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The Best Trees for Small Yards

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The Best Trees for Small Yards

Short on outdoor space? Here are your best small tree planting options

Like many Toronto and GTA homeowners, you may be short on outdoor space, but still looking at your options for planting trees for small yards. You want the greenery and shade that comes with backyard trees, but need some smaller-sized options that won’t overwhelm the space as they grow or need constant pruning. You may already have hedges and flowers, but trees add height and dept to gardens like nothing else. 

Ontario native trees are best for supporting the local ecosystem and ensuring you plant a tree that will do well in this climate. However, there are many small tree species well-adapted to Southern Ontario that also grow well. Familiarize yourself with invasive tree species and avoid planting any of these.

If you need to plant some trees for small yards, here are some great options in the GTA and Southern Ontario.

Small japanese maple tree in small backyard toronto

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

The Downy Serviceberry (also called a Juneberry or Serviceberry) is a native Ontario tree that gets its name from its cascade of fluffly, white flowers in spring. This native tree is particularly happy in Toronto and GTA growing zones.

It’s a slower-growing tree that grows in full sun or partial shade. Serviceberries grown to a height and width of 4.5-7.5m (15-25 feet). It grows best in moist, acidic soil. It’s also a very drought-tolerant and disease-tolerant tree.

The tree produces edible red berries in June – hence the moniker Juneberry!). In fall, the serviceberry has red-orange leaves.

Smooth Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)

Smooth serviceberry Amelanchier laevis in summer

Like its cousin the Downy Serviceberry, the Smooth Serviceberry is a native species that grows to a height and width of 4.5-7.5m (15-25 feet). This tree is also known as the Allegheny Berry or Smooth Juneberry.

It grows best in moist, acidic soil and full sun to partial shade. The Smooth Serviceberry also grows showy white flowers in spring and edible berries in early summer. The berries were a staple food for prairie Cree First Nations. It has lovely golden yellow, orange or red foliage in fall.

Serviceberries are very adaptable and easy to transplant. The Smooth Serviceberry can also be planted underneath hydro lines. These plants are often used for privacy screening or wind screening due to their size, and are alternatives to the more standard cedar hedges for adding greenery and privacy to your home.

Also Note: Serviceberries have berries! This will attract birds to your garden.

Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Alternate leaved dogwood tree with white blossoms in spring

The tallest dogwood native to Ontario, this dogwood can either look like a 2m shrub or small 6m (20 foot) tree. It’s also known as pagoda dogwood and is sometimes used in gardens to create a Japanese garden effect. The branches can spread up to a width of 5m.

Bark is bright green with white streaks. The alternate leafed dogwood grows white flowers in spring, which turn to purple berries in summer.

This small native tree grows in moist, well-drained sites. Since they often grow in Ontario forests, they’re very tolerant of shade. However, they also grow well in the sun on their own

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud tree with pink blossoms in spring photo greg hume

This small tree explodes from magenta buds into a burst of lovely pink flowers in early springtime. Native to Southern Ontario, the Eastern Redbud has heart-shaped leaves come late spring, and a rounded crown. The flower clusters become bean-like pods that stay on the tree until winter.

The redbud does well in most soil types and levels of full sun to partial shade. It grows to a height of 6-9m (20-30 feet). Trees in full sun need to be watered regularly.

Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra)

This small to medium tree is native to Southern Ontario, though it is more common in the midwestern United States. It can grow up to 15m tall and has a rounded crown.

Leaves are in clusters of 5-7 pointed leaflets. It has become a popular choice for city tree planting in recent years in Toronto and other Ontario cities. In Toronto, you can find them in Trinity Bellwoods, Toronto Island parks and Queen’s Park.

It prefers moist soil and can tolerate a high pH. Partial shade is best for this tree, though it can grow in full shade as well.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

Peeling bark on trunk of paperbark maple tree photo jean-pol grandmont

One of the smaller maple varieties, this is an ornamental maple tree with beautiful reddish peeling bark. Native to central China, it was first brought to North America in the early 20th century and is a non-invasive species that does well in Southern Ontario’s climate.

This tree grows to a height of up to 10 m or 30 feet, and width of 25 feet.

It grows in full sunlight or partial shade and has a slow growth rate. It needs average or moist soil conditions.

Hanna’s Heart Katsura (Cercidiphyllum Japonicum ‘Biringer’)

A hardier variety of katsura tree, this tree is smaller and narrower than other katsuras, making it perfect for small yards. It has heart-shaped leaves and a beautiful yellow-orange colour in fall. They hold their leaves long into the fall.

These trees grow to 3.5-8m in height (10-25 feet) and a 4m or 12-foot width.

They prefer full sun and moist, but not wet, soil, and shouldn’t be left to dry out.

Royal Star Magnolia

Royal star magnolia tree in spring bloom with white flowers photo david stang

A small magnolia that’s filled with floppy white flowers instead of the more common purple in early spring, this is a lovely accent tree for small yards. Native to Japan, it does well in the GTA climate.

It grows to a height and width of about 3.5m (12 feet). These are slow growing trees, and often suggested for planting under power lines.

The Royal Star Magnolia grows in moist, well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade. It doesn’t do well in pollution, so it’s better-suited to backyards and may be a better choice for yards farther from major roadways or busy downtown areas.

Gray Dogwood

White berries on gray dogwood photo frank mayfield

The Gray Dogwood is a good tree for poor conditions, thriving in most types of soil and full sun or partial shade. It has reddish leaves in the fall and white berries in late summer. The berries are favoured by Ontario bird species, but are not edible for humans. It grows to about 3m or 9 feet.

Often used for naturalizing gardens or creating a woodland effect, this native species is hardy and does well around urban pollution. This makes it suitable for either front or back yards and gardens in dense downtown areas. It’s slow-growing, and can be planted under power lines.

Blue Beech

Ontario blue beech tree with full leaves in summer

The Blue Beech is a small tree native to Southern Ontario, particularly around the Lake Ontario and Lake Erie areas. It’s also known as American Hornbeam. Growing up to 8m high (26 feet), this tree is best for rich, moist soil conditions. It can handle seasonal flooding, so may be a good choice for a damp yard or property near the lake.

Blue Beech has bluish-green leaves with fine teeth, and small nuts in fall. It’s known as an understorey tree, meaning it does well in full or partial shade. It is known for its strong wood.

Reputable Information and Sources for Small Trees

You can find more information on service berries here:

Sources for Small Trees from Professional Nurseries in the GTA:

Other Ontario Trees for Small Yards

Even with a small yard, you can benefit from the health and environmental impacts of planting a tree! There are many native and non-invasive species suited to all types of urban and suburban conditions.

For planting recommendations for your yard, or assistance with tree planting, contact an arborist at Vista Tree today. We also provide a full range of tree services, from tree removal and pruning to hedge care and more! 

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Michael Co-Founder
Michael is a Certified Arborist and founder of the company. He holds a Certificate in Urban Arboriculture (Honours) from Humber College, Certificate in Project Leadership from Cornell, has post-graduate studies in Urban Forestry and Arboriculture from Oregon State College of Foresty and holds a BAH in Ancient History with a minor in Business. In addition to being an ISA Certified Arborist, he is a TCIA Certified Tree Safety Professional, Tree Appraisal Qualified by Arboriculture Canada and holds a Landscape Exterminator license. Michael sat on the Board of Director for the Ontario Commercial Arborist Association in 2022 and 2023. He worked at some of the top arboriculture companies in Southern Ontario before starting Vista Tree Management. Before that, he was an award-winning Executive Director in the nonprofit sector and published marketing consultant. On the rare days off, Michael can be found at home with his family - a loving wife, two daughters and two cats in Central Toronto.
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