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This sweetbay magnolia is filled with bright red fruits that are coveted by birds.

Small Trees for Big Impact

First published on on August 31, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn

Summer is waning and it's time to think about fall -- and I don't mean raking leaves. Fall is a perfect time to plant trees, shrubs, and many perennials. Is your landscape begging for something new? How about a small tree? Whether your yard is postage stamp-sized or sprawling, there's probably a perfect spot for one. And the benefits range beyond simple aesthetics; here are a few:

Habitat for wildlife. Birds love trees for nesting and resting and will flock to berry-laden branches. Pollinators visit flowering trees, and while they're nearby they might just pollinate some of the plants in your vegetable garden. Squirrels love trees and will entertain you with their antics and agility.

Habitat for you. A small tree can provide just the right amount of shade for a porch, deck, garden bench, or hammock. Picture yourself resting in the shade, sipping lemonade as you take a break from mowing the lawn. A privacy screen made up of a mix of small trees and shrubs can mean the difference between a yard you never use and one you enjoy every day.

An expanded plant palette. The dappled shade provided by a small tree is perfect for plants that need some -- but not too much -- sun; for example, hosta, bleeding heart, hellebore, and columbine. And many plants' flowers retain their color best if they receive a bit of shade in the afternoon.

A more comfortable home. A small tree shading the southwest corner of your house from the hot summer sun can keep your home several degrees cooler and save on energy bills.


Choosing a Tree
Before you shop, take time to evaluate your landscape. For example, are there overhead utility wires where you want to plant? Either choose a different spot or select a tree with a naturally small stature. Here are some things to consider.

Height, width, and form. Trees can be tall and narrow ("columnar"), short and spreading, or in between. Some have upright branches, others have hanging, or weeping, forms. Choose a tree with a mature height and spread that matches your needs.

Evergreen or deciduous. Deciduous trees allow winter sun to pass through and are good choices for the south side of your house. Evergreen trees will provide year-round privacy.

Sun or shade. Is the site in full sun or is it shaded by other trees or buildings?

Flowers and fruit. Some trees flower in spring, some in summer, and some have few or inconspicuous flowers. Some trees produce fruit that attracts birds, but some fruits (such as mulberries) can be messy in manicured yards.

Fall color. Some trees are nondescript in summer but reach their full glory in fall, as their foliage changes to shades of crimson or gold.

Some Good Choices
When it comes to small trees, there are dozens of possibilities besides the common crape myrtle, Bradford pear, and pin oak. Here are a few native trees to consider.

Downy serviceberry, shadbush (Amelanchier arborea). Showy white flowers in early spring are followed by edible dark red fruits much loved by birds. Mature height is 15 to 25 feet. Crimson fall foliage; silvery bark.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). Abundant dark pink flowers blanket the leafless twigs in early spring, followed by attractive heart-shaped leaves. Mature height is 15 to 25 feet. Leaves turn bright yellow in fall. Can be somewhat short-lived (15 to 20 years) in urban landscapes.

White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus). Often multistemmed and somewhat shrubby with a mature height of 12 to 20 feet. Bears abundant, creamy white, fragrant flowers in May, followed by dark blue fruit that's attractive to birds.

Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha). Produces camellia-like, fragrant, white flowers with yellow centers in late summer to early fall. Reaches 15 to 30 feet tall at maturity, with an open, airy form. Foliage begins turning a showy red in autumn, even as the tree continues to bloom. All trees in cultivation descend from cuttings taken in Georgia in the late 1700s; it's extinct in the wild.

Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera). Named for the dainty, white, bell-shaped flowers that hang from its branches in early spring; prefers well-drained but moist soils. May reach a height of 30 feet in ideal growing conditions.

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Sweetbay prefers consistently moist soils; blooms in late spring and early summer. The fragrant, creamy white blossoms are similar to, but smaller than, southern magnolia blossoms. Unusual seedpods contain bright red fruits attractive to birds. Host tree for swallowtail butterflies. Mature height is around 30 feet.

Black tupello (Nyssa sylvatica). A medium-sized tree with glossy leaves and beautiful, brilliant red fall foliage. Reaches 30 to 50 feet tall at maturity. Primarily dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are borne on separate trees; female trees bear dark blue fruit attractive to birds. Prized by beekeepers as nectar source for honeybees.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). This graceful tree with glossy foliage reaches a height of 20 to 30 feet. Oddly, the trunk tends to lean. Prefers acidic soil. Masses of fragrant flowers -- similar to lily-of-the-valley -- appear in summer, and the tree stays in flower for up to a month, attracting bees and butterflies. Like black tupello, sourwood is favored by beekeepers.

I see so many bare expanses of lawns -- especially in new developments -- that would benefit from a tree or two. Or three. With our abundant -- and sometimes relentless -- summer sunshine, trees provide much-needed shade and so much more. Some homeowners shun adding trees, describing them as "just one more thing to mow around." If you or your resident lawn mower are of this opinion, surround your new tree with a large circle of easy-to-mow-around bark mulch. Then add a comfy lawn chair and the obstacle becomes a welcome retreat on a hot day.

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