If you’ve been thinking about a new small tree for your yard, the first thing is to remember the adage, “Right place, right plant.” It’s far easier to find the right tree for the place initially than relocating something that isn’t right.
Take into account if there are power lines overhead. Even a small tree can grow to be 20 or 30 feet tall, which can interfere with overhead lines. Likewise, before you start digging, make sure you know where your underground gas and electrical lines are located.
Once you have a good idea of the space you have, you can start gathering research on which trees fit the bill. Even better, we know of a few trees that don’t require a lot of upkeep—because your life is busy enough! Here are five of the best low-maintenance small trees you can fit in your yard:
Ginkgo Maidenhair Tree
Ginkgoes are well-known for medicinal properties, and they’re excellent ornament trees for your garden. They can grow almost anywhere, and there are several varieties in case you’re interested in a particular leaf shape or color for fall or spring (as well as some dwarf varieties). The only requirements the ginkgo will have is around six hours of sun a day and good soil drainage.
A ginkgo tree will have wide, fan-shaped leaves that turn gold in the autumn. The leaves will drop in the fall, so there is some mess. However, the leaves will drop all around the same time, so you won’t have to go out weekend after weekend to do your fall clean-up.
Since we’re talking about low-maintenance options, choose a male tree, which will have pollen cones on it. They’ll look like small catkins, set in clusters. A female tree will have twin ovules at the ends of the stems. If you have a male and female tree next to each other, you can expect to have some fruit, but it can get very messy in the fall if you aren’t prepared for it.
Spring has arrived when the dogwoods flower. There are as many as fifty species of dogwoods native to Asia, Europe, and North America, and there are several species native to the Pacific Northwest. The species is broad and encompasses trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. The tree types range from 15 feet to 35 feet tall, and the shrub forms range from 12 to 15 feet.
Full sun can burn the leaves of this tree. If you want to put the dogwood in a space with lots of sun, just remember that it will require more water in the summertime and may have scorched leaves. The best thing you can do is place it where it will get sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. Especially in its first year, the tree will need regular deep watering, twice a week when temperatures are above 80 degrees. After the first year, it won’t require as much attention—dogwoods are adaptable to a variety of soil conditions.
The most common dogwood in Portland is the eastern dogwood (Cornus florida), which blooms in May. This kind grows to 15 to 20 feet tall and can be susceptible to diseases, such as anthracnose, which you should watch out for.
We love spruces! They don’t drop leaves in the fall and are consistently low effort. There are 40 varieties in the Picea family: they range from Picea abies “Cupressina,” which has an upright narrow shape, to Picea glauca “Pendula,” otherwise known as the weeping white spruce, which has lovely blue-green boughs that droop into a wide skirt. The dwarf varieties can also be planted in containers. Moist, well-drained soil is preferred, but clay soil is also acceptable. They’ll need to be watered more often in the springtime, when they’re growing new candles on the ends of their branches.
Once the tree is established, just keep an eye out for mites, aphids, or bagworms—the most common pests that enjoy spruces as much as we do. Prune, shape, and trim the tree from mid-autumn through winter, before the spring growth comes in.
This one is colorful all year round: its leaves grow in looking silvery in the spring, turn to green toward the late spring and summer, and then become bright yellow and orange in the autumn. It’s a lovely centerpiece in May when it blooms with white flowers. Later, toward the early fall, you’ll see clusters of orange-red berries. Wildlife will be more visible in the fall as well, when birds and squirrels grab up these berries as a food source. Native to Europe, the whitebeam has adapted well to the Pacific Northwest climate.
Plant this tree in loamy to sandy soil, in a sunny place. It will grow to be about 30 feet tall and is cold hardy.
Thundercloud Purple Leaf Plum
In the early spring, this tree looks like a large pink cloud before the rest of the foliage comes in. The effect is stunning (we think it looks a bit like a giant cotton candy), and continues even when the pink petals fall because the leaves are coppery purple. It does produce small, red, edible fruit, so there can be a little mess in the fall when the fruits start to drop. The fruit will draw birds and squirrels, and it’s resilient to urban pollution.
Plant this tree so that it has full sun. It will need regular watering, at least once a week, and more when the temperature gets warm. It can be used in a variety of locations if you’re curating a specific “look,” such as in an urban setting, a wildlife garden, or a woodland glade. This tree will grow about 20 feet tall and about the same wide in a typical round shape.
As you can see, there are plenty of options if you have a small space that you want to fill with a low-maintenance tree. We’re always happy to give our thoughts if you have further questions about any of these species—we have certified arborists standing by. Contact Mr. Tree today, whether your tree needs are big (excavation or emergency removal) or small (pruning, shaping, or trimming). Happy planting!