When landscaping a small area, like a patio or deck, it helps to simplify things if you choose plants that have proven to perform well. Depending on where you want to locate them within the boundaries of your outdoor living space, small trees can serve as natural focal points, offer privacy, emphasize height, frame views, provide shade, or bear fruit.
Because of the limited space, it is important to select trees that are suited to patios—either growing near them or on them—in containers or raised beds. It is critical to research before buying and planting a tree:
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A chaste tree is a Mediterranean and Asian native with multiple trunks that can be trained to make a nice shade tree. Leaves of the chaste are aromatic, and it produces small, fragrant lavender-blue flowers on spikes during the summer and fall. Varieties "Silver Spire" and "Alba" have white blossoms, while "Latifolia" and "Rosea" have pink flowers. It can also be pruned into a shrub. This plant tolerates heat and is resistant to oak root fungus.
- Botanical name: Vitex agnus-castus
- Size: In warmer areas, up to 25 feet tall and wide; in colder areas, up to 10 feet tall and wide
- Care: Likes full sun and moderate to regular water
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Dwarf, semi-dwarf, patio, or container varieties are good for obvious reasons. Citrus trees are evergreen and offer year-round form, bear fragrant flowers, and showy fruit during growing season. Container trees can stay outside throughout the year in mild-winter climates, and roots should be pruned every four years or so and repotted in fresh soil (and maybe a larger container) to stay healthy.
For added interest, plant cascading flowers or herbs at the base. Clay or ceramic pots or wooden crates are good containers—just make sure they have drainage holes at the bottom.
- Species: Meyer lemon, Bearss lime, Fukushu, Negami kumquat, Satsuma "Orange Frost," Rio red, Henderson grapefruit, "Moro Blood," "Sanguinelli Blood," and "Ruby Blood" oranges, Fremont, and Algerian tangerines.
- Size: 6 to 22 feet high
- Care: Full sun; bright light and regular water. Check often for suckers, which are branches that grow below the graft line, and remove them. Spray with water to remove mites. Fertilize every few months with a slow-release fertilizer and every month during the fruit-bearing season.
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Colorful and beautiful maple trees are naturally small—just be ready to repot it to a larger container every other year or so. Best varieties of Japanese maples for containers are the kinds with weeping branches and finely cut, threadlike leaves, like "Dissectum," "Red Dragon," "Burgundy Lace," "Crimson Queen," "Butterfly," and "Mikawa Yatsubusa."
- Botanical name: Acer palmatum or A. japonicum
- Size: Up 15 feet or so
- Care: Choose a container with a diameter of at least a couple of inches wider than the plant's root ball and wider than its height. It prefers a 10-10-10 fertilizer when first leaves appear then monthly through the end of summer.
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Native to western Asia, figs, ficus, and banyan trees spread by human cultivation to other areas of the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks relied heavily on figs, one of humankind’s earliest cultivated crops as a staple food. Later its use in California was established by Franciscan missionaries, who recognized how well suited it is to California’s dry summers and wet winters. Given proper care, figs live long lives in local gardens. The large leaves and twisty, sprawling growing habit of the fig are lovely.
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- Species: F. auriculata (F. roxburghii), F. benjamina (Benjamin fig, weeping fig), F. diversifolia (mistletoe fig), F. elastica (rubber tree), F. lyrata (F. pandurata; fiddleleaf fig), F. crassifolia (wax fig, Taiwan fig)
- Size: Up to 25 feet high and wide
- Care: Taken care of the right way, figs can survive for years in a garden. The plant likes rich, moist soil.
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The striking silhouettes of palm trees are perfect for instantly adding a look of paradise and the tropics to your patio or deck. They are also easy to maintain if adaptable to your climate.
- Species: Smaller palms are good container choices include Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii), paradise palm (Howea forsteriana), lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), and windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei).
- Size: Most stay small, especially if grown in a pot, and are under about 15 feet and slow growing if contained.
- Care: Use soil that offers good drainage, like a palm and cactus mix. Do not let it sit in water. Apply a fertilizer with magnesium during the summer.
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Ornamental crabapple plants are admired for its brief but lovely display of red, pink, or white flowers and not for its edible fruits (which is a traditional crabapple tree). The smallest varieties can be planted in containers, while other types can be trained against a wall or fence as an espalier (pictured).
- Botanical Name: Malus
- Species: Also known as flowering crabapple trees, the species suitable for large containers include Centurion, Indian magic, Japanese, and Sargent.
- Size: Up to 20 feet
- Care: Prefers full sun; likes moderate to regular water and fertile, well-drained soil.
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Ornamental Cherry or Plum Trees
Some of the flowering plum trees have dark purple foliage, while all have white, pink or red flowers, depending on the variety. These plants are suitable for a large container, in a raised bed, and on or near a patio or deck.
- Botanical name: Prunus
- Species: Also known as flowering plum or cherry trees. Small varieties of plums include purple leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera), Krauter Vesuvius purple leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera "Krauter Vesuvius"), and double pink flowering plum (Prunus x blireiana). Small flowering cherry trees include purple leaf sand cherry (Prunus x cistena), Yoshino cherry (Japanese flowering cherry; Prunus x yedoensis), Albertii (Prunus padus), and Okame (Prunus incisa x Prunus campanulata).
- Care: Moderately heat and drought tolerant
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In case you did not know, pines are evergreen, meaning you will have something green to look at on your patio throughout the year. With frequent trimming or pruning, you can keep it smaller and attractive. Another perk: it can be used as an outdoor Christmas tree and adorned with lights.
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- Botanical name: Pinus
- Species: Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana), evergreen Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) evergreen Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora). Large containers: evergreen Mugo pine (Pinus mugo) evergreen Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergiana).
- Size: Varies, but make sure you select a smaller species
- Care: If the pine will be in a container, make sure the container is as wide as it is tall. The soil should be a mix for evergreens. This plant is drought tolerant once established.
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It is known for its stunning dark purple/reddish leaves and silky hairs that resemble puffs of smoke; hence the name. It can be grown in a large container or near a deck or patio.
- Botanical name: Cotinus coggygria
- Common names: Smoketree, smokebush, or smoke bush
- Size: To 15 feet high and wide
- Care: Plant or position a potted smoke tree in full sun. Likes well-draining soil. Prune when it is dormant, mostly for the desired shape.
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You will need to have at least two trees of different varieties or pear trees for cross-pollination and proper fruit set. Choose Anjou or Bartlett if you only have room for one tree as they are able to pollinate themselves to some degree.
- Botanical name: Pyrus
- Species: Snow Pear (Pyrus nivalis), Manchurian pear (Pyrus ussuriensis), Edgedell pear (fl x P. betulaefolia), Glen’s form pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Glen’s Form’), Jack dwarf (Pyrus calleryana "Jaczam")
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Sweet bay is a small evergreen tree that is slender with a conical form that grows into a shapely little tree. Foliage is dark green and highly aromatic; its leaves are the same bay leaves that are used in stews, broth, and sauces. A good choice for containers on decks or patios, it can be pruned into a topiary or hedge. Planted in the garden, it is drought tolerant.
- Botanical name: Laurus nobilis
- Size: 12 to 15 feet tall and wide
- Care: Once it is established, it requires little water.
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These tree/shrubs are known especially in the southern United States for their showy pinkish blooms, gorgeous bark, and beautiful fall foliage. Plant full-size varieties in large containers to grow to about 10 feet. Better yet, grow smaller varieties or hybrids, many of which are mildew resistant. These include "Acoma," "Yuma," "Zuni," "Catawba," "Comanche," "Hopi," "Centennial," "Chica Pink," "Chica Red," "Glendora White," "Peppermint Lace," "Pink Velour," "Seminole," and "White Chocolate."
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- Botanical name: Lagerstroemia
- Sizes: Smaller varieties up to 15 feet
- Care: Remove suckers at the bottom and prune in winter or early spring. These trees like full sun and moderate water.
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Besides being absolutely gorgeous, wisteria can be trained as a vine, shrub, or small tree. To train as a tree, remove all but one stem and make sure the remaining one is secure by tying to a stake. When it reaches the desired height, prune or pinch tips to force branching. It can also be grown to cover an arbor or pergola.
- Species: Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda).
- Size: Varies according to pruning method
- Care: Adaptable to most soils, but requires good drainage. It does not require fertilizer.