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The Intimate Patio Tree

By Max Grassfield, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Denver County

What could be more inviting than an evening with family or friends on your carefully manicured patio -- sheltered by an intimate tree? They are out there -- wonderfully small, humble, unpretentious trees, oozing coziness from every stoma.

A patio tree serves a special function. It must suggest a feeling of privacy that encourages conversation, whether dining with company or enjoying your loved ones. Unlike tall canopied trees in your yard, this setting calls for a tree in tune with human scale, as if to beckon its guests with a personal invitation.

The patio tree need not be a single-stem variety -- many are available in multi-stem form. Still others, through judicious pruning, reach out over the diners, shading them like a giant deciduous bonsai. With a dinner table set in all its glory, the patio becomes framed -- like a picture. And, of course, every tree generates a canopy-of-cool, creating comfort for those beneath.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

You might want to select an Eastern Red Bud in either single or multi-stem form. In Colorado, it flowers early, but by June its breathtaking pink mantle is transformed into waxy heart-shaped leaves -- sure to evoke romantic evenings. In our climate, this tree probably won't grow taller than 25 feet, but its spread can be as broad as it is tall…perfect.

Another intriguing feature is the random branching of its rounded umbrella-shaped canopy. If you choose the multi-stem form, select one with no more that three leads (stems). Or select one with four and cut the weakest out.

The Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata)

Of all the lilacs, this one possibly is the most trouble-free. Its creamy white June flowers sit like old-fashioned candles on a Christmas tree. And the Japanese Tree Lilac adds an aroma to your patio so delicate as to be the envy of chemists the world over. Its globe-shaped branching pattern is quite formal. It's not a tree with a broad canopy, but it certainly will be a focal point of any patio setting.

If you really want to wow your evening guests, string the branches with small holiday wheat lights before it leafs out in the spring. When in full foliage you'll have not only a beautiful tree but one that twinkles after dark. Its only down side: spent flowers in late June. They aren't exactly a picture of elegance, so you'll need a pole pruner to dead head the wasted blooms.

Washington Hawthorne (Crataegus phaenopyrum)

Long before the Washington Hawthorne became a favorite public street tree, it was adored as a jewel of patio settings. It has a sterling reputation, spring, summer and fall. In anticipation of an occasional dilatory spring storm, it doesn't leaf out until later in the season, a "smart" tree. By June, delicious pink-centered white flowers appear, and in the fall the glistening red fruit hangs on long after the brightly colorful leaves have dropped.

The Washington Hawthorne also can be purchased in either single or multi-stem form. Again the random branching pattern makes it easy to encourage directional growth. It does have one prickly problem. Pruning, without a hefty pair of thorn-proof gloves, can be disquieting. It is, however, kid proof. Most nurserymen will give you double your money back, if you catch a neighbor boy, or girl, climbing in its branches.

Other Favorites

There are lots more from which to choose. Here are some other varieties you might want to consider:

  • Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa), a wonderful zone 5 tree but a little touchy in our climate, so it needs a protected location;
  • Goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata). You'll find lots of examples in Denver parks.

None of the above have Jack-In-The-Beanstalk growth habits. So, as with all things horticultural, be patient. If in doubt about your selection, save yourself lots of anguish by visiting arboreta that showcase mature specimens: In Denver, The Arboretum at Regis University features a wonderful collection of more than 75 genuses and nearly 200 different species. You can pick up a plant list at the kiosk in Regis parking entrance number 4 -- Lowell Boulevard and 52n. Then take a self-guided walking tour.

There is something wonderfully pleasurable about dining outdoors. Coloradan's love it. And why not? Our dry climate is virtually pest free. And as evenings advance, the shear elevation of the Colorado Plateau moderates its daily blanket of heat, typically by about 30 degrees. Few things are more satisfying than to surround company in a carefully orchestrated patio garden. It's an opportunity to relish the rewards of a devoted gardener. And selecting the perfect tree can be the focal point of your endeavor.

Photograph of Japanese Tree Lilac courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010