Seeing scenes of storm damage from around the country this summer made me realize how destructive large trees can be when they come crashing down on houses, cars, and utility wires. When homeowners originally planted the oaks, maples, poplars, magnolias, and evergreens, they didn’t foresee the damage that these majestic trees could wreak decades later.
Smaller trees make better neighbors. Their branches don’t reach up into the power lines or fall against them in the wind. If they topple over, they don’t go through the roof or crush the car.
Nurseries and garden centers offer more small tree varieties than ever before. Many of these are more resilient against diseases and pests than older varieties, too, which makes them longer lived and easier to care for. The best ones for any particular climate and soil will vary considerably, but knowledgeable nursery staff will make good, locally appropriate suggestions.
Here are a few of my favorite small trees.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier species), also known as Juneberry or Saskatoon, has smooth silvery bark similar to beech and blooms early in the spring before the shiny dark green leaves emerge. Fall color is usually yellow to brilliant red-orange. This U.S. native has edible berries that birds adore and the graceful branching pattern makes it appealing even in winter. The variety Autumn Brilliance grows up to 25 feet tall. Most varieties grow in USDA Zones 3 through 8.
Flowering crabapples (Malus varieties) come in hundreds of shapes, sizes and colors, making the choice of which one to buy the biggest challenge. To narrow the selection, I look for disease-resistance first. For low-maintenance and appealing, season-long appearance, crabapple trees should be resistant to apple scab, leaf spot, rust and powdery mildew. Next, I choose the flower and fruit color and size. Flowers come in hues of pink, red and white. Fruits vary from ¼ to 2 inches in diameter and may be red, yellow or orange. Even the foliage color varies through shades of green and burgundy. The trees themselves have different growth habits and forms: narrow and upright, broadly horizontal, egg-shaped or cascading/weeping. Visit some of these web sites to help you choose:
- Washington State University: A thorough article with many photos
- Ohio State Extension Service
- Clemson University
Maples (Acer species) that remain petite compared to their larger cousins have become popular as street trees, and for good reason. The Amur maple (Acer ginnala) has stunning red fall foliage and some varieties have ornamental seeds, as well. Other good small maples include hedge maple, Tartarian maple (Acer tartaricum), and paperbark maple (Acer griseum).
Dozens more excellent small landscape trees exist and the internet has many useful pages devoted to finding and choosing them. Electric utility companies have a vested interest in this subject and have published some particularly good resources. Minnesota Power has a guidebook developed by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on its site, which includes an extensive list and information sheets on trees and large shrubs that are recommended for planting near power lines. University of Tennessee Extension Service offers “Trees to Plant Under Power Lines” and the City of Philadelphia has a recommended street tree list.
Be prepared for stormy weather by planting safe small trees!