Trees for small gardens

Trees for Small Yards

Common Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

So you’ve got the hankering for something leafy, shade-lending, perhaps even flowering. But you don’t have the yard space. There are plenty of lovely options in trees for small yards, including the common witch hazel. Bright, fragrant, fringe-like flowers appear on bare branches in late winter. This long-lived tree stands up well to extreme cold, moderate wind, even urban pollution.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

Photo by Missouri Botanical Garden

Peeling bark reveals itself on a tall, narrow form that doesn’t steal all the sunlight from surrounding plants. Its cold tolerance makes this a good selection in far-northern climates, although it will also do well in alkaline soils further south (Ohio and Illinois).

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Weeping Birch (Betula pendula)

Graceful weeping birches grow shorter and wider than the species, making them well suited to the smallest yards. Their yellow autumn foliage adds late-season interest.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Photo by Missouri Botanical Garden

Though tolerant of winter cold, the redbud likes the warm summers of its native Appalachian habitat. Its rosy-magenta spring flowers, heart-shaped leaves, and compact form translate well to suburban settings.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)

A common sight in California, these feathery, pink-flowering trees like it hot and dry, with free-draining soil. Place away from the wind.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus)

Photo by Missouri Botanical Garden

Flowers appear in cloudlike puffs against dark bronze or purple foliage in summer. This southeastern native tolerates dry, acidic soil.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

Photo by Virginia and Barry Foster

White flowers in spring and purple-red berries in fall distinguish this small multi-stemmed or single-trunk tree, which thrives in a wide range of conditions. Songbirds—as well as less welcome backyard interlopers, like deer and bears—relish the edible fruits.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Photo by Craig Lee

Clusters of red or coral flowers appear on this Southern native in late summer. A small-scale relative of the giant horse chestnut, its leaves are toxic to deer—a quality many wildlife-plagued landscapers in the Northeast may envy.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa var. chinensis)

Photo by Missouri Botanical Garden

With a bushier growth habit than its elegantly branching American cousin, this Asian native wins fans for its star-shaped summer flowers, good fall color, and large, dangly red late-season fruits.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata)

Photo by Nancy Andrews

This four-season performer—with attractive bark, confetti-pink spring blossoms, and serrated leaves that turn orange and red fall—is easily pruned to manageable proportions. Cold hardy to -10 degrees F.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Photo by Nancy Andrews

Few spring-flowering trees are more shade tolerant than this native American species. The elliptical leaves turn red in fall, when the tree bears small, bright-red fruits. The slow-growing trees favor free-draining neutral or acid soil and a temperate climate; hardy to -20 degrees F. More than 20 species are available in nurseries, including varieties with variegated leaves, like ‘Welchii’.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Japanese maples (Acer palmatum)

Photo by Nancy Andrews

Nurseries carry hundreds of varieties, including many bushy or mounding trees that grow no larger than a standard shrub. Here, a red-leafed cultivar joins a spiky yucca and a variety of low-maintenance groundcovers—including a cascade of rocks—in a high-visibility, low-maintenance island near a driveway. Cold hardy to -10 degrees F.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Ever Red Laceleaf Maple (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Ever Red’)

Photo by Nancy Andrews

This popular dark-leafed Japanese maple has deep purple-bronze leaves that turn fiery red in autumn.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Globe blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Globosa’)

Photo by Nancy Andrews

Conifers classified as “dwarf” in nursery terms, like this chubby spruce, have the same genetic makeup as their more generously proportioned cousins: They just grow more slowly and, therefore, stay compact longer, making them well suited to small lots. According to the American Conifer Society, dwarf varieties grow about three to six inches a year, while their large relatives sprout up and out at twice that rate.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana)

Photo by Nancy Andrews

This native of the Canadian Rockies thrives in tight spaces—even containers—where their pyramidal form enhances the garden’s geometry. Stays under 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide and is cold hardy to -30 degrees F.

Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see if you can grow this tree.

How To Garden Beneath A Tree: Types Of Flowers To Plant Under Trees

When considering a garden beneath a tree, it is important to keep a few rules in mind. Otherwise, your garden may not flourish and you could injure the tree. So what plants or flowers grow well under a tree? Read on to learn more about growing gardens under trees.

Basics of Growing Gardens Under Trees

Below are some of the basic guidelines to keep in mind when planting under trees.

Do trim away lower branches -Trimming away a few of the lower branches will give you more space for planting and allow light to come under the tree. Even if the plants you want to use are shade tolerant, they too need a little light to survive.

Don’t build a raised bed – Most gardeners make a mistake of building a raised bed around the base of the tree in an attempt to create better soil for the flowers. Unfortunately, when doing this they can harm or even kill the tree. Most all trees have surface roots that require oxygen to survive. When compost, soil, and mulch are piled up thick around a tree, it suffocates the roots and allows no oxygen to get to them. This can also cause the roots and lower trunk of the tree to decay. Although you will have a nice flower bed, in a few years the tree will be nearly dead.

Do plant in holes – When planting under trees, give each plant its own hole. Carefully dug holes will avoid damage to the tree’s shallow root system. Each hole can be filled with composted organic matter to help benefit the plant. A thin layer of mulch (no more than 3 inches) can then be spread around the base of the tree and plants.

Don’t plant large plants – Large and spreading plants can easily take over a garden under the tree. Tall plants will grow too high for the area and start trying to grow through the tree’s lower branches while large plants will also block the sunlight and view of other smaller plants in the garden. Stick with small, low growing plants for best results.

Do water the flowers after planting – When just planted, flowers do not have established roots, which make it difficult to get water, especially when competing with the tree’s roots. For the first couple of weeks after planting, water daily on days it does not rain.

Don’t damage the roots when planting – When digging new holes for plants, don’t damage the roots of the tree. Try to make holes for small plants just large enough to fit them in between roots. If you hit a large root while digging, fill the hole back in and dig in a new location. Be very careful not to split major roots up. Using small plants and a hand shovel is best to cause as little disturbance as possible to the tree.

Do plant the right plants – Certain flowers and plants do better than others when planted under a tree. Also, be sure to plant flowers that will grow in your planting zone.

What Plants or Flowers Grow Well Under Trees?

Here is a list of some common flowers to plant under trees.

  • Hostas
  • Lilies
  • Bleeding heart
  • Ferns
  • Primrose
  • Sage
  • Merry bells
  • Bugleweed
  • Wild ginger
  • Sweet woodruff
  • Periwinkle
  • Violet
  • Impatiens
  • Barren strawberry
  • Crocus
  • Snowdrops
  • Squills
  • Daffodils
  • Yarrow
  • Butterfly weed
  • Aster
  • Black eyed susan
  • Stonecrop
  • Bellflowers
  • Coral bells
  • Shooting star
  • Bloodroot

By Julie Christensen

What’s the most troublesome area in your home landscape? If you’re like many homeowners, it’s probably the area under evergreen or shade trees. These areas are problematic for a few reasons. First, the area under a tree rarely receives enough sunlight to grow grass well. And if grass does grow there, accessing it with a lawn mower can be difficult if the tree has low-lying branches. The canopy of the tree tends to prevent rainfall from reaching the ground. Also, the tree’s roots compete with other plants for water and nutrients.

If you’ve given up on growing plants under trees and opted for the landscape fabric and mulch solution, read on. In this article, we’ve included suggestions on how to plant under trees, along with ten plants that not only grow, but thrive, in the difficult growing conditions found there.

Tips for Success

  • Whenever possible, it’s best to plant shrubs and perennials under a tree at the same time you plant the tree, or shortly thereafter. The reason is that many trees, including oaks, maples, magnolias, beeches, pines and cherries, have roots that lie close to the surface. Mature trees are easily damaged if you amend and dig in the soil.
  • Some trees, such as black walnuts, produce chemical compounds that are toxic to other plants.
  • Bulbs make a good choice for spring displays. Tulips and daffodils can be planted under deciduous trees because they’ll bloom before the trees leaf out.
  • Choose native plants whenever possible. These plants often naturally grow as understory plants in woodland settings, making them ideal choices for your landscape.
  • Install a drip system so plants get the water they need. Don’t add extra soil or rototill the soil to add amendments. Add a bit of compost to individual planting holes and buy small plants so you don’t need to dig deeply.
  • Mulch soils with 2 to 3 inches of wood chips to conserve moisture and keep down weed growth.
  • Plant hostas and other plants near the trunks of trees, rather than grass. Maintaining grass subjects tree trunks to injury from weed trimmers and mowers.

Plants for Success

Shade Loving Shrubs

Azaleas and Rhododendrons. These acid-loving shrubs grow best in USDA zones 6 through 9. They need a pH between 4.4 and 6.0 and won’t tolerate alkaline soils, making them an unsuitable choice for most of the Rocky Mountain area and some parts of the Midwest. If you live in an area where they grow, though, azaleas and rhododendrons make lovely understory shrubs. Azaleas need consistent moisture, so use a drip system regularly. Oregon Grape Holly. Oregon grape holly is a tough, drought-resistant plant that can grow in almost any environment. The plant is available as an upright shrub or with a trailing form, which is especially attractive under trees. It has holly-shaped leaves, yellow flowers and purple berries. Alpine currant. This tough plant can grow as far north as USDA zone 3, making it suitable for the cold weather garden. Alpine currant grows in both sun and shade. It has attractive multi-lobed leaves. Choose dwarf varieties as understory plants. Hydrangeas. Like azaleas, hydrangeas need consistent moisture, but they tolerate and even prefer shade. In zones 6 through 9, you can grow mophead or French hydrangeas. In zones 4 through 5, you’re better off growing panicle or arborescens hydrangeas, which are more cold hardy.


Wild columbine. Columbines abound in woodland meadows. The state flower of Colorado, these plants have delicate flowers that belie their rugged nature. Columbines are short-lived perennials that reseed easily. They’re fairly drought tolerant, once established. Wild ginger. Wild ginger needs some moisture, but it tolerates shade and spreads quickly. Its large, heart-shaped leaves form a dense mat. Vinca. Vinca grows in full sun to partial shade and tolerates dry to moist conditions. In moist soil, it can become invasive. Hosta. Hostas are somewhat drought tolerant, although they’ll perform better with consistent moisture. These versatile plants comes in hundreds of varieties, with foliage ranging from deep blue-green to yellow and gold. Group hostas in masses under trees.


Impatiens. The classic underplanting annual, impatiens tolerate deep shade, especially during hot weather. They need regular watering and frequent fertilizer. Pansies and violets. Pansies and violets grow best in full sun, but they make a good understory plant in early spring, before shade trees have leafed out. They can also be grown in the fall after leaves have fallen.

For more information on planting under trees, visit the following links:

Planting Under a Tree from Fine Gardening
Planting Under Trees from University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.

The 33 Best Trees For Small Gardens

There is something deeply spiritual about trees, standing silently as they watch generations passing by.

Versatile and adaptable, the correct species will add huge dimension and depth to your outdoor refuge, while complementing existing shrubs and perennials perfectly.

Their leafy stature offers the illusion of luxurious serenity and the ritual of planting a tree is therapeutic in itself, giving an immense sense of satisfaction. Possessing a timeless charm, trees are flexible enough to blend seamlessly into the background, or stand alone as a striking focal point of your garden.

Planting a tree in a small garden sounds counterintuitive. After all, the aim is to make a cramped outdoor space feel more open, so the last thing you want to do is dwarf it with an overpowering tree, right? The answer is yes and no.

Of course, a larger species of tree will engulf and swallow a smaller garden, detracting from the natural light and casting large shadows. However, there are many varieties of smaller trees that are ideal for compact gardens, allowing you to boost the character and personality of your verdant haven.

Image source

At its most basic level, a tree is a low-maintenance feature with unlimited possibility. It can be used merely as a green backdrop to set your colourful beds against, or an intense focal point to plant your shrubs around.

Requiring minimal upkeep, trees are excellent for gardeners who lead busy lifestyles and they survive the harshest weather conditions without much extra care. Trees are healers and soothers, neutralising the pollution and airborne toxins that go hand in hand with city living, meaning your garden will have a purer oxygen quality.

That’s not the only environmental benefit either. In the scientific world, trees are known as autogenic ecosystem engineers. Put simply, this means that they enrich the surrounding environment by modifying themselves. As a tree grows, its branches and leaves evolve to become home to various animals and insects, creating its own little ecosystem and enhancing the biodiversity of your garden. What could be more relaxing than the twitter of birdsong and the lazy drone of passing bees!

Picking the right tree for a small garden

Before settling on a suitable species for your garden, there are a few points to consider.


Habitat is a major deciding factor when browsing potential trees. Identifying the type of soil in your garden will save a lot of effort and ongoing maintenance in the long run. Let’s face it, nobody wants the hassle of a tree that requires regular feeding due to unsuitable soil conditions, so it’s well worth doing your homework before taking the plunge.

Height & Spread

One of the most stunning facets of a tree is its sheer immensity. However, there is a fine line between inspiringly vast and downright imposing. A domineering tree such as an oak might seem like a good idea, but in time it will overwhelm other features and block light from entering your garden and house.

The potential height and spread of a tree is one of the most important elements to contemplate when choosing a tree for a smaller garden. Even the smallest species have a growth span of up to 6m, so bear this in mind before planting.

Weeping trees are excellent for restricted spaces as they tend to grow outwards rather than upwards. If spread is a worry, a columnar species is a better option. For tiny gardens or concrete yards, trees planted in large containers are the perfect compromise.

Image source

Trees should always be planted a good distance from your house so that spreading roots won’t undermine the foundations of the structure as they grow.


As with perennials and shrubs, the aspect of your garden will have a bearing on which trees are suitable for planting. Some species prefer the sunny south to the cold dark north. As well as this, considering the placement of the tree in relation to the rest of your plants and flowers is vital to create maximum impact.

Perennials and shrubs draw your interest along the landscape of a garden, whereas trees are like punctuation points, telling your eyes where to pause and guiding them where to look next. Recognising this will help you to make the most of your tree in the bigger scheme of your outdoor refuge.

Season of Interest

Season of interest is another crucial point to think about. Trees are often overlooked in this regard which is a huge shame, given that they have the potential to bring life and colour to your garden all year round through flowers, foliage, fruit and bark. Incorporating your tree into your existing planting scheme will help it to blend flawlessly with its surroundings.

If you prefer bright vibrant perennials in the spring and summer, then a tree with autumn or winter interest will follow on beautifully, meaning your garden isn’t too bereft when the evenings turn dark and cold. Spindle trees and paperbark maples are popular options for this.

For a low-maintenance garden, a tree with multiple seasons of interest such as the crab apple are a spectacular feature which give an intense blast of colour while flowering, as well as bearing fruit and shedding wonderfully rustic leaves in autumn. Certain species such as willows can act as an architectural interest with their structure alone, drawing the eye into their fascinating web of branches.

Ideal species of trees for limited outdoor space

Flowering Trees:

  • Genista Aetnensis
  • Certain Magnolia species, such as Pink Beauty and Jade Lamp
  • Weeping Silver Pear
  • Prunus Accolade
  • Certain varieties of Syringa Vulgaris, such as Primrose and Madame Lemoine

Fruit Trees:

  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Plum
  • Apricot
  • Cornelian Cherry
  • Vilmorin’s Rowan

Autumn Flowering:

  • Prunus Pandora
  • Prunus Shizuka
  • Cornus Kousa Chinensis
  • Forest Pansy

Autumn Foliage:

  • Prunus Pandora
  • Cornus Eddies White Wonder
  • Nyssa Sylvatica Isabel Grace
  • Styrax Japonicus

Trees Under 5m Tall:

  • Forest Pansy
  • Cornus Kousa Miss Satomi
  • Magnolia Stellata Jane Platt
  • Salix Exigua

Columnar Trees:

  • Malus Red Obelisk
  • Prunus Spire
  • Prunus Amanogawa

Interesting Bark:

  • Prunus Himalaica
  • Prunus Serrula
  • Acer Capillipes
  • Eucalyptus Gregsoniana


  • Eucryphia Milliganii
  • Camellia Japonica
  • Juniperus Chinensis Obelisk


Trees generally require little attention apart from an annual prune. Removing diseased stems and crossed branches encourages new growth and will ensure your tree thrives.

It is important to prune at the correct time, otherwise the bloom may be restricted the following season. Trees that bloom in early spring should be pruned in late spring, immediately after they finish flowering. Trees that bloom in the summer should be pruned in winter while dormant, or early spring at the latest. It really is as simple as that! The key to guaranteeing that your tree flourishes is in the planting, so plan carefully and you will enjoy your leafy canopy for years to come.

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