Landscape design Trees

Small Trees for Urban Gardens

Planting trees in an urban environment seems like an obvious choice to me. I’m surprised every time I come across someone who grumbles because their municipality is forcing them to plant a tree on their property. Trees in urban areas help reduce the negative effect of heat islands, they purify the air, and what about their beneficial effects on health in general!

Planting trees in an urban environment is sometimes complicated, but it is largely worth the effort. Image: VBD Photo on Shutterstock.

Here are some small trees that are perfectly suited to small yards and facades. Less than 18 feet (6 meters) in height, they are ideal for planting under electrical wires, clotheslines or any other wiring suspended in the air. They are also good quality trees: robust, reliable and generally resistant to insects and diseases. These are perfect choices for anyone who doesn’t want to worry once their tree is planted.

A Native With an Asian Look

A young alternate-leaved dogwood starting to reveal it mature form. Image: Julie Boudreau

Alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia, USDA zone 3) is a small tree found in forests in central and eastern Canada and the United States. In its natural environment, it is hardly noticed as it is poorly developed and intermingled with other shrubs. However, give it good soil and some sun and it is absolutely gorgeous and stunning. At maturity, this tree, which will barely exceeds 18 feet (6 meters), deploys its layered branches, all spread out horizontally. This gives it the look of a pagoda, hence its frequent association with Asian-inspired gardens. At the beginning of summer, the plant is covered with creamy-white flowers, which are very popular with pollinators. Then appear clusters of berry-like fruits that will turn from white, to red and then to dark blue, almost black. These are quickly devoured by birds. So no staining fruit falling to the ground.

It is a very hardy plant that is suitable even for gardens located further north. It is also easy to grow in shady spaces. Few insects and diseases find interest in it. In the fall, its large leaves turn purple, violet, or bronze, depending on sunlight conditions. It is an interesting tree at all times of year.

A Spring Charmer With Starry Flowers

Yes, I dare. I dare to offer you a magnolia. But not just any! The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata, USDA zone 4) is one of the hardiest magnolias of all. As spectacular in bloom as its less hardy cousin, the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana, USDA zone 4), the star magnolia still likes to be sheltered from high winds. It is the latter which often causes the destruction of its precious flower buds. This condition respected, magnolias are great plants that grow in full sun as well as in partial shade. The tree is covered with large star-shaped flowers, in early spring, often before the leaves appear. Flowers last only a few weeks, but what a show! The flowering of magnolias marks the end of a harsh winter! Thereafter, the plant is endowed with large green leaves, rarely attacked by parasites. Magnolias have little fall interest, except a golden yellow that turns brown. However, their bark of a beautiful light gray is quite decorative in winter. Look for the cultivar ‘Royal Star’ with white flowers, which reaches 12 feet (4 meters) in height.

Beautiful flower of the ‘Pink Star’ magnolia. Image: Julie Boudreau.

A Golden Column With Bilobed Leaves

Let’s deviate a little from the beaten path by proposing a columnar tree, the maidenhair tree ‘Menhir’ (Ginkgo biloba ‘Menhir’, USDA zone 3). Although this tree can reach 20 feet (8 meters) in height at maturity, it is so slow growing that it will not reach this size for many years. Next, it is a narrow tree, at most 6 feet (2 meters) wide, which makes it easy to position so that it weaves between the hanging wires of an urban yard. The ginkgo tree has long been recognized for its great tolerance to urban conditions. It is of absolutely no interest to insects and disease. Without spectacular flowering and fruiting, as most marketed varieties are male plants, the main attraction of this tree is its uniquely shaped foliage. The leaf looks like an open fan with a small crack in the middle. This magnificent two-lobed foliage turns a beautiful golden yellow in the fall. It’s one of the best fall color in town!

Those looking for the charm of the maidenhair tree in a more compact form will be interested in the cultivar ‘Pendula’ which has a spreading and weeping habit and which will reach obly 9 feet (3 meters) in height.

A Beautiful Stranger With a Sweet Perfume

The tiny flowers of the maackia have a wonderful scent! Image: Julie Boudreau.

For anyone who would like to try something different, the Amur Maackia (Maackia amurensis, USDA zone 3) is a great choice. Relatively new on the Canadian market, this tree, about 18 feet (6 meters) high, deserves some attention. First for its pretty compound foliage, a bit like that of locusts, and for its rather rounded habit. But it is above all the flowering that remains its main attraction. Its tiny white flowers gather in long clusters and give off a delicious fragrance. They later give place to a scene similar to linden trees in bloom: you walk, smell a sweet perfume and look up, searching for the culprit. And that’s when you realize that the scent comes from a beautiful large linden tree in full bloom! In short, the same goes for maackias, except that the delicious fragrance manifests itself in July. In any case, this tree has a good chance of finding itself more and more often on the list of trees to be planted in urban areas.

Here too, you’ll find few diseases or insects on a very resistant and very hardy tree. The cultivar ‘Summertime’, introduced by the University of Minnesota, has a more compact and rounded habit than the species.

One could have added to this list the Amur maple (Acer tataricum subsp. ginnala, USDA zone 2) which is, of course, a sure bet on every level. Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) also deserve our full attention, even if the fruits are sometimes affected by rust. Serviceberry is still a good choice for small urban spaces. You will also find on this blog a very detailed list of small trees for small plots. The possibilities are many and global warming opens the way to many new species, such as the redbuds (Cercis spp.), yellowwood (Cladrastys spp.) or fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). The city is ours to plant!

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

7 comments on “Small Trees for Urban Gardens

  1. Connie S

    How about the native trees and shrubs to the area. They are meant to tolerate the zone they are in and benefit pollinators.

  2. Gads! I so dislike Japanese maple though. They are so overly common here, but so-called ‘gardeners’ do not maintain them properly. They too often live out in exposed situations, where they get roasted by the arid warmth. (The weather is not too terribly warm, but lacks humidity at times.) When we have a practical application for one at work, I prefer to use something else, but unfortunately, they are quite useful for small spaces, and some are very appealing. I still prefer common vine maple.

  3. gardencat

    Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundaflora) is a lovely little tree in the right growing zones. Slow growing, drought tolerant when mature, spring blooms smell like grape Kool-aid.

  4. I realize that but at the end she says “one could have added Amur maple to the list” . That is what I am referring to, thanks for pointing out it wasn’t clear.

  5. Amur maple is an invasive tree crowding out native trees. Its prolific seeding keeps it moving into natural environments. ,Not recommended by many groups including Ontario Invasive Plant Council.

  6. Victoria

    How about a purpleleaf sand cherry. It’s an early bloomer totally covered with pale pink flowers accompanied by just emerging dark burgundy leaves . It’s small, topping out at about 10 feet and 5 to 7 feet wide. Ours just started blooming this past week. It says cheerfully, “Spring is here!”

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