The Top 5 Small Trees For Compact Spaces

August 22, 2019

By Matt

Our Top 5 Best Small Trees For Compact Spaces In Landscaping

Are you shopping for a tree for a tight, compact spot? 

Unfortunately, many trees grow much too tall for small gardens or in front of the house!

Luckily, there are some small trees you can still select for these purposes! The key word to remember is “dwarf/semi-dwarf.” Dwarf/semi-dwarf plants are ideally meant for compact spaces and won’t overgrow your garden or shade out your yard. 

While there are more options than the small trees listed in this article, we chose these 5 because of their outstanding characteristics!

Let’s get to it!

Plant breeders have bred cultivars to be more ideally sized for planting in tight places. 


Crape Myrtle: Lagerstroemia indica

“The Lilac Of The South”

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is native to Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas. It has become naturalized in the southeastern regions of the U.S.

This species is the most widely recognized and cultivated of all crape myrtles. It is the quintessential southern plant and is known as “crepe” myrtle to southerners. However, the correct spelling/term in botany is “crape.”

Native Area(s): 

  • Japan, Southeast Asia, China, Himalayas 
  • Southeastern regions of the U.S.
• Height: 6-25 feet
• Width: 6-20 feet
• Zones: 6-9
• Growth Rate: Moderate
• Sun: Full sun
• Climate: Warm, does not do well in cooler regions
• Soil:  Arid/dry soil
Image result for distribution map lagerstroemia indica
Distribution Of Lagerstroemia indica  

Beautiful Attributes

The crape myrtle is a tree to be admired with its lush green foliage. It’s most notable feature is the flowers that make this tree an explosion of pinks, reds, and lavenders in summer depending on the cultivar grown.

Cultivars

There are literally hundreds of different cultivars of crape myrtle of all different sizes, shapes and colors.

We are going to focus on a few hybrids that have been developed to be disease-resistant and cold-hardier since crape myrtles can become difficult to overwinter in zones 6 and north. Be aware that non cold-hardy crape myrtles can (and will) succumb to winter temperatures below 0 degrees or be killed back to the ground.

The cultivars with Native American names are bred to be some of our best cold hardy crapes. Here are a few favorites for the Mid Atlantic region that tend to hold up quite well:

‘Potomac’

This cultivar is perfect for the Mid-Atlantic region as a shrub or tree. Its pink summer blooms are followed by beautiful fall color colors. The ‘Potomac’ adds a captivating focal point for landscapes! Grows tall without being too aggressive and can easily be pruned.

  • Size: 15-20 feet tall
  • Form: upright
  • Disease Resistance: high
  • Cold-Hardy: moderate

‘Tuskegee’

This cultivar is one tough little tree! It will grow in a variety of climates ranging from the heat of the south to temperatures dipping below zero with no issues once established. It is one of the best cultivars to withstand adverse elements of cold weather.

  • Size: 15-20 feet tall
  • Form: broad spread
  • Disease Resistance: high
  • Cold Hardy: high



Cornelian cherry Dogwood: Cornus mas

“Tiny Dancing Flowers”

The cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) puts on a great show come every spring with a cheerful mist of bright yellow flowers! The tiny little yellow blossoms pop open long before other trees do. What this tree is notably known for is its cherry-like drupes that ripen in late summer.

The bright red cherries are remarkably sought after by naturalists that forage for wild food as well as those that want something a little different to make a jam or wine! When asked, one describes the taste of these cherries as a combination of carnations and black cherries.                                                                                                                           

Habitat

Native Area(s): Central/southern Europe and western Asia

Height: 15-25 feet
Width: 15-20 feet
Zones: 4-8
Growth Rate: Slow
Sun: Full sun to partial shade

This tree is typically multi-stemmed, but it can be trained into a single leader with some patience

Cornus mas range.svg
Distribution of Cornus mas.

Beautiful Attributes

The cornelian cherry dogwood is astounding with its copious canopy of yellow flowers in spring before most species leaf out, followed by the crimson cherries that dangle throughout in mid summer. Although the foliage is not as spectacular come fall, it will offer you deep purple hues to enjoy.

Cultivars

For Fruit Producers:

These cultivars are heavy fruit producers. Gardeners especially in Europe use the fruit for jam making, syrups, or other homemade goods.

  • ‘Elegant’
  • ‘Pioneer’
  • ‘Redstone’

Heavy Blooms:

  • ‘Golden Glory’ (not quite as hardy as other cultivars)
  • ‘Aurea’ is a hardy option

Unfortunately, cornelian cherry dogwood is not commonly found in commerce at garden centers and nurseries so it may take a bit of searching to find this gorgeous small tree. Try Googling some specialty nurseries in your area or ask your local garden center to try and acquire one!


Serviceberry: Amelanchier canadensis

“The Funeral Predictor”

The serviceberry has a fascinating background. Not only does it have a prominent presence in the horticulture industry but its name was derived from religious-affiliated purpose. In the old days, clergy relied on the blooming of the serviceberry in early spring to know when the weather would permit them to begin visits to their church members. The blooming of the serviceberry also served to let the church know that the ground was thawed well enough to be able to bury the dead.         

Serviceberries are trees that produce a dense full canopy of delicate, pure white flowers. Following the flowers areedible berries that are sought after by many to produce homemade goods. The serviceberry’s genus, Amelanchier, is based on the Celtic translation of ‘small apple’ referencing the berries. Both wildlife and humans compete to get the ripe fruit at its peak. The berries have a taste that is similar to apples as they are in the same family.

Habitat

Native Area(s): Eastern edge of the U.S. and Canada

• Height: 15-20 feet
• Width: 15-20 feet
• Zones: 4-8
• Growth Rate: Moderate
• Sun: Full sun to partial shade
Image result for distribution Amelanchier canadensis
Distribution of Amelanchier canadensis

Beautiful Attributes

The serviceberry is one of spring’s early heaviest floral-dense trees with a pure white canopy. Not only is the tree great for spring blossoms but its fall foliage of oranges and reds gives it a double-wow factor in two separate seasons with the benefit of its fruit in between.

A serviceberry can be grown as a multi-stemmed or trained as a single-stem tree. Great for landscaping or naturalizing. 

Cultivars

There are a few cultivars of the serviceberry that offer various forms.

‘Prince William’

  • Multi-stemmed
  • Shrubby
  • Up to 10’ tall
  • Excellent fruit producer
  • Beautiful fall foliage

‘Sprizam’

  • Compact 
  • Upright
  • Up to 12’ tall
  • Up to 10’ spread
  • Outstanding fall foliage

Japanese Maple: Acer palmatum

“Peaceful Presence”

The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is a great tree for small contemporary spaces. There are at least 250 cultivars of Japanese maples making it somewhat difficult to choose one without doing a little research. However, having so many choices gives gardeners a wider range of options of tree form, size, color, and features!

This tree demands very little, making it one of the tree’s great features! It should be planted in a place for all to admire because it is a showy plant that will give any spot in a landscape a beguiling focal point.      

  

Habitat

Native Area(s):

• Height: 15-25 feet
• Width: Up to 20 feet
• Zones: 5-8
• Growth Rate: Medium
• Sun: Full sun to partial shade

Beautiful Attributes

The Japanese maple is perhaps one of the most beautiful trees with its graceful foliage and gorgeous colors that provide a peaceful presence in the garden. If you are looking for a small tree to add a ‘zen’ component to a garden or area of your landscape, this tree is perfect. Bold colors of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows are present in the foliage.

Cultivars

Hundreds of cultivars (most are dwarf) are available for the Acer palmatum, and because of the vast scope of varieties, we have listed our recommendation for just a few cultivars that will do well in the Mid-Atlantic region. Researching cultivars are recommended if you are seeking a specific feature in a Japanese maple. If you’re interested in diving deeper, there are entire websites and books devoted just to Japanese maple growing.

Crimson Queen

  • Weeping
  • Zones 5-8
  • Up to 10’ tall
  • Dark red
  • Moderate growth rate
  • Full sun to partial shade

  • Bloodgood
  • Slender
  • Zones 5-8
  • Up to 20’ tall
  • Red
  • Slow growth rate
  • Full sun to partial shade


Star Magnolia: Magnolia stellata

“A Dazzling Delight”

The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is one of the smaller magnolias with beautiful flowers that are full throughout the tree. One of the top qualities of this tree is how stunning it looks near or afar, and regardless of where it is planted, it will be eye-catching.

Habitat

Native Area(s): Japan

• Height:   15-20 feet
• Width: 10-15 feet
• Zones: 4-9
• Growth Rate: Medium
• Sun: Full sun to partial shade 

Beautiful Attributes

This beautiful tree has big flowers that look as if they are completely relaxed on the branches with their elongated petals. There are some great attributes the star magnolia features with the main one being its flowers blooming early in spring. It is one of the smaller-sized magnolias that is easy to grow with low maintenance.

A subtle winter feature is its fuzzy-looking flower buds that resemble caterpillars. One downside to this tree is that the flowers are prone to frostbite and flowers may burn in a cold frost. These trees are typically multi-stemmed. It is worth planting and will not disappoint with its dazzling qualities.

Cultivars

‘Jane Platt’

  • Zones 4-8
  • 10-15 feet tall
  • 8-10 feet spread
  • Pink Flowers
  • Full sun to partial shade

‘Royal Star’

  • Zones 4-8
  • 10-20 feet tall
  • 8-15 feet spread
  • White Flowers
  • Full sun to partial shade

Trees That Grace A Small Place!

You can easily bring a beautiful element to tight spaces in your landscape with trees that are designed for planting in the confines of such environments. If you take the time to do some research, you can find hundreds (if not more) of cultivars of dwarf and semi-dwarf sized trees that will provide an essence of vibrant beauty to modest-sized area.

Bringing life to an otherwise small and compact place in a landscape is possible by planting the right sized tree in the right place!


References

Moore, L. and Walker, J. (2006 May 31) Crape Myrtle Lagerstroemia indica, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center, Retrieved from: https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_lain.pdf

Richter, S. (2005 September 13) Characteristics of Selected Crape Myrtle Varieties, Texas A&M Agriculture, Retrieved from:

https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/databases/crapemyrtle/crape_myrtle_varieties_byheight.html#small

(n.d.) Lagerstroemia indica (Comanche Crape Myrtle), Backyard Gardener, Retrieved from: https://www.backyardgardener.com/plantname/lagerstroemia-indica-comanche-crape-myrtle/

(n.d.) Cornelian-cherry Dogwood, Morton Arboretum, Retrieved from:

http://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-plant-descriptions/cornelian-cherry-dogwood

(n.d.) Cornus mas, Missouri Botanical Garden, Retrieved from:

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c290

Weaver, W. (2006 January) Cornelian cherries are an ancient fruit…, Retrieved from:

https://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/cornelian-cherries-zmaz05djzsel

(n.d.) Gotta Get: Cornelian Cherry, Louis The Plant Geek, Retrieved from:

https://www.louistheplantgeek.com/a-gardening-journal/966-cornus-mas

Brand, M. (n.d.) Amelanchier canadensis, University of Connecticut Plant Database, Retrieved from: http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/detail.php?pid=45

Myers, V. (2018 December 19) Meet 9 Species of Serviceberry Trees and Shrubs, Retrieved from: https://www.thespruce.com/nine-species-serviceberry-trees-and-shrubs-3269674

Cultivars: ‘Crimson Queen,’ ‘Purple Ghost,’ ‘Bloodgood,’ Monrovia, Retrieved from:

https://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/26/bloodgood-japanese-maple/

https://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/35/crimson-queen-japanese-maple/

https://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/6010/purple-ghost-japanese-maple/

Brand, M. (n.d.) Magnolia stellata, University of Connecticut Plant Database, Retrieved from:

http://hort.uconn.edu/detail.php?pid=277

(n.d.) Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star,’ Missouri Botanical Garden, Retrieved from:

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c119

(n.d.) Star Magnolia, Gardenia, Retrieved from:

https://www.gardenia.net/plant-variety/Star-Magnolia-Magnolia-stellata

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