Small Trees (Under 30 Feet) for a Small Yard or Garden
Every Garden Needs a Tree
Every neighborhood needs some trees, and every garden needs a tree or two. Trees take in carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen, cleaning and freshening the air around us. They soften the sharp edges of buildings and lend curves to the straight lines man has imposed on our view. Even a small tree creates some shade. The dense shade created by the overlapping leaves and boughs of trees is much cooler during the hot months than, say, an awning.
Just because you have a small yard does not mean that you cannot have a tree. Not all trees are 70-footers. And many tall shrubs can be used like trees, or be pruned into a tree-like growth habit.
Below is a selection of small trees and tall shrubs to make your garden beautiful. Numbers refer to the USDA hardiness zones of the continental US, which show how cold your area gets in the winter.
Apple trees usually grow up to 20 feet tall while dwarf varieties grow 6' - 8' tall. Many varieties are available, all producing beautiful early spring blossoms. Although some varieties are self-pollinating, many several other apple trees nearby to be able to produce fruit. Plant while dormant in full sun in slightly acidic soil. Most types of apple will fruit in three to five years. Ask at your local nursery to find the variety of apple tree best suited to your area.
Tree-form flowering almond is a variety of flowering almond that grows 12' - 15' tall and wide with a rounded crown. Pink or white flowers bloom in early spring before the leaves emerge. Plant in full sun or partial shade in moist, rich, acidic soil. If you want to prune for shaping, do so right after flowering. Some pruning will increase next season's flowers. (Zones 4 - 8.)
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) grows to 10' or 12' tall and produces lavender-purple flowers in early or mid-spring. The flowers give off a spicy aroma and the leaves smell faintly of sage. Shaping by pruning may be necessary. Grows best in well-drained soil. Flowers emerge from new shoots, so prune lightly at the end of winter. (Zones 7 - 9.)
Some flowering cherry trees can grow to be quite tall, so check your local gardening center for a smaller variety. "Snow Fountain" grows up to 12' tall, while Sargent cherry grows 20' - 30' tall. Plant in full sun, in moist, well-drained soil. Weeping forms are available. (Zones 2 - 8, depending on the variety.)
Cherry laurel (actually an evergreen cherry, Prunus laurocerasus) has evergreen, deep green leaves and fragrant white flowers. It grows 18' - 20' tall and wide. Flowers bloom mid spring and the tree produces dark berries. Plant in full sun in cool areas, or partial shade in warmer areas, in moist, well-drained soil. (Zones 7 - 8.)
Crabapple produces abundant, beautiful flowers in white, pink, or red, blooming mid-spring. These slow-growing trees rarely reach over 20' tall, while dwarf varieties grow between 8' and 15' tall. Crabapples are self-pollinating, so they will fruit even if you only plant one. Plant in full sun in well drained soil. Crabapples produce hard little fruits that some people find attractive but others may feel are a nuisance.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) is a tall, beautiful shrub that can stand in as a small tree, growing 15' - 30' tall. It blooms in mid- to late summer with long-lasting white, pink, red, or lavender blooms. Planting in shade or semi shade may reduce the amount of blooms. The foliage turns yellow, orange, or red in fall. Attractive, exfoliating, patchy bark creates interest in winter. Prune away low-growing branches to create the look of a tree.
Avoid Langerstroemia speciosa, a giant form if you want to keep it small. In the South, some Crape myrtles will grow larger than expected.
If you want the type that features the most dramatic exfoliating bark look for "Natchez" with its beautiful cinnamon and cream bark; "Apache" or "Choctaw" with cinnamon and brown bark.
Crape myrtle grows best in US Zones 6 - 10.
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is a small, cold-tolerant variety of dogwood that reaches 20' to 30' tall. Flowers range from creamy white to pink. Red fruits appear in fall.
Red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera or sericea) is a shrubby species that grows 7' - 9' tall. Red stems provide winter interest when young, but older branches fade to gray.
Franklin tree (Franklinia), named after Benjamin Franklin, should not be grown in its native home in the southeastern United States due to a root disease that makes the tree short-lived in that area. Franklin trees grow from 10' - 25' tall and 6' - 15' wide, producing large, fragrant white flowers. They prefer full sun and moist, well-drained, acidic soil. (Zones 5 - 8.)
Fringe tree (Chionanthus) grows from 12' - 20' tall with a broad, rounded form, and produces white, fragrant, lacy flowers in spring. Fruit on female trees attracts birds. Plant in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. If you must prune to shape, do so right after flowering, as the blooms form on the older growth. Tolerant of wind and pollution. (Zones 4 - 9.)
"Winter King" green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis "Winter King") is an attractive deciduous tree with grayish green bark that may exfoliate on mature specimens. Winter King grows 15' - 30' feet tall with a similar spread. Aromatic white flowers appear in spring and red berries add interest in winter, though some people do not like their smell. Drought-tolerant and resistant to disease including verticillium. This variety is thornless despite its name. (Zones 4 - 7.)
(I planted my Winter King hawthorn after seeing in at a local park and reading about it online. People seemed to love this beautiful little tree and it has appeared a hot item with the landscape crowd. However, I later discovered that the presence of a nearby cedar or juniper can make for a nasty mess. Cedar - hawthorn rust needs both a cedar (or a juniper) and a hawthorn to complete its life cycle. This disease can devastate the hawthorn and make a mess of the juniper. As my juniper was older, and much beloved, I destroyed the hawthorn)
Imperial honeylocust is a thornless variety of Gleditsia triacantha, up to 30' tall and wide, with delicate foliage that creates light shade good for under-planting. Leaves turn yellow in fall. Produces interesting 8" - 12" twisted seed pods that drop in fall and require some cleanup. Water frequently while young. Mature trees tolerate poor, compacted soil, drought, and flooding. Susceptible to leaf spot, trunk cankers, and insects. Compost in spring to maintain health and ward off potential problems. (Zones 4 - 9.)
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), also called ironwood, grows 15' - 20' tall and has beautiful fall foliage that turns from yellow to red. Deep green leaves. Prune in late winter. Plant in full sun to partial shade in acidic, moist, well-drained soil. (Zones 3 - 9.)
While hydrangeas are beautiful flowering shrubs, panicle hydrangeas can work as small trees, growing up to 20' tall and wide. Tiny flower growing in large clusters start out white in July, then turn a dusty rose as summer progresses. This hardy shrub should be planted in sun to partial shade in rich, moist, well-drained soil. (Zones 3 - 8.)
All junipers are evergreen with tiny, scale-like foliage. They produce small, hard, blue to blue-green berries with a fresh scent.
Hollywood juniper grows from 10' - 15' tall in full sun or partial shade in a unique, twisting form. It is a drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, hardy shrub that can stand in as a tree. Hollywood juniper takes well to pruning for shape and can be planted closer to walls than other trees and large shrubs for an interesting effect. (Zones 5 - 9.)
Skyrocket juniper grows 10' to 15' tall in a narrow column with dusty blue-green foliage. It is drought-resistant and maintenance-free. (Zones 4 - 7.)
Lilac is a large shrub that can stand in as a tree, growing 8' - 15' tall with showy, highly aromatic spring blooms. Flowers may be white or shades of pink, purple, lavender, and lilac. The leaves are susceptible to powdery mildew in hot, humid summers. Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil. Prune to remove unwanted or dead twigs and branches. (Zones 3 - 7.)
Star magnolia is a smaller variety of magnolia that produces beautiful, white, star-shaped flowers in early spring. The flowers are fragrant and long lasting. Grows up to 20' tall with similar spread. Cold and heat tolerant. Plant in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. (Zones 4 - 8.)
Saucer magnolia grows 20' - 30' tall and 20' wide, producing large pinkish-purple flowers in early spring. Plant this cold-hardy magnolia in a sheltered area in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. (Zones 5 - 9.)
Sweet bay magnolia grows 10' - 20' tall with a shrubby growth habit, producing fragrant, creamy white flowers in late spring. It is evergreen in warmer areas but deciduous in colder ones. (Zones 5 - 9.)
Japanese maple is a slow-growing small tree with an interesting growth habit that makes it attractive in winter. Many varieties are available. Beautiful, intricate, delicate leaves make the Japanese Maple a real focal point in a garden. Foliage ranges from green to deep red; some leaves are light green, edged in red. Plant in partial shade in moist, acidic, well-drained soil. Protect Japanese maples from harsh afternoon summer sun. (Zones 5 - 8.)
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a 15' - 30' fruit tree native to North America, with a tropical appearance. Purple mid-spring blooms give way to green fruits that ripen to black with a pear/banana taste. Leaves turn gold in fall. Plant at least two trees for pollination. Prune off low-growing branches to give this shrubby tree a more tree-like appearance. Plant in full sun to partial shade in loose soil. (Zones 5 - 8.)
Peach trees grow 15' - 25' with dark green leaves that provide a beautiful contrast with the attractive mid-spring flowers and brilliant mid- to late summer fruit. Plant in full sun, in moist, well-drained soil. Mulch to protect the shallow roots. Prune in late winter. Susceptible to late frost damage and severe winter cold. Plant two or more trees for pollination. (Zones 5 - 9.)
Common pear grows 20' - 30' tall and 20' wide, producing early spring flowers before the glossy green foliage appears. Dwarf varieties grow 10' - 15' tall. Pear trees are not drought-tolerant and need plenty of water in summer. Plant a second pear tree for pollination if you want the tree to produce fruit.
Japanese black pine grows 15' - 25' tall and is tolerant of heat, drought, and coastal salt spray. It accepts heavy pruning for shape. Plant in full sun, in moist, well-drained soil. (Zones 5 - 8.)
Cherry plum grows to 20' tall, and has distinctive reddish-purple leaves. It blooms with white or pink flowers in early spring. Plant in full sun, in moist, well-drained soil.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) grows 20' - 30' tall and wide with rosy, pinkish-purple blooms in mid-spring followed by heart-shaped green leaves. Its attractive form provides winter interest. Plant in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. Eastern redbud is native and tolerates a variety of soil conditions. (Zones 4 - 9.)
Flowering quince grows 6' - 10' tall and wide, producing bright scarlet, pink, or white blossoms in spring. Some varieties bloom again in fall. Tangled branches and sharp spines may detract from its usefulness in small spaces. Fall-ripened fruit can be used to make jelly or jam. Prune after flowering to maintain shape. (Zones 4 - 8.)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier) grows 15' - 25' tall and 15' - 20' wide. This large shrub can be pruned to tree form. Fragrant white flowers appear early to late spring. Edible berries emerge in late spring and last into late summer, attracting birds. Tolerant of a variety of soils and drought. (Zones 4 - 9.)
Silk tree (Albizia julibrissin, sometimes called "mimosa") grows 20' - 30' tall and wide. Exotic-looking, fern-like foliage with feathery pink flowers that attract hummingbirds in mid- to late summer. Blooms can be quite aromatic. Adaptable to harsh environments. (Zones 6 - 9). This Asian tree can be invasive in many areas.
Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina) grows to 30' tall and almost as wide, producing clusters of tiny white bell-shaped flowers in mid spring. It is native to the Piedmont area of the eastern United States and is best grown in Zones 4 - 8. Plant in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. Will not tolerate intense heat or alkaline soil. Compost and mulch regularly.
Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), from central Asia, grows to be 15' tall and wide with a rounded form and beautiful silvery-green foliage. Tiny flowers emerge in spring. Prefers dry climates. Tolerates salt and drought; dislikes extreme heat and humidity. Plant in full sun, in loam or sandy soil. (Zones 2 - 7.) Russian olive is now considered a highly invasive species in the US so it is better not to plant. Removal may serve you best.
Smoketree (Cotinus coggygria) grows 10' - 15' tall and wide, producing fine, light purple, feathery flowers in June. With blue-green to purplish foliage, this shrubby tree can be pruned to tree form. Plant in full sun, in moist, well drained soil. Prune older branches in early spring to encourage growth. (Zones 4 - 8.)
Sourwood (Oxydendrum) grows 25' - 30' tall with deep green, fragrant leaves. Summer flowering, with long-lasting 10-inch blooms. The leaves turn a range of colors in fall. Mulch to retain moisture and protect the shallow roots. (Zone 5 - 9)
Conica spruce is a dwarf white spruce that grows to 10' - 12' tall with light green needles. Dwarf Arneson's blue spruce features blue-green needles. Both are varieties of Alberta spruce (Picea glauca), a hardy evergreen with classic pyramid form. Plant in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. (Zones 2 - 7.)
Korean Stewartia is a smaller version of Japanese stewartia that grows 20' - 30' tall and produces lovely white blooms in July. Attractive medium to dark green foliage turns red in fall. Patchy, exfoliating bark, in reddish brown, green, gray, and orange, makes a dramatic statement in winter months. Plant in sun with some afternoon shade, in moist, well-drained, acidic soil. Mulch and water during hot, dry spells. (Zones 5 - 7.)
Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) grows up to 20' tall and is actually a shrub from subtropical Asia that produces aromatic flowers. Takes well to pruning. Plant in full sun to partial shade in any soil. Pinch back the dark green leaves to encourage new growth. (Zones 8 - 10.)
Tea tree (Melaleuca linarifolia) grows up to 20' tall and 12' wide. Native to Australia, the tea tree has aromatic, evergreen leaves and produces tiny white, pink, or red flowers from late winter into summer. Enjoys western coastal areas and is drought tolerant when mature. Plant in full sun. Prune lightly after flowering. Best grown in US Zones 8 - 11.