Small trees are a big deal

Compared to their bigger brethren, smaller trees are relatively easy to manage and more visually appealing.


Filed to: Trees, landscaping

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
In some cases, large trees cast too much shade, cause damage and/or are in the way of golf play. Often small trees can take their place. Photos by John Fech

They say that size doesn’t matter, but when it comes to ornamentals on a golf course, it does. 

When it comes to choosing, managing and retaining trees on the golf course, small trees are often the best choice. Think about it: Big trees cast lots of shade, get in the way of golf shots, cause problems with cart paths and cost lots of money to maintain. 

Small trees, on the other hand, have lots to offer and should be considered in at least some of the places where large trees are located now. 

What do they offer? So many things — easy pruning, easy pest scouting, interesting shapes, massing and unique features. Many bloom and provide four-season appeal. 

The key to using them effectively is making wise initial choices, inspecting them regularly and locating them in good spots on the course.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
When problems arise, it’s easier to care for small trees than large ones.

Ease of maintenance

Due to their size and proximity to the ground, small trees are much easier to inspect, prune, spray and remove than large trees. Inspecting large trees for insect pests, pathogens and structural problems often requires the use of a bucket truck or at least a good pair of binoculars in the hands of an arborist. 

Considering that these procedures often require a significant outlay of financial resources, it’s tempting to delay regular scouting and monitoring, which usually leads to the magnification of serious issues.

Like inspection, pruning and pest control on large trees can be a costly and labor-intensive job, simply because any feature on the course that is over 30 feet high is difficult to work on. On the other hand, smaller woody plants usually can be cared for with standard golf course maintenance equipment. 

It’s much easier to notice defects and flaws such as crossing limbs, cracks, co-dominant leaders, decay, sunscald and basal injuries, as well as pests such as cankers, borers, stem twig girdlers, scale and leaf spots, on trees that are 10 to 20 feet tall. Then, once these maladies are identified, the corrective actions that must be taken can often be accomplished by golf course workers who have been trained in woody plant problem remediation. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Small trees can have high functional value in many locations on the golf course, such as marking a dogleg or providing visual clues for depth perception.

Functional value

Trees on a golf course aren’t just pretty; they also have significant functional value. Small trees can provide backdrop visualization for approach shots, framing, habitat for songbirds, dogleg identification, signature features, obstacle/increase difficulty elements and, depending on the situation, can have directional benefits and protection from errant golf shots.

The functional value that large trees offer, such as screening for undesirable views and noise reduction, classic liability/safety separation, shade for clubhouses/refreshment stands, are not often provided with small trees, but, then again, they don’t have the associated higher level of necessary maintenance either.  

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Integrating small trees between larger ones helps to provide screening more quickly than adding more larger ones, adds color and textural appeal and increases diversity in the golfscape.

Visual appeal

Fortunately, small trees offer just as much, if not more, visual appeal than large trees. First, they’re generally more noticeable since golfers don’t have to raise their head as high to see them. Second, they are often selected and bred by production nurseries for their floral, textural and color features.

Small trees offer the important opportunity for “filling in the gaps” between larger specimens, as well as providing depth to a planting if foreground plants are needed. They serve well as understory elements, also known as “plants under plants,” in a similar fashion to natural settings in more native areas. Shade-adapted small trees are great choices for areas that are out of golf play, but additional massing is needed to add thickness to a screening or safety tree line as opposed to planting additional large trees. Adding small trees to bolster existing separation plantings can provide benefits more quickly than more of the same larger trees. Both understory and massing techniques can be implemented to create a layered or high/medium/low appearance, which is visually appealing as long as adequate space exists.

Another important consideration is the mixing of functional and visually appealing small trees that serve well to draw attention to other elements, such as views, entrances, refreshment stands and restrooms. Sure, it’s possible to install a neon sign that shouts “bathroom is over here,” but using colorful, well-shaped and unique small trees create an attractive and easy-to-use part of the golf­scape. Also, depending on their spacing, they can be arranged in such a way to create see-through spaces when both the up-close and the faraway scenes are important to view.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Small trees can serve well as directional elements and space delineators.

Tree placement

Just like other plants on the golf course — ornamental grasses, groundcovers, shrubs, containers and large trees — small trees have their place. It’s important to keep the functional and visual benefits in mind when placing them. 

And, even though they are small, they grow every year and get bigger. It’s imperative that they don’t cast too much shade, get in the way of golf play and/or necessitate unnecessary maintenance.

There are many locations that are natural choices for placement.

Clubhouse enhancement. In some situations, shade is not necessary, but there is a need for softening of a harsh corner or accenting the entrance to the clubhouse, pro shop or cart rental facility.

Massing around greens and tees. Large trees are often problematic when placed near tees and greens because they cast excessive shade, compete for water and nutrients, and create surface roots that become a trip hazard and damage cart paths. Small trees usually provide massing, delineation of space and aesthetic appeal without the negatives associated with large ones.

Between and underneath big trees. Gaps in screening and replications of natural golf­scape depth can be addressed with the judicious planting of small trees.

Entrances. Large trees tend to tower over entrance signs and driveways, directing attention away from the desired aesthetic and functional components of a well-designed entranceway. Small trees provide the necessary good looks without the overpowering effects.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The mixed benefit of visual appeal and functionality can be enhanced by introducing small trees, especially when “half-hiding” less visually appealing features on the golf course.

Anywhere direction or movement of play/circulation is needed. Especially important to golfers who are new to the course, a little help in highlighting the fact that the open fairway is “this way” not “that way” is important. Small trees can do that without causing problems for turf.

Backdrops for greens. Small trees and large shrubs are great for providing needed depth perception for golfers whose ball is in the fairway and need to select the best club for their approach shot.

Where a small obstacle is needed. If a bit of increased difficulty is in order, a well-placed small tree can provide that. Knowing the eventual size and shape is an important consideration during plant selection. 

Parking lot space delineation. Some sites call for a living wall that creates or delineates space, such as a parking lot or driving range. Small trees can provide that without blocking necessary circulation.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Any tree, even one that starts small, can outgrow its space.

Tree removals

Yes, just like large trees, sometimes small trees need to be eliminated from the golf­scape. The major steps to take when considering removal are to determine whether the original purpose of the tree is still being provided, evaluation of the current condition and overall health of the tree, and the need for controlling pests, pruning and other inputs of resources. Also, even though small trees may only be 20-25 feet tall, they may be too large for the space they occupy. A plant that’s too big for the allotted space is usually one that is best removed. Sure, trees can be reduced in height and width, and shrubs can be thinned and sheared, but doing so usually brings on an additional need for labor expense. All in all, the remove-or-don’t-remove decision is one that is best handled on a case-by-case basis. After all, if the tree’s size or pests can be controlled with a minimum of effort, then spending a little time may be the best approach since the plant is already in the ground and paid for.

Getting help

When it comes to choosing and maintaining small trees, university horticulturists, botanic garden curators and International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborists are great resources. Attending their field days and conferences is well worth the time. Many of these professionals are available on a consulting basis as well.

John C. Fech is a horticulturist and Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a frequent and award-winning contributor to GCM.