We often default to thinking bigger is better, but that's not always true. More people live in urban areas than ever, these days, and space often comes at a premium for those looking to liven up what little landscape they have.
Dwarf trees offer the perfect solution for limited yard space. Hardy, decorative, and unique, this diverse class of trees shows that you don't need a 50-foot oak to make your green space shine. Many dwarf trees even bear delicious fruits as an added benefit to the liveliness they bring to spatially challenged lawns.
Fruit trees are the widest class of dwarf tree, to the extent that this article could outline ten unique types and still not exhaust the list. Suffice it to say that if you can think of a full-size fruit tree, chances are it has a mini cousin with similar fruit. Some dwarves do yield unique variants of the fruits produced by their larger counterparts, and may have unique growing requirements, too. The Meyer lemon is one such tree; it produces sweeter lemons than taller species — and with a slightly orange skin.
Though still technically a fruit tree, the crabapple is known for more than its fruit and deserves its own consideration. The tiny, sour, jewel-like fruits are a favorite amongst birds and deer, but they have less appeal to humans. Plant this pretty tree in the moderate climates of the midwest in full sun, and enjoy the attention their beautiful blossoms and puckery fruit garner from all the local woodland critters. Smaller versions like the Camelot or Coralburst will reach just 8 to 10 feet.
Often seen lining walkways or bracketing a garden entrance, the crepe myrtle will always be a classic beauty. Their long, bushy limbs are capped with vibrant purple and pink flowers, and they're often used in hedge formation to obscure unwanted views.
Many gardeners prune crepe myrtles to keep them in check, but it's not required. Zuni crepes will only grow about 12 feet long and wide, and their dark-leaved cousin, black diamond, will only reach eight by eight. Note that the latter doesn't tolerate colder temperatures than those in the Southeast.
While the crepe myrtle delivers a traditional beauty, the Japanese stewartia brings a sunnier charm. The clean white petals make the yolk-yellow center stand out in cheery clusters across this tree's thin, smooth limbs, and its peeling bark adds extra beauty in the winter. Stewartia is hardy in a wide range of temperatures, thriving amidst the cold winters of the northern Midwest and hot southwestern summers alike — and it can handle most soil types.
There is some height variance with this one: some stay under 10 feet, but others report a maximum height of 40 feet — which would hardly be a dwarf at all. For a more predictable small species, try its cousin, the Virginia stewartia.
All Japanese maples have beautiful foliage, but this species stands out. The razor-thin leaves of this dwarf tree not only have a unique delicate, silky feel, but they begin the spring in red attire and move to bronze as the weather warms. They finish off the year in flaming orange, making for a splendid show throughout.
In hot climates, plant this tree in enough shade to keep it from scorching, and give it full sun in regions where cooler temps prevail. Couple that with weekly watering, and eventually it will reach its full 12-foot stature — though it's a slow grower, so it may take some time.
At a maximum height of five feet, the Mugo pine is a true dwarf tree — as long as you get the right one. Some species can grow as tall as 20 feet, so make you're planting a Honeycomb, Paul's Dwarf, or Gnom for the slow-growing variety. Even in these varieties, the stout Mugo grows wider than its height, and is frequently used as ground cover. It takes up to 10 years for the mugo pine to reach it's limited vertical reach, so patience is a must. Plant it in cooler northern regions in well-aerated soil, and it can go the distance.
There are few flowers as beautiful as those of the Japanese camellia, which is why this dwarf tree is so popular. The tight spiral petals come in pastel pink and white, and some of these slow-growing shrubs can still be found blooming near Japanese palaces where they were planted hundreds of years ago.
It takes a while for the Japanese camellia to establish itself, so it needs a bit of care at first. Plant it in rich shallow soil in an area protected from scorching heat and drying wind, and provide ample moisture without competition from other plants. Once established, the camellia can withstand heat and will grow to an average of 10 to 12 feet. That being said, centuries-old camellia have attained heights of 20 feet or more.
Few people think of a dwarf tree when they think of the cypress, but some sub-species fit the profile. While the Hinoki cypress itself has grown to a maximum height of 130 feet, the dwarf Hinoki only reaches about six feet high and four feet wide. This shrub-like dwarf has notoriously dense foliage, making it a very good choice for hedges, and is also very low-maintenance. It thrives in full to partial sun and prefers the cooler climates of the Northeast.
Many people only think of the itchy weed when they consider sumac, but there is more to this plant family. The tiger eyes variety is a relatively small tree, reaching about six feet high and six feet wide. This species is widely enjoyed for its yellowish, moss-colored foliage, which bursts into fiery yellows, oranges, and reds in the fall. They grow best in cooler northern climates, and they only need watering once the top three or four inches of soil begins to dry. Do that much, and they'll reward you with visual splendor in the fall.
Of all the exotic trees we've mentioned so far, the corkscrew filbert is one of the few that impresses even more after its foliage falls. In keeping with its whimsical name, this dwarf tree's branches spiral out in a labyrinth of twists and turns as it grows, making its limbs as eye-catching as its leaves. They grow 8 to 10 feet tall in a wide range of temperatures and can tolerate full sun or partial shade, so they're as hardy as they are unique.