8 of the Best Trees For Your Small Backyard

Trees are a great way to provide shade and privacy for your yard, especially if you live on a standard city-sized lot. Find out the best backyard trees for a small yard.

Now that the trees in my backyard have matured, I have a lot more shade and love that I can grow these shade-loving shrubs and ground cover perennials that thrive in the shade.
Best backyard trees

Best Backyard Trees For A Small Yard

One of the problems with moving into a new construction, builder-grade home like I did, is that there are no trees to be found anywhere!

They actually had to clear the forest in order to build the subdivision I live in and there still weren’t any trees in my backyard when I moved in.

With the sun beating down in the summer, my yard was way too hot to enjoy so I set out to plant some backyard trees that would provide some shade. Which can be a little easier said than done since I live in a subdivision with a standard subdivision-sized lot (in other words, not that big).

Southern Live Oak Tree with Spanish Moss | © Darwin Brandis - stock.adobe.com
Southern Live Oak Tree with Spanish Moss | © Darwin Brandis – stock.adobe.com

While I had dreams of a beautiful Southern garden complete with a live oak and Spanish moss dripping from its branches, I had to come back to reality…and realize that there is no way I could fit one of those into my backyard. (Not to mention that I’m not sure it would actually survive where I live).

What I needed were small shade trees that were tall enough to walk (or sit under), let enough light through that I could still garden around them and provided some privacy from my very nice but very close neighbors. Oh, and they needed to look good, too.

Keep reading to see my list of the best backyard trees. These are the ones that I planted to provide shade and privacy for my smaller sized yard and am very happy with the results. (As a side note, I am also fortunate that my property backs on to a ravine. So in the years since I moved in, a lot of the trees at the back have grown much taller and also help to provide some shade in the late afternoon.)

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Redbud is a good size for a backyard tree and has pretty pink flowers in the spring
Redbud is a good size for a backyard tree and has pretty pink flowers in the spring

Zones: 4 – 9

Height: 20′ to 30′

Width: 20′ to 35′

Light: Sun

One of the very first trees I got for my backyard was an Eastern Redbud.

It is a native tree in the Eastern United States and is one of the easiest trees to grow (so it definitely makes my best backyard trees list!)

Sun or shade, acidic or alkaline soil, even clay and dry conditions…it will survive them all once established. It also grows to the perfect size for most urban gardens – big enough to provide some shade but not so big that it takes over the yard.

The Redbud’s claim to fame is the pretty pink flowers that cover the tree early in the spring.

Redbud tree grows tall enough to provide shade for a small table and chairs
Redbud tree grows tall enough to provide shade for a small table and chairs

However, once it has finished blooming the heart-shaped leaves also add some interest in the garden.

And it provides the perfect shade tree canopy for a relaxing summer lunch spot.

Japanese Cherry (Prunus x yedoensis)

Japanese Cherry trees provides shade and beauty in the backyard
Japanese Cherry trees provides shade and beauty in the backyard

Zones: 5 – 8

Height: 40′ to 50′

Width: 25′ to 40′

Light: Sun

Japanese Cherry trees (or Yoshino cherry) are ornamental trees that are covered in beautiful white or pink blooms in the spring. They bloom relatively early (around the same time as the redbud as you can see in the corner) and are a great way to signal the start of the gardening season.

They also have a very pretty shape and make a good backyard tree since they don’t produce any actual cherries…which means less mess to clean up! That’s part of the reason I chose it to plant beside the deck at the back of my yard (and why they are on my best backyard trees list).

Blue Needle Evergreen Trees

'Hoopsii' blue spruce is a smaller variety that is perfect as a backyard tree for privacy
‘Hoopsii’ blue spruce is a smaller variety that is perfect as a backyard tree for privacy

Zones: 2 – 8

Height: 6′ to 75′ (depending on the variety)

Width: 4′ to 20′

Light: Sun to Part Shade

I think every yard needs at least a couple of evergreen trees. They keep some structure in your yard in the winter when all of the other trees look a little bare, and they are an excellent way to provide some privacy.

My favorite varieties of evergreens are the ones with blue needles like blue spruce or blue juniper. Of course, I love blue so having a plant with blue-tinted leaves is right up my alley!

The traditional Colorado Blue Spruce is a little large for most suburban yards (it grows up to 75′ tall and 16′ wide!) but there are many other varieties (such as Hoopsii and Fat Albert) that are more suited for a city-sized backyard.

And many of the blue junipers work quite well as a privacy screen.

Blue Point junipers make good backyard trees for privacy
Blue Point junipers make good backyard trees for privacy

I will say that you need to be a little careful when you are picking them out. These two ‘Blue Point’ junipers were supposed to grow to 12′ high and they are much closer to 40′ or 50′ now!

Pretty much all of them produce pine cones which are perfect for DIY Christmas decorating!

Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)

Saucer magnolia
Saucer magnolia

Zones: 5 – 10

Height: 12′ to 25′ (depending on the variety)

Width: 12′ to 20′

Light: Part to Full Sun

Many people associate Magnolias with the south, and automatically think of the native Southern magnolia with huge white flowers and glossy evergreen leaves.

Flower, fruits and foliage of Magnolia grandiflora (Southern magnolia) | © Vahan Abrahamyan - stock.adobe.com
Flower, fruits and foliage of Magnolia grandiflora (Southern magnolia) | © Vahan Abrahamyan – stock.adobe.com

It is a beautiful tree, but (like the Live Oak of my garden dreams) can be a bit too big for a standard suburban size lot.

However that shouldn’t stop you from growing Magnolias in your yard.

Saucer Magnolia
Saucer Magnolia

Saucer Magnolias also have big beautiful spring flowers but the tree is a more manageable size for a smaller back yard.

If you live in an area that tends to get late frost (which can kill the flowers just as they are opening), look for the Little Girl series hybrids that bloom a couple of weeks later.

Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Crepe Myrtle blooms in late summer
Crepe Myrtle blooms in late summer

Zones: 7 – 10

Height: 25′ to 30′

Width: 15′ to 25′

Light: Sun

The main reason that Crepe Myrtle is on my list for the best backyard trees is because they bloom late in the summer when most of the rest of my garden has wilted in the South Carolina summer heat.

As an added bonus, crepe myrtles are easy to grow (always a bonus in my book!) and they are deer-resistant plants.

Crepe Myrtle bark is multi-colored
Crepe Myrtle bark is multi-colored

They also have really interesting bark which makes them a good back drop for your garden even when they aren’t blooming. When I lived in  Florida, they used to call them “tourist trees” because the colored, peeling bark looked like skin that had been sunburned.

Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)

Chaste tree with purple flowers
Chaste tree with purple flowers

Zones: 6 – 10

Height: 25′ to 30′

Width: 15′ to 25′

Light: Sun

My next backyard tree is the Chaste tree. It has beautiful purple flowers, that almost look like lilacs but it blooms in the summer. I find if I cut the flowers off when they are finished, I can get it to bloom again a second time.

Chaste tree provides shade for a bench
Chaste tree provides shade for a bench

I have this one planted beside my patio and it provides the perfect amount of shade for a bench.

I do have to “limb it up” occasionally (in other words, cut off branches that are growing to close to the ground). Otherwise, it has a tendency to become a very large shrub instead of a tree.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Pink Dogwood Tree in Bloom for Spring | © Jill Lang - stock.adobe.com
Pink Dogwood Tree in Bloom for Spring | © Jill Lang – stock.adobe.com

Zones: 5 – 8

Height: 15′ to 30′

Width: 15′ to 30′

Light: Part Shade

Once you have some other trees growing in your yard (or if you have a ravine in the back like I do), you might need to add some trees that prefer part shade. That’s where these next two entries on my best backyard trees list come in handy.

Dogwood has beautiful pink or white flowers in the spring, really red leaves in the fall prefers part shade to a full sun location.

Native dogwood in spring | © Randy C. Anderson - stock.adobe.com
Native dogwood in spring | © Randy C. Anderson – stock.adobe.com

Cornus florida is my favorite dogwood variety since it is native to the Eastern United States and grows quite well in acidic soil. But you can also grow Cornus kousa which is the Japanese version of the same tree.

Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum)

Japanese Maples make a good focal point for your garden
Japanese Maples make a good focal point for your garden

Zones: 5 – 9

Height: 6′ to 25′ (depending on the variety)

Width: 6′ to 25′

Light: Part Shade

The second backyard tree that grows quite well in dappled shade is the Japanese Maple. Most of them aren’t really tall enough to be a shade tree on their own (there are a few exceptions), but I think they have such a pretty shape and leaves that I couldn’t leave them off the list.

Depending on the variety they may be weeping or upright plants but in all cases they will definitely be the star of your yard or border.

Japanese Maple
Japanese Maple

I love the varieties that have lace leaves with different colors. Who needs flowers when the plants are so pretty themselves?

Most varieties are fairly slow growing and do best in part shade.

Well, that’s it for my list of best backyard trees. Hopefully you have found one or two that will work in your yard!

Have any other suggestions for best backyard trees? Tell us in the section below.

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4 Responses

  • I found your post while looking for ideas to do exactly what you describe – add some shade to my small, all full SC sun, western exposure back yard. It’s brutal back here! Can you share your source for somewhat mature trees?

    • Hi Dawn…I live in Greenville (so I’m not sure if these are close to you) and have a few nurseries in the area that I like: Easley Nursery (probably has the best selection of larger sized trees), South Pleasantburg nursery, and Lichtenfelt nurseries. If you don’t mind driving up to Asheville, North Carolina, B.B. Barns is another option. Hope that helps!

  • Hi Wanda,
    Just found your site tonight and am absolutely loving your garden section. Regarding the photo for the BLUE NEEDLE EVERGREEN TREES…do you happen to know the name of the tree that is to the right of the Hoopsii’ blue spruce? There is a Japanese maple underneath it. I am really liking that entire vignette and hoping that the tree with the lilac blooms is appropriate for Colorado (zone 5). TIA!

    • Thanks Molly! That is actually a standard lilac bush that has had all of the lower branches removed so it looks more like a tree…as you can see, doing that allows other plants to grow under it 🙂 This is in my mother’s garden in Toronto (also zone 5) so you should be able to achieve something similar.

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