CORVALLIS, Ore. – As cities get bigger, gardens get smaller and large trees no longer make the cut.
No worries. The plant world teems with appropriately sized trees. The best place to start a search is in your own backyard. As the saying goes: “Right plant, right place.” Decide where you want a tree first and then find one that fits the site, said Chris Rusch, president of the Douglas County chapter of the Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener program.
“You can’t just go buy a tree and then find a spot for it,” she said. “You have to get a tree that’s suitable for the site.”
Take into account the amount of sun the space gets, the type of soil and whether it’s under power lines or close to a fence, patio, foundation or structure. Then do some research online, check books or ask someone at a reputable garden center to narrow down a few options that fit the criteria. And don’t forget to think about the characteristics you want. Perhaps fall color is No. 1 on your list. Or, a full-fledged display of spring flowers. Colorful, interesting bark or shapely form offer another season of enjoyment. Want it all? There are trees that fit the bill.
Rusch, who is a retired forester, considers trees in the 20- to 30-foot range about the right size for a small garden – or a large one where shorter trees come in handy to provide a layer of texture and color in the space between shrubs and larger trees. No matter the size of the garden, small trees hit a height that can hide unsightly neighboring buildings, create a pretty perimeter around the yard or give you the privacy you crave.
“However you approach it, you can find your perfect tree,” Rusch said. “You can have shade in summer, bright foliage in fall, flowers in spring and summer. Interesting forms and colorful, curious stems. You name it.”
To get you started, Rusch unveils some of her favorite small trees:
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum): An impressive range of trees that, depending on the cultivar, grow 10 to 25 feet. Some have burgundy leaves, some have finely cut foliage, most have exceptional autumn color. Winter reveals colorful red or red-orange branches on many. “Japanese maples are really pretty trees that are nice for Oregon,” Rusch said. “Their characteristics are adapted to our climate.” Cold hardy to Zone 5 or 6.
Dogwood (Cornus): Rusch is partial to any kind of dogwood, but mentioned especially Oregon’s native Pacific dogwood (Cornus nutalii) and the Japanese species Cornus kousa. Both stretch to about 25 feet or a little more. They have attractive white flowers (bracts) in spring that stand out like a beacon against evergreens, put out brilliant green foliage in summer and exhibit excellent red shades in fall. Depending on the variety, they can be pruned into interesting multi-trunk forms or trained into single-trunk trees. They prefer a little shade rather than open sun. Pacific dogwood is cold hardy to Zone 6; kousa dogwood to Zone 5.
Flowering crabapple (Malus): An easy-care tree that’s covered in bundles of purple or white flowers for up to a month in spring. They top out at 20 feet or shorter. Plant in full sun and be sure to research or ask at the nursery for disease-resistant varieties. A couple include yellow-fruiting ‘Gold Raindrops.’ ‘Adirondack’ ‘Sugar Tyme’ and ‘Red Jewel.’ Wildlife flock to the fall berries. Prune when young for good branch structure and then sparingly to keep them in shape. “Crabapples are gorgeous,” Rusch said. “They have beautiful flowers and the fall colors are bright red, really nice.”
Whitebeam (Sorbus aria 'Lutescens'): A stunning tree that displays leaves that emerge silver in spring and turn to green as the season advances and bright yellow to orange in fall. White flowers in May are followed by clusters of orange-red berries that ripen in fall and provide food for wildlife in winter. Grows to about 30 feet and is cold hardy to Zone 5.
Purpleleaf plums (Prunus cerasifera): A very hardy and attractive tree known for its dark purple foliage and clusters of fragrant light pink flowers in early spring. ‘Thundercloud’ is a particularly popular variety. Grows 15 to 25 feet. Needs a site in full sun. Cold hardy to Zone 4.