8 Trees for Small Spaces

KMS Gardens and Design
1. ‘Red Obelisk’ Beech
(Fagus sylvatica ‘Red Obelisk’)
Beech are native to Central Europe and England; ‘Red Obelisk’ is a hybrid.

Loved by: Kathy Molnar Simpson of KMS Gardens and Design in Chicago

Why this tree: Its columnar form maxes out at 5 feet wide when mature, which is great when height is needed in a tight space, Use these trees in front of a house or along a foundation, where they can help balance the scale between the home and lower garden plants. Pick up the leaf color in other plants grouped with this tree. The leaf coloration also pairs well with chartreuse and periwinkle colorations.

Special features: “The narrow, columnar form and coloration are the highlights of the tree,” the designer says. “It also has a glowing mahogany fall color and winter interest from the tight branching form, undulating branches and smooth, silver bark.”

Growing tips: “This tree likes good, organic, loamy soil with plenty of regular moisture. It is pretty trouble-free and can handle some urban pollution,” Simpson says.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 31.7 degrees Celsius (USDA zones 4 to 7; find your zone)
Water requirement: Regular
Light requirement: Full sun; can also handle part sun
Mature size: Slow growing to 10 to 12 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide
Paula Deresti Landscape Design
2. Flowering Dogwood
(Cornus florida)
Native to the Eastern, Central and Southern U.S., from Texas to Florida to Maine

Loved by: Christine Krause of Christine Krause Design Studio in Salisbury, Connecticut

Why this tree: “This is a wonderful landscape tree that works in most styles of gardens,” Krause says. In addition to its spring blooms, flowering dogwood offers other seasonal interest. “Red berries in September and October attract wildlife, and the aged bark has a distinctive appearance in the winter,” the designer says.

Special features: Snowflake-like blossoms in spring are held horizontally and are beautiful when viewed from above. The designer adds that an understory of sedges or low-growing, shade-tolerant grasses creates a natural effect.

Growing tips: The designer recommends planting flowering dogwood in rich, moisture-retentive soils. She also suggest checking out some cultivars, including white-flowering ‘Cherokee Princess’, variegated pink-flowering ‘Cherokee Sunset’ and white ‘Cloud Nine’.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 26.1 degrees Celsius (zones 5 to 8)
Water requirement: Moderate
Light requirement: Partial sun to partial shade
Mature size: 15 to 30 feet tall and wide
Designscapes Colorado Inc.
3. Columnar Norway Spruce
(Picea abies ‘Cupressina’)
Norway spruce are native to northern, central and eastern Europe; ‘Cupressina’ is a hybrid

Loved by: Phil Steinhauer of Designscapes Colorado near Denver

Why this tree: “It is a beautiful, narrow, fast-growing spruce with short, dark green needles,” Steinhauer says. “It is known to withstand heavy snow loads better than most fastigiate evergreens.”

Special features: “Because of its narrow, upright growth habit, this spruce makes a great evergreen screen in narrow spaces,” Steinhauer says. He adds that it also has the appearance of an Italian cypress, which won’t grow in colder climates. For that reason, the landscape architect often uses these trees in Tuscan-style gardens, as well as in traditional style landscapes where other evergreens are too large.

Growing tips: Steinhauer says these trees are fairly easy to grow and prefer a sunny location. He adds that the trees are deer-resistant, free of pests and only need “a little water during dry spells.”

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 42.8 degrees Celsius (zones 2 to 8)
Water requirement: Moderate
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: Grows to 20 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide in about 10 years; can reach 30 feet tall at maturity
Craig Bergmann Landscape Design
4. Doublefile Viburnum
(Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’)
This is a cultivated variety

Loved by: Jennifer Hoxsie of Greenhaven Landscapes in Chicago

Why this tree: “Doublefile viburnum makes a great accent plant in a relatively small space,” Hoxsie says. Generally topping out at about 10 feet tall and wide, doublefile viburnum is technically classified as a large shrub but can be used as a small tree in smaller gardens. “It looks great with boxwood, astilbe, daylily and really any plant due to its unique habit, horizontal layering and medium texture,” the designer says.

Special features: Hoxsie appreciates the three-season-interest the trees bring to gardens. “In May it has large, white, sterile lacecap flowers. The foliage is a dark green in summer. In the fall the foliage turns a beautiful burgundy,” she says.
Greenhaven Landscapes Inc
Doublefile viburnum shown in fall.

Growing tips: “It grows best in full sun to partial shade and prefers moist, well-drained soils,” Hoxsie saysLive in a cold-winter climate? Hoxsie shares that after the 2019 polar vortex, when temperatures dropped to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the Chicago area, they found that the ‘Mariesii’ cultivar had minimal dieback.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 26.1 degrees Celsius (zones 5 to 8)
Water requirement: Moderate to low
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 10 to 12 feet tall and 12 to 15 feet wide
Noelle Johnson Landscape Consulting
5. Cascalote
(Caesalpinia cacalaco)
Native to Mexico

Loved by: Elizabeth Pryzgoda-Montgomery of Boxhill in Tucson, Arizona

Why this tree: “It blooms like a champ in fall through winter,” Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. “It’s one of the few winter-flowering trees in the Southwest.” The yellow blooms support pollinators at a time when there are few food sources.

“It’s nice for small backyards that want a little height but not too much,” Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. Try planting it with desert-friendly perennials, such as firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)lantana (Lantana spp.) or autumn sage (Salvia greggii).

Special features: While the brilliant gold flowers are Cascalote’s standout feature, the tree also has delicate circular leaves. Native varieties have trunks and branches covered in thorns. ‘Smoothie’ cultivar is thorn free and great for patios.

Growing tips: Grow in well-drained soil in full sun. “It can handle cold down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and even if it gets frost damage it recovers quickly,” she says.

Where it will grow: Hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 6.7 degrees Celsius (Zone 9)
Water requirement: Low; looks more lush with weekly water in summer, monthly water in winter
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: 15 feet wide and 10 to 15 feet tall
Premier Service
6. Eastern Redbud
(Cercis canadensis)
Native to the central U.S. east to southern New England and south to Florida and Texas

Loved by: James Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin

Why this tree: Drzewiecki notes that eastern redbud’s early blooms (typically in March or April) are a welcome sign that long Wisconsin winters are coming to an end. “I like to use it as a specimen tree, planting it where it will be in view or sometimes as a patio tree where it can be appreciated up close,” he says, adding that hosta, hakone grass (Hakonechloa spp.) and astilbe make great companion plants.

Special features: “I love the vase-shaped branching and the heart-shaped leaves, but I really love the early-spring bright pink flowers that cover the tree, sometimes popping out in the bark along branches,” the designer says.

Growing tips: Eastern redbuds are understory trees and can grow in full sun to dappled light. The trees tolerate many soil types but grow best in soils that drain well. “With our heavy clay soils in Wisconsin, we do recommend planting them ‘high’ in the hole to help the tree avoid having roots sitting in water,” Drzewiecki says.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 31.7 degrees Celsius (Zones 4 to 9)
Water requirement: Moderate; can survive periods of lower water
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 
20 to 30 feet tall and up to 35 feet wide
Blue Ribbon Lady Landscaping
7. Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar
(Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’)
This is a cultivated variety

Loved by: Evo Sadowsky of Blue Ribbon Lady Landscaping in Dallas

Why this tree: “It’s an interesting focal point tree for smaller gardens,” Sadowsky says. “It’s low water, evergreen and does well in large pots.”

Special features: 
The tree’s silvery-blue foliage and graceful weeping form make for a standout combination. Train the tree to trail across a stone wall, or tie it to a large stake for an upright, serpentine form in a large container. Plant it alongside camellia, Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) or creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis).
Lee's Oriental Landscape Art
Growing tips: Weeping blue atlas cedar can grow in a range of quick-draining soil types. Young plants require moderate water but, once established, the trees need only occasional water.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 20.6 degrees Celsius (zones 6 to 9)
Water requirement: Low; plants only require occasional water once established; more in periods of heat
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: Slow growing up to 15 to 20 feet tall and wide; often trained in serpentine form in gardens and kept much smaller
8. ‘Genie’ Magnolia
(Magnolia ‘Genie’)

Loved by: Robin Parson of Spring Greenworks in Bellevue, Washington

Why this tree: It’s a beautiful rich maroon-purple blossoming tree that stays small,” Parson says. The magnolia hybrid is a result of years of selective breeding between two types of magnolias (M. soulangeana and M. liliflora) for flower color and compact size. Trees generally top out at about 13 feet and have a tidy, pyramidal shape that suits smaller gardens and courtyards well.

“I use ‘Genie’ as a focal point in a small garden,” the designer says. She recommends pairing the tree with groups of smaller evergreen shrubs and midsize deciduous shrubs like oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) or panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight)’.

Special features: “(The flowers) attract butterflies and bees and have an amazing fragrance,” Parson says. Trees begin flowering in late spring and often flower again in summer.

Growing tips: “Magnolias love moist, organically rich [and] slightly acidic soils. Water deeply and let [the soil] dry out in between watering,” the designer says, adding that you would water more during dry times.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 26.1 degrees Celsius (zones 5 to 9)
Water requirement: Moderate
Light requirement: Full sun to partial sun
Mature size: 10 to 13 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide


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