Cottage Q&A: Fast-growing trees for the cottage

A small cottage surrounded by fall trees By Caterpillar Taqi/Shutterstock

I need suggestions for fast-growing trees for the cottage. I have a row of Swedish columnar aspen that has been eaten and killed by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. What could I replace them with that’s fast-growing but is not favoured by those woodpeckers?—Julie Hink, Beaver Lake, Alta.

We’ll get to your fast-growing trees question later. First: let’s not throw the sapsuckers entirely under the bus. The reason that your trees died could be because Swedish columnars aren’t native to Canada. “Native aspens have been dealing with sapsuckers for thousands of years,” says Chris Earley, the author of Feed the Birds. “They know what they’re doing.” Since your trees probably didn’t evolve with yellow-bellied sapsuckers, it made them weak to this woodpecker’s onslaught; another species could have taken it.  

That said, while sapsuckers will drill into “a very long list” of trees, they are particularly fond of aspens, says Earley. So avoid those, and pick another native tree.

Jean-Mathieu Daoust, an arborist with the Calgary office of Bartlett Tree Experts, suggests poplar, American elm, or laurel leaf willow; they’ll grow two feet or more per year. Of course, trees that grow quickly get large quickly. “People say, ‘I want it to grow super-fast! But I don’t want it to get too big!’ ” says Daoust. Follow the tree-planting adage: right tree, right place. For example, you might not want to squash together trees with a wide canopy spread into a spot that suited the skinny aspens. (Columnar trees are column-like.) 

Three things to consider when planting a tree

Before you decide on a species, do as much research as you can, says Daoust. You want to get “a true perspective on what impact the selected species will have on the landscape over time.” Talk to local nurseries and arborists; look online; check out images; ask your lake neighbours: which trees have they had success with? 

And the sapsuckers? You may have to accept that they’re not going to stop sucking sap. It’s kind of in their job description.

This article originally ran in the August/September 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Got a question for Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

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