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Dwarf Trees

Ideal Choices for Small-Yard Design

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Dwarf white pine tree picture.

Pinus parviflora picture.

David Beaulieu

Bigger isn't always better. Just ask all 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.

I say "naturally," yet 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 in the ground. Learning from their mistake (hopefully), they make a wise choice next time around and purchase a more appropriately-sized specimen.

I have selected a sampling of both deciduous and evergreen dwarf trees that should be helpful for those new to small yard design:

Below I briefly discuss these plants, with links to articles that provide more detailed information on each choice.

Mugo Pines

If a plant is characterized as a "pine" yet is used for a groundcover, that gives you a pretty good idea that it's a dwarf tree, right? Well, such is the case with some types of mugo pines: these evergreens have a broadly spreading habit that makes them popular choices as a groundcover.

Read article: Mugo Pines

Picea Glauca 'Conica'

If you're a plant novice, you may see Alberta spruces around all the time without even knowing it. You'll often see them used in balanced pairs, flanking a front entrance. Because they will remain relatively small for a number of years, people sometimes treat them as container plants for the porch.

But beware: as a plant that may eventually reach 12' in height, Alberta spruce isn't quite as small as either the example above or that below ("dwarf trees" is, after all, a somewhat relative term).

Read article: Picea Glauca 'Conica'

Japanese White Pines

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 (i.e., their messiness, the proclivity of their limbs to break, etc.) shouldn't influence your attitude toward the dwarf trees that happen to be pines, one elegant example being these Arnold Arboretum Japanese white pines (Pinus parviflora).

Read article: Japanese White Pine Trees

Hinoki Cypress

Slender Hinoki cypress is an intermediate-sized Hinoki cypress, being more compact (about 15 feet tall at maturity, and about 5 feet wide) than the species plant (which reach more than 50 feet in height) but not as short as 'Nana Gracilis,' which stands at 9 feet tall at maturity.

Read article: Hinoki Cypress

Contorted Hazelnut

Contorted hazelnut (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') also goes by such common names as "Harry Lauder's walking stick" and "corkscrew filbert." Although technically a shrub, I use it as an example of a deciduous dwarf tree, because that's how many 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.

Read article: Contorted Hazelnut

Small Japanese Maples

In my basic introduction to regular-sized Japanese maples, I discuss some of the more popular Japanese maples used in landscaping. But as another example of a deciduous dwarf tree useful in planning a small yard design, I should mention here that dwarf types do exist, too.

For instance, Sharp's Pygmy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Sharp's Pygmy') is said to reach a height of just 3 feet in 10-15 years. This plant 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.

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