By providing structure and acting as the tallest point in most landscapes, trees undeniably “make” a space. While most trees grow to towering heights, there are many excellent trees for the garden that don’t grow taller than two stories or 20 feet high.

Many great deciduous and broad-leafed evergreen garden trees are naturally small-statured, and thanks to new introductions there are now dwarf selections and smaller cultivars of normally larger specimens such as ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Baby Grand’ Evergreen Magnolias, and more new tree varieties become available each year.

Want more evergreen options for your garden? Check out our blog on The Best Dwarf Conifers for every landscape!

Small Trees in the Landscape

Most small garden trees under 20 feet tall prefer filtered light or dappled shade, as they are naturally found in the understory of forests with taller trees providing them with shade. This means that shade and shadows cast by surrounding houses in small landscapes or from existing trees in larger landscapes aren’t an issue when it comes to adding a new tree! Here are some ways to incorporate small trees into your landscape:

  • Plant a small tree in a small garden to add height and make the space appear larger than it is.
  • Connect your garden to the larger surrounding landscape by planting a small tree to echo the canopy in the distance.
  • Use a large container planting to add a small tree and introduce shade to a part of your landscape that would otherwise be impossible to plant into, like a patio or deck.
  • Plant a small tree at the edge of a lawn to add a small shaded area, perfect for laying out a blanket in the Summer.
  • Bring the canopy in close and add drama by planting a tree next to a walkway or entrance.
  • Instantly improve the view from a window by planting a small tree next to your house in the ground or in a container.


1. Acer sp. – Maple

Japanese Maples and Vine Maples are fantastic deciduous trees for small gardens or shady spaces in large gardens. Maples provide luscious green or burgundy foliage in the Summer, fantastic Fall color, interesting bark in the Winter, and fun flowers and seed pods in the Spring. Acers prefer protection from intense afternoon sun and regular Summer water.

  • Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) is native to the Pacific Northwest and is a multi-trunked tree that prefers partial shade or an understory environment. Vine maples have mid-sized, fan-like, light green leaves that turn orange and red in Fall; grows to 20 feet tall x 20 feet wide.
  • Full Moon Japanese Maples (Acer shirasawanum) have ornate, finely cut green foliage and an open, branching habit. Truly a tree for all seasons, electric Fall color and an open, interesting branching habit makes them the ideal specimen tree; grows to 12 feet tall by 8 feet wide.
  • Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has fascinating, rust-brown bark that peels away from smooth stems. Narrow, true-green leaves are borne in threes and turn vibrant orange to red in the Fall; can grow to 25 feet tall by 20 feet wide.

2. Lagerstroemia – Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtles are drought-tolerant trees that can be found as single-trunked specimens or grown in multi-trunked form. Excellent, small cultivars are perfect for hot and sunny locations. Late Summer flowers on Lagerstroemia last into Fall and foliage turns brilliant colors of red, yellow, orange, and purple before dropping to reveal patchy, interesting bark in Winter. Note: Crape Myrtles are very late to break dormancy in Spring!

  • Lagerstroemia x ‘Tuscarora’ has abundant bright, coral-pink flowers beginning in August and gorgeous ruddy brown layered bark that shows off all Winter; grows to 15 feet tall by 15 feet wide.
  • Lagerstroemia x ‘Natchez’ blooms with a profusion of clear, frilly white flowers set against yellow stamens and features brilliant red-orange Fall color; grows to 20 feet tall by 20 feet wide.

3. Cornus kousa – Dogwood

Dogwoods are equally beloved for their Spring floral display and low-maintenance growth habit. Dogwood trees like protection from intense heat and thrive with regular Summer water. Dogwood trees rarely need pruning or care once established.

  • Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’ has coral pink flowers that bloom in June. An open-branched, disease-resistant cultivar, ‘Satomi’ produces red fruits and has orange/red Fall color; grows to 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide.
  • Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ has creamy white flowers that bloom on top of its wavy, variegated foliage. The olive green variegated foliage has a cream edge and turns a delightful reddish pink in the Fall with occasional red fruit; grows to 10–20 feet tall by 10-20 feet wide.

4. Magnolia sp. – Deciduous Magnolia

Prized for their magnificent flowers in Spring, Deciduous Magnolia trees mature in a huge range of sizes, from 15 feet tall up to 40 feet tall. Small Deciduous Magnolias, like those listed below, can be an excellent addition to a sunny city garden by providing a clean, green Summer backdrop to other plantings after their blossoms have ended.

  • Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ is often grown as a small, multi-trunked tree and has fragrant, light pink, star-shaped flowers on bare branches in early Spring; grows 10-15 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide.
  • Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Black Tulip’ produces a flourish of huge, deep burgundy/purple flowers that bloom on bare branches in early Spring; grows to 15–20 feet tall by 6-10 feet wide.

5. Magnolia grandiflora – Evergreen Magnolia

Evergreen Magnolia, also called Southern Magnolia, has large leaves that are rich, shiny green on the top with bronze, fuzzy undersides and persist all year long. Large, multi-petaled white flowers are sweetly fragrant. Ideal for full-sun settings where year-round screening or coverage is desired.

little gem magnolia tree blooming
  • Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ is a dwarf form of the classic Southern Magnolia with fragrant, large white flowers bloom sporadically in late Spring through fall. Perfect for blocking unwanted views; grows to 20–25 feet tall by 10–15 feet wide.
  • Magnolia grandiflora ‘Baby Grand’ is a small, compact and rounded dwarf tree with has large, creamy white, fragrant flowers from Spring into Summer. Plant as a specimen or grow many trees as a tall screen; grows to 8–10 feet tall by 8-10 feet wide.

6. Prunus serrulata – Flowering Cherry

Flowering Cherry trees spell pure romance as they burst into bloom each Spring. One of the earliest flowering trees, Prunus petals are delicate and blanket each branch of these upright, small trees.

  • Prunus serrulata ‘Amanogawa’ has ruffly pink flowers that decorate the upright, very narrow form. Bark appears stripey with pores, giving it nice Winter and Summer interest; grows to 20-25 feet tall by 4-8 feet wide.
  • Prunus serrulata ‘Royal Burgundy’ is a unique, red-leaved tree that has fluffy pink flowers each Spring. The purple and red leaves turn bright red in the Fall; grows to 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide.

7. Cercis canadensis – Redbud

Vibrant, pink flowers are born in Spring all along the bare stems of Cercis trees. Redbuds have lovely, smooth grey-brown bark with a purple undertone and typically their habit is upright with strong, horizontal branches. They are excellent in front landscapes where flowers can provide early-season cheer and heart-shaped leaves can add some welcome shade.

  • Cercis canadensis ‘Merlot’ has rich, dark purple-green heart shaped leaves in the Summer that follow dark pink flowers in early Spring; grows to 10-12 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide.
  • Cercis canadensis ‘Pink Pom Poms’ produces abundant pink double blooms that appear like masses of small pom poms along stems and branches in the Springtime. Heart-shaped green leaves turn bright yellow each fall; grows to 10-12 feet high by 10-12 feet wide.

8. Malus sp. – Crabapple

Grown for their ornamental value rather than their fruit, Crabapples are excellent trees for small and large gardens alike. Colorful displays of flowers occur each Spring, providing much-needed food for pollinators. Trees are upright, and while some varieties are prone to disease, modern cultivar introductions are more robust and disease-resistant.

  • Malus ‘Spring Snow’ is a fruitless Crabapple that blooms in masses of single, fragrant white flowers each Spring. Leaves are bright green and turn yellow in Fall on this exceptionally cold-tolerant variety; grows to 20-25 feet tall by 15-20 feet wide.
  • Malus ‘Prairifire’ is a popular disease-resistant Crabapple with dark pink-red flowers in early Spring and maroon leaves that turn dark green in Summer and bronze in Fall. Small, maroon fruits last well into Winter; grows 15-20 feet tall by 15-20 feet wide.

9. Amelanchier – Serviceberry

Hailed for its four full seasons of interest, Amelanchier is native to North America and makes a great garden tree. Clear white blooms on shrubby, upright branches give way to delicious fruits that are perfect for fresh eating or preserves. Though Serviceberry can be prone to disease, plants can easily be set up for success with regular pruning to encourage air flow and by providing regular Summer water in well-draining soil.

10. Azara microphylla – Box-Leaf Azara

Azara microphylla has tiny, uniform evergreen leaves along thin branches. In January and February, clusters of small, starry yellow flowers bloom tucked amongst the leaves. Azara flowers have a rich vanilla or white chocolate fragrance that fills the Winter garden. Azara microphylla ‘Variegata’ boasts the same look but with small, variegated leaves.

Mature plants have gracefully layered branches and can be grown as a multi-trunked tree or can be pruned on a standard to form a classic tree shape; 12- 18 feet tall by 8-12 feet wide at maturity.

11. Syringa reticulata – Japanese Tree Lilac

Grown as either a small tree or large shrub, Japanese Tree Lilacs are a fantastic way to introduce masses of fragrant flowers into the Summer garden. White blooms are produced in large sprays from top to bottom on this low-maintenance tree, which is ideal for mixed hedges or as a stand-alone specimen.

  • Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’ produces large plumes of small, white flowers in early Summer are lightly fragrant and pollinator magnets. Grows to 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide

12. Chionanthus virginicus – Fringe Tree

An uncommon tree, Fringe Tree has uniquely lovely, showy white flowers produced in late Spring next to bright green, uniform leaves. Fall color on Chionanthus is yellow and gives way to grey, striped bark. Grow as a specimen tree, and don’t be alarmed if it is slow to leaf out in Spring; grows to 15-25 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide.

BONUS! Shrubs as Small Trees

The shrubs listed below can also be pruned into multi-trunked trees under 20 feet tall:

  • Camellia japonica
  • Cotinus – Smoke Tree
  • Hibiscus – Rose of Sharon
  • Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora – PG or Panicle Hydrangea
  • Philadelphus – Mock Orange
  • Sambucus – Elderberry
  • Syringa – Lilac
  • Viburnum opulus – Snowball Viburnum

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