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Maryland and Virginia Native Garden Building Blocks: Best Small Trees

Growing your native garden from the ground up.

One of the best things about gardening for the Chesapeake is our small native trees. We just rock in this category. These trees bring flowers, birds, wildlife and magnificent fall colors. These are the five best I know of based on a preference for trees that are easy to grow, look good for all of the growing season, have more than one season of interest and are widely available.

Full sun: Dogwood, Fringetree, Redbud, Serviceberry, Witch hazel

Part shade: Dogwood, Fringetree, Redbud, Serviceberry, Witch hazel

Dogwood (Cornus Florida)

Dogwoods are iconic trees in our Chesapeake gardens. The white blooms in spring announce the season like no other. Those blooms are followed by red berries and strong fall color. The shape of the tree in winter is also a classic. Dogwoods are widely available. Many of the larger trees in garden centers are cultivars of the straight species Cornus Florida. Native plant nurseries usually carry the straight species and usually have smaller trees for sale. I have not planted a ton of trees but for those I have, the smaller the tree when planted, the stronger they seem to be. It takes a bit more patience but after several years, the results seem worth the wait.

For a while during the 90s and early 2000s, there were concerns about dogwoods being susceptible to anthracnose disease but those concerns have largely passed according to experts. Adrian Higgins of the Washington Post covered this and more about dogwoods here. Dogwoods grow in full sun or filtered shade to about 30 feet high at full maturity. This tree is also the perfect substitute for the non-native Kousa dogwood native to Asia.

Fringetree is a fantastic small tree that blooms after dogwoods do in April or May. Once you see this tree in bloom, you will always recognize it. It looks like a tree enveloped with lacy clusters of shredded paper. In fall, the foliage turns yellow.

There are male and female fringetrees. The male trees are said to have slightly showier flowers while the female trees produce dark blue fruit in fall. This tree requires little to no maintenance and grows in full sun or part shade. Fringetree grows 10 to 20 feet in height and 10 to 15 feet wide. This tree also does well in clay soils. Native fringetree is typically not sold at garden centers so native plant nurseries will be your best bet.

Redbuds are the spring blooming trees with fuchsia colored flowers that emerge before the leaves. The incredible flowers of spring, the heart shaped leaves which morph through the seasons as their color deepens, seed pods in late summer and pale green and yellow leaves in fall make this a particularly interesting tree to watch over the growing season. Redbuds, fully grown, are similar in size to the dogwood at 25 to 30 feet high and wide. It does best in soils with moisture and tolerates clay soil.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Serviceberry can grow as a shrub or tree. Clusters of white flowers emerge in April or May. Those are followed by red berries and brilliant yellow fall color. Serviceberry grow to 25 feet tall though the shrub forms are smaller. This is a very low maintenance shrub or tree that birds love.

Common Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana)

Witch hazel also grows as a small shrub or tree. Its' bloom time makes it a garden treasure. The papery yellow blooms usually appear in late November or December. In warmer years like this past year, witch hazels were still blooming in January as the one pictured here in downtown Washington DC. These grow to 20 feet or so but are easy to keep on the smaller side with pruning. They grow in sun or part shade. They also have bright yellow foliage in fall. Garden centers tend to sell hybrids of the native which bloom later in winter. If you want to plant the native, it may be best to purchase from a native plant nursery.

Here is my pitch to you. You don't need a lot of space for these trees. We live on 1/8 of an acre, and are lucky enough to have planted each. The witch hazel is in a pot and makes a great container plant which will also keep it on the small side. With the exception of the dogwood, all of these could be grown in pots. Because these all naturally grow as understory trees, they can adapt to filtered shade. This also does not have to be an expensive or labor intensive proposition. You can plant these as small 3 footers and enjoy the progress, literally, for years to come.

If you add each of these five trees, you will transform your garden into a Chesapeake masterpiece! If you are growing them, you are already basking in their beauty. Perhaps plant more?


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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