best trees for urban gardens

As a Minneapolis landscape architect, I design many landscapes on small urban lots. Space is at a premium, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have all the different layers of vegetation (trees/shrubs/perennials/ground covers) to create a balanced garden design. The most challenging to create is that tallest layer of vegetation (trees) because in addition to small spaces, there often are limitations with overhead utility lines and neighboring structures. If you’re looking to add height in limited garden corners, these are my picks for the best trees for urban gardens.

Great Trees for Small Spaces

Betula nigra ‘Little King’ – Fox Valley River Birch

A newer hybrid, this dwarf River Birch is both adorable and unique. It has the typical exfoliating bark of our native River Birch, but only reaches a height of 10 feet. Its dwarf clump habit means you get a very compact and uniform canopy of leaves.

Carpinus caroliniana – Blue Beech, Musclewood

This Minnesota native is truly underutilized in the garden landscape. Its most compelling attribute is the sinewy smooth bark it develops as it matures (hence the name ‘Musclewood’). I prefer to use the clump version for added visual drama. Some versions can also have excellent fall color. Not widely available commercially so you might have to do some hunting, and it is referred to by many common names, so make sure you are using the Latin to get the right species.

Malus ‘Jewelcole’ – Red Jewel Crabapple

There are many Crabapple species to pick from, but I’ve found Red Jewel to be the one I keep coming back to. It has shown a great degree of disease resistance, and it can’t be beat for winter interest. Its brilliant red fruit clings to the tree after leaf drop. If the birds do not pick it clean by end of winter, the new buds will push the dried fruit off the stems in spring. No mushy mess of decaying fruit under this tree, making it perfect to plant near your patio or walkway. This comes as both a single-stem or clump form. Again, I prefer the clump for added interest, particularly if you uplight the multiple trunks.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Jade Butterfly’

The Ginkgo is an ancient species and its leaf shape is instantly recognizable. What I find less than desirable is that the species takes a very long time to mature to the magnificent specimens these become. The tree looks like a toothpick for many years, so patience is a virtue. Not willing to wait? This dwarf Gingko is the perfect choice! You get the fantastic leaf and color without having to wait for the tree to fill out. Eventually it will reach 15 feet at maturity, but again that will take many years. So you can enjoy it as a striking focal point in your garden without worry of it outgrowing its spot.

Acer pseudosieboldiana – Korean Maple and the Korean/Japanese hybrids

More often than not a new client will tell me they would love to incorporate a Japanese Maple into their new landscape.  I love Japanese Maples too, but I’m a realist and even the few varieties that are designated hardy in our Zone 4 still really want to be burlapped in the winter for added protection.   And even if you do baby them, they can still just up-and-die on you.  So rather than kid ourselves, I direct clients to look at Korean Maples instead. You get the beautiful leaf shape of the Japanese Maple but the greater hardiness (up to Zone 3) means they don’t need to be coddled in order to perform. You don’t have the burgundy leaf color of many Japanese Maples, but the trade-off is spectacular orange fall color with the Koreans. Also there are many recent hybrids combining Korean and Japanese characteristics being introduced to the market, and I encourage you to consider any of them. The original species can be found in both single-stem and clump forms.

Quercus x warei ‘Nadler’ – Kindred Spirit Oak

Oaks are prized trees: long-lived, stately, and symbolic of strength and perseverance. The challenge with planting a new Oak is that you are really doing so for the next generation to enjoy, as they are slow to mature. Another way to incorporate Oaks into your landscape, particularly if you don’t have room for the 40’ to 75’ wide canopies, is to look to the newer columnar varieties being developed. They have all the benefits of the natives (strength, longevity, supporting a large population of desirable insects, birds and fauna) in a compact form that makes them one of the best trees for urban gardens. I especially like Kindred Spirit (a hybrid of English Oak and Swamp White Oak) because it is extremely narrow (6 feet wide at maturity) but also gets up to 35 feet tall.  It is mildew and drought resistance and tolerates urban soil conditions. I have planted multiples of them in a row to create a columnar ‘hedge’ screening urban neighbors without a fence.

I hope this helps you select the best trees for your space! If you’ve enjoyed reading about the best trees for urban gardens, you may also want to check out my Top 10 Perennial Picks for Minnesota gardens!