Best Small Trees for Small Spaces in Northern Virginia

There’s a 14th century saying that is still in use today: “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” And that statement is true. What starts out as a small acorn will eventually grow into a large, towering tree.

But as cities expand and backyards shrink, not everyone has the space for a mighty oak, a brightly-colored maple or a sturdy elm.

Even on properties that have more land, large trees don’t always work as the proposed planting site may be too close to a building, may be near power lines, or might block a beautiful view.

Many people underestimate not only how tall a tree may grow (some can reach more than 100 feet tall!), but how wide a tree’s branches will spread. Keep in mind, too, that the roots need room to grow so that the tree is properly anchored and can receive enough nutrients. Planting a tree too close to a building, walkway, or driveway can negatively impact a tree’s health and longevity.

However, that doesn’t mean your small yard needs to be completely tree-free. When you look at all the benefits that trees provide, especially in suburban and urban areas, adding a tree to your property can be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make. Better air quality, a reduction in utility bills, and an increase in home value are just a few perks of planting a tree.

So how can you add a tree - or several trees - to your property if you only have a small space in which to plant?

Depending on the space and conditions, a smaller tree might be just the answer. There are several kinds of trees that will grow to 30 feet or shorter and work well as ornamental features in your yard. We’ve chosen five smaller-growing trees that we recommend as options for you to consider.

flowering dogwood

Dogwood (Cornus species)

While some dogwood trees do grow tall, look for Korean dogwood (Cornus kousa) and American flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) hybrids that will reach 15 to 20 feet at maximum.

Among the best small cultivars of Korean dogwood are ‘Little Beauty,’ ‘Madame Butterfly’ (the spring flowers resemble butterflies), and ‘Moonbeam’ (whose flowers are 7 inches across!). ‘Lustgarten Weeping’ has long, arching branches, similar in form to a weeping willow, and when covered in spring flowers is a beautiful addition to any yard.

Because Korean dogwoods are small and multi-stemmed, some varieties can also be grown as a shrub.

Show some state pride by planting a flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida). It was named Virginia’s official state flower in 1918, and then, since that wasn’t enough praise for this beautiful flowering tree, it was also declared the official state tree in 1956.

American dogwood hybrids are a cross between American and Korean dogwoods, and are more disease-resistant because of the pairing. Known as the “Stellar” series of dogwoods, look for cultivars such as ‘Constellation,’ ‘Stellar Pink,’ and ‘Aurora.’ Newer cultivars include ‘Venus’ and ‘Starlight.’ All will grow to about 15 or 20 feet tall, and prefer full sun.

Not only are dogwoods beautiful with their showy bracts (that’s the flowering part) in spring, but most varieties have dark red foliage in the fall and silvery, rough bark that provides interest in the winter months.

Crape Myrtle

Like dogwood trees, crape (or crepe) myrtle can be grown as a shrub or a small tree. However, while dogwoods are spring-flowering, the crape myrtle can bloom anytime (and sometimes the entire time) from June through late September.

Available in a variety of sizes and flower colors in red, pink, lavender, purple, and white, there are abundant options to choose from. The best option is to choose one that will grow to the size you’d prefer, and then pick options from there. Crape Myrtles are usually sold as dwarf shrubs or ground cover (3-5 feet), semi-dwarf shrub (5-10 feet), large shrub to small tree (10-20 feet), or large tree (20+ feet).

In the “large shrub to small tree” category, you might consider cultivars such as ‘Pink Velour’ with flowers described as hot pink, ‘Yuma’ with lavender-colored blooms, or ‘Centennial Spirit’ with dark red flowers.

Crape Myrtles need at least 6 hours of full sun each day to produce the flowers, so ensure that the planting location will provide direct sunlight. Just remember that the more sun they receive, the more blooms will appear.

And please contact a tree care professional when it comes time to prune your crape myrtle! The common practice of topping (sometimes referred to as “crape murder”) is never an acceptable way to prune these beautiful small trees.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

While native maple trees can grow very tall, certain varieties of Japanese maples will stay small. Known for their brilliant fall colors and distinctive leaves, Japanese maples are easily identifiable and will bring interest to any yard. Again, depending on size, different cultivars are available.

Japanese maples can be as small as 6 feet, such as the dwarf ‘Ben Komachi,’ meaning “beautiful, red-haired little girl.” (I’ll bet you can guess what color the leaves change in the fall!) Grown as a shrub, the aptly-named ‘Green Snowflake’ (one glance at the leaves and you’ll understand its name) will grow only about 4 feet tall. Growing to 20 feet tall, ‘Emperor 1’ is a classic choice. ‘Beni Kawa’ is interesting as it spends the first 10 years as a shrub (5-7 feet), but then grows to about 15 feet.

Ornamental Cherry Trees

A very important tree in our area in springtime, you can see great examples of flowering cherry trees in downtown D.C. But you don’t have to travel or deal with traffic if you plant some in your own yard!

The celebrated cherry trees in Washington, D.C. are Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoenisis), which can grow up to 45 feet tall, depending on the cultivar. Choose shorter-growing Yoshino cherry trees such as ‘Shidare-Yoshino’ (20-25 feet), which needs full sun and has weeping branches that are covered with white blossoms in the spring. Or, if you have a bit more space, consider ‘Autumnalis’ (20-35 feet) named because it has a second, though smaller, bloom period in the fall.

Of particular note is the Weeping Higan Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’), which grows 20 to 30 feet tall and has graceful, long branches that are striking when covered with the spring flowers. It needs full sun and very little wind, and is often planted near a water feature. This showstopper attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, and the unique shape of the tree provides interest year-round.

Other cultivars are ‘Pendula Rosea,’ which has pale pink flowers and grows to about 12 feet tall, or ‘Rosea,’ which grows to 25 feet and has pink flowers. Be careful if you choose a different flowering cherry cultivar, as some can grow up to 40 feet tall.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Redbud trees are known for their bright pink blossoms and maroon, heart-shaped leaves that turn green in the summer. Consider cultivars like ‘Ruby Falls,’ a weeping redbud that grows to only 6 feet tall, ‘Ace of Hearts’ which grows up to 12 feet tall and 15 feet wide (technically a dwarf redbud, it can be grown as a shrub), or ‘Merlot,” which also grows 12 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and is known for its small, wine-colored leaves.

As we mentioned in our “Best Spring Flowering Trees” article, redbuds are unusual because the blossoms appear on the branches before the leaves do, so the bright pink, red, or purplish flowers really stand out.

Whatever small tree you choose, be sure you understand what its needs are, including:

  • what kind of soil it does best in,
  • whether it needs sun or shade,
  • how much water it requires,
  • how wide it will get, and
  • how tall will be when it reaches maturing.

We hope these suggestions have helped you and inspired you to get planting!

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