June 8, 2013

A Small Tree

This is a small tree I really like, a Cornus mas, or corneliancherry. Isn't this one a dapper shape and elegant, small size?

Now look at the same tree, with me posing under it. I don't usually post pictures with me in them, it's about the plants, just the plants, after all. But this is one where I need to show the scale of this mature corneliancherry.

It's a dogwood tree, but an unusual one that blooms in earliest spring with a haze of yellow flowers. These photos were taken in mid May.

Like a lot of small trees, it can be multi stemmed and shrubby. The one I am standing under at the Berkshire Botanical Garden has multiple trunks but it has been pruned over many years to limb it up and to make it tree shaped.

It is over 20 feet tall, and I am dwarfed under it. That's small by forest standards, but when you think of an ornamental tree for a small yard, few people really picture something 20 to 25 feet tall.

Last year a friend asked for recommendations to replace an old pee gee hydrangea that had died. It had been in her tiny city front yard, directly in front of the house.  I suggested another hydrangea or some other pretty shrubs.

No, no, she said, I definitely want a tree there this time. A small tree. Some shade, some height, a trunk form.

But every tree I suggested, including a Cornus mas, was met with rejection. Too big! Not 20 feet tall. That will swamp the house.

After going back and forth with suggestions, it finally became clear that a small tree to her would be something that grew to about 8 or 10 feet tall.

Well, that's just not a tree, really.

There are small Japanese maples that will top out at 10 or 12 feet, and many can be pruned artfully to look smaller. You can get dwarf oddities of big trees, like witch's brooms of a ginkgo tree. I had one, called Spring Grove, but it looked like a shrub.

In the end she decided to plant nothing. Her small yard is now a sunny open spot, and that suits.

It's a challenge to find a small, elegant tree when you want something 10 feet tall. That's why standards of willows are so popular and you see them everywhere. They look like tiny little trees, and can be kept to 8 feet.
from Miller Nursery
But any small tree that will provide shade and the look of a real tree is going to be 20 feet tall.

I suffer from the same conflict - I want small trees to be much littler than they will eventually be. Here is my own Cornus mas, which is some day going to fill that whole space between the birch and the pine. Think of the pictures at the top of this post and then imagine that planted here.

There will be room enough, I think.

I'm turning a shrubby viburnum into a small tree. This is Viburnum prunifolium, or blackhaw.  I'm removing all the suckers and the lower branches to get a small tree form. This is a good example of "small tree" delusions -- as a shrub form it will grow to about 12 or 15 feet high, a perfect size. Pruned to a tree form it can reach 20 or 30 feet tall.

I think I have room for a 20 foot tree here, but that certainly is not what most of us think of as a small tree. (note that this pretty viburnum is blooming, in May, but only at the bottom. Frost nipped the upper branches earlier in the spring.)

I am doing the same thing with another Viburnum prunifolium planted at the side of the house, which is being pruned into a single trunk.

Here I may have a problem with a 20 foot tree so near the house. (note to Heather at Girl with a Hammer -- or to anyone else -- how would you hide those A/C units?)

We ask so much of our landscape plants. We want height to provide shade but a low profile to fit the space. We want flowers and fruit but no mess. We want density to screen things (like A/C units), but openness for air circulation or a view.

So keep one thing in mind as you design your spaces for all those conflicting landscape needs: a small tree is not as small as you think it is!

30 comments:

  1. Interesting thoughts on small trees. You are so right about wanting plants for a certain reason. Small tree is a thing of ones imagination.

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    1. Lisa, It took me a while to realize that trees are not furniture -- you can't place them somewhere for a certain function and make them fit forever!

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  2. I've been struggling with this same concept. I think I want a small tree but when I think of how tall 25' is I realize that I'm not being realistic. As far as the a/c goes, I'm currently considering something like Loree did with trellises, though shorter ones.

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    1. Heather, I saw Loree's post when she first published it, and I really like what they have done with the anchored metal trellises. I would have to do it parallel to my walkway rather than flanking either side of the units. . . hmmm. Thinking.

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  3. I know - my neighbor wanted to plant a Weeping Willow in her tiny front yard, and I tried to warn her. Then her father "surprised" her and planted a red maple instead. Uh-oh. But enough about trees. What are those gorgeous orange flowers in the second from last photo?

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    1. Sarah, those orange flowers are avens -- Geum coccineum. They are delightful in spring and bloom forever, very sweet little flowers, and impossible to photograph in their brassy orange hues. I love them.

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  4. I don't have a Cornus mas, but there are lots at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It's an attractive tree, I also like the red fruit. As to the larger issue, people need to realize that something 10' tall is hardly going to give any shade. I've limbed up my spicebush to make them tree like. They're about 7' now, curious to see how big they'll get.

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    1. Jason, You've given me an inspiration --I like the idea of limbing up the spicebushes. I've pruned mine, but I think I might want to do more with them and give them a more open look. They are pretty forgiving with pruning, and left alone they can get quite huge.

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  5. Small trees are cute like puppies but I prefer to just limb up a shrub if I need something to act like a small tree while being something else.

    I'd plant a medium height (18-24") mounded grass near the a/c units. Pennisetum 'Piglet' or 'Hamlen' would work well if it's sunny enough. Completely blocking the air flow will fry your units. The grasses will offer some air circulation while also detracting the eye. I have a low hedge of sweet box in front of mine that I have to occasionally whack when it gets too close. Ground cover hypericum would also do well.

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    1. Tammy, I like the comparison to puppies! So cute when little, so . . . um, big when big! The hypericum is a good idea for something in front of the a/c that won't block it. I have wanted 'Brigadoon' for some time and this might be a good place to try it.

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  6. Hi Laurrie..I really like how you're turning your Viburnums into trees. I may have to try that...I really like this look!!

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    1. Christy, thanks. I am pleased with how the viburnums are turning into trees. I didn't know where to start at first and thought I was doing a hatchet job for the first three years, but now they do look kind of neat. Try it on yours!

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  7. Peach trees can be excellent small trees, as can some of the dwarf cherries. They probably hit 20 feet though....
    I like the viburnums as trees. A lot of the European hawthorns seem to behave well as small trees too.
    I am forever being caught out be how tall trees are!

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    1. Acair Fearann, your'e right, fruit trees can be nice small trees. Still larger than people think they'll be, but small compared to other trees, and oh so pretty.

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  8. Funny, I have been deliberating over the same problem myself. Must be the time of year. I had not thought of limbing up tall shrubs -something very worthwhile to think about.

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    1. Patty, it's kind of fun to see a lovely tall multi stemmed shrub turn into a tree!

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  9. Your viburnums are looking magnificent! This post really made me think! I am thinking about the redbud I just planted and how one day it will be huge! I wonder how it will look....only time will tell I suppose! Thanks for putting a 20 foot tree into perspective for us all!!!

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    1. Nicole, it is so hard to imagine what a newly planted tree will eventually really look like, even though we know the size and understand the height it will reach. But picturing it . . . that's difficult to do!

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  10. Good advice on thinking of the future size when planting trees, Laurrie. Most of make that mistake at least once or twice, learning the hard way.

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    1. Lee, And I will continue to underestimate the size of small trees I plant even though I know better. I just will.

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  11. Viburnums make a great "small trees". I've been working on a V. burkwoodii. It's not quite at tree form but that is the eventual goal.

    I over think the mature sizes of shrubs and trees and still have ones that outgrow their space. For years I had a Purple Sand Cherry (Prunus cistena) pruned as a small tree but it declined and kept getting some sort of blight on the foliage. Last year I hacked it way back and seem to have ruined the form. Oh well...when one plant door closes opportunity knocks. Japanese maples are favorites of mine-slow growing and take to pruning so well, but that being said I probably have too many :).

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    1. Sue, You are right about losing a plant-- it's really just a way to open the door to a new choice. Japanese maples are perfect small trees and I am slowly learning how to prune them more and more dramatically. They do take shaping well.

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  12. I love the yellowy-green cloud and delicate nature of this "tree." I'm doing my best to "like" what I end up with and change the garden around things that dramatically change their size :) But, it is important to do your research before buying any plant, especially a tree or shrub.

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    1. Rosemary, I too am finding that I have to adapt my designs for the trees that now fill spaces that were empty before! Always changing.

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  13. I've been interested in planting Cornus mas someday not only for its beautiful form, but also for its fruit. But how on earth could I harvest 'cherries' from a 25-foot tall tree?! I wonder if there is a way to keep it pruned smaller but still fruitful? Have you had a chance to taste any of the fruits (which I understand are better when cooked) from your little tree?

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    1. Aaron, my very small, new cornus mas trees (I have two) have not yet produced any fruit. I don't know how long it will take. One tree is four years old grown from a one gallon container sprig, the other a few years older, as it was already a good size when purchased in a 15 gallon container. Corneliancherries were a very popular orchard fruit in medieval times. I'm eagerly waiting!

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  14. Laurrie,
    I think that any small tree anyway grows and will be about 20 feet high
    if bush to grow as a tree then it certainly will not grow so high
    I have two maple that I prune every spring and autumn, and they still tend to grow more than 10 feet

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    1. Nadezda, almost all small trees grow taller than we think they will, even with a lot of pruning!

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  15. That's so true...I'm chronically awful at size/spacing, even with smaller plants. I will think, 3' tall...that's nothing...that's just up to my knees! Then, I stop and think, that's actually 2' tall. I guess that explains why I can't walk through my backyard after June ;-)

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    1. Scott, underestimating the size and spacing of plants seems to be a constant error we all make. With a tree it's harder to correct, but even with perennials it gets out of hand. You do have a lush backyard, though : )

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