Q:We recently downsized to a smaller home and yard with no existing plantings other than the typical foundational shrubbery. Are there small trees available for smaller spaces such as ours that would provide beauty and/or shade?

A:Landscape designers often talk about balance with regard to proportion and scale in the garden because it is so fundamental to garden design. I tend to think most people have an eye for proportion and scale but forget to research the fully mature height and width of the proposed plantings when they plan their garden space.

A small tree can frame a house or view in a small space, whereas a larger specimen will often have the opposite effect and dwarf the house and/or view. There are many wonderful small trees to choose from, so your hardest decision will be to determine whether you want to plant a tree that is evergreen or deciduous, one that is architecturally interesting or simply ornamental. I am happy to suggest a few of my personal favorites and give you a bit of information about each, particularly mature growth heights.

I never grow tired of the lace-like effect of the branches and leaf pattern distinctions of the many species of Japanese maple. This is a great understory tree that grows best in part shade with moist, well-drained soil. There are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from so you’ll need to do more research regarding form, color, and so on before making your final selection. The mature height can range from 8 to 20 feet.

I fell in love with the Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) the very first time I saw it blooming in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. It was absolutely beautiful as an early spring standout in a landscape that was still sleeping in winter clothing. The mature height is typically 15 feet, and blooms can be either pink or white. You may have to special order this tree, but it’s worth it when one can have four to eight weeks of nonstop blooms in mid-winter to very early spring.

Southern Living magazine once referred to fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) as, “The best native tree nobody grows.” The main requirement for growing this little gem is a love for lightly fragrant, creamy-white showy blooms in spring. Give it full to partial sun and you will have a multi-trunked tree that is 12 to 20 feet in height at maturity.

I should admit before going any further that I have always had a love affair with the many plants in the Rosaceae family, which includes cherries, plums and roses. This does tend to bias me a bit about plant selection, but I simply can’t leave out these next two trees.

The Taiwan cherry (Prunus campanulata) is so graceful, and the bright rosy pink blooms are an early spring harbinger, often blooming before the Japanese magnolias. They will tolerate heat better than most cherries, and that alone makes them a top choice for growing in our area. The maximum height is about 25 feet.

If you love cherry trees but want something a bit smaller, I’d recommend door stop cherry (Prunus hiromi). This is a dwarf flowering cherry variety that will only grow to about 6 feet in height and 4 feet in width.

Chaste tree (Vitex agnes-castus var. latifolia) is to me the Southern version of a lilac. It’s actually in the mint family and native to the Mediterranean. The lacy leaves are quite aromatic, reminding me a bit of artemisia, and the bright blue-purple flowers are amazing in the landscape. Mature height is about 10 to 15 feet, and the multi-trunked growth habit adds to the architectural interest of the tree.

Magnolias are a Southern classic and there are many hybrids available for small gardens. If you want something a bit different, give star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) a try. Leonard Messel is one of my favorites.

The star-shaped petals are creamy white on the inside and tinged with purple-pink on the outside, and nicely fragrant. This tree has a mature height of 15 to 20 feet. Magnolias prefer full sun to partial shade, but make sure you give them at least four hours of direct sun for the best bloom show.

There are so many more wonderful small trees to choose from, and I recommend reading “The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists” by Chaplin to help guide you in your selection. My best advice is to analyze your site for the growing conditions before selecting any tree and you will save yourself the cost and heartache of planting the wrong tree in the wrong place.

UPCOMING: (Free and open to the public)
What: Monthly Master Gardener meeting
When: Thursday, Aug. 4, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
Topic: “Preparation for Your Fall Vegetable Garden and Some Variety Recommendations” by Bill Finch

What: Lunch and Learn
When: Monday, Aug. 15, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
Topic: “Every Kid Should Eat a Pound of Dirt” by Dr. Judy Stout

MASTER GARDENER HELPLINE: Call 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to coastalalabamagardening@gmail.com.