One of the dumbest things that homeowners do is planting a tree without first determining how big that sucker’ll get. Before long, it’s hiding the windows, blocking the driveway, cracking the sidewalk, killing the lawn, and falling down during a storm and smashing the house. The following smaller trees will do none of these annoying things. Instead, they’ll beautify your yard, win compliments from neighbors, and make you fall to your knees in gratitude before Grumpy. (You may rise now.)
Small Tree #1 — Shorter Crepe Myrtles
Please stop planting “Natchez’ crepe myrtle. Yes, this towering, white-flowered giant is pretty, but it quickly grows 30-35 feet tall, which is way too big for the front of your house, unless your last name is Trump. (“It’s gonna be YUGE!!!”) This is why thousands of you commit crepe murder every year and complain that “the flowers are so high up I can’t see them.” How can you fix this? Plant a selection that doesn’t grow very big and that you won’t have to butcher. Candidates: ‘Acoma’ (white flowers, 6-10 feet tall), ‘Early Bird’ (white or purple, 6-8 feet), ‘Siren Red’ (dark red, 8-10 feet tall), ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ (rich purple, 4-6 feet), ‘Zuni’ (lavender, 6-10 feet), ‘Pink Velour’ (neon pink, 10-12 feet), and ‘Tonto’ (red, 10-12 feet). Click here for more info about small crepe myrtles.
Small Tree #2 — Japanese Maple
When someone says, “I need a small tree for a small space,” my first thought is always of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). Why? These slow-growing jewels are very well-behaved, come in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and offer sizzlingly bright scarlet, crimson, orange, and yellow fall foliage. Many top out at 15 feet tall or less and take a long while to get there. Consider ‘Bloodgood’ (15 feet tall), ‘Crimson Queen,’ (4-6 feet), ‘Emperor 1’ (15 feet), ‘Fireglow’ (12 feet), ‘Garnet’ (6-9 feet), ‘Inaba-shidare’ (5 feet), and ‘Shaina'(3-4 feet). Click here for planting tips.
Small Tree #3 — Chaste Tree
Few trees give you showy blue or purple flowers in summer. Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is one. This is mine. I’ve had it for almost 20 years and it’s still less than 15 feet tall. I do prune it a lot in winter to remove the internal twigs and let the sculptural trunks show. It blooms on new growth, so winter pruning is good for it. Removing the first wave of flowers after they fade results in a second wave of blooms in August or September. Chaste tree is fully winter-hardy in USDA Zones 7-11 and may come back from the roots and still bloom in Zone 6.
Small Tree #4 — “Little Girl” Magnolias
Breeders at the U.S. National Arboretum did Grumpy no favors when they named an outstanding group of compact, spring-blooming magnolias the “Little Girl Series.” Maybe they had no choice, seeing as how different members of the group are named ‘Ann,’ ‘Betty,’ ‘Jane,’ and ‘Susan,’ but I can’t imagine walking into a garden center and saying, “Can you show me some Little Girls?” without being arrested. Growing 10-15 tall, these hybrids put on a magnificent display of deep-pink to reddish-purple flowers late enough in spring that frosts seldom damages them. Then they open a few flowers off-and-on all summer. Grow them in USDA Zones 3-8.
Small Tree #5 — Fringe Tree
Offering fleecy, white flowers in spring and bright yellow fall foliage, this lovely native tree makes a good substitute for flowering dogwood for people who can’t grow dogwoods. Also known as grancy graybeard, fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) grows about 15 feet tall and wide and is hardy in USDA Zones 4-9. In the South, it’s pest-free, but susceptibility to the emerald ash borer (it belongs to the ash family) should temper its use in the North and Midwest.
Small Tree #6 — Rose-of-Sharon
This old Southern favorite has come full circle. It was one of Grandma’s standby plants for weeks of colorful summer blooms. But nurseries back then mostly sold unnamed seedlings that could be weedy and gnarly looking. Today’s improved hybrids, on the other hand, feature better blooms over a longer period, more colors, fewer seeds, and nicer forms. Blooming on new growth, they reach 10-12 feet tall and adapt to USDA Zones 5-9. Grumpy recommends the following: ‘Ardens’ (double lilac-purple flowers, few seeds), ‘Blue Chiffon’ (blue with ruffled center,) ‘Blue Satin’ (blue with red center), ‘Blushing Bride’ (double white, few seeds), ‘Diana’ (large white, few seeds), and ‘Pink Giant’ (rose-pink with red center).