Small Trees for Small Gardens

There are many small trees that may fit into any sized garden, but are they better in small gardens? Small gardens may be defined as those that are on a small lot in town, or have a small amount of useable space. Or even a garden room that needs a small tree. Small trees fit in so many different places.

There are a lot more options for small trees than most gardeners would think. But what defines a small tree? I consider a multi-stemmed shrub or tree that is trained as a tree, with the branches lopped up to form a canopy, to be a tree. Also, any plant that forms a trunk with is hardy in most zones from 3 to 9 I consider to be a tree. A small tree might be any tree under 30 feet in height. But it also might be a columnar tree that can grow in a narrow space, though be taller than 30 feet.

There are 2 kinds of small trees, ornamental and edible. I am going to look at ornamental qualities of small trees only, for this time.

Varieties of Ornamental Small Trees

Like I said above, shrubs that are multi-stemmed and pruned to look like trees, should be considered small trees. Shrubs on standard I do not consider to be small trees though, because they need almost constant staking and rarely make a sturdy trunk.

There are 12 small trees that I recommend regularly to gardeners with small gardens. I am going to separate them by native and nonnative. Just because something is not native though, does not mean it is invasive or problematic. On the contrary, many nonnative trees have sterile cultivars that we grow in our landscapes, and most of them are not harmed by insects.

Nonnative Small Trees

There are 5 nonnative small trees that are great additions to a small garden or landscape. Using these trees in the proper place however, is important. Be sure you know the space for the tree and how much sunlight it will receive. Often, small growing trees are understory trees which do not do as well in full sun conditions.

Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconioides)

I have no idea why it is called the seven son tree, but it really does not matter. This is one of my favorite trees in the garden, not only for its size, but its multi-season interest. The seven son tree is a small tree that grows from 15 to 25 feet tall and wide at maturity. It reaches that maturity in less than 15 years.

seven son tree
The seven son tree is a great small tree for big or small gardens

In my own garden, my seven son tree has been trained to have a multi-stem look by letting lower branches grow from the base, instead of lopping them off. It is on the edge of my Entry Garden, in part to full sun. The seven son tree grows well in full to part sun and is adaptable to various soil conditions.

One of the unique factors about this small tree, is that is blooms late August through September. The white flowers are very attractive to pollinators and are followed by a red calyx after the bloom. The bark is peeling and adds interest through the winter months.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

What is a shade garden without a Japanese maple? Well, I have a customer who has extensive shade gardens and no Japanese maples, and it always feels like something is missing. They just seem to tie things together in the shade. In my own garden, my weeping Japanese maple really shines in the shade.

Japanese maples come in all kinds of shapes, leaf colors, and sizes, though the biggest I have seen still stopped short of 30 feet. Many of the most popular ones have dark red or maroon colored leaves, though the finely dissected green leaf varieites are nice too. Here in the Central Great Plains, it can be difficult to grow Japanese maples successfully, because so many are not hardy in our winters.

Japanese maple
Japanese maple ‘Tamukeyama’ is a great small tree

But we do have a few reliable cultivars that perform including the following:

  • ‘Tamukeyama’ – with weeping or spreading branches, this cultivar grows 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. It has dark maroon leaves that are finely dissected.
  • ‘Hefner’s Red’ – has the true palm shaped leaves that are a better red color than other hardy varieites. It grows 20 feet tall and wide.
  • ‘Bloodgood’ – is perhaps the most well-known cultivar for our area. It has deep red to maroon leaves and grows 20 to 30 feet tall by 15 feet wide.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

The paperbark maple is one of the slowest growing small trees I know of. I have 3 of these small trees in my gardens, and I can attest to that. One is a seedling from the former Kansas state champion paperbark, and it is over 10 years old, and only 5 feet tall. But, despite their slow growth, these maples are excellent additions to the shade or part shade garden as understory trees.

small trees
The striped bark of the Manchurian striped maple

Having cinnamon colored, peeling bark, makes them one of the best trees for winter interest. Once established, they need little care, but be sure to NOT place them where they get late afternoon or western sun. Otherwise the leaves will scorch. They are rarely bothered by any insect and have great fall color; usually reds and oranges. Paperbark maples grow 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide, eventually.

Manchurian Striped Maple (Acer tegmentosum)

This is the last maple, I promise. But I had to include it in a list of small trees. In my own garden, I planted this specimen tree between a black walnut and a shagbark hickory. It has done very well, and has the prettiest flowers of all the maples. The soft green leaves are large, almost like a sycamore leaf.

Growing 25 to 30 feet tall and wide, this maple has green and white striped bark. This alone makes it a great small ornamental tree. The fall color is deep yellow, matching the cottonwoods nearby. It needs to be in part sun or as an understory tree in the Central Great Plains.

Weeping Pussy Willow (Salix caprea ‘Pendula)

The weeping pussy willow is a great small tree for the garden. The flowers or catkins in early spring are attractive to early moving honeybees, bumblebees, and flies. And the leaves are oval and green through the summer. Plant it in full to part sun for best growth. The only issue I have seen on these trees is Japanese beetles, which love all willows.

The weeping pussy willow grows 8 feet tall and wide and is easily pruned for shape. It grows well in USDA Zones 4 to 8 and is adaptable to many soils, but prefers moist soils, so if you use drip irrigation, add it to the line.

small trees - weeping pussy willow
The weeping pussy willow is easy to grow and shape

Native Small Trees

There are 7 native small trees that fit perfectly into almost any small garden in the Central Great Plains and Midwest regions. Kansas City I am talking to you! Use these native trees to attract native pollinators and promote a healthy garden.

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

The downy serviceberry is a great small tree for the landscape, as either an understory tree or in a full sun location. Serviceberries are native in many ecoregions of the United States. Downy serviceberry is native across much of the Central Great Plains and Midwestern regions. Found often along streams and lakes, serviceberries prefer well-drained to moist soils.

small trees - serviceberry
The serviceberry grows great in full sun by water

This small tree grows 20 to 25 feet tall and wide. In spring, white flowers are popular with bees and early butterflies. The blue-black berries ripen in June and are favorites of birds and humans alike. The edible berries taste similar to blueberries and are great in pies and jelly. Fall color is excellent, oranges and reds. Several moths use the foliage as a host.

bladdernut seedpods
Bladdernut seedpods

American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)

This little known shrub/tree is one of my favorite small trees for the landscape. The bladdernut is a unique tree from the understory of American woodlands. The early spring flowers are white and bell-shaped, popular among bumblebees. Bladdernut grows 10 to 15 feet tall and wide and grows best in moist woodlands.

One of the coolest things about the bladdernut are the seedpods. These triangular pods are beautiful in decorations and dried floral arrangements. There is one species of moth known to use this plant as a host. Bladdernut is deer resistant.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

The redbud is one of the most popular small trees in gardens today. There are new cultivars of this native tree coming out almost every year. one of the things I love about the redbud is its durability and usefulness to moth and butterflies. Also, bees love the flowers. Redbuds are drought tolerant and grow well in either full sun or part shade.

Depending on the cultivar, redbuds may grow anywhere from 8 to 30 feet tall and wide. The following cultivars are best for the Central Great Plains and Midwest.

small trees - redbud the rising sun
Redbud ‘The Rising Sun’ is a great small tree for a small corner
  • ‘Mr. America’ – a white blooming cultivars of the eastern redbud, this cultivar is a Grimm’s Gardens introduction. It grows 25 feet tall and wide.
  • ‘The Rising Sun’ – has bright, yellow new growth that turns to deep green leaves. It grows 12 feet tall by 8 feet wide.
  • ‘Forest Pansy’ – has dark, maroon leaves and grows 30 feet tall and wide.

Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)

Also called ironwood, the hophornbeam is an understory tree from the woods of Eastern North America. The leaves are very soft, and resemble the leaves of elms. Flowers of ironwood are not showy, but this tree has excellent yellow to gold fall color and interesting seedpods. The wood is very strong, hence the name ironwood. It grows 30 feet tall and wide.

Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides)

The smallest oak in the Central Great Plains is the perfect small tree for full sun locations. Growing native on dry, rocky ridges, the dwarf chinkapin oak is a slow grower, reaching 30 feet (maybe) in about 30 years. Oaks are great trees for gardens, providing food for a variety of insects from moths to butterflies. The acorns are small and attractive to wildlife.

I love the small leaves and acorns of this tree, and Grimm’s Gardens is working on a cultivar called ‘Little Youth’, selected from seedlings of the former National Champion tree by Morrill, KS.

slow growing small trees
Dwarf chinkapin oaks are slow growing small trees

Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifolia)

wafer ash seeds
Seeds of the wafer ash

Another little-known small tree, the wafer ash, also called the hoptree, is an understory tree from the woodlands of North America. However, it does very well in full sun and is quite drought tolerant. The yellow flowers in spring are visited by a number of insect pollinators and the giant swallowtail butterfly uses it as a host plants.

Wafer ash is so called because the seeds are surrounded by a thin wafer-like samara, like the seeds of ash trees. This tree grows 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. There is a nice specimen planted by a friend of mine on the southeast corner of the Jackson County courthouse in Holton, KS.

Weeping Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Pendula)

The weeping baldcypress is a small tree coming from a big tree. While the native baldcypress grows 60 to 100 feet tall, the weeping form grows only 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. The dark green, conifer-like leaves are soft and delicate looking, while the tree itself has all the qualities favored by the parent.

They can grow in wet or dry soils, in full sun to light shade conditions. Autumn color is rusty orange to brown and the leaves are easy to cleanup. Bagworms are the biggest pest problem these small trees have.

Conclusion

Adding small trees to the garden is a lot easier with so many selections for sun or part shade conditions. Most small trees have good fall color, interesting bark, or are attractive to insect pollinators. Keep a few small trees as understory trees among your larger shade trees.

Happy planting!

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