How and Why to plant Lombardy Poplar trees (video)


Almost everyone wants big, tall shade trees in their yard. These trees trade irrigation for:

  • cooler temperatures,
  • lower cooling bills,
  • more enjoyable time spent out-of-doors,
  • climbing “toys” for children,
  • habitat for wildlife,
  • a privacy screen,
  • a noise barrier,
  • a natural fence,
  • a snow fence,
  • and more!

At the end of their live, they can be utilized for building materials or even firewood. The problem with most shade trees is the time it takes them to grow to maturity. Many a dreamy-eyed child will plant tree with their father in hopes of a majestic tree house in their future. Alas, once the tree is sufficiently large enough to accommodate a tree house, the child is probably grown and moved away.

There are other types of trees that grow quickly, but have drawbacks:

  • some are called “trash trees” because their branches aren’t all that strong, and
  • some have particularly short life spans.

Nonetheless, a good strategy is to plant a combination of fast-growing trees and slow-growing trees, thereby providing the benefits in the short-term while the long-term trees are becoming established.

Lombardy Poplar

The tree that we’ve selected for our purposes is the Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra “Italica”). This poplar is an upright, columnar tree that grows very quickly. Depending on conditions Poplars may grow 6-12 feet their first year or two (5-feet seems to be the average in Cache County, Utah), and approximately 2-6 feet per year thereafter. In Europe, these trees can reach 80-100 feet, and can easily reach more than 60-feet in Northern Utah.

The downsides? Poplars are relatively short-lived, dying off in 5 to 15 years, they reproduce by sending “runners” that can pop up almost anywhere, and they are susceptible to something called a “stem canker” ( Put another way, in my case, the pros of Poplars outweigh the cons.

Before we move on to planting, there are a few different varieties of Poplar. Some people call Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) Poplars. Though they’re related, that’s not the tree we are talking about here. Another common Poplar is the Hybrid Poplar (in many variations). These trees are typically bread to be shade trees with wide branches, rather than columnar Populus nigra “Italica”.

Make sure you know what you’re getting, and get what features you want before you put any tree in the ground.

How to plant Poplars

Poplars, like most trees, can be planted in a variety of ways:

  • potted,
  • balled and burlapped,
  • bare root,
  • and live stakes.

Live stakes are pretty much what they sounds like. Poplars have “suckers” that grow from the trunk. These can (and should) be trimmed, the “barky” portion pruned off, the top pruned off, and the remaining 12-inches of 1/4-inch diameter. These “stakes” are then pushed right-side-up into the ground, half as deep as they are tall. That’s it.

As with all trees, make sure your soil is loose and has been amended prior to this process, and do not let the stakes dry out (irrigate as necessary).

A common way of planting live stakes involves digging a ditch with “nodes” every 6-feet. Plant a live stake into each node, along the ditch. This enables you to run water to the ditch, letting it fill and soak into the ground around the trees rather than watering with sprinklers. You can plant stakes closer, but they should be thinned to 6 to 8 feet between trees within the first few years.

Here you can see Jody Gale from the USU Extension in Sevier County, Utah planting poplar live stakes. He shows planting hybrid poplars rather than the Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra “Italica”) that we planted at the Levi House property.

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