When you are designing or renovating a garden near your patio in the Pacific Northwest, there are a few important things to contemplate before you go to the garden center. Consider carefully the root systems, eventual heights and widths, maintenance, and messiness of all the plants you wish to use. You will also want to choose plants that look good in most seasons, smell pleasant, not attract undesired wildlife, and also combine well aesthetically. The most important choices you will make, however, are the trees. You can easily dig out a perennial and even a shrub, but to replace a tree is not an easy or cheap task.
When you choose trees, look for small trees that do not have fruit. It might be nice to envision yourself lying under an apricot-laden tree and reaching up from your lawn chair to pluck a juicy fruit to munch on but the reality is that you are more likely to be hit on the head with a moist apricot-bomb or be covered with ants as they scurry about looking for that wonderful smelling fruit that is rotting on your patio. You also do not want to deal with racoons, bears, large birds, rats, and mice (and their droppings) when you are trying to relax.
Another consideration is the root system of the tree. A cherry tree may be considered mid-sized, but the roots will heave out of the ground and lift your patio stones. You will also be unable to plant underneath them. Take a look at the base of the next full-grown cherry tree that you walk by and you will see what I mean. The height and width of the trees in the garden center are very misleading. A cute little Sequoia will look tempting when it is only two years old, but you will have big regrets in a very short time if you plant it near your house. People devalue their home when they make unwise tree choices. On the flip side, however, you can increase the value of your home by choosing trees that will not overwhelm the space.
Make sure the tree you choose does not drop a lot of litter. This means leaves, fruit, seeds, nuts, and flowers. Some trees (and shrubs) seem to shed continually. I think of Photinia ‘Red Robin”. We had a number of these in our yard when we moved in. They shed hard, rubbery leaves all year long. The leaves did not break down in a normal way so I was constantly raking them up. This did not even touch on the maintenance required to keep these beasts to a manageable size. They also often had dark spots on the leaves due to our wet weather.
So after all these warnings, I offer the following suggestions for well-behaved and attractive patio trees that you are not likely to regret planting.
Deciduous Trees for the Patio:
Amelanchier Grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance” – This pretty and airy little tree has beautiful white blossoms in early spring and then delicious dark purple berries in the summer. These taste very much like blueberries. The fall colors are gorgeous reds, oranges, and yellows. The tree grows to about 5m high by 3m wide in about 10 years. It prefers water in hot periods and a position in sun or part-shade. It will require some sweeping up after the flowers fade and the leaves fall but this is not difficult with this little tree. This is the only tree with fruit I will recommend because the berries are not messy and you or the small birds in your yard will probably eat them quickly.
Acer Circinatum (Vine Maple) – This is one of my favorite little trees. It is beautiful in all seasons, well-behaved, friendly to wildlife, easy to prune if desired, maintenance free, disease free, tidy and just the right height for a patio tree. I have planted a little Vine Maple grove in a corner of my yard and have underplanted with Rhododendrons, ferns, Astilbes, and Cornus Canadensis. The hummingbirds love the little flowers and the squirrels love the samaras that appear later in the summer. These are an important food source to help them survive the winter. I also see many little chickadees and other birds busying themselves with bugs or just sitting in the tree.
The following is a picture I took of a few Vine Maples planted close to the deck of the Learning Lodge in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve in North Vancouver. They are under planted with native berry bushes and ferns. As you can see, they are not a problem planted this close to the deck because they tend to grow upright and airy. They are easily pruned if they ever should encroach on the deck. These are about 6-7 years old.
Acer Palmatum – Most of these will be suitable but my favorites will follow. Some Japanese Maples grow larger than others so be sure to check the eventual size. I have recommended a book on Japanese Maples in my blog on the same. This wonderful reference guide by J.D. Vertrees will tell you everything you want to know about most Japanese Maples and other species as well. Remember that a multi-trunked tree will grow much wider than a single-trunked one. So if you do not have much room and your tree will become large, it can still often be accommodated by pruning carefully in the early years to one trunk and thinning out the branches to the best ones for the form you desire.
Acer Palmatum ‘Omure yama’ (also called Omurayama)– This is a lovely weeping form of Japanese Maple. It has soft green finely dissected leaves that cascade from branches almost to the ground. The leaves turn gold and crimson in the fall. It also has a beautiful winter silhouette. It can reach 6m high by 4.5 m wide in 10 years, although mine is only 2 meters high after 4 years. Plant in full sun or part-shade and water in drought.
Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ – This tree is commonly planted in our area but for a good reason. It is a beautiful burgundy color all spring and summer, and then a glowing crimson in the fall. It rarely grows larger than 5 meters high and can be pruned easily while young. It is a great contrast to all the greens in your woodland garden if you rely on foliage for interest, and not flowers.
Acer Palmatum ‘Emperor 1’ – This is very similar to the Bloodgood, but I think the leaves are more translucent and darker. Mine has grown rapidly with no help from me at all. I have it planted on the west side of my deck to give some shade in the late afternoon, and it looks incredible with the setting sun behind it. It also gives off a really pleasing, dappled shade.
Acer Palamatum ‘Samurai’ – This is a pretty little tree that will not outgrow its allotted space. Plant in part-shade but it will tolerate sun. Here is a picture of my Samurai’s leaves in June. In the fall, it rivals Osakasuki for incredible crimson foliage. I have a deciduous holly nearby that goes yellow in the fall; they look lovely together.
Acer Palmatum ‘Hogyoku’ – This is another of my favorite trees. It is sturdy, healthy, fast-growing, undemanding, and gorgeous in all seasons. It can grow to 6 meters but is very easy to shape and prune. Mine is multi-trunked so looks much wider than a single-trunked specimen. I have included two photos of my tree. The tiny little plant that was first put into the ground and then the beautiful tree just 5 years later. The leaves are a bright green all summer and then a fantastic pumpkin orange in the fall. With the setting sun behind it, it is spectacular.
Acer Palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ – This is a very well known Japanese Maple because of its incredible glowing crimson fall color. It does not matter if the weather is wet and grey; this tree will shine. The leaves are quite large and the limbs are sturdy. It can grow to 8 meters, so it is a fairly large Japanese Maple. Planting a tree or shrub with complementary fall colors (such as the orange Hogyoku or the golden Ichigyo) will add to the beauty of your patio in the fall months.
Acer Griseum ‘Paper Bark Maple’ – This tree can reach 9 meters so it is not for the small yard, but it is not all that fast-growing. It has gorgeous leaves that go a multitude of colors in the fall. My neighbour has one in her backyard and it looks nice from my study window. The bark is peeling and a warm orange-brown color, very much like the Arbutus bark that peels off in those lovely long strips.
Acer Japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ (Also called Dancing Peacock or Maiku jaku)– As much as I love this tree, be warned that it looks somewhat tropical and not woodsy. But I love it just the same. It has huge, deeply-divided green leaves that go bright orange and red in the fall. The flowers are a gorgeous dark pink and are quite noticeable. The samaras are red and contrast nicely with the summer leaves. The squirrels really like these samaras and run about this tree first when collecting food for the winter. It can grow to 6 meters so is a fairly large tree.
Acer Shirasawanum ‘Palmatifolium’- This is an airy graceful maple that will provide lots of dappled shade. It is a light green all summer and turns shades of gold in the fall. I wish I had planted my tree in a more prominent spot as it is a really lovely tree.
Stewartia Pseudocamellia ‘Japanese Stewartia’ – I have two Japanese Stewartia trees in my backyard. They are both still young so the mottled bark is not fully apparent yet. I have read that the diameter of the branch or trunk must reach 5 to 8 cm for the mottling to be noticeable. One of my trees is just reaching that stage and I can see the bark beginning to show this effect. I can’t wait for it to cover the entire trunk. It must look stunning in the winter. This is a really tidy and pretty tree, and would be worth planting even if it did not have gorgeous camellia-like blossoms in late June and early July. It also has incredible fall foliage; the leaves turning a mixture of purple, red, orange, and yellow. If planted in shade, the colors will be mostly yellow or orange as in the last photo below. (This also occurs with Vine Maples). It will get quite large eventually, but not overpowering. It will grow moderately to 8 or 9 meters after many years.
Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) – This is a beautiful shrub or small tree for four season interest. The yellow, reddish-orange, or orange flowers open in late winter and are fragrant. The leaves are large and pale green and will turn a lovely yellow in the fall. It grows slowly to about 3 to 5 meters and can be planted in sun to part-shade. There are a number of different cultivars with various flower colors.
Parrotia Persica ‘Persian Ironwood’ – This tree is closely related to the Witch Hazel but is native to Iran. It has similar foliage but will grow a bit bigger and wider. The fall colors are spectacular in shades of red, purple, and orange if planted in sun, and yellow if planted in shade. It has small and pretty flowers, but they are not showy.
Styrax japonicas ‘Japanese Snowbell’ – This is a pretty, tidy, and well-behaved little tree. It will grow slowly to 7 to 10 meters and will also grow quite wide. I have seen healthy specimens planted on roadsides near my home and also in bright shade in a nearby garden. It is very adaptable but the beautiful drooping flowers will last longer in a part-shade situation. This is a great tree to have some chairs underneath. You can look up when you are seated outside in June and be able to enjoy the flower display. The fall foliage will be yellow if planted in the shade. One warning about this tree is that the scent, in my opinion, is similar to a men’s urinal. I think that odours are like humour. Everyone has a different viewpoint. Smell the flowers before you buy to ensure you find the scent agreeable.
Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ – This is a nice little tree for the Pacific Northwest. It will grow to about 6 meters after many years but tends to not spread as wide as most dogwoods. The lovely white bracts emerge in May, about one month earlier than the Kousa Dogwood. The foliage turns shades of red and orange in the fall. It prefers sun or part-shade.
Cornus Kousa Chinensis – In June, my Kousa dogwood is in full bloom and looks stunning. It will have orange edible berries in August that are attractive to wildlife. The foliage in fall is a mixture of red, orange, and yellow. Very low maintenance and tidy. It will reach heights of 5 to 10 meters and similar widths, so it not good for a tight spot, and you will need to do quite a bit of pruning to be able to sit under it. This may ruin the horizontal layered look of the tree so only plant this if you have the room. The Eddie’s White Wonder may be a better bet if you are tight on space.
Magnolia Stellata – This is a small, slow-growing, and compact tree. If you are looking for immediate shade then this is not the right tree for you. It will eventually reach 3 to 5 meters but it will look like a shrub for many years. It is well behaved and tidy, with stunning white flowers in the early spring. Try to plant in sun or part-shade in good soil. When the flowers have faded, the bright-green leaves are healthy-looking all summer and will turn yellow in the fall.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Common Lilac’ – This is technically a shrub, but if you prune it judiciously, you will end up with a small and pretty tree. It will grow 3 to 5 meters tall and wide. I hesitate including this as a patio tree for a few reasons. It requires pruning to look its best so it is not very low maintenance. It looks and smells wonderful when it is blooming, but for the rest of the year it is so-so. There are many other trees that will be tidier and give you more seasons of interest. Some of the cultivars (especially the white ones) look messy after the blossoms fade as they remain on the tree as they brown. Not the greatest thing to view from your patio. Then there are ants. We had a large lilac in a corner of our yard and there were ant colonies living under it in the roots. So I only include this tree here for those of you who have wonderful childhood memories of Lilac blossom scents and overflowing vases throughout the house in May. I will admit the smell of the blossoms is intoxicating.
Evergreen Trees or Large Shrubs for the Patio:
Keep in mind that most large shrubs, whether evergreen or not, can be pruned into little trees. If you have a small yard, then this might be your best bet for a patio tree. Shrubs like Pieris Japonica, Common Ninebark, Elderberry, Common Lilac, Camellia Japonica, Strawberry Tree, Cornus Mas, Philadelphus, and others will eventually get large enough to be considered a small tree. They will need careful pruning to achieve the look of a tree but it can be done with enough patience. Just this evening I walked past a Common Ninebark in Lynn Canyon Park and it was about 3-4 meters high and had white flowers and a lovely tree-like form. As you can see in the picture that I took, the shrub would make a nice little tree beside a shady patio.
Camellia – Check the eventual size of the Camellia you like to be sure it will reach the height you want. Prune after flowering into the tree-form you prefer. Make sure you purchase a camellia that drops it’s dead flowers or it will look messy when in bloom.
Prunus Lusitanica ‘Portuguese Laurel’ – This evergreen shrub or tree is often planted as a hedge and sheared. It fulfills that purpose well but it also makes a great little evergreen tree. I have two of these as a privacy screen between my patio and my neighbour’s deck and it works well. The lovely white flowers appear in June and they are followed by gorgeous (but not edible) black berries that are very glossy and attractive. The flowers are extremely fragrant, and I think they smell wonderful. It will need to be pruned to keep a good shape and not outgrow its space but it is fairly well-behaved, unlike its cousin the brutish English Laurel. I have heard that planting an English Laurel is an act of aggression against your neighbour. The Portuguese Laurel will not cause grief for either of you. If you live in Vancouver, you can see some lovely Portuguese Laurels that have been formed into small trees along the West Vancouver Seawall closest to Dundarave Pier.