Bigger is not always better. Just ask all of the folks who go out of their way at the nursery to purchase dwarf trees. In small-yard design, these mighty mites naturally stand head and shoulders above their taller counterparts as the right choice for the allotted space.
The fact is that many homeowners new to the constraints of small-yard design make the mistake of planting a specimen that is too big for their landscapes. The result of their poor selection is that the plant quickly outgrows its space, necessitating its removal after only a short period of time in the ground. A wiser choice is to purchase a more appropriately sized specimen.
Evergreen Dwarf Trees
If a plant is characterized as a "pine" yet is used as a ground cover, that gives you a pretty good idea that it is a dwarf tree. Such is the case with some types of mugo pines: These evergreens range in size from 2 to 5 feet tall and up to 10 feet wide and have a broad-spreading habit that makes them a popular choice as a ground cover.
The popular 'Gnom' cultivar (Pinus mugo 'Gnom') reaches only 2 feet in height and about 4 feet in width and has a low, mounding habit. It tolerates most soils and is suitable for USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 7.
Dwarf Alberta spruce are often used in balanced pairs, flanking a front entrance. Because they remain relatively small for a number of years, people sometimes treat them as container plants for a porch or patio. But beware: As a plant that may eventually reach 12 feet in height, Alberta spruce does not stay quite as small as you might like. To keep the plant "in bounds," you can always prune it. The fact that the plant is a slow grower is another point in its favor if you landscape in a small yard.
The 'Conica' spruce (Picea glauca albertiana 'Conica') is a popular cultivar that stays quite small, at just 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. True to its name, this dwarf evergreen has a conical shape that it maintains without intervention. Another prized feature is the bright lime green color on its spring growth. You can grow it in zones 4 to 7.
Some of the smaller members of the pine world have a message for you: Beware of the "guilt by association" pitfall in judging them. Any bad press you may have heard about the larger specimens, such as eastern white pines, Pinus strobus (their messiness, the tendency of their limbs to break, and more), should not influence your attitude toward the dwarf trees that happen to be pines.
One elegant example is 'Arnold Arboretum Dwarf' (Pinus parviflora 'Arnold arboretum Dwarf'). At 10 years old, this white pine will stand 3 feet tall, with a spread of under 2 feet. It grows in zones 4 to 8.
False cypress include several species and many cultivars in the Chamaecyparis genus, including C. obtusa and C. lawsoniana. They are highly ornamental evergreens with flat, almost feathery, foliage and are commonly used for screens, rock gardens, hedges, and small specimens. The species false cypress can grow over 100 feet in their native Japan, but dwarf cultivars can be as little as 5 feet tall.
'Nana Gracilis' is a cultivar of Hinoki cypress (C. obtusa) features tiny, richly textured branches and grows 4 to 5 feet tall after 10 years. It is suitable for zones 4 to 8.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Minnima Aurea' has bright yellow foliage and a pyramidal shape, growing to just 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide at maturity. It is easy to grow and suitable for zones 4 to 8.
Dwarf Fir Trees
Albies balsamea, commonly called balsam fir, is a North American native species that is popular as a Christmas tree, due to its needle retention and pleasant fragrance. Species plants reach up to 75 feet tall in the wild, but dwarf varieties are much smaller and offer the same soft and fragrant foliage.
Abies balsamea 'Hudsonia' is a slow-growing, mounding fir that grows to 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It has very dark green needles and finger-like branches that jut horizontally. It is notable cold-hardy and grows in zones 3 to 7.
Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fletcheri' is a dwarf Douglas fir, another popular option for Christmas trees. The 'Fletcheri' cultivar is a shrub-like fir that grows in zones 4 to 7 and matures at just 3 to 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. It has long, blue-green needles and a spreading habit; it is globe-shaped when young and becomes more open and irregular over time.
Common juniper, Juniperus communis, is the world's most widely grown conifer and can take the form of a shrub or a small tree. It's also notably hardy and can grow in zones 2 to 8. If you're looking for a small, dense, conical evergreen for your landscape or patio, you might love the 'Compressa', or pencil-point, juniper (Juniperus communis 'Compressa'). At just 2 to 6 feet tall and 12 to 18 inches wide, it gets its nickname from its spear-tip shape and pointy top.
Juniperus squamata 'Meyeri' is a cultivar of singleseed juniper, so named because each seed cone contains one seed. This bushy female cultivar has an eye-catching, shaggy habit and steel-blue needles. It grows in zones 4 to 7 and typically matures at 5 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 7 feet wide, but it's been known to reach heights of 15 feet. Its ornamental value degrades as it ages, due to old growth turning brown, but these portions can be minimized with trimming.
Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is perhaps best known as a tall, columnar evergreen prized for decorative hedges and windbreaks. It's a versatile, hardy, low-maintenance performer that trims and shapes well. Those seeking a much smaller version have two good options.
- Thuja occidentalis 'Hertz Midget' is truly tiny, forming a tight globe that's just 12 inches tall and wide, but it sports the characteristic feathery arborvitae needles. It grows in zones 2 to 8 and tolerates part shade.
- Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' is distinguished by its gold foliage and upward-jutting branches. It can have a round to conical form. Its golden needles change to a coppery bronze color in autumn. Grow it in zones 3 to 8.
Fans of weeping evergreens have a good option in the 'Pendula' Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula'). This weeper can be stunning when it's allowed to spread out and fall down the side of a wall or steep slope. It eventually grows to 3 feet tall and up to 8 feet wide.
Deciduous Dwarf Trees
Contorted hazelnut also goes by such common names as Harry Lauder's walking stick and corkscrew filbert. Although technically a shrub, it can be cited as an example of a deciduous dwarf tree because that is how many people view it. Contorted hazelnut may actually be at its best in winter: Without any leaves in the way, you can better appreciate the madcap twists and turns of its branches. Its mature size is 8 to 10 feet in height, with a similar spread. It grows in zones 4 to 8.
Small Japanese Maples
You may be most familiar with regular-sized Japanese maples, but there are also dwarf types that are useful for small-yard landscaping. For instance, Sharp's Pygmy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Sharp's Pygmy') is said to reach a height of just 3 feet in 10 to 15 years. This plant grows in zones 5 to 8 and bears green, deeply dissected leaves in summer that morph into a brilliant red in autumn. Perhaps better known is that graceful weeper, the crimson queen Japanese maple (8 to 10 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide). It grows in zones 5 to 9.
Weeping Pussy Willows
Perhaps you've gone out into the woods on a late winter's day to cut some branches from a pussy willow tree (or shrub) to bring them home, place them in a vase, and admire them whenever you need a reminder that spring will, eventually, return. If so, you probably know the pussy willow as a rather wild-looking plant, interesting for its catkins but perhaps not shapely enough to grow in the landscape.
'Pendula', or weeping French pussy willow, (Salix caprea 'Pendula') is commonly sold at nurseries and has a nice, weeping form, making it suitable even for the landscapes of people who like their plants tame-looking. It reaches 6 to 7 feet tall, with a spread of 5 to 6 feet, and grows in zones 4 to 8.
Tiger Eyes Sumac
Like contorted hazelnut, sumac is, technically, classified as a shrub, even though its trunk is tree-like. But, given the beauty of Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’), it is doubtful that you will want to quibble over technicalities. A yellowish-lime color for most of the growing season, the foliage goes berserk in fall, morphing into a mix of yellow (usually the predominant color), orange, and red. At most, it will reach 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It grows in zones 4 to 8.