Compact Trees - Good Things Come in Small Packages

Compact Trees – Good Things Come in Small Packages

By Shane Neufeld and Christina McDonald

In the nursery, customers often ask us to recommend trees small enough to fit an urban landscape. Many have battled with a tree that has overgrown its site – branches endangering power lines and roots invading flowerbeds. However, there are plenty of compact choices with shorter heights, narrower spreads, and more balanced forms than typical trees.

Know What You Want

Before you choose a compact tree, try to estimate how large you'd like it to be at its full growth. You should also take into account how much sunlight is available, what your soil conditions are, and what function you would like your tree to accomplish—will it provide shade, screen off unpleasant views, fit in with an existing theme? Do you want fall colour, or an evergreen? By knowing these things before you head to the nursery, you stand a much better chance of finding a plant that suits your garden.

The Short List

These are some of our favourite compact trees. Some of the varieties mentioned here are naturally compact, while others are the result of hybridization programs. All are great choices for gardeners looking for big beauty in a small package. Regardless of your space and design constraints, there are many varieties to meet your needs.

Dwarf Deciduous Shade Trees

Fast-growing and particularly disease resistant, 'Assiniboine' and 'Prairie Sky' poplars are great choices for smaller yards. Also check out 'Bailey's Schubert' chokecherry, 'Snowbird' or 'Toba' hawthorn, 'Advance' mayday, or 'Columnar European Mountain' ash.

Compact Ornamental Fruit Trees

Ornamental fruit trees provide an awesome spring showing of blooms, attractive small fruits and frequently great fall colour. 'Mountain Frost' pear and 'Rosy Glo' or 'Siberian Columnar' crabapples are terrific compact ornamental fruits.

Dwarf Fruit Trees

You don't have to have a huge amount of space to enjoy fresh fruit from your tree. Dwarf apple trees have normal sized fruits of exactly the same variety as full-sized trees, but with more manageable yields. Look for dwarf 'Norland,' 'Norkent,' 'Fall Red,' 'Goodland,' and 'September Ruby.' 


Columnar evergreens are always popular, and 'Brandon,' 'Degroots Spire,' and 'Holmstrup' cedars offer very narrow columnar forms in a variety of heights. Junipers such as 'Blue Arrow,' 'Cologreen,' and 'Grey Gleam' or spruces like 'Cupress,' 'Dwarf Serbian' and 'Iseli Columnar Blue' are definitely varieties worth trying.

Create a Privacy Screen with Clematis

Create a Privacy Screen with Clematis

Many residential districts these days are constructed along a certain pattern—bigger houses and smaller lots that bring neighbours closer together, often with only transparent chain-link fences to separate them. While being close to your neighbours is good thing, so is a little privacy, and in areas where bylaws restrict construction of new fences, getting a little space to yourself can be difficult. Fortunately, perennials expert Jan Goodall has a simple, yet beautiful solution—clematis.

Perennial Privacy

Clematis is a vine-like, very hardy perennial (some species overwinter even in Zone 2) with a compact growth habit that easily covers 2 m of fence or trellis. It’s perfect for covering the gaps in a fence that’s too see-through for comfort. Here are three species of clematis ideally suited for privacy screens.

Clematis alpina easily covers a 2–2.5 m fence with a thick, vertical carpet of foliage. Foliage emerges on old wood in early May; by the third week in May, it’s usually fully leafed out. As a bonus, small, 5-cm bill-like flowers appear in May or June in pinks, blues or whites. A smaller flush of blooms follows in the fall. During high summer, there aren’t many blooms, which Jan says is an advantage—that’s BBQ season and fewer blooms mean fewer bees on your patio. The growing point, or base, is fairly small, only about 60 cm across, so you won’t need a lot of soil space.

Clematis macropetala looks and performs much the same as alpina, but with fully double flowers in pink, white or blue.

Clematis tangutica is a more rambling variety, suitable for covering a larger area and more height; it will grow up to 9 m wide and 3 m tall, and produces yellow blooms from June to September. In Jan’s experience, tangutica, unlike other varieties, grows equally well in shade or sun. The basal growth is relatively small for this species, too, despite its massive top growth.

For the average home, one plant is usually sufficient for a privacy screen for one fence. However, like all perennials, clematis takes time to mature. Clematis alpina and macropetala grow large enough to suit most privacy needs by the third growing season, the faster-growing tangutica by the second.


Plant in rich, well drained soil. If you plant more than one clematis, make sure to plant them at least 1–1.5 m apart.

Since clematis is a climber, you’ll need to provide support. Jan uses stucco wire—it’s strong enough to support the weight of the plant even when it gets old and heavy, yet flexible enough that the entire plant can be laid down if you need to work behind it. You can use a fancy trellis, but Jan suggests this may be a waste, as the plant’s foliage soon hides the trellis from view.

Care and Nurture

Fertilize your clematis once a month with 20-20-20. Clematis is very tough and needs little care beyond fertilization and regular watering. Pests leave it alone, and it competes very well against weeds and even the native plants on Jan’s acreage. Plus, the above listed varieties are not prone to clematis wilt, a disease that affects some of the other clematis varieties.

In the fall, clematis looks somewhat messy with dead leaves and dried seed pods. To tidy, Jan uses a stiff corn broom to brush away the bits of detritus. It’s an easy job that takes only a few minutes, though you’ll have to rake up the debris, too—you were raking your lawn anyway, right? Don’t take down your clematis for the winter; these hardy plants will survive quite nicely left on their supports.


Clematis alpina and macropetala are compact, never get leggy and, therefore, require less pruning than tangutica. As it ages, tangutica tends to leaf out in June. To prevent an overabundance of growth in the summer, prune it back by 1/3 in the spring. The goal is to train the plant to grow thick lower down, as this helps the vine bush out and the end result is much more aesthetically pleasing. Prune the dead branches of any clematis species at anytime. According to a Robert Frost, “good fences make good neighbours.” A screen of clematis , so much more attractive than a fence, makes a good neighbour indeed.