Yardsmart: Maureen Gilmer, a horticulturist, offers gardening tips. This week's topic is on accent trees.

Share story

Small trees are powerful design tools that anyone can use. Whether it’s a white star magnolia in spring, a magenta crepe myrtle in summer or a fiery Japanese maple in the fall, small trees are always exquisite in the landscape. They are not planted for shade like the great oaks or sycamores. Small trees act like bright, beautiful arrows that point out and accentuate landmarks in your yard.

We designers call them accent trees to differentiate them from shade or screening trees. An accent tree is usually deciduous because these tend to offer the best flowers and fall leaf color. When bare in the winter they can also become glittering nighttime beauties when strung with Christmas lights.

The accent tree is a hard worker. It plays many roles in the garden depending on what aim you have. Their most common use is to have the tree call attention to something, utilizing the tree’s flowers or autumn leaves to announce its location. This is why accent trees always have a bright characteristic to make them stand out from the surrounding plants.

The most common use for these types of trees is to point out entries. This includes the front entry to your home, particularly if it is set back or hard to spot. Many homes have this problem, and this kind of ambiguous entry lowers curb appeal because there is no primary focal point. The tree functions like an announcement to visitors.

Accent trees also provide a point around which to arrange smaller planting compositions. If the accent tree offers spring flowers, the planting beneath could offer later-summer colors to add variety. If the accent tree is an autumn-leaf tree, the planting beneath could be rich in azaleas or bulbs or other spring bloomers. Owing to the small size of an accent tree, the amount of shade it casts is limited, which allows more diversity beneath or around the canopy.

Accent trees are particularly powerful in pairs. Flanking a beautiful gateway with matched flowering trees creates a breathtaking result, especially when they grow large enough to meet overhead. Flowering pear can shower down snowfalls of petals when you walk through. If the tree blossoms are fragrant, a whole new level of enjoyment is met each time you pass through.

A large sculpture standing beneath an arch of pink dogwoods is striking. A pair of mayten trees flanking a tiered Spanish fountain offers dangling tresses of bright evergreen leaves for the look of Spanish moss in a New Orleans courtyard.

Above all, a small tree is easy to maintain. Much of its canopy is accessible with a ladder, making it easy to prune and care for. Consider an accent tree any species that doesn’t exceed about 20 feet in height. Some folks will do some light pruning to keep them even smaller, and to enhance the branching structure for a more beautiful effect during the winter.

On the other hand, many old shrubs that reach large proportions can become accent trees if they are pruned to reveal one or more trunks. Good examples of this are lilacs or rhododendrons. In fact, turning an older shrub into an accent tree is the best way to cope with “bare legs”that are revealed when lower leaves are shaded out due to lack of light.

There are fine accent trees native to all parts of America that are well adapted to the varying climates. So if you’re looking for a quick way to spice up a drab landscape, first decide what you want to highlight and then plant your accents accordingly.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com. Also, join her online for the Garden Party social networking at Learn2grow.com.