Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
September, 2010
Regional Report

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Stewartia's camellia-like blossoms grace the tree in early summer.

Small Trees: Now for Something a Little Different

Many of us garden on relatively small plots of land. Although I may dream about an estate with multiple gardens (and the staff to care for them, of course!), in reality, my landscaping is done on a third of an acre in a suburban neighborhood. So when it comes to trees, I don't have room for many. In my front yard, I had room for one large shade tree. Now about 20 years old, my red oak rises about 30 feet tall and provides welcome summer shade to the house and parts of the yard.

I couldn't possibly limit myself to only one tree when so many lovely choices beckon, but to add more in my limited space, I needed to select ones with limited growth potential. Fortunately, there are many beautiful small trees to choose from. And by small, I mean those whose mature height and spread is no more than about 25 to 30 feet.

In New England, crabapples grow well and are a picture of loveliness in spring blossom time. Newer cultivars are disease-resistant and come in a variety of sizes, flower colors and growth forms. It's no wonder they are popular- maybe even a little too popular. Since I can enjoy them in many of my neighbors' yards, I looked for something a little different for mine.

What I decided on for my front garden is a trio of small trees that are a little less common than the ubiquitous crabapple and provide a succession of white blossoms from late spring until midsummer. First to bloom for me in early June is fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). Native from Pennsylvania to Florida and west to Texas, this 15-20 foot tall and wide tree is covered with feathery white flowers just as the leaves begin to emerge. Each blossom consists of 4 to 6, long, thin petals that flutter like fringe in the spring breeze. These flowers have a wonderful, delicate fragrance; my tree is near the sidewalk and passersby often stop to remark on the scent. Male and female flowers are produced on separate trees; while the male flowers are somewhat showier, if you end up with a female tree you may get clusters of blue-black berries in late summer. In fall the leaves are a clear yellow. While it is usually rated as hardy in zones 5-9, my tree has prospered in zone 4 for many years, but has only reached about 12 feet tall. It prefers moist, fertile, acid soil, in sun or light shade but is adaptable to many kinds of growing conditions.

Next in bloom sequence is the Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), with creamy white flowers in large clusters. While the flowers lack the wonderful fragrance of common lilacs (they have an odor, but it's not to everyone's liking), this 20 to 30 foot tall tree is a showstopper when in bloom. It does tend toward alternate year blooming, flowering heavily one year and then lightly the next. Perhaps if I clipped off the fading flowers before they set seed, it might bloom more reliably each year, but that's too big a chore for me. Its shiny, reddish brown bark, similar to that of a cherry tree, is attractive all year long. Hardy in zones 3-7, it prefers well-drained, acid soils in sun or part shade. My tree is the straight species, but the widely available cultivar 'Ivory Silk' flowers at a younger age, is smaller and blooms heavily every year.

The last of my small trees to bloom is stewartia (Stewartia koreana) with large five-petaled, camellia-like, white flowers that are produced in abundance starting in late June or early July in my garden. It adds more seasonal interest with red fall color and exfoliating bark that flakes off, leaving patches of gray, pinkish tan and brown. My only (minor) complaint about this tree is that its numerous blossoms last only a day or two on the tree and the dropping, faded flowers look messy if not gathered up regularly. It is listed as growing 20-40 tall and 15-20 feet wide, and I have seen larger specimens growing in zones 6 and 7, but in my zone 4 garden it is only about 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide after 15 years.

There are many other small trees that do well in our region (oh, for that estate!) Others to consider include 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple (hardy in Zone 5; those in warmer zones have more cultivar choices), 'Autumn Brilliance' serviceberry, saucer and star magnolias and seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconoides), a Chinese native with white flowers in late summer. New England gardeners in zones warmer than mine can consider Carolina silverbell (Halesia), golden raintree (Koelreuteria) and golden chain tree (Laburnum).

Early fall is a great time to plant many of these trees (magnolias are best planted in the spring), so if you've got some space, why not look for end-of-the-season bargains and add an unusual small tree to your landscape.

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