Backyard Shade Tree Selection

Advice for the Home Gardener
from the 
UC Master Gardener Program
of Contra Costa County

Client's Request:
  Hello. We would like to plant a shade tree in our backyard in mid-County. We have a fairly shallow well… and am assuming a high water table although we don't have any wet, boggy areas. We have two semi-dwarf orange trees s that we never water and they are productive and sweet. Can you recommend links for some shade trees in these conditions .... such as Crape Myrtle, deciduous Magnolia, and Japanese Maples? Thank You.

MGCC Help Desk Response:  Thank you for contacting the UC Master Gardener Program Help Desk with a question about tree selection. You didn't say how deep your well is, but the water table is probably deep enough that it won't impact trees in your landscape. Tree roots are generally found in the top 1 to 3 feet of soil, with only some sinker roots possibly venturing deeper. Trees don't usually have tap roots past the seedling stage, but rather grow roots that extend well past the dripline (outer edge of the tree's canopy). 

If you have good drainage in your soil, any tree suited for your climate should be fine. To test your drainage, dig a hole about a foot deep. Fill it with water and allow it to drain completely. Immediately refill the hole and measure the depth of the water with a ruler. Fifteen minutes later, measure the drop in water in inches, and multiply by 4 to calculate how much water drains in an hour. Ideally, you should have 1 to 6 inches drainage per hour.

The trees you specifically asked about were Crape Myrtle, deciduous Magnolia and Japanese maple. Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) do well in mid-county. They need full sun and seem to appreciate our hot summers. There are many varieties to choose from. This link is to an article from the Sonoma County Master Gardeners about growing Crape Myrtles:

Deciduous Magnolia may not be a good choice. According to Sunset Western Garden Book, deciduous magnolias with saucer flowers do poorly in hot and dry areas. Deciduous magnolias with star flowers seem to do better, but are very slow-growing, and the variety called Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) stays quite small and is usually grown as a shrub.

Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) do best in cool climates and will need partial shade and protection from hot, dry wind in the hotter areas of the County. Morning sun and afternoon shade is best. The varieties with green leaves do better with more sun exposure than the varieties with red leaves or those with lacier leaves.

You might also consider Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinesis). It is well suited for our climate and makes a good shade tree. This link is to another article from the Sonoma Master gardeners:

For other ideas, this link is to a searchable database where you can select aspects you want such as shade tree, deciduous, maximum height, etc. They have good descriptions of the trees, along with photographs.

If after you perform a drainage test you find you have poor drainage (less than 1 inch per hour), contact us again and we will research those trees more suitable for a boggier area. Don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

I hope this information is helpful and you find a good shade tree for your yard!

Help Desk of the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County (SEH)


Notes: Contra Costa MG's Help Desk is available almost year-round to answer your gardening questions. Except for a few holidays (e.g., last 2 weeks December), we're open every week, Monday through Thursday for walk-ins from 9:00 am to Noon at 2380 Bisso Lane, Concord, CA 94520. We can also be reached via telephone:  (925) 608-6683, email:, or on the web at MGCC Blogs can be found at You can also subscribe to the Biog.

By Steve I Morse
Author - Contra Costa County Master Gardener