Planting a Small Tree

Small landscaping trees, sometimes called “patio” trees, are the ones you can plant near your house without worry. At around 15′-25′ high, they are terrific planted on the far ends of a wide foundation planting, elongating the building and tying it into the surrounding landscape.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Trees in general function as strong vertical elements in the landscape, and their canopies provide overhead cover, which is so important if you’re trying to create an outdoor “room.” They offer the kind of scale and dimension that just isn’t possible with shrubs. I’d even go so far as to say that every view needs a tree.

These include paperbark maples, Japanese maples, redbuds, dogwoods, hawthorn, and more.

In my USDA growing zone 5a, the best patio trees bloom spectacularly in spring, display lovely color in the fall, and often have interesting ornamental fruit, such as flowering crabapples (Malus spp.) and Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’).

My all-time favorite? Drumroll please…it’s the lovely serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), which is native to the US and Canada.

Serviceberries are fantastic trees with striking gray bark, gorgeous white spring blossoms, edible fruit that ripens in June (similar to blueberries), and yellow or red fall foliage. In other words, patio tree heaven.

Amelanchier canadensis is native to eastern North America.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)

Family: Rosaceae
Several species and cultivars available. USDA planting zones 4-8. 15′ to 25′ tall. Multi-stemmed shrub or small tree. Prefers moist, well-drained, acid soil but are widely adaptable. Sun or part-shade. Deer-resistant once established. Several different common names.

Source: Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses by Michael Dirr (Stipes Publishing, 2009).

Another show-stopper small tree for your landscape is the amazing, early blooming witch hazel.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.)

Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.)

Early one spring, I visited Longwood Gardens with my fellow students and professors on the annual horticulture department class trip.

If you don’t know Longwood, it has some of the most spectacular display gardens in the world. If you’re every near Kennett Square, PA, Longwood is a breathtaking way to spend a day (or more).

What struck me as an extremely good idea was the way that the Longwood designers handled the entry areas of the gardens—with mass plantings of witch hazel.

Using the first-blooming tree of the season makes so much sense. What better way to greet people?

Frankly, seeing those amazing witch hazel blossoms at the end of a long and dreary winter was worth the price of admission alone.

And if you didn’t get enough splendor upon arrival, the smart designers at Longwood planted the same thing just outside the windows of the visitor’s cafe, offering a fabulous view for guests relaxing inside.

This concept is a perfect plan for a doctor’s office entry, the view from a school cafeteria, or a residential site with enough space.

Hamamelis virginiana is native to Eastern North America and blooms in the fall.

Facts about Witch Hazel

Witch hazel offers beautiful green foliage all summer long, and gorgeous fall color.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.Family: Hamamelidaceae

Many cultivars available. Native to Asia, Eastern U.S.A., and Mexico. Height and spread: varies upon species, from large shrub to small tree. Some hamamelis cultivars bloom in late winter or early spring. Hamamelis virginiana blooms in the fall. USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8.

Source: Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses by Michael Dirr (Stipes Publishing, 2009).

Witch Hazel Cultivars for Landscapes

From White Flower Farm:

  • Hamamelis ‘Little Prospect’
  • Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’
  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’
  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

From Monrovia:

  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’
  • Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’

Be sure to grab a free downloadable tree planting and maintenance guide from Cornell University.

This post previously appeared on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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