Lee Valley Tools    Gardening Newsletter
   Vol. 7, Issue 6
   September 2012
   Trees and Shrubs for Small Gardens

  Bristlecone pine
  A bristlecone pine in the author's urban front-yard garden

Significant challenges await homeowners with small lots, as they are some of the most difficult to design. They're also a challenge in terms of selecting appropriate plant material. First, do a thorough inventory of the property and create an accurately scaled base plan indicating current conditions. (See Features of Great Garden Design, Volume 6, Issue 3.) Before starting any work, locate your property's underground utility services sites and secure the required municipal approvals. For the do-it-yourselfer, a good working knowledge of plants is essential to avoid disappointments. Small gardens are often overplanted, resulting in a chaotic jungle look and making maintenance a headache. Less is more in a small garden, with restraint, repetition and simplification paying big dividends. If you like the lush look, try layering plantings by, for example, siting low groundcovers and perennials under your woody plants.

When choosing a woody plant, research its probable mature size and the amount of time it takes to achieve it. Botanical names such as nana, nidiformis, compressa, compacta and pygmaea often indicate a diminutive-sized plant. Become familiar with smaller hybrids and cultivars developed for planting in limited spaces with confined root zones. Some examples include bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), dwarf hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'), Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata), Shaina Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Shaina'), rose daphne (Daphne cneorum), dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) and pee wee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Pee Wee').

  Tricolor beech
  The attractive leaves of a tricolor beech

Also consider the functional role the trees and shrubs will perform, such as providing shade, framing views, serving as focal points, directing movement or concealing property boundaries and corners. A tree selected to shade a patio or deck should not dominate the rest of the property, as some sunny spots are necessary for vegetable plantings, containers, etc. Moderately sized trees that might work nicely include tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Roseamarginata'), Kwanzan Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan'), bloodgood Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'), various dogwoods (Cornus spp.) such as the native pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and the non-native kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) and smaller European hornbeams (Carpinus spp.).

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