What plant to choose as a center piece for a rounded garden bed.


I have two rounded garden beds in the middle of my backyard, one on the left and one on the right. the right is a bigger one with upright Japanese maple as the center piece, I am looking for a center piece for the flower bed on the left which is about 2.3 meter in diameter. Would you have any suggestions? I am looking for something that is no more than 2 meters. I am also open to any garden decorations as a center piece. Thanks so much for your help.


Thanks for contacting Toronto Master Gardeners with your design question. Choosing an appropriate tree for a garden is a lot of fun but it can be challenging to find the right plant for the right place. Gauging from the Japanese maple that you currently have, it’s possible to make some guesses about growing conditions you have in relation to sun exposure, drainage, soil type, exposure to wind, and competition from other trees. These are key considerations when it comes to choosing a tree (or shrub in your case), but there may be some variation between the two spots you describe. In addition, when you are reviewing your options, you will have to make decisions based on your preferences for a native species, deciduous or evergreen, pollinator and bird habitat, the amount of maintenance required, potential for invasiveness, disease resistance, colour, winter interest, colour, and blooming time.


Your 2-meter height limit suggests that you should look at shrubs. Usually they are multi-stem plants some of which may grow wide, but some shrubs can be pruned to look like small trees. Some shrubs like a hydrangea are grown as a ‘standard’, grafted on to a tree rootstock; they look like tidy little upright trees with blooms at the top. They can be quite showy and serve well as a focal point in a small bed. There are dozens of so-called dwarf trees but many of them grow well in excess of 2 meters. Labels can be deceiving so it’s imperative that you check the mature size, both height and spread, of whatever you buy. The label “dwarf” can include trees that at mature height may be small relative to an oak or a sycamore but can still grow to 5 m or more. You want to avoid planting something that you love only have to remove it in a few years because it has outgrown its assigned space.


Since your Japanese maple is doing well (as not all of them do in Toronto), you might consider going with another cultivar whose foliage or growth habit is a nice contrast from the one you have. That could make a strong design statement in your space.


Here are a few ideas for small trees and shrubs that warrant a closer look:

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier) can be found as a tree or a shrub that produces profuse clusters of pinkish-white flowers in spring that cover the branches before the leaves are fully open. In summer, bunches of small edible berries hang among dark green leaves, which turn brilliant bronze-red in the fall. There are several cultivars and species available all of which are very good in Toronto gardens.
  • Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is a compact, spreading shrub or tree native to Japan. It has long, narrow white flowers which emerge before the leaves.
  • Dogwood (Cornus) offers many possibilities. For example, Cornus kousa typically grows with a vase-shaped habit in the early years but eventually maturing to a more rounded form. Bloom occurs in late spring. Flowers are followed by berry-like fruits which are technically edible, but are usually left for the birds. Leaves usually turn attractive shades of reddish-purple to scarlet in autumn. Mottled, exfoliating, tan and gray bark on mature trees is attractive in winter. Two cultivars of interest are ‘Lustgarten Weeping’ Chinese Dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Lustgarten Weeping’) (15′ x 15′); and ‘Milky Way’ Chinese Dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Milky Way’) (15′ x 15′).
  • Conifers provide excellent structure and colour year-round. Try Pinus banksiana ‘Uncle Fogy’ (4’ x 10’), a hardy multi-stemmed evergreen shrub with a rounded form and gracefully weeping branches. It lends an extremely fine and delicate texture to the landscape composition which can make it a great accent feature. Other conifers that stay small are the ‘Chief Joseph’ lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’) (3’ x 6’), a slow growing, pyramidal and compact tree. Its needles turn to a spectacular gold in the late fall and winter; ‘Verdon’ dwarf Hinoki falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdon’) (4’ x 5’) with scale-like leaves that are highly ornamental and remain gold throughout the winter; ‘Peve Minaret’ baldcypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’)(10’ x 5’), a compact narrowly pyramidal dwarf deciduous conifer, native and quite hardy. Its narrow, ferny green leaves turn a golden brown in fall, a wonderful color accent tree for a smaller landscape.
  • Viburnum species, for example, ‘Alleghany’ viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides ‘Alleghany’), (3.5m x 7m) has flat-topped clusters of creamy white flowers in spring and fruit which starts brilliant red changing to black in fall. Extremely ornamental, it is dense, upright and compact. The dark red fruits are held in abundance in spectacular clusters from late summer to late winter.
  • Tree peonies can grow 4–5 feet high and when in bloom, offer unparalleled beauty in the garden.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia or melanocarpa) (2m x 1.5m) have red berries and foliage in the fall. They may take a while to become established, but make a lovely and somewhat unusual addition to the mixed garden bed.
  • Flowering quince (Chaenomeles) (height and spread to 1.5 m) have showy orange-red flowers in April.
  • For winter interest, try Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)  (3’ x 4’) that has curled and twisted stems, and catkins in the winter.


LEAF (Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests) is a not-for-profit group in Toronto whose goals is re-forestation of the city. They have arborists who will give recommendations. They carry native trees and shrubs of all sizes and will even plant for you. They did a great job in my backyard in the fall of 2019. https://www.yourleaf.org/


Here are a few links on small trees and shrubs for the urban garden.


You also ask about garden decorations. Depending on your budget, there are many options available from garden sculptures to fountains, sundials, or bird baths. You might also consider an obelisk on which you can train a pretty vine like a clematis or a climbing rose. Browsing local design centres and nurseries will help define your choices.

Mar. 23/ 21