A Comprehensive Guide to Selecting the Right Tree for your Small Yard Space

Small Tree for Front Yard

Choosing the perfect tree for your yard can seem daunting — especially if you have a small or urban space. But don’t let that stop you. You don’t need to have a sprawling property in the countryside to take advantage of treed landscaping. With a little forethought, you can make the most of any outdoor space. 

So grab those old pair of work jeans, gloves and shovel and roll up those sleeves. Let’s dive right into picking the best small trees for your small yard! 

Benefits of Landscaping your Small Space

Landscaping has an incredible return on investment — not only for your wallet, but also for your mind, body and spirit. 

First, let’s talk dollars and cents. 

Landscaping offers as good of returns as any other home improvement project. The curb appeal is a real driver of price when it comes to real estate. And trees play a big part in that equation. Mature trees in a landscape help to drive real estate sales — so get those roots in the soil now so that you can enjoy the tree’s benefit while it matures. That way, you are ready to cash in when it is time to sell your home. 

Next, consider the environment. 

Planting trees in your outdoor space is one of the best ways to naturally help the planet. Trees — especially native trees — are a boon to natural wildlife. They provide shade and break up wind — which helps to keep your heating costs down in the winter and drastically reduces your air conditioning costs in the summer. They also help to reduce CO2, giving back life-sustaining oxygen to the atmosphere. And if you need to add some shade to a sunny spot in your yard, nothing beats the original. Plus, if you live near a source of water — like the three wonderful rivers and their many tributaries that run through the Western Pennsylvania region — then planting trees is one of the best ways to protect waterways from pollution and prevent storm surges. 

Have a nosy neighbor? Trees offer great privacy benefits as well. 

Factors to Consider in Selecting your Tree

Yard Space

Your tree should fit your space. 

There are a few things that you’ll want to consider right off the bat to help you choose the perfect tree for your yard. How big is the space and what are its dimensions? What are your objectives for the tree — to add an ornamental quality, a naturalistic haven for birds and wildlife, privacy? You might even be considering harvesting that beautiful fruit tree come autumn.

When planting in a small yard, one of the most important things to consider might be the distance from the house. A good rule of thumb is to consider the maximum height your tree is expected to grow. Then, plant your tree half that distance from your home to ensure the roots will not impact the foundation of your structure. So, if you buy a 20-foot apple tree, make sure to plant it 10 feet away from any structure — the roots of most trees can stretch much further than their canopy. 

The same consideration should be made for sidewalks and patios. While it might be easier to re-pour concrete or lay new stone than to repair your foundation, you definitely want to envision a full size tree that fits into the profile of the outdoor space. 

Climate and Weather

In order for your tree to thrive in its new home, it is important to pair the tree species and its natural climate and environment — including soil and rainfall conditions. 

Of course, you can take some things into your own hands and accommodate a bit for mother nature. For example, if your tree requires more rain than typically falls, heavy watering or an irrigation system can help. Treating solid for pH and alkalinity can help a non-native species thrive in your outdoor space. And choosing the ideal spot and considering sun and shade can build in some flexibility in temperature. 

But knowing what to expect in yearly weather patterns in your region and understanding the requirements of your new plant is the first step in creating a baseline that will allow your new tree to grow strong. 

First, consider your zone. Knowing where your home sits on the Zone Hardiness Map will help you choose the perfect tree for your yard. Plant hardiness zones break the continent into different regions based on high and low average temperatures, measured as 10-degree zones. 

If you are located in Western Pennsylvania, for example, you are going to be in zones 6 and 7. Choosing trees with the appropriate resilience will allow them to grow healthy and strong, and require a lot less maintenance throughout the year. 

Tree Maintenance 

It’s critical to take care of your tree when you first put it in the ground. And by tapping your inner arborist and showing your tree some love throughout it’s life, you’ll have a beautiful specimen for decades — or centuries — to come. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when picking trees for small yards: 

First, follow the sun. When choosing a tree, you should consider where it will live in your yard and plan accordingly. Will the location receive full sun, partial sunlight or full shade? Make sure you think about how the plant will grow over the years and decades — and how any renovation plans will affect its access to sunlight in the future. Likewise, when considering where to dig, think about lines-of-sight to the sun throughout the day and as it transits the skyline throughout all seasons of the year. And if you are planning any renovations to the building or yard space in the years to come, consider how that might change how sunlight — and shade — falls on your tree. 

Next, make sure you have a thorough watering regimen. This is especially true when first planting the root ball into the earth. For the first few weeks or months — depending on the tree species — you will want to soak the root ball thoroughly each morning as it acclimates to its new environment. Once it is established, you can water sparingly taking local weather and rainfall conditions and how the water pools in your yard into consideration. 

Go light on the pruning. Many tree experts recommend waiting for a year or more before beginning to prune your new tree. This is especially true of larger trees as opposed to bushes and shrubs.  By waiting, you let the tree grow into the environment and can use its natural form as a guide when trimming its branches in the future. 

Finally, take a good look at the earth beneath your feet. Soil conditions vary widely from region to region and even within localized communities. Knowing your pH and alkalinity requirements of your tree and the baseline readings of the soil in your yard will help you create a game plan to ensure your tree grows to be healthy and strong. 

Options for your Space 

Check out some of our candidates for the best trees for small yards. Each of these species can thrive in zones 6 and 7.

  • Japanese StewartiaStewartia pseudocamellia is native to Japan. This deciduous tree grows to between 10 and 30 feet. It provides beautiful white flowers in the summer, with leaves turning from green to yellow, orange or purple in the autumn. 
  • Prairifire CrabappleMalus ‘Prairifire’ is a beautiful apple tree whose big, beautiful, long-lasting spring foliage draws many admirers each spring. It grows to about 20 feet tall, and its dark green leaves turn a burnt copper color each fall. In the summer, mature trees will provide fruit that can be an important food source for wildlife. 
  • Pawpaw — If you’re looking to foster wildlife, consider North America’s only native citrus plant, asimina triloba. It has dramatic drooping leaves and its early spring purple flowers produce drooping fruit come summertime. A mature tree may grow from 6 to about 30 feet. 
  • Eastern Redbud Cercis canadensis grows to about 20 to 30 feet. It bursts with dazzling tiny pink flowers in April and prefers partial shade and a dry environment. 
  • Red BuckeyeAesculus pavia boasts blood red flowers each spring. They can grow from 16 to 26 feet tall. 
  • Kousa Dogwood — If you are planting in an urban environment, cornus kousa is a great choice. This Japanese native will grow from 10 to 29 feet. They require little maintenance, offer fragrant early spring flowers, have a thick canopy that offers great shade in the summer and displays dazzling orange leaves in the autumn. 
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