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Too-tall trees can mar landscape

LAYTON — One of the most common but most preventable mistakes in designing your home landscape is planting trees and shrubs that grow too large for the location.

Many trees look so good when small, but as they mature they can dwarf yards, block views, overpower homes and hide architectural features. The solution may be premature removal or, even worse, severe pruning to keep the plants in bounds.

To offer some advice on selecting the right tree for your landscape, I talked with Curt Deru, director of J&J Nursery and Garden Center in Layton. Deru started working at the nursery when he was 13 and has spent his entire career helping people select the perfect trees for their yards.

Deru showed me the selection in the dwarf conifer section, saying that for most Utah yards, "these are the size that they need down the road. You won't end up with the massive trees that you end up taking out."

Deru is quick to point out that the term "dwarf" is not definitive when it comes to size. Dwarf conifer is a term used to refer to evergreen trees that are genetically programmed to grow slowly and stay small. Specialty conifer is a term that may refer to dwarf evergreens or to trees with unusual growth habits, such as weeping spruces or pines that grow as a ground cover.

Sometimes gardeners think all dwarf trees are miniature, but in horticultural terms, it means a plant that is not full size. If the full-size tree is 100 feet tall at maturity, a dwarf version might grow to 90 feet tall, so you'll still need to do some research to find the plant that is right for your design.

In addition to size control, Deru recommends these plants for their other appeals. "You can find some unique varieties that will really set off your landscape. It is nice to find and plant something that everyone else does not have growing in their yards."

He points out that initially these trees are more expensive than their full-size counterparts. "These trees are going to cost a little more because they are grafted and they grow slower," he said.

In the long run, however, such a plant not only costs less and looks more attractive, but it also makes the landscape much more permanent.

Unsuspecting homeowners who buy less-expensive, faster-growing trees usually don't realize that plant growth does not magically slow down once the tree achieves a certain size. Typically, in a few years, a full-size tree overgrows the area and must be removed. Often homeowners will be tempted to fill the void in their landscape with another fast-growing tree, and the cycle is repeated.

Dwarf plants come about in several ways. Usually chance seedling variations and bud mutations will stunt plants or branches. When discovered, these variations are propagated to preserve the dwarf characteristics.

Dwarfing plants also come from asexually propagating branches that exhibit juvenile characteristics. Some plants with naturally low habits, such as creeping junipers, are usually included in the dwarf conifer group for landscaping purposes.

Some specialty conifers are common in local landscapes, including the dwarf Alberta spruce, bird's nest spruce and the Muhgo or dwarf Swiss stone pine. While these have their place, there are many other varieties that Deru recommends.

"Instead of the standard blue spruce that may grow 65 feet tall and 35 feet across, look for something like the 'Blue Totem' that is a very compact form that is only going to get 6 feet wide and 20 feet tall," he said.

Other selected varieties include 'Hoopsi' with a pyramidal shape, a silver blue color and dimensions of 25 feet by 15 feet, or 'Baby Blue Eyes' with a deep blue color and a uniform growth that reaches 20 feet by 12 feet. Also look for 'Iseli fastigiata,' an upright tree that grows 20 feet by 8 feet, or a Montgomery blue spruce, a slow-growing tree that is broader than tall with dimensions of 8 feet by 10 feet.

Some of Deru's favorites are the weeping white spruce, which gets 3 feet wide and 10 feet tall after 10 years. The Wellspire spruce grows 25 feet by 8 feet at maturity and features a beautiful dark-green color.

He also likes the Sherwood's dwarf bristlecone pine, another slow-growing tree that matures at 10 feet by 6 feet. The Bosnian pine is another recommendation for a tall and narrow tree; it reaches 20 feet by 8 feet and has attractive, dark-green needles. For something that stays very small, Deru recommends Muhgo pine 'Slow Mound.'

Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist for Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.