10 Best Small Shade Trees For Southern California Backyards

Shade trees are favorites for Southern California yards to protect shade-loving plants from direct sun. In addition, the lush foliage also offers a cool breeze, especially in the hot summer months. However, most of the shade trees grow tall and large. Thus, they may not fit those who have narrow areas. For that reason, we have compiled the best small shade trees for Southern California backyard landscapes that will pamper you with their beauty throughout the seasons.

They are generally well-adapted to the local Southern California climate. Hence, you don’t need to worry about their maintenance. And most importantly, they will stay smaller even though the trees are getting old.

You can expect ornamental trees, privacy trees, and tree canopies for Southern California in this list. So, why don’t we just dive in now?

Why Should You Plant Shade Trees?

Growing a small tree in California with thick leaves will provide shade in your scorching backyard. Especially during mid-July, when the summer solstice arrives. The tree can also turn into a comfy shelter for wildlife. If it produces fruits and a small flower, you also contribute to feeding them.

In addition, the dense foliage gives you fresh air as it can filter air pollution around you. However, you should prune them when they are already growing thick. The branches can break your windows if they grow massively long. Meanwhile, the leaves will fall in the fall, which, if not cleaned, can clog the drains. Of course, it is not favorable because it can cause puddles when it rains.

How Do You Take Care of Small Trees?

Caring for small trees is similar to taking care of common trees in general. It includes watering, mulching, and pruning. Check out the detailed info below!

  • The first and utmost you cannot miss is watering. Even though your tree is considered drought-tolerant, it still needs water to survive. And most significantly, perform photosynthesis. Young trees, especially, need regular watering to moisten the soil during the first year. After that, you can reduce watering according to its necessity.
  • Mulching is another thing that is often forgotten when planting trees. It helps to keep moisture when low humidity and temperature start to cover your environment in winter. In addition, mulching also provides additional nutrients for your tree.
  • The next important thing in tree maintenance is pruning. It allows your tree to produce new branches and make them look healthier. However, avoid over-pruning when it is less than three years old because a robust root system is formed. Our experts recommend only removing the dead leaves or barks. When they are older than three years, you can move into shaping the trees.

How Can You Make Your Shade Tree Grow Faster?

If you own a fast-growing shade tree, you may not deal with this problem. But that’s different if you grow a moderate or slow-growing one. You should put extra effort into making it grow faster. Follow these tips to ensure your tree develops fast and healthy:

  • Check out the growing zones. It seems unnecessary, but actually, it matters the most. If you plant a tree outside its planting zones, it may grow slowly since it doesn’t meet the growing requirements. So, make sure you check it before you buy the seeds.
  • Set a watering schedule. Water is crucial for photosynthesis. Besides, it keeps the soil moist. Thus, preventing dehydration.
  • Feed your tree. You cannot skip fertilizer if you want your tree to grow faster. It adds nutrients necessary for its growth and development. Our experts suggest fertilizing the tree after planting and during its early growth for the best results.
  • Mulch, mulch, and mulch! Many ignore this step thinking it’s not essential. On the other hand, mulching is vital, especially if winter comes. It can protect the roots from frost while keeping the soil moist. Mulching also offers additional nutrients for your plants to grow fast.

Small Shade Trees You Can Grow in Southern California

Only some have a large garden to plant large shade trees. Hence, these trees are the ideal alternatives. Despite the size, they flourish to adorn your yards with stunning foliage while the flowers are beautifully blooming. Interested in growing one? Find the best low-branched tree for your home below.

1. Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia Florida)

Maybe, the name of this tree sounds foreign to some people. But if you live in Southern California, you must be familiar with Blue Palo Verde or Parkinsonia Florida. Despite bearing ‘Florida’ in its Latin name, this deciduous tree is also native to Southern California.

The most striking feature of this tree is its dense clusters of lime-green to yellow flowers. Meanwhile, the long, tiny barks are blue-green, creating a stunning combination from afar. In addition, it has three pairs of green leaflets for each of the tree’s pinna.

small shade trees for southern california
Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia Florida)

To plant this tree, you must ensure the growing location suits its needs. It performs best on well-drained, loamy, or sandy soil under the full sun. In the case of watering, you can water them weekly in the summer and monthly in the cold winter.

Fortunately, they are versatile, thriving well in dry or moist soil. With proper care, they can reach up to 25 feet tall, which tends to be lower than other shade trees in California. However, you may expect shorter growth in shade lighting levels.

2. Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia Indica)

Lagerstroemia indica or Crape Myrtle is popular for its eye-catching magenta flowers that grow densely clumping on the tip branches. Meanwhile, the thick, elliptical to oblong leaves show off green shades that perfectly combine the bright blooms.

In addition, the trunks form a rounded crown that looks stunning, a perfect small tree for landscaping. You can safely grow it in your front yard as this deciduous tree is not poisonous to humans and pets.

small shade trees for southern california
Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia Indica)

Similar to the previous one, Crape Myrtle is a sturdy, well-adapted tree that copes well with frost and hot weather. Nonetheless, it rather grows best under the full sun than shade. But lucky you!

This stunning small tree does not fuss about soil types and conditions as long as you provide good drainage. It is also a drought-tolerant tree, making it easier to care for as you don’t bother with the watering schedule. If you want to plant it, consider June to late September when the soil still warms.

3. Desert Willow (Chilopsis Linearis)

You may have guessed the characteristics of the Desert Willow. Just like typical Willow trees, it has arching branches that look intimidating but somehow captivating. They are covered with lance-shaped, glossy, dark green foliage that serves as an excellent background for its pink flowers.

It also features an open, round crown that offers shade to the lawns, and plants grow underneath the tree. Under proper care, Desert Willow can grow 15-40 feet tall.

small shade trees for southern california
Desert Willow (Chilopsis Linearis)

Furthermore, you need to imitate growing conditions similar to their natural habitat if you are interested in planting this tree. It grows healthily in arid and hot temperatures, like its name, ‘desert’. Considering this fact, a total sun area is the best choice for this small deciduous tree to thrive.

Since it develops at a medium rate, you don’t have to worry about frequent pruning that may make your hands full. As for the soils, it loves loamy, sandy, or clay soils with a pH of around 6.6 to 8.5. Additionally, monthly watering is necessary to keep its enchanting appearance.

4. Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida)

Trying to cheer up your dull garden? Flowering Dogwood or Cornus florida can be your ultimate candidate to grow in the area. It bears lavish pink flowers and green foliage wrapped around its low-growing branches. Both flowers and leaves grow dense.

Thus, you can rely on it to protect your front yard from the scorching sun. In addition, it has a flat-top crown, unlike some previous small shade trees for Southern California. Considering this feature, some say it is one of the best flowering trees in the United States.

small shade trees for southern california
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida)

It doesn’t take tons to grow Cornus florida. All you need to do is set aside a site with partial shade or total sun exposure. However, it requires averagely moist soil rich in organic matter with slightly acidic to neutral soil pH, ranging between 6 to 7.

You must also water the tree once or twice weekly and increase the frequency in the summer. Knowing the ground must be constantly moist, mulching will help to preserve moisture and keep the roots cool during dry summer or winter.

5. Fruitless Mulberry (Morus Alba)

Wondering why Morus alba is called Fruitless Mulberry? Perhaps, you guessed that this tree did not bear fruit. But, in fact, it produces berries! It’s just that they are white, not red or purple like mulberries you commonly find. They are edible, though birds will likely steal them before harvesting.

The branches are growing hanging down, a bit like Willow trees, providing shade to your garden. Though it looks messy, the green leaves will display golden colors during fall that look stunning in the landscape.

small shade trees for southern california
Fruitless Mulberry (Morus Alba)

This deciduous tree is relatively easy to care for. Despite tolerating dry and high temperatures, Fruitless Mulberry loves moisture. It thrives well in moist soil, under partial shade or full sun. In such growing conditions, it can grow up to three feet per year, reaching 30 feet tall.

Since the tree favors humidity, you must provide one-inch weekly watering to secure fruit production and dense foliage growth.

6. Indian Laurel Fig (Ficus Nitida)

Ficus nitida or Indian Laurel Fig grows to a medium height that is relatively safe to be planted in a narrow garden. It is also a great option for those who don’t like flowering trees since this evergreen one will only showcase dense green foliage.

Not to mention its round-shaped crown that offers maximum protection against sun exposure. So, you will feel cozy hanging around your patio at late noon.

Indian Laurel Fig (Ficus Nitida)
Source: Pinterest (@Morflora)

Following other small shade trees for Southern California gardens, it loves soaking in the sunlight. Thus, picking a site with the required exposure is crucial to encourage proper growth. In addition, this evergreen needs rich, loamy, sandy, and well-drained soil to flourish.

It also requires regular, deep watering to promote deep root balls. We recommend 2-3 inches of watering to keep the soil evenly moist. Moreover, you can plant this tree in pots with a column size of 4-10 feet. At such a planting media, Ficus nitida can grow up to 20 feet tall.

7. Japanese Privet Tree (Ligustrum Japonicum)

It is a Japanese native tree but can adapt well in Southern California climate. Japanese Privet Tree, or Ligustrum japonicum, is a deciduous tree with dense, dark green leaves. Unlike most shade trees that commonly grow tall, it only has a height of around 10 to 18 feet at its mature age.

People usually prune its rounded crown into pyramid and cone shapes while they are planted in containers. Thanks to its crowded foliage, you can arrange it as a privacy tree around your front garden.

Japanese Privet Tree (Ligustrum Japonicum)
Japanese Privet Tree (Ligustrum Japonicum)

As for the growing conditions, you can effortlessly include Japanese Privet Tree in one of the most low-maintenance small shade trees to grow in Southern California. It can relatively grow in any soil type and conditions but doesn’t expose it to constant wet ground. Ensure you have proper drainage to avoid water logging that can damage its roots.

Although it is a sun-loving tree, it tolerates partial shade. Furthermore, the most significant problem while growing this green tree is a pest. Watch out for aphids, thrips, and leaf spots. You can spray it with copper fungicide to kill the culprits.

8. Japanese Snowbell (Styrax Japonicus)

Another Japanese tree that will exquisitely grow in your backyard! The Japanese Snowbell or Styrax japonicus is a deciduous tree that grows to a maximum of 20 to 30 feet tall. It has a symmetrical crown formed by long branches wrapped with dense green foliage.

Meanwhile, the bell-shaped, fragrant, waxy, white flowers adorn the green background during late spring to early summer.

Japanese Snowbell (Styrax Japonicus)
Japanese Snowbell (Styrax Japonicus)

Moreover, this hardy tree can grow in two lighting levels: partial shade and full sun for around 8 hours. It also requires rich, organic, slightly acidic, well-drained, moist soil conditions to fully show its potential. Ensure the pH soil does not exceed 6 to 8.

To keep soil moisture, occasional watering in the summer is vital. For the soil types, it prefers clay, loamy, or sandy. Considering its broad crown, you can start pruning low branches in the winter to allow you to hang around the tree canopy.

9. Southern Magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora)

Flowering trees are never wrong as landscaping decorations. Southern Magnolia or Magnolia grandiflora is recommended to plant. It features glossy, dark green foliage that grows along the pyramidal branches.

Also, the large flowers emit lovely fragrant scents that captivate not only humans but also favorite pollinators. Even though it averagely grows up to 50 feet tall, you can always prune it to stay in shape.

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora)
Southern Magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora)

Speaking of its planting site, Southern Magnolia requires partial shade to full sun to thrive. The soil must be acidic, moist, fertile, and well-drained. Make sure your garden has chalk, loamy soil type to grow the tree. On the other hand, this tree cannot stand prolonged soggy soil.

Such a condition will choke the roots, resulting in other troubling issues, such as fungal diseases. To prune the tree, remove the limb or twig entirely up to the base. Once established, watering is required only twice a month, while weekly watering is vital during the first two growing seasons. 

10. Vine Maple (Acer Circinatum)

Maple trees never cease to amaze us, including Vine Maple or Acer circinatum. The exquisite lobed round, symmetrical leaves will pamper you with red shades in the fall. Not to mention its reddish-green barks that balance out the foliage, making it look even more breathtaking.

Bearing such stunning features, no wonder this tree is everyone’s favorite. It is also perfect for those who prefer leafy trees instead of flowering ones.

Vine Maple (Acer Circinatum)
Vine Maple (Acer Circinatum)

You can easily grow it in your front yard or backyard since it only grows to 20 feet tall at its mature age. Make sure the growing site has total sun exposure or at least partial shade to allow proper photosynthesis. It is also pretty hardy, standing well in hot and dry conditions.

Regarding the soil types, Vine Maple prefers sandy, loamy, and clay soils. This tree can even tolerate heavy clay soil. But it must be taken into account that they should be under fertile, humus-rich, moist, well-drained, and slightly acidic to neutral soil conditions. Due to this fact, watering once to twice is crucial.

Final Thoughts

Small shade trees for Southern California backyards may be the best bet for those with narrow areas. They require less space yet offer their beauty to the landscape. Most of them are hardy. Hence, you must not worry about maintenance. We recommend blue palo verde, crape myrtle, flowering dogwood, and southern magnolia if you prefer flowering trees. The rest are leafy ones; some can even produce fruits you may harvest during the seasons!


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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the most low maintenance small shade tree in California?

One of the most low-maintenance small shade trees for Southern California backyard is the flowering dogwood. You don’t need to set a persistent watering schedule as it is a drought-tolerant tree that can stand in arid conditions.

Moreover, it features stunning pink blooms in the spring, while green leaves will adorn the landscape during summer. They will turn golden yellow to red in the autumn and shed their leaves when winter arrives.

What small shade trees native to Southern California?

Suppose you are looking for a small tree native to Southern California. In that case, you can always rely on shade trees as they can protect plants underneath and are adaptable to the local climate. Some that you can plant include Pacific Wax Myrtle and Blue Palo Verde.

The pacific wax myrtle has glossy, dark green, lance-shaped foliage with slightly sharp edges and edges. Meanwhile, the bright to lime green foliage with bluish barks is the hallmark of Blue Palo Verde, just like its name.

Should I prune small trees?

You must know the characteristics of your dwarf tree before deciding to prune it. Pruning may be the best option if it grows spread with long branches and at a fast rate. Apart from making it in shape, it also encourages your tree to develop new units.

Moreover, cutting them helps you remove dead parts and detect problems that may occur earlier, like pests or diseases. In addition, the best time to prune California shade trees is during their active growth, usually in spring through early fall.

How often should small trees be watered?

The watering schedule for the tree species. For small drought-tolerant trees, watering may only be done every other week as they don’t need much water to thrive. However, the growing stages must be taken into account as the newly planted drought-tolerant shade tree will need as much water as others.

Generally, you can water dwarf varieties daily for the earlier 1-2 weeks. Then, reduce it to 2-3 days after these young trees are 3-12 weeks old. For example, Desert Willow. It needs watering every five to seven weeks in the first year.

How do you fertilize a shade tree?

Unlike plants, trees have solid and deep root systems. Therefore, fertilization cannot only be added above the soil surface. You have to ensure that the nutrients are well-absorbed so they can use them to develop. So how to do it?

You must drill a hole 10 inches deep and 2 inches wide. It is vital to ensure direct fertilization. Then, add the fertilizer (it can be liquid or granular. Make sure to dilute the fertilizer first so it is not too concentrated to avoid harm to the tree. Thus, the nutrients can be distributed easily through the tree. This method also improves soil aeration by loosening soil compactness.

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