Small Trees for the Urban Homestead

A small tree accents an urban patio.

Perhaps you just bought a house in the perfect urban setting, only there are no trees. You have a small yard and fear that you won't be able to do much with the landscape. Don’t fret; there are lots of options for urban homeowners to “green up” their landscape. One of the first things to consider is a small tree. It is amazing the big impact that a small tree can have when placed in just the right spot. Planting a small tree is an environmentally conscious thing to do and allows you to enjoy the beauty of your little green space. Because trees come in all shapes, sizes and growing habits, there is sure to be a tree to fit your needs.

Choosing a Tree

Consider what you want the tree to do for you. What is its primary employment? Do you want a little shade, do you want spring color, year round greenery, or something edible? Many urban homeowners plant small fruit bearing trees so that they get a double bonus, a lovely tree and lots of fresh fruit.

Climate - It's vital to select a tree that thrives in your growing region. If you are uncertain what region you're in, you can consult the USDA Planting Zone Map to find out.

Size - Before you head out to the nursery to purchase a tree, it is helpful to know what size of tree you are looking for. Far too many people purchase trees thinking only of the size they are when they buy them. Some trees grow faster than others, and it is imperative to remember the mature size of the tree when you make a purchase. Consider the growing habit of the tree. Some trees weep, some spread out wide, some stand erect like a solider. The last thing you want is for your tree to infringe on your neighbors property, unless, of course, you have already cleared that with them.

(Get more information and tips in "Gardening in Small Spaces.")

Placement - When you consider size, also consider placement. Are you looking for a patio tree, a small yard tree, or dwarf trees? Many dwarf trees make excellent container trees and look fabulous on patios or decks.

Patio Trees

Patio trees are perfect for very small areas and provide both color and interest. Many tiny trees look fantastic in decorative containers including half whiskey barrels, clay pots or the like. Patio trees can often be placed on your deck or patio during the warm summer months and brought inside for the winter. Popular varieties include rose, hibiscus, lemon, fir, weeping cherry, weeping flowering crab, and Japanese maple. Put your container on a wooden base with wheels for easy movement.

Dwarf Fruit Trees

One of the greatest things about dwarf fruit trees is that many are self-pollinating and also produce “regular” size fruit. There is nothing small about the harvest you receive from a dwarf fruit tree if you take good care of it. Some dwarf fruit trees get so heavy with fruit that they need support. To avoid problems down the road, be sure you pick a high quality rootstock. A reputable local garden center will be able to advise on this for your particular area. Many dwarf varieties are super hardy and resistant, making them an excellent choice. Favorite dwarf fruit trees include apple, peach, pear and citrus. Most dwarf fruit trees will grow between 5 and 8 feet, making them an excellent choice for a small backyard.

Ornamental Small Trees

If curb appeal is what you are after, there are a number of popular small ornamental trees to consider. Most ornamental trees have striking color, intriguing foliage and beautiful berries. Although an ornamental tree won't provide a lot of shade, they look lovely and make excellent focal trees and are often planted for winter interest. Most ornamental trees grow between 15 to 20 feet. Popular varieties include dogwoods, weeping pussy willows, "Jane" magnolias, crepe myrtles, crabapples and redbuds.

Small Evergreen Trees

Small evergreen trees are an attractive addition to an urban landscape, especially those in northerly climates. Many evergreen trees grow slowly, so this needs to be taken into consideration before planting. If you are looking for instant height, be sure to buy the tree a little larger to begin with. Popular evergreen trees include "Skyrocket" juniper, "Teddy Bear" magnolia, "Emerald Green" arborvitae, and "Dragon Lady" holly.

Tips for Planting Small Trees

  • Select a healthy tree
  • Think about location
  • Think about maintenance
  • Follow planting instructions carefully
  • Plant when the weather is cool but not windy
  • Don’t put fertilizer in the planting hole – fertilize in the spring after planting
  • Stake if necessary
  • Provide 2 inches of mulch, but do not touch the tree trunk
  • Before planting, check your utility map
  • Water well - consider a new tree water ring
  • Prune minimally after planting to remove dead or damaged limbs
  • Wrap young deciduous trees in the winter for protection