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Little trees can definitely spice up your urban garden

Sheila Toomey

The most fun plant in my little urban garden is actually a tree -- sort of. I bought my Weeping Siberian Pea at Fritz Creek Gardens in Homer two summers ago.

It's a skinny little thing, 5 feet tall, topped by a cascade of slender weeping branches rich with small bright green leaves and yellow flowers.

It was pruned or trained so the branches all weep to one side.

It's graceful and different and I love it unreasonably. It's a perfect vertical accent in a largely horizontal garden.

Turns out there are a bunch of interesting, skinny little trees available for just that purpose. They fit in a small space and don't plunge big hunks of your garden into shade. They're different, and they're fun.

A good starting point for information about perennials, including little trees, is a chat with Doug Tryck of Tryck's Nursery on Rabbit Creek Road.

Tryck has been experimenting with Anchorage-hardy plants, shrubs and trees for 30 years. The forest around his home is his canvas and the plants that prove themselves worthy are for sale.

There are apparently two ways to make a weird little tree, also called a dwarf: Start with an amenable shrub, one that grows to the height you want, and prune the heck out of it; or graft interesting foliage onto a single, skinny trunk.

These are referred to as being "on a standard," sometimes called topiary. Attempting this is best left to people who know what they're doing.

Tryck has several Siberian Peas, although they weep in a circle -- sort of feather duster foliage, instead of just to one side. Other possibilities for our gardens include:

• Russian Sandthorn, also called Dwarf Sea Buckthorn: This is normally a shrub.

To get a little tree, you have to choose a central trunk, and then prune away other limbs, leaving only the foliage near the top. The Sandthorn has small silvery green leaves, grows to about 5 feet and is hardy to minus 40. It has a different look, a different texture than the rest of the garden. Tryck's has a bunch of shrub-sized plants and an example of a tree-pruned one.

• Tryck also suggests Meyeri lilac on a standard. This is perfect if you want the color and fragrance of a lilac, but don't have space for a huge, traditional lilac shrub or tree. This variety has a single, skinny trunk and a bouquet of foliage and flowers at the top. Also tall and skinny: Reducta Mountain Ash on a standard.

•Margaret Donatello at Alaska Mill & Feed is enthusiastic about Ninebark, a shrub that has a tree form cultivar. It offers amazing colors that change both through the season and as the bark exfoliates -- presumably meaning peeling.

New leaves are yellow and transform to a bright burgundy-purple, the colors lasting well into fall. It can grow to 10 feet and has to be controlled by pruning but seems worth the trouble.

Another category of small trees are fruit producers. Serviceberries can be a large shrub or a small tree.

Its wispy branching makes it easy to fit one in among regular garden plants or under tall trees.

"I prefer plants that are going to do more than just one thing for me," said Tryck. Serviceberry trees produce flowers and fruit that, when it ripens to purple, is a sweet berry.

Tryck's also offers a selection of Intergeneric Hybrids, meaning tender fruit trees grafted onto hardy Mountain Ash trunks, but that's a whole other subject. Tryck will be happy to tell you about it.

Photos: Tryck Nursery Gardens
By SHEILA TOOMEY
Daily News correspondent