15 Small Trees to Spruce Up Your Landscaping
Trees beautify your yard, provide shade, serve as wildlife habitat, and can lower the cost to cool your home. However, along with all these benefits, you often also get expansive root systems and towering canopies that may make fitting a tree into a small yard seem nearly impossible. The good news is that there are plenty of small trees for patios and gardens with root systems that are more compact and heights that are more manageable.
Sometimes, when you are looking for small trees for your garden, what you really need is a shrub that can be trained and pruned like a tree. For example, shrubs like hop bush or crepe myrtle make gorgeous trees and, since there is not much difference between a big shrub and a small tree, you will often see them referred to as trees and shrubs interchangeably.
So, to help you on your quest to find the perfect tree for a small space, here are 15 small trees and large shrubs for you to consider.
1. Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Crepe myrtle (also spelled crape myrtle) is a great example of a flowering shrub that can be grown as either a shrub or a tree. There are dozens of crepe myrtle varieties, including dwarf myrtles that grow anywhere from five to eight feet tall to deciduous and evergreen options that grow to heights upwards of 30 feet, with canopies that can reach 20 feet long. Choosing a variety like Lagerstroemia indica allows you to add brilliant color to a small yard or patio area with a flowering tree.
Crepe myrtle flowers, which have the delicate look of crepe paper, come in pinks, purple or white. Aside from the gorgeous flowers you can enjoy between late spring and fall, you will also enjoy that this small tree requires little maintenance and can thrive in just a small soil space.
- Botanical name: Lagerstroemia indica
- Height at maturity: 5-9 feet (dwarf varieties)
- Growing conditions: Warm, humid climates. Crepe myrtles are somewhat drought tolerant but will need extra water during hot months.
- Zones: 7 through 10
2. Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
This deciduous beauty may lose its gorgeous leaves in fall, but the elegant silhouette of the bare trunk and branches will provide plenty of visual interest in your garden throughout the winter.
Japanese maples like a little shade, but there are some cultivars that can better handle that sunny spot near your patio. While some varieties can grow quite tall, Japanese maples are ideal for small spaces because their compact root system does not require a large area of soil in which to spread out. In fact, some of these small trees can even be grown in large containers on your patio. Some are even grown as bonsais.
Depending on the variety you choose, leaf color can range from orange or green to deep purple, so do a little research before buying to determine which color will work best with your landscape design.
- Botanical name: Acer palmatum
- Height at maturity: 6-12 feet
- Growing conditions: Partial shade, rich, moist and well drained soil. Slightly acidic soil pH.
- Zones: 5 through 8
3. Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)
Bay laurels can grow in such a small space that you can actually grow this one in a container on your patio. Left to its own devices, it can soar to more than 50 feet tall, but it can be pruned to keep it at a much more manageable size. Bay laurels will only grow as tall as their planted environment allows. If potted or planted in a limited soil space, they’ll remain much smaller — around 10-12 feet.
Bay laurels are evergreen trees that prefer full sun, part sun or part shade and are hardy in zones 8 through 11. Since you will be pruning it anyway to keep it small, save the leaves to dry for culinary use or to make aromatic wreaths for décor or gifts.
- Botanical name: Laurus nobilis
- Height at maturity: 10 to 60 feet tall. Depending on potting conditions
- Growing conditions: Full to partial sun. Native to Mediterranean climates. Well drained soil
- Zones: 8 through 11
4. Semi-Dwarf Fruit Trees
If you love the idea of stepping into your garden to pick oranges for fresh-squeezed juice but do not have room for a 30-foot orange tree, semi-dwarf fruit trees might be your answer. Semi-dwarf fruit trees are half the size of their standard-size counterparts. This makes these small trees a perfect choice for small yards and allows homeowners to grow their own fruits even if they do not have much space.
Another advantage of choosing semi-dwarf fruit trees is that they begin producing fruit much sooner than full-size trees. This option comes in lots of varieties, so talk with a pro at your local garden center to determine which fruit trees will do best where you live. For folks living in Southern California, citrus fruits and avocados are usually a good choice, but this may not be the case if you live in an inland or mountainous area with hard freezes.
- Botanical name: Apples, apricots apriums, pears, cherries, nectaries peach and plum varieties
- Height at maturity: 12 to 15 feet tall/wide
- Growing conditions: Full sun, soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0, well drained soil
- Zones: 5 through 8 (depending on the fruit variety)
5. Dwarf Fruit Trees
For folks with even less space for their backyard orchard, there are dwarf fruit trees. Dwarf options generally grow several feet less than their semi-dwarf counterparts and some can be grown successfully in containers. While they do not produce nearly as much fruit as semi-dwarf options, dwarf trees reach maturity faster and start producing fruit sooner. Their size also makes it easier to harvest fruits and to perform maintenance tasks like pruning.
Like semi-dwarf trees, dwarf citrus trees come in many varieties, so do a little research to see which types of fruit trees will grow best where you live. Also, while it might seem like a shorter tree should be sturdier than their taller cousins, dwarf trees usually need to be staked at least until they reach maturity.
- Botanical name: Limes, lemons, orange, grapefruit and other citrus varieties
- High at maturity: 6 to 10 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full sun, soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0, loamy, well drained soil
- Zones: 9 through 11
6. Palo Verde (Cercidium)
Palo Verde trees are truly drought tolerant, so this is a great choice for Southern California and Arizona where we seem to be in a never-ending state of some level of drought. Some varieties reach 40 feet in height, so choose carefully if you are in the market for small trees.
Your best bet is Desert Museum Palo Verde, which is a hybrid that grows to be about 20 feet tall, has no thorns and has a long blooming season. Your other option is a Foothill Palo Verde, which also grows to about 20 feet tall but has thorns that make it a less-than-ideal choice for small spaces or spaces where children play. You will enjoy beautiful yellow blossoms with either of these varieties.
A fun fact about Palo Verde trees is that their green trunks and branches can photosynthesize. In fact, the trunk and branches do most of the work, which is unique in the plant community where photosynthesis is usually left up to the leaves. This unique quality allows Palo Verde trees to drop their leaves in times of extreme drought, which is a survival mechanism that makes this option particularly drought tolerant and able to survive in the desert.
- Botanical name: Cercidium floridum or Parkinsonia florida
- High at maturity: 15 to 30 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full sun, limited water, sandy, well drained soil
- Zones: 8 through 11
7. Little Gem Southern Dwarf Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
If you are looking for small trees with big flowers, a Little Gem magnolia might be your perfect choice. These slow-growing evergreens do well in full sun, and have large, showy blooms from late spring through summer. If you have a spot in your garden that is part sun or part shade, this magnolia will still do fine, just know that you will see fewer flowers if you choose a shady spot.
Little Gem magnolias are not drought tolerant and require regular watering, so this is a better choice for folks looking for a tree for an area that already requires regular irrigation. For example, you might choose this magnolia for a flowerbed or border where you have a drip system. You can also grow this one in a container.
- Botanical name: Magnolia grandiflora
- Height at maturity: 15 to 25 feet
- Growing conditions: Partial shade to full sun, deeply watered, moist soil
- Zones: 7 through 9
8. Banana Shrub (Magnolia figo)
Banana shrubs are versatile, flowering shrubs that can be planted as a privacy hedge, will grow well in borders along fence lines, can be grown in containers on your patio, or can be added to your landscape design as small trees.
The yellow and purple flowers are not edible, but they give off a banana-like fragrance that makes them an aromatic addition to outdoor living areas. The deep green foliage of these trees also provides year-round visual interest to your yard.
These plants grow best in sunny tropical to subtropical climates, and will bloom fragrant flowers sporadically throughout the summer months.
- Botanical name: Magnolia figo
- Height at maturity: 6 to 13 feet tall/wide
- Growing conditions: Partial to full sun, lightly moist soil, partially humid climates
- Zones: 7B through 10
9. California Lilac (Ceanothus)
The first thing to know about California lilacs is that they are not true lilacs, but they do have gorgeous clusters of flowers usually found in white, pale blue, dark blue, pink or lavender. The second thing to know is that there are dozens of cultivars that range in height from six inches to about 10 feet, so you will need to choose the taller versions to use this flowering shrub as a tree in your landscape design.
This one is a California native, so it will require regular watering until established, and then infrequent, deep watering once or twice a month after that. If you plant your California lilacs in late fall, the rain we get over the winter will help take care of the early irrigation needs for these small trees.
Some cultivars are evergreen, some are deciduous, and each has its own blooming period. This means that you will want to work with a pro at your local garden center to find the variety of California lilac that best suits your needs. California lilacs are a great choice for a drought-resistant garden and for folks who want to attract birds, butterflies and pollinators to their yard.
- Botanical name: Ceanothus
- Height at maturity: 2 to 10 feet depending on the cultivar
- Growing conditions: Mediterranean-style climates, full sun and well drained, moist soil
- Zones: 8 through 10
10. Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)
Desert willows are a solid option if you are looking for small trees for a drought-tolerant garden. Native to southwest deserts, these deciduous beauties have only a brief leafless period but are still attractive, even when their branches are bare. Desert willows bloom from spring to early fall with dark pink, white, purple, or lilac flowers that look a bit like a cross between an iris and an orchid.
Some cultivars of this shrub or small tree can grow as tall as 24 feet, but others have a mature height of around five feet, which makes them a good choice for patios or small gardens. This drought-resistant option does not require excessive irrigation, but you are going to need to prune it regularly to maintain a tree-like shape.
It’s an incredibly low maintenance plant that requires very little care.
- Botanical name: Chilopsis linearis
- Height at maturity: 12 to 18 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full sun with dry to medium moist soil, soil pH of 6.6-8.5
- Zones: 6 through 9
11. California Juniper (Juniperus californica)
California juniper is another native, drought-tolerant option that works well in small, sunny spaces with dry soil. In fact, it requires little to no watering — ideal for people who don’t have lots of time to tend to their yards. These small trees have berry-like cones resting amongst scale-like leaves. This one is an evergreen, so you can enjoy the foliage throughout the year.
California junipers grow best at elevations between about 2,500 feet and 5,000 feet, so this one is best for folks living in foothills and mountainous areas in Southern California. This is also a good choice for gardeners hoping to provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Since these can be bonsaied, you should have no trouble growing your juniper in a container, if that is the space you are trying to fill.
- Botanical name: Juniperus californica
- Height at maturity: 10 to 25 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full sun with sandy, loamy, well-drained soil
- Zones: 8 through 10
12. Tea Trees (Leptospermum)
Tea trees is a general term used for a group of large shrubs or small trees in the myrtle family primarily native to Australia and New Zealand. You have probably seen tea trees pruned as shrubby hedges in Southern California, but you can also prune them as small trees for patios or outdoor living areas.
This evergreen shrub can be grown in borders and containers, so they are a good choice for small gardens and patios. Look for white, pink or red blooms from late spring through early fall.
Aside from the quality of being small in stature, tea trees also appeal to folks looking for options that are drought tolerant, deer resistant and attractive to pollinators.
- Botanical name: Leptospermum scoparium
- Height at maturity: 6 to 10 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full sun or light shade with rich, medium moist, well-drained soil
- Zones: 9 through 12
13. California Wax Myrtle (Myrica californica)
Also called pacific wax myrtle, California bayberry or pacific bayberry, California wax myrtles are native to most of the west coast and straddle that line between evergreen shrub and small tree. While you can enjoy the dark green leaves throughout the year, you will also get white or yellow flowers in spring and summer, as well as purple berries.
This one is a drought-tolerant option that needs little water once established. Pacific wax myrtles are also tolerant of wind and salt spray, which means you can use them as a windbreak in coastal gardens.
Since it is a fast-growing evergreen, this one can also be used to block unsightly views or make your patio a bit more private.
- Botanical name: Myrica californica
- Height at maturity: 6 to 25 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full or partial sun with moist clay, loam or sandy soils
- Zones: 7 through 10
14. Royal Purple Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggyria “Royal Purple”)
This deciduous tree is a perfect choice for adding color and visual interest to a small space. Royal purple smoke trees offer a completely different look than other trees on this list with their feathery plumes and purple-red foliage.
They prefer full sun, part sun or part shade and are drought tolerant, so you can expect to water these regularly before they are established and occasionally after they are established.
You will want to prune them a bit to keep them looking like a tree, rather than a shrub, and to keep them small, but they require little maintenance other than that.
- Botanical name: Cotinus coggygria
- Height at maturity: 10 to 15 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full or partial sun with well-drained, loamy soils
- Zones: 4 through 9
15. California Redbud (Cercis occidentalis)
The California redbud – also known as western redbud – is native to the entire Southwestern United States and comes in both single-trunk tree and multi-trunk shrub options. This means you will need to be sure you select the right option for your landscaping needs.
This is a gorgeous, flowering tree that offers visual interest every season of the year from the magenta flowers you will enjoy in spring to the elegant silhouette of silvery branches in the winter. The flowers on California redbuds attract hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and other native pollinators, bringing more life into your backyard space. They prefer full sun or partial sun and are drought tolerant once established, but you will see more blooms in the spring if you give it a little extra water.
- Botanical name: Cercis occidentalis
- Height at maturity: 10 to 20 feet tall
- Growing conditions: Full to partial sun with well-drained clay, loam and sand soils
- Zones: 6 through 9
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best small tree to plant near a house?
When picking a tree to plant near a house, you’ll want to consider the root system. As for underground piping. Dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees like crabapples, cherry, and citrus trees or small varieties like Japanese maples, California redbuds, or dwarf magnolias are all excellent options to plant near a home.
What kind of tree will stay small?
Most of the trees on this list above are great options if you’re looking for a small variety. However, some species on this list, like Palo Verde, can grow up to 40 feet depending on the variety, so if you’re worried about the size of a tree long term, it might be best to err on the side of caution and chose a shrub-type tree like a California Wax Myrtle or a California juniper species or work with a professional landscaper with knowledge of different tree varieties.
What is the fastest growing small tree?
There are a wide variety of fast growing small trees such as the American redbud, flowering dogwood, saucer magnolia, sweetbay magnolia, evergreen magnolia and red maple — all making them good choices if you’re looking to create a shaded space in your yard quickly.
Your Local San Diego Landscaping Experts
When it comes to picking a small tree for your front yard, backyard or anywhere else on your property, the options are endless. In addition to basic growing considerations like hardiness zones, climate and care, you’ll want to consider the space you have to work with and how a tree may impact your landscaping and home as a whole. If you need help with landscaping design in San Diego or the surrounding areas, our team at Install-It-Direct is here to help you bring your outdoor living space and landscape together.
Originally published on January 6, 2019. Refreshed on 9/27/22.