I would like to plant a small specimen tree for my backyard garden. I’d like it to provide some shade and to offer at least two seasons of interest. What would you suggest planting?
Mary Kohler, Miamisburg, OH
Barbara Ashmun, a contributing editor, garden designer, and author of Garden Retreats, responds: When choosing a small tree for your garden, think first about how its shape will fit the setting. To shade a bench, consider an umbrella-shaped tree such as harlequin glory bower (Clerodendrum trichotomum). Near a pond, gracefully weeping trees such as ‘Golden Curls’ willow (Salix ‘Golden Curls’) or weeping cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera ‘Pendula’) cast lovely reflections in the water. In a narrow space between two houses, columnar trees such as ‘Amanogawa’ cherry (Prunus ‘Amanogawa’) or ‘Princeton Sentry’ ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba ‘Princeton Sentry’) can offer privacy without outgrowing the bed.
Low-branching small trees such as Amur maple (Acer tataricum ssp. ginnala) and Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) provide shade in summer and fiery foliage in fall and also make good privacy screens. As for the Japanese maples, ‘Osakazuki’ is one of the best for red autumn leaves, while coralbark maple (‘Sango Kaku’) is popular for its red winter bark and golden fall color. ‘Butterfly’ is prized for its pink and cream variegations against green leaves.
The best shade trees offer at least two seasons of interest. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) blooms like a yellow veil in winter and produces cherrylike fruit that decorates the tree in summer and fall. Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata) flaunts huge clusters of white flowers in late summer, but commands attention from the time its sumptuously dissected leaves unfurl. Golden-variegated (‘Aureovariegata’) and cream-variegated forms (‘Variegata’) are the showiest and most highly regarded.
For rich, dark foliage, try ‘Royal Purple’ smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’), with gracefully rounded burgundy leaves and a puff of tiny flowers in summer that gives the impression of pink smoke. You can prune it to the ground in early spring to produce a shrubby plant with larger leaves, or train it to one trunk for a smaller-leaved specimen tree. In either case, the wine-colored leaves combine well with fancy-leaved coral bells such as Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ and ‘Purple Sails’.
Tall Stewartia (Stewartia monadelpha) will add fire to your fall garden with its orange-red leaves, but it’s actually a tree for all seasons. Single white flowers open in August; bark the color of a cinnamon stick adds beauty to the garden year-round, but especially in winter when it’s more conspicuous. Plant Stewartia in partial or full shade, since the hot afternoon sun will burn the leaves of a young tree.