The Top 10 Trees for the Small Yard

Recommended Trees for Urban Settings

Do you have a small yard that needs a bit of shade? Here are ten trees that will do well in smaller areas. These trees have been recommended by urban foresters representing several urban forestry associations and agencies. These trees are small (most grow no more than 30 feet tall) and with care can be planted to avoid disturbing powerlines and underground cables. Each of these trees does well in many North American tree zones and can be purchased at online and local nurseries.

Each tree is linked to an expanded resource, some of which are fact sheets (PDF) developed by The United States Forest Service and the Association of State Foresters.

Amur Maple (Acer ginnala)

Amur Maple
Jerry Norbury / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

The Amur Maple is an excellent, low-growing tree for small yards and other small-scale landscapes. It can be grown as a multi-stemmed clump or can be trained into a small tree with a single trunk up to four to six feet tall.

The tree typically grows between 20 to 30 feet tall and has an upright, rounded, finely-branched canopy which creates dense shade under the crown. Due to excessive branchiness, some pruning is required early in the life of the tree to select the dominant major branches.

An Amur Maple can grow rapidly when it is young if it receives plenty of water and fertilizer, and it is well suited for planting close to power lines since it slows down and remains small at maturity.

Crabapple (Malus spp)

wplynn / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Crabapples are best grown in a sunny location with good air circulation. They have no particular soil preferences, except the soil should be well-drained. Prune the roots to transplant crabapples most easily. Crabapple tree size, flower color, fruit color, and growth and branching habit vary considerably with the specific cultivar, but many grow about 20 feet tall and are wide-spreading.

A few crabapples have good fall color, and double-flowered types hold blossoms longer than single-flowered cultivars. Some Crabapples are alternate year bearers, meaning they bloom heavily only every other year. Crabapples are grown for their showy flowers and attractive, brightly-colored fruit. 

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud
Ryan Somma / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Eastern ​Redbud is a moderate- to rapid-grower, 20 to 30 feet in height, with red twigs and beautiful, shimmering, purple/red new leaves in spring, which fade to purple/green during the summer in its southern range (USDA hardiness zones 7, 8 and 9). The splendid, purple/pink flowers appear all over the tree in spring, just before the leaves emerge.

Also called the ‘Forest Pansy,’ the Eastern Redbud forms a graceful, flat-topped, vase shape as it gets older. The tree usually branches low on the trunk, and if left intact forms a graceful multitrunked habit. Be sure to prune to reduce the size of the lateral branches, saving the ‘U’-shaped crotches and removing 'V'-shaped crotches. 

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Flowering dogwood
Eli Christman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The state tree of Virginia, the Flowering Dogwood grows 20 to 35 feet tall and spreads 25 to 30 feet wide. It can be trained to grow with one central trunk or as a multi-trunked tree. The flowers consist of four bracts which subtend the small head of yellow flowers. The bracts may be white, pink, or red depending on cultivar.

The fall color depends on the location and seed source but on most sun-grown plants will be red to maroon. The bright red fruits are edible by birds. Branches on the lower half of the crown grow horizontally, those in the upper half are more upright. In time, this can lend a strikingly horizontal impact to the landscape, particularly if some branches are thinned to open up the crown.

Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

Golden raintree
Juliana Swenson / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Golden raintree grows to between 30 to 40 feet tall with an equal spread, in a broad, irregular globe- to vase-shape. It has weak wood but is rarely attacked by pests and grows in a wide range of soils. The tree can be considered invasive in tropical North America. Golden raintree tolerates dryness but casts little shade due to its open growth habit.

The adaptive tree makes a good street or parking lot tree, particularly where overhead or soil space is limited. The raintree grows moderately and bears large panicles of bright yellow flowers in May (USDA hardiness zone 9) to July (USDA hardiness zone 6) when few other trees bloom. The seed pods look like brown Chinese lanterns and are held on the tree well into the fall. 

Hedge Maple (Acer campestre)

Hedge maple

Hedge Maples are usually low-branched with a rounded form, but there is variability from one tree to the next. The branches are slender and branch profusely, lending a fine texture to the landscape particularly during winter. Lower branches can be removed to create clearance beneath the crown for vehicles and pedestrians.

The tree eventually reaches a height and spread of 30 to 35 feet but it grows slowly. The small stature and vigorous growth make this an excellent street tree for residential areas, or perhaps in downtown urban sites. However, it grows a little too tall for planting beneath some power lines. It is also suitable as a patio or yard shade tree because it stays small and creates dense shade.

Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana)

Saucer Magnolia
Kari Bluff / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

The Saucer Magnolia is a striking looking tree in summer or winter. Dropping its large, six-inch leaves in fall without any spectacular display of color, this magnolia forms an attractive winter specimen with its rounded silhouette and multiple trunks originating close to the ground. In open, sunny locations it is most often 25 feet or less, but in shadier patches, ​it can grow 30 to 40 feet tall and is capable of reaching 75 feet in height in its native forest habitat.

In an open site, the spread is often greater than the height with 25-foot-tall trees 35 feet wide if given the room to grow unobstructed. Branches gracefully touch the ground on older specimens as the tree spreads, in a manner not unlike open-grown live oaks. Allow plenty of room for proper development.

Southern Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis)

Hawthorn tree
GanMed64 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Southern Hawthorn is a North American native tree which grows slowly, reaching 20 to 30 feet in height and spread. It is very dense and thorny, making it a popular choice for use as a hedge or as a screen. Unlike other hawthorns, the thorns are small and inconspicuous.

The dark green deciduous leaves turn beautiful shades of bronze, red, and gold in the fall before dropping. The handsome, silver-grey bark peels off in sections to reveal an inner orange bark, making ‘Winter King’ Southern Hawthorn a striking planting in the winter landscape. The white blooms are followed by large, orange/red fruits which persist on the naked tree throughout the winter, adding to its landscape interest. 

Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)

Peter Stevens / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Allegheny Serviceberry grows in shade or partial shade as an understory tree. The small tree grows 30 to 40 feet tall and spreads 15 to 20 feet. Multiple stems are upright and highly branched forming a dense shrub, or, if properly pruned, a small tree.

The tree is short-lived, has a rapid growth rate, and can be used as a filler plant or to attract birds. The main ornamental feature is the white flowers borne in drooping clusters in mid-spring. The purplish-black berries are sweet and juicy but are soon eaten by birds. In fall, the leaves turn yellow to red. It is well adapted for planting beneath power lines due to its small size. 

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

American hornbeam
Michael Gras, M.Ed. / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Also known as Ironwood, the American Hornbeam is a handsome tree which grows slowly in many locations, reaching a height and spread of between 20 to 30 feet. It will grow with an attractive open habit in total shade, but be dense in full sun. The muscle-like bark is smooth, gray and fluted.

Ironwood has is reportedly difficult to transplant from a native site or field nursery but is easy from containers.

The fall color is faintly orange to yellow and the tree stands out in the landscape or woods in the fall. Brown leaves occasionally hang on the tree into the winter.