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Master Gardenersm Column for the Week of October 12, 2009
Judy Koehly-Master Gardener
Brunswick County Extension Master Gardenersm Volunteer

Making Use of Small Short Trees in the Garden

You can tie the landscape together with short, squat trees.  Another problem commonly encountered when designing small spots is finding a way to provide low, space-conscious structure with trees that carry the bulk of their mass below eye level. These trees are often important in tying together the landscape and connecting it to water features, garden art, and hardscaping. Their low visual center of gravity—typically from squat or weeping shapes—makes this possible. An additional advantage to these smaller trees is that they often are the easiest and best varieties for growing in containers. Their smaller stature aboveground translates to smaller root requirements below ground.

One of my favorites for this tight situation is ‘Green Prince’ cedar. A natural bonsai, this quirky little tree takes many forms. With short, medium green needles and dramatic, irregular branching, some specimens grow up and others grow out, but all look attractive. ‘Green Prince’ cedar is a low-maintenance, high-impact small tree wherever you plant it.  (‘Green Prince’ cedar, Name: Cedrus libani ‘Green Prince’, zones: 6 to 9, Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and wide, Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil.)

Trees with a strong weeping nature anchor small gardens. A good example is ‘Viridis’ Japanese maple. The name ‘Viridis’ is used for many green laceleaf maples but always refers to a tree with narrow, deeply cut, bright green foliage. The branching is arching, pendulous, and dense, forming a low, compact, rounded dome. These trees can be as much as 8 to12 feet tall and wide but are more commonly found in the 3- to 4-foot range. ‘Viridis’ can grow in full sun (if not too hot) and turns a beautiful golden hue in fall.  (‘Viridis’ Japanese maple, Name: Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Viridis’, Zones: 5 to 8, Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide, conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil.)

The Lavender Twist Weeping Redbud, 'Cercis canadensis "Covey", also known as Twisted Lavender Redbud, is a new variety of Redbud that is sure to attract the eye. The reddish-purple bud opens to a rosy lavender-pink flower in early spring. The umbrella shaped tree accentuates the weeping, twisted branches tipping towards the ground. They flower in early spring and bloom for 2 to 3 weeks. The shape of the fruit looks like a pea pod. The pods are 2-3” and are brown. The seed pods develop in October and usually stay on throughout the winter and adding winter interest. Leaves are heart shaped, when emerging in the spring are reddish-purple changing to a dark lustrous green in the summer and then to a yellow fall color. This tree is a great specimen plant and perfect for a small protected area in the landscape in zones 5 – 9.

Rhapidophyllum hystrix also known as needle palm, porcupine palm, hedgehog palm, blue palmetto is one of several small, squat palms that will grow in our area.  It is one of the most cold-hardy palms surviving to less than zero degrees.  Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera with the common name of Blue Mediterranean fan palm can take the cold down to 5 degrees and enjoys sandy soil with good drainage.

Loquat has a formal look to its growth pattern as well, but it also looks tropical with the long furry leaves. Loquat blooms in the fall and, if the winter is mild, produces tasty fruit in the spring that are favorites of raccoons and opossums. Loquat is most useful because it can tolerate considerable shade. Use it in full sun or shade.  Loquats are unusual among fruit trees in that the flowers appear in the autumn or early winter, and the fruits are ripe in late winter or early spring. These trees grow in zones 7 -10.
Even though often referred to as Chaste Tree, Vitex is really a multi-trunked shrub that grows fairly slowly to about 15 feet.  While fairly drought resistant, Vitex grows faster and looks lovelier when watered regularly. Grape-colored flowers cover long panicles that can elongate up to 12 inches.  Perennial in Zones 6-11.
Whether you know it as American Fringe Tree, Old Man's Beard, Grancy Gray Beard, or the common name given it by the British, Grandsir Graybeard (which is probably why some of us call it 'Grancy' Graybeard), Chionanthus Virginicus is one of the loveliest of all American native trees.  This tree is drought tolerant and blooms in early spring. Blooms last up to a month, but the beauty lasts all season. Rich green elongated leaves stay beautiful all summer and are not bothered by pests. Even during winter when naked, the American Fringe is still very interesting.  Chinese fringe tree (C. retusus) maintains a smaller height, providing a beautiful show of color at eye-level.  USDA hardiness zones: 3 through 9.
There is a downside of placing big trees in small spaces!  Take a drive around your neighbor­hood and you’ll inevitably see plants that are overstepping their boundaries: a large tree shoved against a foundation, a huge shrub growing into the adjoining yard. Aside from being unsightly, these scenarios can also cause a negative environmental impact.  Large trees in a small space have overly compacted roots, so they require a tremendous amount of excess water.  Forcing a plant into an unnaturally confined space causes stress, which encourages disease and leads some gardeners to use chemicals to solve the situation.  Eventually, a big tree will outgrow its spot and, despite regular pruning, will need to be cut down—making you and the tree unhappy.  And then you must start over searching for the right size tree for your yard.

With the right small trees as a foun­dation, even the most disorganized and unimaginative, cramped space can be transformed into a unique garden sanctuary.

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