Our recommendations for the best small trees are the Weeping Cherry Tree and the Ann Tulip Magnolia Tree. We wanted the most bang for our buck. So, we opted for a small tree that is attractive enough to be a focal point. We also wanted a hardy tree that can adapt to a variety of conditions. We found several standout trees in addition to those, which you can find in our list below.
Our Top Picks for the Best Small Trees
Defining a Small Tree
We’ll begin with our definition of a small tree which will provide the framework for our choices. Because they are sometimes the same size, we’ll lay out the differences between a tree and shrub. Both are perennial woody plants. That’s where the similarities end. While a shrub may have several perennial stems, a tree has a single one. The newest bark is inside the stem.
For our purposes, a small tree is under 25 feet tall. The spread or width will vary with the form. A conical tree, for example, has a much smaller spread than a sprawling redbud. Both dimensions matter, of course, when it comes time to pick a small tree especially for a small yard. Consider the mature height rather than the diminutive size of the tree at the garden center.
Choosing a Tree
There are several other things you need to consider when picking any tree. Your goal is to match the tree’s needs with the environmental conditions of your site. Locations can vary widely even on the same property. Stick to the exact spot where you will be planting. Factors like drainage may differ even in a small space. In some cases, it can mean the difference between thriving and surviving.
The texture of your soil is its mixture of sand, silt, clay, and loam. It’s an important detail to match your tree with the site. Some trees adapt well to various soil types. Others prefer a particular kind and won’t tolerate deviations. A soil test can provide basic information like pH and nutrient levels.
You can determine the soil type you have by scooping up a handful and lightly squeezing it. Clay soils keep their shape when you open your hand. Sandy soils will not flow through your fingers. Loams will stay compacted for a short time, but fall apart if you poke at it. The type goes hand-in-hand with other environmental variables.
The soil type directly influences its water-holding capacity and drainage. Many trees, small and large, prefer well-drained soils. Water doesn’t tend to pool, and they don’t become waterlogged. These moist conditions can pose a threat of rot and bacteria development. For susceptible trees, it is a major issue you can’t ignore. Likewise, dry soils can stress trees that aren’t drought tolerant.
The amount of sunlight or shade a location gets also factors into the mix. While some trees don’t mind the shade, others won’t survive without adequate light. You should consider how much sunlight the tree will get at the location. Take into account anything that may block the sun, both now and later as other trees in the surrounding area mature.
Sunlight is an essential factor to consider. It’s one thing that you have less control over than say moisture. You can water a tree or fertilize it. But you can’t change sun exposure. One option you have is to choose a small tree that has a range of tolerance levels for shade to cover all your bases. As a general rule of thumb, fruit trees prefer full sun.
All trees will need some maintenance, some more than others. You’ll need to prune your tree to encourage new healthy growth. If moisture is an issue, you may need to water your tree during dry spells. Before you commit to a particular tree, take the time to research what each one needs and balance it with what you can provide.
This video from the Utah State University Extension walks you through the process of planting a bare root tree.
Both winter and summer are trying times for all plants. Extreme temperatures can kill plants unaccustomed to frigid or sweltering conditions. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map can help you determine your area’s lowest extreme temperature. It divides the country into 26 zones based on historical weather data. It comes in handy when researching small trees.
The label on your tree will provide its zone so that you can stick with ones suitable for your area. While the USDA map is the most common, other ones exist, so make sure you’re getting the right information. The hardiness zone is only one part of the puzzle. Heat extremes are just as harmful. Your cooperative extension service can help you with any questions.
Finding Your Tree’s Purpose
Small trees can serve many uses. You may just want an ornamental tree that looks nice on your front yard for curb appeal. Take time to think about the other things you want out of a tree to narrow down your choices. For example, a maple will provide welcome shade in your backyard. If you want something with a lot of color, it’s hard to beat the beauty of a mimosa. If you need privacy, an evergreen can fit the bill. Other things to consider are fragrant trees which can be lovely or invasive.
A Note about Appearance
The chances are you have a clear picture in your mind of what your ideally best tree looks like. Think of things like flowers and foliage. Small trees can function well as a feature or focal point in your landscape design. Consider other varieties of characteristics such as the shape, bark color, and year-round appearance. After all, small doesn’t mean short on features.
Our Recommendations: Ann Tulip Magnolia Tree and Weeping Cherry Tree
Narrowing your choice down to a small tree still gives you a wide playing field. In the end, it comes down to purpose. We focused on trees that were low maintenance. We also wanted a tree that was hardy and tolerant of a variety of environmental conditions. And since a tree is an investment, we leaned toward an attractive tree that would give our landscape a boost.
The Ann Tulip Magnolia Tree is a gorgeous tree with big rosy pink blooms. It grows to a mature height of 10 feet with a 9-foot spread. It is hardy and produces a late spring bloom to protect it from a late frost. We liked its open shape and beautiful foliage. With a sweet, delicate scent, the Ann Tulip Magnolia Tree does double duty as an ornamental tree.
The Weeping Cherry Tree is less dramatic than the magnolia tree, but that’s its charm. It forms a lush carpet of small pinkish flowers. We thought it resembled a miniature weeping willow tree. It’s a compact tree with a height and spread both of 8 feet. It tolerates Zones 5 through 8, making it a hardy example of an ornamental cherry tree.
Even if you have limited space, you can still enjoy the beauty of a small tree. With colorful flowers and beautiful bark, they can make an attractive center point for any garden. And their small size means you get the benefits of perennial feature without the added trouble of a larger tree.