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Trees for small spaces

Mar 08, 2019

Ornamental trees add a vertical element to a garden that can provide both interest to a space and a little bit of shade. While many larger trees can overwhelm a small garden, understory trees mature to a smaller size, often growing to heights of 20 feet or less. Many of these ornamental understory trees can be quite showy, featuring flowers or fall leaf color, or in some, both. While there are numerous options to choose from, below is a selection of a few of our favorites.

Redbuds are understory trees native to our region. A welcoming start to spring, the bare branches of redbuds flaunt clusters of vibrant, purple-pink buds in March and April, prior to leafing out. In fall, the redbud’s heart-shaped leaves turn yellow, allowing additional seasonal interest. Redbuds are easy to grow, and are both deer resistant and drought resistant. An especially showy variety of redbud, ‘Forest Pansy,’ has leaves that are burgundy throughout the spring and summer, turning dark green in fall.

Saucer magnolia is another early spring favorite. Like the redbud, the saucer magnolia is deciduous and also blooms before leafing out. Large fuzzy buds set bloom to over-sized, cup-like flowers in pink, white or purple. One downside, however, is that the flower buds of the saucer magnolia are susceptible to frost damage and a single late frost could ruin an entire season’s worth of blooms.

Yet another understory ornamental with spring interest is the dogwood. The dogwood begins to flower shortly after the redbud, usually in April, and has four petal-like bracts in either white or pink. The native dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms slightly before the Kousa dogwood, and the two bear different fruits, though both are enjoyed by wildlife, birds in particular. The Kousa dogwood however, has better disease resistance and is more drought tolerant than the native dogwood. Hybrids are another good option and tend to be disease resistant as well.

For summer color, no ornamental tree beats the crape myrtle. Crape myrtles vary vastly in size, so when selecting a variety, be sure to select one that will grow to an appropriate size for its location. Crape myrtles are multi-trunk, vase-shaped trees with striking bark and prolific blooms. Their clusters of tissue-like flowers come in a wide selection of colors, including all shades of pink, lavender, red and white. Crape myrtles are praised for their abundant flowers, though are known to litter gardens with petals all season long.

For interesting foliage, Japanese maples are an excellent choice. Its lobed leaves can vary greatly in size, shape and color. Japanese maples are widely bred and there are thousands of cultivars to choose from. Like the crape myrtle, they vary in sizes, so it is important to pick one that will mature to size compatible with your garden. Japanese maples are showy all spring and summer, and many have spectacular fall color which can run the gamut in hues. Japanese maples have graceful growing habits, often with a domed canopy.

No matter the garden, large or small, understory trees can be a great addition to your space. With a variety to choose from, understory trees can add seasonal interest to your garden while also providing structure and vertical element to your space.