THERE ARE MANY reasons you might want to add a small tree to your landscape. Perhaps you want structure or shade in your parking strip. Common sense and municipal code will dictate that these plants should stay below utility lines and refrain from buckling the sidewalk. Perhaps you need a tree to help screen a window, but not tower menacingly over your roof. Perhaps you want dappled light cast across your patio or deck. Small trees have a lot to offer, which is why, in just about any landscape plan, a small tree will be called for somewhere.
I began thinking about small trees in earnest last summer. A large pine tree came down in my neighbor’s yard, leaving me with a spot on the south side of my house in desperate need of a few small trees. I knew right away that I wanted to focus on deciduous trees, because they help keep the house cool in summer but allow in every bit of winter light we can get. And while I tend to fill every available space with food-producing plants, the soil in my side yard is contaminated with lead paint, so fruit trees were out of the question. Thus, my search for a small deciduous tree began.
But what exactly, you might ask, is a small tree? Great question. Most species that fall into the very loosely defined category of “small trees” grow to between 15 and 30 feet at maturity. The mature height of your tree will depend on the conditions and the health of the specimen. Many species can be kept under 30 feet with regular pruning, but you should make sure your space can accommodate the plant you choose, just in case you move away or get lazy.
Dozens of small tree species can grow well in the Pacific Northwest, but for today, let’s take a closer look at three of the most interesting and appealing.
• Vine maple (Acer circinatum): The elegant vine maple is a northwest native and happily fills any spot in the landscape that has room for a small tree. In the wild, it typically grows in the understory, below the canopy formed by taller pines and firs. The signature, snaky, viney form of its trunks is a result of its tenacious search for light underneath those towering conifers. The vine maple grows equally well in full sun, where it might develop a more traditional tree shape, with a thicker and shorter trunk. I love vine maples with several long, twisted, arching trunks, though, so I recommend this tree particularly for a shady spot where it can really achieve a wild form.
• Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.): I’ve wanted to plant crape myrtle in my garden since my first visit, many years ago, to the Center for Urban Horticulture. There’s an impressive stand of myrtles surrounding the center’s east parking lot, flowering with a range of pink and purple hues. Crape myrtles are most often associated with gardens in the southeast United States, where conditions are much warmer. Therefore, the parking lot is a great location for these heat-loving plants. If you don’t have a parking lot at home, they also perform well in parking strips or in front of a south-facing wall. Crape myrtles leaf out late in the spring and flower late in the season (September-October). Its unique seasonality doesn’t bother me too much, because I’m keen on these plants mostly for their stunning bark and multitrunk, vaselike shapes.
• Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus): Despite my penchant for multitrunked trees, Styrax is one of my favorite garden specimen plants. Everything about the plant is elegant and unique. Its horizontal branches, small leaves and tiny white flowers make you want to tuck in your shirt and stand up a little straighter. Although the flowers appear after the tree leafs out, they are still visible and quite striking, due to their prolific nature and pendulous shape. Styrax grow well in full sun but also tolerate some shade. They benefit from regular pruning to maintain an open form but in general are very low-maintenance plants.