How to Choose a Shade-Tolerant Small Tree for a Garden


Do not let a shady spot in your garden deter you from enjoying the beauty and elegance that a tree can bring to your landscape. Learning how to choose a shade-tolerant small tree for your garden enables you to introduce a perpetual green spot even in winter; alternatively, you might opt for a seasonally changing attractive addition to your yard's appeal. Simply because a tree tolerates shade does not mean that you have to lose out on the beauty of bright, colorful blooms.

Step 1

Test your soil's pH level with a test kit. You can find these at nurseries and home-improvement stores. On a scale from 0 to14, your soil is acidic if its pH falls below 7.0, neutral if it measures exactly 7.0 and alkaline if the pH is higher. Starting your decision-making process by determining the soil's acidity helps you choose a tree most likely to thrive in the shady spot you have available. Some trees also thrive in acidic as well alkaline soils; a great example is the weeping Japanese hackberry (Celtis sinensis) that thrives in a wide array of soils.

Step 2

Define "small" as it relates to your garden. For example, a Japanese Angelica tree (Aralia elata) grows to a height of about 20 feet or taller, while the holly tea olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus) only reaches a height of 8 to 10 feet. Survey the area above the spot you picked out for the tree, and consider the presence of power lines or other obstructions that could be harmed by a growing tree.

Step 3

Determine your hardiness zone. The lower the assigned hardiness zone, the more extreme cold the small tree can withstand. For example, Fairbanks, Alaska, falls into Zone 1, while Tomahawk, Wisconsin, is Zone 3b. Des Moines, Iowa, falls into Zone 5a, whereas Houston, Texas, is situated in Zone 9a. Narrowing down the hardiness that pertains to your city ensures that the tree will survive the winter and can also endure potentially high summer temperatures. For example, the weeping Japanese hackberry thrives in zones 4a through 9b, making it an all-around easy-to-grow small tree.

Step 4

Decide on evergreen or deciduous. An evergreen tree will provide a green spot in your garden when other trees have lost their leaves. A good example is the elegant wheel tree (Trochodendron aralioides) that grows to an average height of up to 20 feet and carries shiny, evergreen foliage. On the flip side, choosing a deciduous tree offers the appeal of seasonal growth, blooms and possibly fruit production. A great example is the aforementioned Japanese Angelica tree that features white blooms, which attract bees, humming birds and also butterflies.

Things You'll Need

  • Soil pH test kit
  • Hardiness map


  • Soil pH
  • Searchable Hardiness Zone Map
  • N.C. State University: Japanese Angelica Tree

Who Can Help

  • N.C. State University: Holly Tea Olive
  • N.C. State University: Wheel Tree
  • University of Florida: Weeping Japanese Hackberry
Keywords: tree, hardiness, evergreen

About this Author

Based in the Los Angeles area, Sylvia Cochran is a seasoned freelance writer focusing on home and garden, travel and parenting articles. Her work has appeared in "Families Online Magazine" and assorted print and Internet publications.