Top 10 Trees for the Small Yard

10 Great Small Trees for Planting in Limited Space

I've selected ten trees that will do fine in a small yard. These trees have been recommended by urban foresters representing several urban forestry associations and agencies. These trees are small (most less than 30 feet tall). Every tree is plantable in many North American tree zones, is compatible under or  most utilities and near structures and can be purchased at online and local nurseries.

Each tree is linked to an expanded resource where some are fact sheets (PDF) developed by The United States Forest Service and the Association of State Foresters. I use their information in the introduction of each tree.

These trees are recommended for small yards. Some easy to find as seedlings, some not so much. Here are trees you might consider for a large yard or broad landscape.

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Amur Maple

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

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 grows about 20 to 30 feet tall and has an upright, rounded, finely branched growth habit which creates dense shade under the crown. Due to excessive branchiness, some pruning is required early in the life of the tree to create dominant major branches.

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

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wplynn / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Crabapples are best grown in a sunny location with good air circulation and have no particular soil preferences, except soil should be well-drained. Root pruned trees transplant most easily. Tree size, flower color, fruit color, and growth and branching habit vary considerably with the cultivar grown but many grow about 20 feet tall and wide.

A few Crabapples have good fall color and doubleflowered types hold blossoms longer than singleflowered cultivars. Some Crabapples are alternate bearers, blooming heavily only every other year. Crabapples are grown for their showy flowers and attractive, brightly-colored fruit. 

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Eastern redbud
Ryan Somma / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Eastern Redbud is a moderate to rapid-grower, 20 to 30 feet in height, which has red twigs and beautiful, shimmering, purple/red new leaves, 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.

‘Forest Pansy’ 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 avoid weak forks by pruning to reduce the size of the lateral branches and save those which form ‘U’-shaped crotches and take out 'V'-shaped crotches. 

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Flowering dogwood
Eli Christman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The state tree of Virginia, Flowering Dogwood grows 20 to 35 feet tall and spreads 25 to 30 feet. It can be trained 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 pink or red depending on cultivar but the species color is white.

The fall color depends on site and seed source but on most sun grown plants will be red to maroon. The bright red fruits are often eaten 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.

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

Goldenraintree grows 30 to 40 feet tall with an equal spread, in a broad, irregular globe to vase shape. It has weak wooded but is rarely attacked by pests and grows in a wide range of soils. The tree can be considered invasive in tropical North America. Goldenraintree 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. 

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Hedge Maple

Hedge maple

Hedge Maple is 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.

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

A striking tree in summer or winter. Dropping its large, six-inch leaves in fall without any spectacular display of color, Kobus Magnolia forms an attractive winter specimen with its rounded silhouette and multiple trunks originating close to the ground. It can grow 30 to 40 feet tall but is most often 25 feet or less in an open, sunny landscape site 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

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Hawthorn tree
GanMed64 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Southern Hawthorn is a North American native tree which slowly reaches 20 to 30 feet in height and spread. It is very dense and thorny which makes 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 the inner orange bark, making ‘Winter King’ Southern Hawthorn a striking specimen 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. 

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Allegheny Serviceberry

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. The fall color is yellow to red. It is well adapted for planting beneath power lines due to its small size. 

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American Hornbeam (Ironwood)

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

A handsome tree in many locations, ironwood slowly reaches a height and spread of 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 a slow growth rate and is reportedly difficult to transplant from a native site or field nursery (although 10-inch-diameter trees were moved with a 90-inch tree spade during the winter in USDA hardiness zone 8b with no problem) but is easy from containers.

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