Understory trees, they’re called, and I love them.
They are wonderful for small gardens because they naturally grow to only a very manageable size. In larger spaces, these are the trees we need to fill in that layer between the tops of our tall trees–our maples and pines, for instance–and the ground below.
Understory trees give us a whole new layer in the garden and help close the gap between the flowers near the ground and the sky above.
I also love understory trees because they seem to me to be especially beautiful. Many trees flower and produce fruit, but understory trees flower and give fruit right at eye level.
Here are a few of my favorites. These grow well where I live in zone 6 on the east coast of the U.S. They may grow well for you, too, but I hope they at least inspire you to search out the small trees that grow well in your place.
- Carolina silverbell (halesia carolina): Possibly my all-time favorite tree. Beautiful shape. Amazing, delicate bell-like flowers in late spring.
- Japanese Snowbell (styrax japonicus): Simply wonderful. The shape is umbrella-like and perfect for a small patio. The dangling flowers are beautiful in very late spring. White blooming and pink blooming varieties are available.
- Redbud (cercis canadensis): An eastern U.S. native. This purple spring-bloomer comes in many special varieties.
- White Fringetree (chionanthus virginicus): Another beautiful native selection. The fringe-like flowers in spring have an incredible scent. This is another good choice for a small patio.
- Witch Hazel (hamamelis): Witch hazels are yet another wonderful native understory tree. These come in many colors, some scented, and they are especially valued because they bloom in late winter when nothing else is in flower.
Gardeners may begin gardening because of a love for flowers or fresh vegetables, but most of us progress toward an even greater love for shrubs.
I might be painting with too broad a brush here, but I sincerely doubt that an intense longing for viburnum or holly serves as the gateway into gardening for most of us. And yet, if my own gardening journey is anything to go by, the longer we garden, the more we come to appreciate the shrubs we once overlooked.
Shrubs used to speak to me of boring foundation plants, like a green caterpillar circling the base of every house. Now they speak to me of a beauty and a generosity that persists for four seasons.
Shrubs need very little care. A little pruning is all some of them ask and most don’t even ask for that.
Shrubs give our spaces structure. They define garden rooms, mark boundaries, and tie together the tall trees and the ground far below.
Shrubs give scent and blossom in spring, lush green growth in summer, autumn color and sometimes fruit, and in winter they are the garden’s strong bones revealed by a dusting of snow.
Here are a few you might consider adding to your garden:
Ninebark: Common ninebark (physocarpus) is a great, all-around shrub, but there are wonderful varieties to seek out. I love “Summer Wine,” a large cascading shrub with beautiful wine-colored leaves and small pink flowers in spring.
Japanese Snowball (viburnum plicatum): A very large shrub with snowballs of white flowers in spring and deep red autumn foliage. No special care needed at all.
Oakleaf hydrangea: Hydrangea quercifolia is one of the few hydrangeas native to the U.S. There are many varieties, and most have beautiful fall color.
Boxwood: Again, there are many varieties to choose from. You can have tall, treelike box or prune dwarf varieties into beautiful small shapes. Look for varieties that fit your winter weather and need for disease resistance. There’s nothing like a freshly-pruned boxwood ball to set off roses and other flowers.
‘Mohawk’ viburnum: There are many beautiful viburnums to choose from and most will benefit wildlife in your garden. The spring flowers of Mohawk are a lovely pink.
In real life, not so much. But in the garden? Purple has my heart.
I’ve been trying to analyze why this is the case. Why, given myriad options, do I choose purple-flowering plants again and again?
I think it began because I’ve never been drawn to hot, bright colors. So many summer-flowering plants are red and orange, and while I’m learning to appreciate those colors (for instance, tithonia or Mexican sunflower is a new favorite of mine), purple blends easily with the paler pinks and apricots I have always enjoyed.
But no matter the reason, my garden color profile–at least in summer–is largely a purple one.
Here are some of my favorite purple bloomers:
- Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’: First things first: Not every purple plant is purple-with-a-capital-P. Some are more lavender, some more mauve. This wonderful phlox is a pinkish purple, but I love it more for its performance than its hue. Tall phlox is a romantic, cottage-garden staple, but it often suffers from terrible powdery mildew in my garden. This particular phlox won the trials for mildew resistance at a research garden near my home, Delaware’s Mt. Cuba Center.
- Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’: My love for this plant is well discussed in this garden library. I love how it smothers weeds, how it spreads itself around, how it blooms for most of the summer, and how it seems to unite all the disparate plants in my garden. There are many other nepetas or catmints to choose from. All are easy to divide in spring in order to increase their numbers in your garden.
- Anise Hyssop (agastache): A perennial herb in the mint family, this one is easy to start from seed, makes great tea, and attracts so many pollinators to my garden.
- Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Like a lavender cloud in my late-summer and fall garden. This one shines when the rest of my garden has grown tired. Especially great for dry landscapes.
- ‘Boogie Nites’ dahlia: One of my favorite dahlias, this purple flower blooms and blooms and looks simply stunning in the garden.
- Johnny Jump Up (viola tricolor): A favorite heirloom flower for spring. Seeds itself around and returns year after year.
- Crocus tommasinianus: Affectionately called “tommies,” I plant them by the hundreds in fall. My goal is to see a purple carpet across the lawn in spring. A real classic.
- Tulipa ‘Rem’s Favourite’: This color-streaked tulip does well for me in pots. I plant the bulbs in containers in the fall, keep them sheltered in my potting shed, then move their blooms around in the spring wherever I want a bit of color.
- Gomphrena (globe amaranth): I love this annual. It can be found in shades from white to pink to purple and really fills out empty spaces in the garden in late summer. It thrives in heat and humidity and looks beautiful when cut and allowed to dry.
In fairy tales significant things always show up in threes. It’s a magic number, I suppose.
Turns out, it’s magic in the garden, too.
This week in our community space, I posted a video called “Rules of Thumb for Planting.” One of the things I talked about was the magic rule of planting with odd numbers: three of one thing, at a minimum, and five, seven, nine or more as you have space (though I think once the numbers get big enough, our eye doesn’t detect the “oddness” quite so readily).
Why do this?
Odd numbers simply look more natural. As I shared in the video, even numbers, with their formality and symmetry, highlight the hand of the gardener. Sometimes, that’s exactly what we want. For instance, my formal flower garden is edged with an even number of boxwood balls.
But, if we want a naturalistic look, and in most of our garden this will probably be the case, odd numbers help hide the hand of the gardener. Our plantings have a better chance of looking as if they just happened to grow there.
Pictured above is a new (mostly empty!) flower bed outside my kitchen. As I slowly fill it in, I’ll be planting lots of odd-numbered things because I want this area to look naturalistic, almost meadow or prairie-like. You can see I already have three grasses massed in the far corner. Three bare-root roses have been planted as well. These roses will have single flowers in pale yellow, rather than something ruffled and pink, to fit with my meadow-like plan.
Every gardener will have her own “star performers.” These are the plants that we fall back on again and again because they work so well.
These are the plants that need little hands-on care, the plants that solve particular problems, and the plants that bring us pleasure with little pain (which is why–though I ADORE my roses–they are not on this list!).
Your own star performers will be different. They will depend on your climate, your garden style, and the challenges of your particular space. But it can be helpful to know about those plants that others have found especially useful.
I hope my star performers inspire a search for your own.
- Nepeta (common name: catmint): I mostly grow a variety called ‘Walker’s Low,’ but there are many good ones to choose from. I love its minty scent, the way it spreads and covers a lot of ground, and the way its tall, wispy flower spikes seem to weave all the diverse plants in my garden together.
- Verbena bonariensis: A vigorous self-seeder. The airy pinkish-purple flowers sit on long, narrow stems, waving in the breeze and attracting butterflies all summer long.
- White Black-eyed Susan vine: Annual vines that are easy to grow from seeds are such gifts to the garden. I love this one for its pure white flowers. Grows over the course of the summer and by fall is simply covered in pretty little flowers.
- Agastache foeniculum (Anise hyssop): Another easy-to-grow from seed plant, this one is perennial. Purple flower spikes (are you sensing a theme in my garden?), the scent is lovely and it supposedly makes a great tea. From the mint family.
- Daffodils: Because they bloom early, deer and other animals don’t touch them, they are cheerful, and they come back year after year with no care at all.
- Alliums: Few plants are as easy yet lend so much drama to the garden. You can plant “in the green” in spring by buying potted alliums, or plant the bulbs in fall in well-draining soil. The big purple and white balls even look great in the garden once they have dried and turned to seed.
- Garlic chives: a wonderful cottage-garden plant. It seeds itself around, has beautiful white flowers in late summer (when many other plants have stopped blooming), and, like other garlic and onion plants, critters leave it alone.