I live in the mountains, at about 5,500' altitude in Idaho. THANKS for this blog!

Shirley said...

Matt, Thanks for your visit and your comment today on The Gardening LIfe. Yes, I would say the columnar aspen and the towering poplar would both become a nuisance when planted in the same vicinity of a septic tank. I wouldn't risk it myself. Other columnar trees may not grow as quickly, but would be safer for the septic system/water lines. For an upright evergreen, perhaps try the Rocky Mountain Juniper as it tolerates open areas and is drought tolerant once established. It is slow growing though.

Your local nursery would be your best resource in finding a suitable substitute. I recommend you stay away from anything in the poplar (populus) family, birch and maple as they all love the water and each have been known to cause problems in water lines.

Check out the columnar English Oak, as well.

I found this site which may be helpful but check for hardiness: Conical and Columnar Trees.

Good luck.

Susan said...

Thank you for this article! We are relandscaping our yard this summer and are looking for the right trees to plant along the back fence. Want something columnar and (of course) non invasive. Any suggestions?

Shirley said...

Susan, I'm glad you stopped by today. Re-landscaping can be a lot of fun and I love every minute of it myself. Selecting the right tree for the right spot can be a bit of a challenge but without knowing where in the country you are living, I would recommend you visit a reputable nursery in your area and inform them of what you want to achieve in your planting and any concerns you may have.

Swedish Columnar Aspen can be good along the back of your property as long as they are not near water lines and the root system and trunks are not exposed to damage from mowers and trimmers. Should you decide to go this route, consider mulching the area to protect the shallow root system from damage.

On the other hand, there are a few very nice columnar trees available to the home owner that can serve as alternatives. None will grow as quickly as the columnar aspen so you either have to be patient or buy more mature specimens. There are columnar maples (also don't plant near water lines), columnar crabapples, junipers and cedars, oak, and more. A good nursery can help you select just the right one for you.

I hope you find just the right trees for your site. Best wishes.


LSaueracker said...

Thanks for sharing this, our neighbour's trees are invading our yard but we didn't know the extent until your blog.

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Anonymous said...

About four years ago on advice from Lois Hole's tree book I planted three Swedish Columnar Aspens at the back of my property to block out my back neighbor's incessantly lighted back window. Because she said that the roots were not invasive I was not expecting them to take over my vegetable garden, which they did. Every year now I have to dig and cut them out. And yes little aspens pop up all over the back grass.

However the trees are lovely and do their required job admirably.

I am glad I saw this because I thought maybe my trees were just going rogue or something. I mean who would argue with Lois Hole? She was such a lovely lady.

Shirley said...

Dear anonymous, you are not the first nor will you be the last to run into this issue with the Swedish Columnar Aspen. Like you said, they do screen unfavourable views and light, so perhaps they are worth the trouble in the long run?

Anonymous said...

Our neighbor planted 30 of these trees along our property line and we have little trees coming up all over in our lawn. Mowing over them leaves hard little stems that are killer on bare feet so I tried to spray RoundUp on the little buggers and had lots of little dead spots in the lawn, so that's not the answer. It took about 4 hours of scooting along the ground on my rear with clippers last summer to cut them out at ground level, very discouraging to think I'm going to be battling this summer after summer. Our plan this year is to trench along the fence and put a barrier in the ground to discourage the roots from coming our direction, but we don't know how deep under the surface the roots run to know how deep to put the barrier. Can you help with that tidbit of information?

Shirley said...

Dear anonymous,

It is difficult to answer this question for you as I have never excavated to determine just how far down I would find these roots for fear of creating more suckering. I found a site that may offer some insights for you: http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extnews/hortiscope/tree/poplar.htm

Best wishes with the battle. Please let me know what you discover works for you.

Dolores said...

Unfortunately I don't have the option to mow...I spent hundreds of dollars creating a raised garden along side of property with these trees on other side of neighbors fence. I did no realize how evasive the were until a couple of years later I find fine roots which now have grown into larger roots taking over the whole garden. I can no longer dig and follow root to remove as they are everywhere. Any ideas out there?

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longshot said...

We planted 3 Aspen trees several years ago and last year we started getting suckers. We did not know what they were. We decided to let one of the suckers grow, when we did this the other suckers stopped. We now have another 2 foot tree:(

Can we cut that 2 footer down and get to the roots as much as possible and then let another one grow and cut it down this winter?

We really want to keep our 3 trees, but don't want to mess up our neighbors' yards. Can we put up some sort of a barrier to keep the roots around the 3 trees from spreading out? I am guessing the answer is a big fat NO.


Shirley said...

Hello Longshot,

It has been my experience that cutting down an aspen or poplar leads to more suckering at the base. We had neighbours that did this yearly, only to get denser trees, but perhaps that was their goal?

I would employ the services of a professional arborist.

HeatherR said...

Can I hit like on your post?! I just planted 9 Swedish Aspens. The tag wasn't clear on whether or not they were like other poplars which have more surface roots and are prone to suckering. Now I know! and now I know to watch for them!


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