Master Gardener: What’s a good tree to plant in a tiny Southern California yard?

Q. I recently moved into a new tract home that has a very small front yard. What kind of tree can I plant that won’t overwhelm this space? I would like something that will provide some shade and do well in the heat.

This can be a challenge. When I shop at the local garden centers and big box home improvement stores, I can find plenty of trees that will get much too big for the average front yard. Some of the more familiar species, such as Palo Verde, Eucalyptus, California Pepper Tree, Sycamore, and the dreadful Ornamental Pear can reach up to 100 feet. A tree this big can look ridiculous on a postage-stamp-sized lot. If you have solar panels on your roof, these trees can eventually render them useless if they grow tall enough to shade your roof. If the top branches reach to your home’s eaves, they can provide easy access to the attic for rats.

When shopping for small trees, Google is your friend. There are many appealing smaller trees that will grow well in Southern California, but you may have to do some homework to find a nursery that sells them. Pay attention to the variety name since some varieties are bigger (or much bigger) than others.

When searching for small trees that will grow in Southern California, I found quite a few suggestions that were inappropriate. Japanese Maple was suggested on several sites, but this tree will not grow well in Southern California’s heat. Some semi-dwarf citrus trees, such as Meyer lemon, are very beautiful and will grow well here, but due to the spread of Citrus Greening Disease (HLB), I would not recommend adding any citrus tree to your garden at this time.

Some of my personal favorite small trees are easy to grow, don’t have aggressive roots, are attractive most of the year, and are not too messy. Here are some that should be reasonably easy to find and are well-behaved:

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), also known as Christmas Berry, is a perennial shrub or small, multi-trunk tree that is native to California. It is drought-tolerant once established and has dark green foliage all year round. In the winter it bears tiny red berries that are attractive to birds. They can reach 10 feet in height relatively quickly. Some varieties can reach 30 feet, but most will top off at about 15 feet.


Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) provides year-round interest. In the early spring, it bears large numbers of bright rosy-red flowers. Some varieties have red leaves, making them showy throughout the summer after the flowers have dropped.

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia) is a multi-trunk small tree or large shrub. It bears white, pink, or purple flowers late in the spring through mid-summer. It can reach 30 feet in height, with a 20-foot spread. Although it grows well in Southern California, it requires extra water in the hottest summer months.

For more information, see

Los Angeles County; 626-586-1988;

Orange County;

Riverside County;

San Bernardino County; 909-387-2182;

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *