Shade-Tolerant Trees for a Small Garden

Eastern redbud is one example of a shade tolerant tree for small gardens

Eastern redbud is one example of a shade tolerant tree for small gardens

Designing a small garden, or for that matter, an outdoor room in a larger garden, can be challenging on many levels.  On the plus side, a small garden is by nature cozy and intimate.  While the principles of good landscape design still apply, a small garden is typically designed around eating or entertaining areas.  Since space is limited, each plant you use must be a multi-season star and should be not only interesting (since it will be viewed up close) but it should also have a purpose – screening, intriguing foliage, fragrant flowers … you get the picture.

If your small garden also happens to have some shady areas, your choices for plants, specifically for small ornamental trees, are limited even further.  But don’t despair, there are several wonderful choices of small trees that will work in small gardens, thrive in varying amounts of shade and also happily take on the role of multi-season focal point.

  • Acer griseum (Paperbark maple) – Zones 5 -  7, 20′ x 20′ at maturity.  A superb maple known for it’s richly colored exfoliating bark.  A moderately slow growth rate, rounded shape and deep green foliage make this tree a low-maintenance addition to any garden.  The fire red color of it’s leaves in the fall adds to it’s multi-season appeal.  Tolerates light shade.
  • Cercis candensis (Eastern redbud) – Zones 4- 9, 20′ x 25′ at maturity.  This native tree is best known for the small pink flowers that grow right on the tree’s bark in spring.  Heart-shaped green leaves open a bronzey color and then turn all green.  Fall color is bright yellow.  Eastern redbud is especially suited to a woodland setting.  Tolerates part shade. 
  • Chionanthus viginicus (White fringe tree)  – Zones 3 – 9, 20′ x 25′ at maturity.  Fragrant, white thread-like flowers cover this small tree in late spring.  Female trees also bear blue-black fruit in the summer.  Prefers moist soil and is tolerant of air pollution so it can be an ideal tree for an urban location.  As the tree ages the bark becomes ridged and rough adding to it’s winter appeal.  Tolerates partial shade.
  • Cornus alternifolia (Pagoda dogwood) – Zones 3 – 7, 15′ x 15′ at maturity.  This native tree has a unique horizontal branching habit making it interesting in flower, in leaf or in the winter without it’s leaves.  Flat, white flowers in mid-summer help Pagoda dogwood look like a tiered wedding cake.  Berries and red fall foliage round out it’s list of year round charm.  Tolerates partial to full shade.
  • Ilex opaca (American holly) – Zones 5 – 9, 25′ x 20′ at maturity.  This native evergreen tree has dense, glossy foliage which makes it a good choice for screening in a small garden.  It’s upright, pyramidal shape and bright red berries (females need a nearby male for berry production) make it a classic addition to any garden. Tolerates partial shade.

There are other options for shade-tolerant trees for a small garden, depending on which zone you garden in.  Just remember, your choice of an ornamental tree will set the tone for the rest of your small garden, so spend some time researching your options before you buy and plant a tree.  It will be time well spent.

5 thoughts on “Shade-Tolerant Trees for a Small Garden

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  4. I’m looking for a small red/purple leafed tree to add some color to the side of my front yard, adjacent to my house. I was considering a purple plum but most of then uprooted during Hurricane Sandy as did many Bradford Pears. I have a J maple, weeping type, in my front yard. Can I add an upright J. Maple on the side. I’d like one that grows about the size of the purple plum and Bradford Pear but that is not easily up rooted. What would you recommend?

    • Sandra, It’s very difficult to give you any precise advice since you didn’t mention anything about the site conditions but I would assume that if you have a dwarf Japanese maple then an upright one would grow in the same area. You could try bloodgood maple but it may be a bit wider than you want. If you can use a shorter plant, you could consider a purple-leafed smokebush or a even Black Lace sambucus. Good luck.

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