Some people think a house is not a home without a fireplace. For me, it's trees. They're beautiful, their shade tempers summer's furnace effect, and they filter the air. Some even bloom and perfume the area.
They're also magnets for birds, which are bug-eating machines with fabulous sound systems. Just as important, trees are symbols of hope, growth, possibility. You can often judge the state of a neighborhood by the state of its trees. The nice thing is that there's almost always room -- even in small city yards -- for at least one.
The short list
There's a range of small trees -- 20 feet and under at maturity -- that can add grace and beauty to even the most crowded urban space. Shadblow (Amelanchier canadensis) with its lacy white flowers in spring, vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) with bronzy, spike-haired blossoms in late winter and golden foliage in fall, eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), and star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), with early spring star-shaped white blooms are only some of the possibilities. (Caution: Bradford pear, often sold as an urban tree, is invasive here in the mid-Atlantic.)
Japanese maple (Acer japonicum) is great for small yards. It has a lovely shape and fall color and is sold in virtually every garden center.
But Sam Jones, owner of Atlantic Star Nursery, a wholesaler in Forest Hill, prefers sweet bay magnolia, (Magnolia virginiana), which, like shadblow, is a wetland native that doesn't require a wetland habitat.
"It has beautiful architecture, and, when it's blooming, it is exceedingly fragrant," he says. "If I had a patio where people sit, I'd definitely want one."
For particularly tough spots, Sylvan Kaufman, conservation curator at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, suggests the upright ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana). "It tends to grow in fairly poor soil, which is a common problem in cities," she says. "It also has fall color and beautiful bark in the wintertime."
Kaufman also likes sumac (Rhus glabra), which, while technically a shrub, can be pruned into a tree. Dotted along roadsides in Maryland, sumacs are gorgeous in fall with large, crimson seed cones and scarlet leaves.
While crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia), with its frothy, Scarlett O'Hara flower panicles, is a Southern native, the National Arboretum has bred several shorter, (10 to 20 feet at maturity) winter-hardy cultivars that are perfect for small Maryland yards, including 'Comanche' with coral pink blooms, 'Yuma,' (lavender) and 'Osage' (clear pink). Incredibly, the blooms last for between 80 and 100 days, depending on the cultivar. All have beautiful exfoliating bark. However, they drop a little sap, so don't sit in the chairs beneath them in your best silk.
Landscape architect Jay Graham, a principal in Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis, loves the panicled Goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata). "It has a lot of character and is pretty rugged," he says. "And it has beautiful yellow flowers in early summer."
Crab apples have been gracing city yards for generations, though they are very low branching, which means they take up a lot of space without offering a place to sit in the shade. They produce edible fruit though it can be a mess if it drops.
"Choose one that is resistant to leaf diseases, like 'Zumi,' 'Red Jewel' or 'Madonna,' " suggests Mike Galvin, supervisor of urban and community forestry at the Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis.
Galvin also suggests downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). With a growth habit like dogwood, beautiful white flowers, and edible blueberry-like fruit that make delicious pies and jams, it can be terrific addition to a small sunny yard.
Before planting any tree, first consider the site. How close are buildings, overhead lines or any o ther potential obstructions? If there is a wire 15 feet off the ground, a short, spreading species like fragrant winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) might be best.
How is the drainage? Some trees turn up their toes in soggy soil while others thrive.
"Cherries and crab apples, which are in the rose family, can withstand a lot," says Galvin.
How much sun is available? Dogwoods (Cornus) need semi-shade, while fruiting trees prefer full sun.
And do a soil test. The Cooperative Extension Service offers soil tests for $5, which includes pH, nutrient content, and ratio of sand to clay to loam.
"In a city, you can have a pH of 8 or 9 practically side by side with a pH of 2," says Galvin. "People get frustrated replanting a tree species that keeps dying. They look for what they've done wrong, but the problem may be that particular tree won't tolerate the soil pH."
P.O. Box 100
Ridgely, MD 21660
Environmental Concern, Inc.
P.O. Box P
St. Michaels, MD 21663
6815 Olney-Laytonsville Road
Laytonsville, MD 20882
5504 Mount Zion Road
Frederick, MD 21702
Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service
580 Taylor Ave.
Tawes State Office Bldg., E-1
Annapolis, MD 21401
www.dnr.state.md.us / forests