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The Perfect Tree for Your Patio

Washington Post Staff Writer NO BYLINE NEEDED
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page GZ48

Creating a garden is an expensive endeavor, especially if "hardscape" features such as terracing, walls, paths and ponds are proposed. But if you have a patio, or low deck, you have a garden.

With relatively little effort, the patio is soon defined and enclosed and made cozy by the creation of a generous bed of plants to surround it. Perennials, low shrubs and ground covers will fill in the blanks, but nothing puts the finishing touch on a paved terrace better than a patio tree.

A patio tree isn't grown in a pot, but is set in the ground by the side of a terrace to provide framing and shelter. Sometimes you can remove pavers and plant a tree in the patio, literally. This is stylish, but the tree needs special care; enough soil, moisture and nutrients; and freedom from physical damage and ice-melting salt.

A well-chosen tree stays in scale, doesn't get too dense and provides a sculptural quality and seasonal interest beyond the fleeting beauty of the flowers.

There are dozens to choose from, especially if you delve into the world of cultivated varieties, but our list contains 10 good choices for the growing climate around the Washington area.

The flowering dogwood used to be the patio tree of choice -- its spring blossoms, layered branching and delicate architecture made it perfect for the role -- but a persistent disease called discula (Count Discula, perhaps) means that it requires spraying on a regular schedule from April to July to survive. This may be asking too much.

A patio tree is not meant to screen, though in age it will afford some shade and privacy. So stay away from blue spruces, Leyland cypresses or shade trees. Also, some small trees grow quite large, and landscape designers are discovering that they may be too big for all but the largest patios. These include the Chinese fringe tree, the Japanese snowbell, the upright European hornbeam and the crape myrtle variety named Natchez.

In the tiniest of townhouse patios, even our selections may grow too large; they were chosen with a 20-by-30-foot patio in mind. For smaller sites, consider instead alternatives such as the intermediate witch hazel, the deciduous holly named Sparkleberry (you will need a second, male variety for pollination and fruit set), the native fringe tree, sourwood and the serviceberry.

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