7 Best Small Trees for Your Yard and Garden

Father and Boy Planting a Tree in the Garden
© xerox123 / Fotolia

Trees do a lot to make your yard and garden a more enjoyable place. They provide shade, privacy, and vertical interest, attract song birds, and create a feeling of lush abundance.

In a spacious landscape with existing large trees, including smaller trees adds visual depth and reflects the diversity of a natural forest. In a small garden, a few compact trees add height that makes the space feel more substantial.

Remember, the best small trees for your home landscape depends on your climate, soil type, and the part of the garden you’re planting in. Once you find a tree you like, look for a cultivar of that species that’s best suited to the growing conditions you can provide.

Additionally, check how tall the cultivar you’ve chosen is likely to grow. Mature height can vary widely between different cultivars of the same tree species.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

Japanese Maple Tree
© aiisha / Fotolia

Zones: 6 to 8
Height: 6 to 25 feet

The beauty and versatility of this maple have earned it a place among the most popular of all trees for small gardens. The species produces delicately shaped leaves in shades ranging from green to orange to deep purplish red, depending on the cultivar.

In fall, it puts on a fiery color display. Use your Japanese maple as a stand-out solitary planting or to add color and texture to a mixed woodland corner of the garden. The tree appreciates partial shade, but dislikes clay soils.

Favorite cultivars include ‘Bloodgood,’ with burgundy leaves, and the orange-leafed ‘North Wind.’ For something a little more unusual, look into ‘Red Dragon,’ which offers rich color, lacy leaves, and a graceful weeping form.

Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis ‘Snow Queen’)

Himalayan Birch
Photo Credit: Wendy Cutler

Zones: 5 to 7
Height: 16 to 50 feet

The birch tree brings beauty to your garden year round with shimmery green leaves in summer, golden autumn color, and clear white bark that stands out from all other trees.

The ‘Snow Queen’ variety of Himalayan birch takes its name from its unusually luminous bark. Plant it next to a tree with red or orange branches, and you’ll have an eye-catching interplay of colors in winter, too.

This hardy tree tolerates most soils, enjoys full sun or partial shade, and does exceptionally well in cold climates. In ideal conditions, it can grow beyond 30 feet, so you may need to prune it to keep it in check.

Dwarf Norway Spruce (Picea abies species)

'Perry's Gold' Norway Spruce
Photo Credit: F.D. Richards

Zones: 3 to 7
Height: 3 to 5 feet

The Norway spruce probably isn’t the first species that comes to mind when you think of small trees. Forest varieties of this conifer can quickly shoot up to 60 feet or higher. Thanks to today’s dwarf cultivars, however, you can enjoy this beautiful conifer even in the smallest garden.

It’s classic pyramid shape, and dark green foliage have made it one of the most frequently chosen evergreens for home landscapes, so it’s easy to find at most plant nurseries. It stands up well to the wind, making it a good choice for windbreaks and natural privacy screens.

Popular dwarf cultivars include ‘Perry’s Gold,’ ‘Little Gem,’ ‘Echiniformis,’ and ‘Clanbrassiliana.’

Dwarf Hinoki False Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’)

Dwarf Hinoki False Cypress
Photo Credit: F.D. Richards

Zone: 5 to 9
Height: 3 to 6 feet

This conifer produces fans of green and golden yellow foliage that overlap to create irregular globes with an unusual layered appearance. It’s an eye-catching tree that makes an ideal specimen piece in a rock garden or border.

Because it grows so slowly, it’s easy to keep under control even if you don’t have a lot of time for pruning. While the tree is generally easy to care for, avoid planting it under any tree that drops leaves or seeds. Debris tends to become stuck in the boughs of the Hinoki, making it look messy until you can clean it up.

Magnolia (Magnolia varieties)

Magnolia x soulangeana
Photo Credit: Tatters

Zones: 5 to 9
Size: 15 to 20 feet

If you want a striking way to usher spring into your garden, this tree is it. In mid- to late spring, the magnolia produces large, showy blooms in white or various shades of pink and purple.

These trees need plenty of sunlight, although, in very warm climates, they’re better off in partial shade. They love moist, even soggy soil, so regular watering is critical for young trees. The lower limbs naturally droop to the ground, so many homeowners prefer to prune them.

There are numerous cultivars of magnolia, so if you decide to add this tree to your landscape, do a little research on the type that’s best adapted to your climate.

Some, such as the popular Magnolia x soulangeana are sensitive to low temperatures and vulnerable to having their flowers killed by a late frost. The ‘Lennei’ or ‘Alexandrina’ cultivars are good choices for a cooler climate.

Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera)

Carolina Silverbell
Photo Credit: DM

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 20 to 30 feet

Native to the southeastern U.S., the Carolina silverbell is shade-loving, easy to grow, and offers beauty throughout much of the year. It’s loved for the abundant clusters of tiny, white, bell-shaped flowers it puts out just before its leaves appear in early spring.

When fall arrives, the leaves turn bright yellow, although they tend to drop early. The distinctive, four-winged seed pods the tree forms over the growing season dry out in fall and disperse over the winter. The tree’s natural form is elegantly rounded and can be pruned into a shrub if you prefer a more modest sized tree.

Citron (Citrus medica)

Buddha's hand
Photo Credit: Frank Wouters

Zones: 9 to 11
Size: 8 to 15 feet

If you live in a warm climate, this tree is an ideal way to enjoy lush foliage, fragrant flowers, and luscious fruit all from the same plant. The ‘Etrog’ cultivar is one of the oldest know citrus trees and produces an intensely lemony scent.

Citron ‘sarcodactylis,’ or Buddha’s hand, comes with an unusual fingered shape and heady lavender-citrus fragrance that sets it apart from other citruses. The fruit is edible and can be added to cocktails, candied, made into preserves or used for zest.

Citrus trees, in general, tend to grow slowly and stay small, so lemon, lime, mandarin orange, kumquat, and grapefruit are all good ways to add fragrant, decorative trees to your small garden. If you’re not in the south, consider mandarin oranges and kumquat, which are more cold hardy than most citrus trees.

Choosing from among the best small trees for home landscaping makes it easy to ensure you’ll find attractive specimens that will thrive beautifully and won’t demand constant maintenance. Whether you’re looking for lush leaf trees, stately conifers or dazzling flowering trees, there’s a small tree species that’s a perfect fit for your compact dream garden.

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