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.
Best Backyard Trees For A Small Yard
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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).
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)
Zones: 4 – 9
Height: 20′ to 30′
Width: 20′ to 35′
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.
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)
Zones: 5 – 8
Height: 40′ to 50′
Width: 25′ to 40′
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
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.
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)
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.
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 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)
Zones: 7 – 10
Height: 25′ to 30′
Width: 15′ to 25′
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.
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)
Zones: 6 – 10
Height: 25′ to 30′
Width: 15′ to 25′
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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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This post was originally published on April 24, 2018 but was updated with new content on September 15, 2022.