Dwarf Trees: Ideal Choices for Small-Yard Design

As my picture shows, Crimson Queen has a cascading habit. It's a type of Japanese maple.
Photo: Crimson Queen Japanese maple has a cascading habit. David Beaulieu

Bigger is not always better. Just ask all the folks who go out of their way at the nursery to purchase dwarf trees. In small-yard design, these mighty mites naturally stand head and shoulders above their taller counterparts as the right choice for the allotted space.

The fact is that many homeowners new to the constraints of small-yard design make the mistake of planting ​a specimen that is too big for their landscapes.

The result of their poor selection is that the plant quickly outgrows its space, necessitating its removal after only a short period of time in the ground. Learning from their mistake (hopefully), they make a wise choice next time around and purchase a more appropriately-sized specimen.

Here is a sampling of both deciduous and evergreen dwarf trees that should be helpful for those new to small yard design:

  • Dwarf Trees: Evergreen Types
    1. Mugo Pines
    2. Dwarf Alberta Spruce
    3. Japanese White Pines
    4. Hinoki Cypress
  • Dwarf Trees: Deciduous Types
    1. Contorted Hazelnut 
    2. Small Japanese Maples
    3. Weeping Pussy Willows
    4. 'Tiger Eyes' Sumac

These plants are briefly discussed below, with links to articles that provide more detailed information on each choice, plus pictures showing you what they look like.

Mugo Pines

If a plant is characterized as a "pine" yet is used as a groundcover, that gives you a pretty good idea that it is a dwarf tree, right?

Well, such is the case with some types of mugo pines: these evergreens have a broadly spreading habit that makes them popular choices as a groundcover.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce

If you are a plant novice, you may see dwarf Alberta spruces (Picea glauca 'Conica') around all the time without even knowing it.

You will often see them used in balanced pairs, flanking a front entrance. Because they will remain relatively small for a number of years, people sometimes treat them as container plants for the porch.

But beware: as a plant that may eventually reach 12 feet in height, Alberta spruce is not quite as small as either the example above or that below ("dwarf trees" is, after all, a somewhat relative term).

Japanese White Pines

Some of the smaller members of the pine world have a message for you: beware of the "guilt by association" pitfall in judging them. Any bad press you may have heard about the larger specimens, such as Eastern white pines (that is, their messiness, the proclivity of their limbs to break, and more) should not influence your attitude toward the dwarf trees that happen to be pines, one elegant example being Arnold Arboretum Japanese white pines (Pinus parviflora).

Hinoki Cypress

Slender Hinoki cypress is an intermediate-sized Hinoki cypress, being more compact (about 15 feet tall at maturity, and about 5 feet wide) than the species plant (which reaches more than 50 feet in height) but not as short as 'Nana Gracilis,' which stands at 9 feet tall at maturity.

Contorted Hazelnut

Contorted hazelnut (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') also goes by such common names as "Harry Lauder's Walking Stick" and "Corkscrew Filbert." Although technically a shrub, it is an example of a deciduous dwarf tree, because that is how many people view it.

Contorted hazelnut may actually be at its best in winter: without any leaves in the way, you can better appreciate the madcap twists and turns of its branches.

'Crimson Queen,' Small Japanese Maple

You may be most familiar with regular-sized Japanese maples, But as another example of a deciduous dwarf tree useful in planning a small yard design, it should be emphasized that dwarf types do exist, too.

For instance, Sharp's Pygmy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Sharp's Pygmy') is said to reach a height of just 3 feet in 10-15 years. This plant bears green, deeply dissected leaves in summer that morph into a brilliant red in autumn. Perhaps better-known is that graceful weeper, the Crimson Queen Japanese maple.

Weeping Pussy Willows

Have you ever gone out into the woods on a late winter's day to cut some branches from a pussy willow tree (or shrub) and bring them home, to be placed in a vase somewhere prominently to remind you that spring will, eventually, return?

If so, you probably know the pussy willow as a rather wild-looking plant, interesting for its catkins but perhaps not shapely enough for some folks to merit growing in the landscape. But there is a type sold at nurseries that has a nice, weeping form, making it suitable even for the landscapes of people who like their plants tame-looking.

'Tiger Eyes' Sumac

Like contorted hazelnut, sumac is, technically, classified as a shrub, even though its trunk is tree-like. But, given the beauty of this plant, it's doubtful that you will want to quibble over technicalities. A yellowish-lime color for most of the growing season, the foliage goes berserk in fall, morphing into a mix of yellow (usually the predominant color), orange, and red.