Small trees make a big impression

As you drive through various neighborhoods and commercial properties, you tend to see the same plants over and over again. The reasons for this phenomenon are two-fold. First, it's a matter of status quo and complacency. It's easy to use the same plants on the current job that you used on the last one. And homeowners fall into the same trap — they plant what they're familiar with. The second reason is that some landscape designers and contractors work with a very short plant list. This is especially true for small trees.

Why focus on small trees? Because they currently are underused, even though the possibilities are many. There are so many worthy but underutilized small trees, it's almost a crime. A plant palette of three to five plants in each category (groundcovers, short shrubs, tall shrubs, shade trees, small trees, etc.) is quite limiting; knowing and using 20 plants in today's marketplace just won't cut it.

Good places for small trees

A “small tree” can be defined as a woody plant that grows to a height of 12 to 30 feet. It can be a single- or multiple-trunked specimen, produce showy flowers or not, and be coniferous or deciduous. Regardless of their attributes, there are many locations specially suited for small trees.

  • Under power lines

    How many of us have seen the overgrown pin oak or silver maple under an overhead utility line? Just about everyone. Of course, such trees often are severely misshapen due to utility trimming to keep the branches and foliage clear of power lines. Unfortunately, the utility companies have no choice; they must prune the trees. Newer clearance techniques including drop-crotching and directional pruning are less destructive, but still the eyesore remains. Obviously, it would have been advisable to plant a smaller tree in the first place.

  • Smaller urban lots

    In many suburbs, there just isn't room for every homeowner to grow a large shade tree. The idea of sharing one with the neighbor is gaining popularity, especially in smaller urban lots. Sure, every lot can have one, but eventually severe pruning (and in some cases, removal) will be necessary to retain shape and discourage foliar diseases if crowding occurs. If you're looking at a job where the next-door neighbor has a large ash near the property line, encourage your client to approve a small tree in the landscape plan instead of a larger specimen.

  • Soften corners

    Depending on the architecture of the home or commercial building, straight lines may dominate the landscape. Building corners, eaves and pillars are strong vertical elements. Using small ornamental trees to soften these lines adds interest and appeal, as well as reduces the harshness of the imposing upright lines. Multi-stemmed specimens work well for this purpose. However, any well-branched, oval or rounded form may be suitable. Be sure to avoid columnar tree forms, as they only serve to reinforce vertical lines, not diffuse them.

  • Accent plantings

    This may be the most obvious use of small trees. Most clients will thoroughly enjoy a colorful accent planting near the shopping mall entrance or the front door. It's welcoming and inviting; it says, “this is where you enter,” almost as if the client was there greeting the visitor with open arms. Accent plantings should be simple and clean. Too many different colors, or too many trees installed as an accent, are confusing and “busy,” and should be avoided. When designing with accents, be sure to remember the principle of odd numbers. Groups of three and five are harmonious and pleasing, while twos, fours and sixes are not. Human nature directs the user's eye to the middle of the grouping.

Get to know the site

Before installing any plant material, regardless of size, you must perform a thorough site analysis. Begin by drawing a simple map of the site. With a blank piece of graph paper in your clipboard, rough-in the driveway, the house, the patio and other structures that are not likely to change in the next 5 years. (If you have access to the property's plat or survey, you can use a copy for the base map). Next, note the site's qualities and the condition of the existing plant material on the map.

Specifically, look for symptoms of disease. Note plants that produce some leaves, but don't flower or look thrifty. This may be caused by an invasion of borers or the plant growing in an unsuitable spot. Identify areas where water tends to stand; cracks or ruts in the ground may indicate chronically wet spots.

Look for off-colored grass and thin, worn-out areas, as well as healthy and thriving sections of lawn. Note where trees with a dense canopy produce heavy shade. In most situations, the health of the turf is a good indicator of how well ornamentals will perform in the future.

Notice the wind patterns and sun angles that are cast on the site. Write down your judgments about these landscape elements on the plan, using a colored pen or pencil to help the analysis stand out from the photocopy of the plat or survey. For example, you may note that there are 3 to 4 hours of shade at one side of the house, that it is filtered shade and not heavy shade and that it falls only in the morning. The number of hours of sun is a critical point for certain plants. Crabapples won't flower, for example, and others won't turn red in the fall if they are not located in full sun.

Together, these details will suggest which tree species are well-adapted to the site and influence your eventual plant selection. You may be a fan of redbud, but it won't survive long in hot afternoon sun, and the analysis process will prevent the expensive and time-consuming mistake of using this species for a full-sun location.

Making a statement

Once the site has been analyzed, meet with the client to draft some basic program statements. This term may be a bit confusing, but it simply refers to a “wish list” or set of basic goals and objectives for the finished landscape. You may be anxious to get started and have a tendency to skip this step. However, finding out what the client really wants must not be overlooked.

Why? Most “civilians” (non-plant or landscape people) have a general picture of how they want the landscape to look when you're done with it, but have trouble putting their thoughts into words. It's up to you as a designer or contractor to extract these unspoken images from their minds and translate them onto the paper in front of you. For example, many clients have a subconscious thought about their grandmother's porch during the summer. They may remember the scent of lilac or spirea as they sipped lemonade and swung with Grandma and planned out the next 40 years. The sense of smell is one of the most powerful links to long-term memory that we as humans have. Others may have the idea that they want some kind of flowering, possibly fruiting, tree that birds love to visit to brighten the path by the driveway. It's your job to suggest small trees that will provide for those desires.

Make good choices

As stated earlier, many good choices of small trees are underused. Chances are, there are several better choices for your customer's landscape than those currently on site. To utilize these less-common gems, expand your plant palette. Categorize the small trees that you ordinarily use into several groups. The lists of small trees on page Contractor 4 are a good starting point.

Make a goal of adding at least five plants to each of these categories. This should be easy, considering all of the available options. Check with suppliers, University Cooperative Extension horticulturists and local botanical gardens for the names of well-adapted, reliable plant material. Then, work from the program statements to produce a couple of options for each tree called for in your landscape design. This can be particularly helpful in framing the choices for your customer. Using this approach, you maintain overall control while allowing your client to have valuable input.

Too much of a good thing?

Once a tree moves from the “underutilized” to the “utilized” category, your clients and those of other firms alike begin to see and enjoy them. When this happens, they jump on the bandwagon and begin to request it more, and it can move from the “utilized” to the “over-utilized” category. This phenomenon happens with all sorts of plant material. Recent examples include such plants as ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis, ‘Palace Purple’ coral bells and also with small trees.

Some currently over-utilized small trees include ‘Cockspur’ hawthorn and ‘Spring Snow’ crabapple. In fact, some horticulturists cringe when they see these plants in a landscape or see them specified on a landscape plan. So, how do we combat this? Strive for diversity! Expand your plant palette! Doing so increases the variety and interest of the finished product and also contributes to good IPM by avoiding extensive plantings of the same species.

Large trees may have their place, but small trees can be just as valuable in providing beauty and functionality to the landscape. Don't overlook them.

John C. Fech is an extension horticulture specialist with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension (Lincoln, Nebr.).

  • Upright trees for screening and repetition
    Crabapple — ‘White Candle’
    Yellowwood (Cladrastis spp.)
    Crabapple — ‘Liset’
    Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata)
    Crabapple — ‘Adirondack’

  • Spreading trees for softening corners and vertical lines
    Shadblow serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
    Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa)
    Crabapple — ‘Ormiston Roy’
    Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
    Crabapple — ‘Professor Sprengor’

  • Disease-tolerant trees to reduce maintenance
    Crabapple — ‘Dolgo’
    Golden raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata)
    Yellowwood (Cladrastis spp.)
    Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
    American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

  • Habitat trees for songbirds
    Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
    Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
    Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
    Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana)
    Siebold viburnum (Viburnum sieboldii)

  • Flowering trees for color and accent
    White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
    Corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas)
    Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
    Golden chaintree (Laburnum × ‘Wateri’)

  • Trees for fall color
    Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
    White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
    Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
    Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
    Shantung/purpleblow maple (Acer truncatum)
    Trident maple (Acer buergeranum)

  • Trees for winter interest
    Kwanzan cherry (Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’)
    Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)
    Korean mountainash (Sorbus alnifolia)
    Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata)
    Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)

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