They say good things come in small packages. And when it comes to trees, I’d say that’s certainly true. While tall species like maples, oaks and elms boast lofty canopies, small trees flaunt their beauty up close. They’re a great addition to any landscape. But they’re especially suited to the smaller space, where even one, well-chosen specimen can brighten up a garden.
NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE
Yes, trees are beautiful to look at. But beyond their good looks, they also offer a wealth of benefits to the homeowner. These include the most obvious; shade. Research shows that, when positioned close to the house (especially near the southwest corner), trees can reduce a household’s energy consumption. And that in turn translates into energy savings.
Ever planted a tree that grew too big for your property? Root interference with walkways and plumbing is a common urban/suburban problem. Many people make the mistake of planting too large a tree in too little a space.
Unlike large trees, however, small trees can provide flexibility. While larger species should be planted 15 to 20 feet from the house, trees like dogwoods can be planted as close as 6. And where space permits, several small trees can be grouped in lieu of one large tree that might be out of scale with the landscape.
Whatever the size, when choosing a tree, it’s important to select the right specimen from the start. And that involves doing your research on its mature height and width before planting it. Below are some of my favorite small trees that are well suited to the typical urban/suburban landscape.
Vase-shaped, weeping or compact, there are literally hundreds of Japanese maple varieties to choose from. These elegant small trees provide interest all year long even after they’ve dropped their leaves. Leaf types can differ greatly between varieties.
Boasting deep maroon foliage, ‘Bloodgood’ is one of the hardiest Japanese maple varieties. I use it to create ‘depth’ in the landscape. Or, if you’re looking for artistry, check out the cut-leaf varieties, known for their feathery, finely-dissected leaves.
Most redbuds available today are hybrids of the native Eastern redbud, or Cercis canadensis. Eastern redbuds grow in woodlands from New Jersey to northern Florida and as far west as the Great Plains.
Native redbud tree
Maturing to around 35′ tall, this early-flowering small tree produces spectacular magenta colored blossoms atop bare branches. It blooms so profusely in fact, that its branches and trunk are often covered with flowers.
FUN FACT: Redbud is a member of the pea family, so its blossoms are edible!
New exciting cultivars include Forest Pansy, named for the burgundy color of its leaves. Other interesting varieties are Rising Sun and Lime Green. Plant redbud in a north facing location where it can absorb morning sun and relax in afternoon shade.
Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is native to eastern North America and northern Mexico. They say that at one time its population extended all the way from Maine to Florida and across to the Mississippi River. Today this small tree is still a denizen of many an American garden.
Native hybrids Cherokee Chief, Cherokee Brave and Cherokee Princess were bred to be resistant to anthracnose, which attacked and killed many native dogwoods about a decade ago.
Maturing to a height of around 25 feet, flowering dogwood produces white or pink flowers in spring. The long-lasting, three- to five-inch blossoms are followed by red berries that provide food to birds. In fall, the leaves turn a brilliant red.
Kousa dogwood, or Cornus kousa, is native to Japan, Korea and China. It differs from the flowering dogwood in that its blooms are produced on top of the leaves instead of on bare branches. The star-shaped blossoms blanket the tree, followed by berry-like fruits that persist into fall.
Kousa dogwoods typically grow 15 to 30 feet tall. They start out vase-shaped, then adopt a more rounded form as they mature. In fall, their leaves turn a brilliant red. And the grayish, exfoliating bark becomes mottled over time, providing great winter interest.
One of the earliest small trees to flower, star magnolia, or Magnolia stellata, produces large, fragrant flowers anywhere between late February and mid-March depending on location. Like the flowering dogwood, the blooms appear ahead of the foliage. Since it flowers so early, star magnolia benefits from a sheltered spot as late spring frosts can damage the blossoms.
One of the smallest magnolias, star magnolias grow 15 to 20 feet tall and wide and have a rounded, shrub-like form.
This elegant shrub or small tree thrives in both sun and shade. It has an open, airy habit and a classic vase-like shape. The common witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, peaks between mid October and mid November. By contrast, the popular Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, and the hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia, blooms in early spring. Flower colors range from a deep burgundy to a pale butter yellow.
Witch Hazel blossoms
This small tree packs a lot into a small space, but it is also very slow growing, so buy big. Individual plants usually top out at 5’ to 6’. Check out 12 great varieties here.
This standard small tree of the southern garden now boasts varieties that can take the chill. Most popular among them are the Natchez cultivars, with their gorgeous flower panicles in red, pink or white, held at the end of their branches. Other attractive features include peeling bark and burgundy leaves in fall.
Crape myrtles are some of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, sometimes as late as May. A new, compact series called Black Diamond produce black foliage in early spring followed by vibrant blooms in shades of red, purple, pink, lilac and white.
SWEET BAY MAGNOLIA
Boasting shiny dark green leaves with silvery undersides, Sweet Bay Magnolia is a glamorous addition to any landscape. In last spring to early summer, it produces creamy white flowers with a slight lemony scent. New foliage, which appears around the time of the blossoms, is bright green.
In late summer, red seeded fruit appears on its branches. Sturdy and upright, sweet bay magnolia grows 10- to 15- feet tall, making it a great choice for a corner or patio.