A fast-growing tree was ruining this Oregon backyard. The fix? More trees—but this time, the right ones.

By Mary-Kate Mackey

Wrong tree, wrong place. In the backyard of an English bungalow set on a 50x150-foot lot in southeast Portland, Oregon, a single Oregon myrtlewood (Umbellularia californica) acted like a villain in a horticultural B movie. “We stopped going out there,” homeowner Evan Williams says. 

The overwhelming evergreen dominated the backyard, continuously raining down leaves on a scrap of lawn that struggled in the gloom. For much of the year the area was either “dry and patchy or wet and mushy,” Evan says. And, as if the tree had taken a cue from a Hitchcock film, Evan’s wife, Suzie, adds, “It attracted crows.” Then an arborist told the Williamses that in five years, the branches of this fast-growing eventual 100-footer would touch their house. The couple loved trees, but this one had to go. 

The design solution: trees. But this time, the right trees in the right places. Four slow-growing, small trees would provide stature and canopy for the garden. Upright katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), and two Japanese maples (Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’ and A. palmatum ‘Okagami’) would shield neighboring views, define garden rooms, and bring year-round interest with scent, flowers, changing foliage, and unusual bark patterns. 

Now a small tree is the star player in each planting area. There’s plenty of room underneath for a mix of shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers—all chosen with an eye for low maintenance and beauty. The emphasis is on periodic and/or seasonal maintenance, not daily or weekly fussing. In fall, it’s about leaf pickup. In late winter, Suzie says, “I spend a day cutting things back.” In spring, she plants containers and positions annuals for color. And weeding? “I can do the whole garden just ahead of a dinner party.” 

That means there’s plenty of time for the family to enjoy their outdoor living room. Suzie appreciates the ever-changing progression of flowers and foliage. On weekends, Evan likes to lie back in the shelter and contemplate the natural world around him—the trees framing the clouds and sky. “There’s a significant upsurge in the amount of bird life,” he says. “We never hear crows now, just songbirds—fox sparrows, warblers, and wrens.”

This garden is designed to be appreciated from any window at the back of the house. Around the angled dining patio, the dusky rose accent of two New Zealand flax and the red-gold leaves of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Okagami') are balanced by the green foliage of the Japanese stewartia tree  (Stewartia pseudo-camellia) on the right.

The Williams family enjoys appetizers and drinks in their welcoming back garden. Son Elliot makes sure Dixie gets a bite when snacks are served outdoors. More outdoor seating space was created in front of the Williamses’ single-car garage.

The leaf canopy of the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) provides privacy. A ‘Limelight’ hydrangea to the left is underplanted with autumn fern, deer fern, and Japanese forestgrass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Hosta ‘Blue Angel’ anchors the scene.

7 Trees For Small Spaces

Look for bold color and texture when selecting low-stature trees for tight spots. Certain varieties sport intensely hued leaves, erupt in fragrant blossoms, look good year-round, or feature bark that looks interesting during winter months.

1. Katsura Tree

Cercidiphyllum japonicum

The soft-texured, heart-shape leaves (a small version of redbud foliage) emerge bronzy red, mature to blue-green, then become apricot-yellow in fall. Katsura has a medium growth rate and good tolerance for a wide range of soil types, though it doesn’t like drought. One of the best things about katsura is that it releases a caramel scent as its leaves turn colors in autumn, making its surroundings the perfect place to have that last picnic of the season. Zones 4–8.

2. Crabapple

Malus selections

Add spring flair to your landscape with crabapples. There’s a wonderful array available that bears flowers in shades of white, pink, and red; has weeping, rounded, or columnar habits; and produces orange, gold, red, or burgundy fruits. Many varieties offer exceptional fall color and great disease resistance as well. Zones 3–8.

3. Dwarf Alberta Spruce

Picea glauca var. albertiana  ‘Conica’

A favorite for its dense growth, small needles, and nearly perfect cone-shape habit, dwarf Alberta spruce is easily grown. It’s native to areas of North America, too. Zones 3–6.

4. Dwarf Blue Spruce

Picea pungens  ‘Montgomery’

Loved for its beautiful silvery blue color, a slow-growing dwarf blue spruce is a good choice for small-space landscapes. Many selections reach no more than 8 feet tall and wide. Zones 3–8.

5. Japanese Stewartia

Stewartia pseudocamellia

A small and lovely tree to appreciate from all angles and in all seasons, the stewartia is remarkably easy to grow. Just provide moist, acidic soil in a location protected by afternoon shade, and enjoy this pest- and disease-free tree. In midsummer, it’s spangled with white, camellialike flowers. Fall foliage deepens to shades of red, gold, or purple. And the peeling trunk bark reveals a mottled pattern of orange and tan that’s always intriguing, especially in winter. Zones 5–8.

6. Mugo Pine

Pinus mugo

Choose pine varieties grown from cuttings to get the desired size and form. (They vary if seed-grown.) Rich green needles stay attractive all year and have a compact mounded habit. Zones 3–7.

7. Japanese Maples

Acer palmatum selections

Few plants are more beautiful than a Japanese maple in its full fall finery. And happily, there are numerous ways to use this little tree in your yard—try it as a specimen in a partly shaded spot, for example, or use it as a focal point in a mixed border. ‘Bloodgood’ is a popular selection with fine-texture burgundy foliage that turns red in autumn; ‘Sango-kaku’ has red branches that stand out after the tree loses its foliage in fall. Zones 5–8.


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