Written by davethetreecenters • September 27 Choosing a Small Tree for Your Garden
As gardens have become smaller, planting trees has become harder. There is an irony to this, as a time when everyone is being urged to plant more trees, but it is important to choose wisely. Nothing is sadder than seeing a healthy young tree taken down because it has been planted in a bad location, so avoid that by seeing what you need to think of – when choosing and planting any tree, but especially when you don’t have a lot of space.
How Big Is Small?
One of the most difficult things to do, as a beginner in the garden, is to truly feel the final size of the plants you are choosing. A ‘tree’ is any woody plant with one or very few main trunks, that is taller than – what? You? Your house? Let’s say you are 6 feet tall, and if you have a typical two-story house it is 20 to 25 feet tall. If you look at our tree selection you will see many trees that have final heights and spreads of 50 feet or even 75 feet. That’s three of your house stacked on top of each other. . . Now you are going to say, “But I will be long dead before this sapling is that big!”, but think of the future. If you plant that over-sized tree today, in 30 years or so, someone (who might be you) is going to have to cut it down, at considerable expense, to save their house, protect their swimming pool or drains, or because it is encroaching on a neighbors property. How sad that would be, and if it happens, how difficult it makes it to rebuild our stock of mature trees, and add more mature trees to protect our environment.
In the past people planted trees knowing they would never see them mature, yet they planted them anyway, with hope for the future. Many of those trees planted 100 or 200 years ago are now among the most magnificent specimens in our nation – maybe yours can be too – big or small.
So let’s say that a small tree is one with a height and spread below about 20 feet. That will one day come up to the guttering of your two-story home, but it won’t ever overhand it, a potential storm hazard. In a small town garden it will probably shade most or all the garden, so there is no point in planting 3 or 4 ‘cute little trees’. Once you have chosen the main one, stick to medium-sized or small shrubs, with perhaps a couple of larger shrubs in the corners.
Things to Consider in Placing Your Tree
We will look later at types of trees to choose from, but let’s say you have made your choice. Here are some other things to consider in where exactly to plant it.
- Avoid overhead wires and cables – Even a 20 feet tree could become entangled in overhead wires – you need to estimate how far off the ground they are – a comparison to the height of your house is a good guide, but make sure you are a good distance off to get an accurate picture.
- Avoid planting too close to buildings, property lines and other trees – that 20 feet tree is probably going to be almost as wide, so measure 10 feet (the distance from the trunk to the edge of the branches) out to find the line you can plant along. Obviously for larger trees you need to add more – just take one-half of the mature spread listed for your choices.
- Avoid planting over sewer lines, septic fields, or beside swimming pools – it’s hard to say how much space you should allow for this, as it varies with the tree you are planting and also with the average moisture in your soil. A tree will go further when planted in often-dry soil. Some trees have strong, aggressive roots, others are much more gentle. So consider these different things and, basically, allow as much as you can.
- Think about shade – trees will throw their shadow on their north and east sides, so where in your garden do you want summer shade? This is an important thought, and one that’s often overlooked.
Watch out when choosing evergreens
While young trees mostly look like they have some growing to do, evergreens often look ‘complete’, so the biggest snafu we see is enormous evergreens planted right up against a house, or filling a whole yard. Trees you see most like this are Leyland Cypress, Blue Spruce and Fir trees. These are lovely trees, but they belong in the right place. Many of them have special varieties that are much smaller – plant one of those instead, but still follow the basic ‘rules’ for spacing.
Some Good Small Tree Choices
Here are some trees that stay small and fit beautifully into smaller gardens and smaller spaces. Remember that, generally, flowering trees are a lot smaller than classic shade trees like sugar maples, red maples, oaks and ash.
- Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) – many people think of these are tiny, often weeping, bush-like trees, but there are others. Some are fast-growing, adding a foot or more each year, and they make wonderful small trees for a smaller garden. Check out these larger, fast growing Japanese Maples – Coral-bark Maple; Crimson Queen Maple (a smaller tree, to about 12 feet). Our selection of Japanese maples is constantly being updated, and we often have trees that grow larger – check out our current range.
- Paper-bark Maple (Acer griseum) a lovely small maple tree with cinnamon colored bark and a rounded crown. Perfect for a small tree.
- Amur Maple (Acer tataricum subsp. ginnala) An incredibly hardy little tree, growing even in zone 2, and one that’s easy to grow. It can be grown with a single stem, or as a multi-stem. Interesting slender leaves and, in the best varieties (look out for ‘Flame’) with excellent fall colors.
- River Birch (Betula nigra) – birch trees are always lovely, and although pushing the limit a bit on our choices – they can reach 30 feet in time – they are delicate in form and roots, and not ‘pushy’. The variety known as the Heritage Birch (‘Cully’) is tougher than most, and adaptable in warmer areas, while still hardy in zone 4
- Crab Apple Trees (Malus) – flowering trees are often great choices, and add extra beauty in the same space, a good approach for small gardens. Crab apples are beautiful in bloom, and smaller trees too. Choose one that has good fruit too (it makes delicious preserves).
- Flowering Plum Trees (Prunus) – perfect for cooler areas where the Japanese flowering cherries won’t grow. The flowers might be small, but they make up for it in profusion.