10 Small Trees for Small Yards in Utah
When you think of Utah, you may picture deserts, cacti, red rocks, salt flats, and other dry-climate indicators. It may not seem like a good state in which to grow trees for your yard or garden, given the drought that much of the state experiences throughout the year and the desert climate of much of the state. Only 3% of its land area is covered by water, and it is the second-driest state in the nation. Utah is also perceived as an overly severe and difficult place in which to grow trees, leading to a very narrow selection of the same trees – usually willows, cottonwoods, and cedars – in urban areas.
However, Utah has surprisingly diverse geographic regions and climates, and with extra care and consideration, you can grow hardy plants and trees in even small gardens and yards. The three geographic provinces – the Great Basin, the Rocky Mountains, and the Colorado Plateau – offer unique, hardy native flowers, shrubs, and trees that can thrive in cultivated gardens. Native trees can be some of the best additions to your Utah garden, because they not only provide soil stability with their deep root systems and shade for other, less sun-tolerant plants, but also distinction, depth, and texture.
Consulting your county or university’s rural extension service can help you decide which drought-tolerant and easily maintained small trees will thrive in your garden year-round, whether you live in an arid or moist climate, the desert or the mountains, an area with seasonal temperature extremes or one that is more temperate. Below you will find a list of suitable Utah native and non-native, yet non-invasive trees that can provide shade, beauty, and practical enhancements for your garden.
1) Chitalpa (Chitalpa x tashkentensis)
The chitalpa, a hybrid of the desert willow and the southern catalpa, is unusual in Utah yet gorgeous, low-maintenance, and high-value. It tolerates cold temperatures better than the desert willow, yet is less messy and produces more flowers than the catalpa, making it a perfect choice for central or northern areas of Utah. A small-to-medium-sized tree yet with multiple trunks, the chitalpa tolerates drought and a range of temperatures extremely well, requires only average upkeep labor, and produces shade for partial-shade plants.
Growing best in USDA plant hardiness zones 6 – 9, the chitalpa has gray to brown bark that grows thicker and more fissured with age. Its showy white, pink, or lavender flowers have yellow centers that attract hummingbirds to the nectar inside. Unlike the parent southern catalpa tree, it does not produce fruit or seed pods, making it easy to maintain.
Its deep root system can provide stability for poorer soils, and their depth means you do not need to worry about damage to concrete sidewalks or patios.
2) Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis)
If you live in the more year-round hot areas of southern Utah, the native desert willow is a perfect choice for your garden, thriving in USDA hardiness zones 7b – 11. Despite its name, this graceful tree is actually part of the begonia family. In the wild, the desert willow is found along riverbanks and in sandy washes, as its seeds will actually embed themselves in sediment, trapping it in their roots to give the young tree stability as it grows.
It will typically not grow above 25 feet and can easily be manipulated and pruned to keep it smaller. Full sun in a warm climate and very well-draining soil are really the only strict requirements of the desert willow. Its graceful, trumpet-shaped pink or purple flowers bloom from May to June, attracting hummingbirds and other pollinators to your garden.
3) Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)
This drought-tolerant subspecies of the more commonly seen eastern redbud tree, the western redbud is the perfect shade tree for small gardens or backyards in Utah. It is known as a “sign of spring” tree with its spectacular pink blooms. Growing anywhere from 8 – 15 feet tall at maturity and up to 15 feet wide, it tolerates a wide range of hardiness zones but thrives best in zone 6b.
Redbuds provide beauty year-round: magenta flowers in spring, dark blue-green leaves in summer, golden and auburn leaves in the fall, and the classic silver redbud family silhouette in winter. Additionally, western redbuds require little extra watering besides rainfall. They should be planted in partial shade to full sun for the best flower blooming and in very well-draining soil of almost any type. They require almost no additional care except occasional pruning and, if you live in a colder climate, a thick layer of mulch over the roots in winter.
Redbuds attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, even in more urban environments, where the tree thrives due to its adaptable and resilient nature.
4) Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)
A large shrub to small tree, the curl-leaf mountain mahogany is native to most areas of Utah and is the state’s only broad-leaf evergreen tree, giving it a nice contrast to most of the coniferous evergreens found elsewhere in the state. Often, it can be found on low slopes among pinon-juniper communities. Shiny, dark green leaves curl at the tips, giving it the name “curl-leaf.” Despite the name, it is actually part of the rose family and not a true mahogany.
You will need patience as it is very slow-growing, but once mature, its deep roots stabilize the soil and provide shade and cover for wildlife, with little to no maintenance. You can best propagate this tree via seed or hardwood stem cuttings, as its deep taproot system makes transplanting a mature tree very difficult. The cold tolerance of the curl-leaf is as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a good choice for much of the northern areas of the state. Partial shade to full sun is important for the best growth.
It can tolerate drought quite well and is not picky as to soil type, only requiring one that is well-draining. It can even improve the quality of your garden due to its ability to fix nitrogen. Though you can enjoy the curl-leaf in your garden or backyard year-round, it is most interesting in summer when it produces fascinating fruit with a fuzzy “tail” that allows for wind-facilitated seed dispersal.
5) Utah serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis)
Usually found on arid mountain slopes and foothills, in canyons and rocky areas, the Utah serviceberry is a small yet beautiful hardy native tree perfect for a backyard or garden. Height is on average 13 – 15 feet at maturity, and rarely, if ever, over 16 feet. Though of interest year-round, it is most stunning from early spring to early summer, when the entire plant is snow-white and covered with white rose-shaped flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The showy inflorescences give way to green, edible, sweet apple-like fruit that turns purple when ripe.
Utah serviceberry thrives in plant hardiness zones 4 – 8, covering much of the state. Once established and mature, it is drought- and pest-tolerant, making it an excellent choice for a native garden. It requires medium to coarse, extremely well-draining soil and full sun to partial shade.
Besides its superb beauty in a native plant garden, Utah serviceberry can also serve as an ornamental hedge if pruned properly. In the wild, it is an important forage source, especially for mule deer, bighorn sheep, and elk.
6) Flowering crabapple (Malus spp.)
An ornamental genus with dozens of species and various cultivars, crabapples are popular in many gardens all across the United States for their beauty, low maintenance, small size, and, of course, delicious fruit. Mature trees vary from 10 to 25 feet high and as wide. Selection of the cultivar for your garden depends on many factors, such as bloom and foliage color preference, size, fruit, and disease or pest susceptibility and resistance.
As crabapples are a very tough and hardy tree, they do well in Utah, only requiring 0.3 – 0.4 inches of water per week once they are mature. They need well-drained soil and full sun and will not do well in shade or if crowded out by other plants. Mature trees require little pruning, but if necessary, it should be done in spring. Additionally, check with your local extension agent or office, as some varieties are prone to pests and diseases that plague orchard apple species, such as fireblight or aphids.
When properly cared for, you can enjoy striking spring blooms ranging from cream to light pink to coral, deep rose, and even red. Its bright and juicy fruits attract birds and can be enjoyed by humans as well.
7) Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii)
The small yet tough Gambel oak seems built for Utah’s climate, able to not just tolerate but thrive through drought, poor soil, wind, cold temperatures, snow, and wildfires. In fact, Gambel oak is a fire-adapted tree, growing back quickly after a blaze. It is common in the arid canyons, dry slopes, foothills, and scrubby areas of the state. At maturity, it is 15 – 20 feet tall and 12 – 15 feet wide, but it can be pruned and shaped to stay smaller. Its oblong leaves range from 2.5 – 7 inches long, lobed, and dark green.
Given its native status and hardy nature, Gambel oak is fairly easy to grow in most areas of Utah, only requiring full sun and well-draining soil, which can be rocky or poor. Once mature, it requires little irrigation except in exceptionally dry seasons. It is quite pest- and disease-resistant and does not require regular pest control.
Gambel oaks can serve numerous purposes in the residential landscape, including support and shade for other native plants, wildlife habitats, windbreaks, and even screening for privacy or unwanted views. This long-lived native tree will provide aesthetic value and ecological benefits to your Utah garden.
8) Sapphire skies beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata)
Though not a true tree, this large single-trunk yucca is related to the famous Joshua trees of the southwest deserts and is a unique and robust addition to a Utah garden. Once well-established, it requires little water and can provide a striking focal piece for a desert-focused garden. Like the Joshua tree, it grows a rosette of blue-green swordlike leaves on top of the trunk, which produce creamy white flowers from May to August and can attract hummingbirds.
Resilient even in cold temperatures, this yucca can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 – 10, and grows anywhere from 5 – 12 feet tall and 3 – 8 feet wide. It needs well-draining soil that can be rocky, silty, or sandy as long as it is not constantly sitting in moisture, which will lead to root rot. It thrives best in full sun but will tolerate partial shade as well as long as it receives at least 3 hours of full sun per day.
Sapphire skies beaked yucca can fit perfectly into a low-water garden and is resistant to deer, disease, and pests. Although its leaves are slightly softer than those of other species of yucca, it is best not to plant them too close to sidewalks, walkways, patios, or other highly trafficked areas.
9) Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica)
This heat- and drought-tolerant member of the cypress family is perfect for xeriscapes and low-water landscapes in southern or warmer parts of Utah. Found throughout much of the southwest, it serves as a natural windbreak, hedge, or privacy screen. Its silvery-blue to teal needlelike leaves pose a beautiful contrast to the bright green of most evergreens in winter, and the delicate foliage has an almost lacy appearance.
Many cultivars are grown as live Christmas trees or for erosion control, but they can certainly add beauty and texture to an ornamental or landscape setting as well. They require full sun – at least 6 hours a day, well-draining soil of any type and pH, and regular watering until well established. Once the tree is mature, it can go without being watered for weeks except in severe drought periods. All of this makes it very easy to care for.
Arizona cypress attracts hummingbirds, songbirds, and other small mammals that feed on its fruit and utilize its foliage for cover. It also produces small, reddish-brown cones up to 1½ inches across from two years of age onward. Pruning should be done in the spring and not too severely, as cypresses do not grow new buds on older wood.
10) Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma)
The most predominant tree species in the whole state, the Utah juniper can be found at most arid, mid-elevation locations in the state. Foxes, coyotes, rabbits, and songbirds feed on its seed cones. It is not abundantly common in cultivated landscapes, especially along the Wasatch Front, but is often found around and among homes built in areas where the juniper is already present. However, due to its extreme hardiness, native status, and unique shape, it can be a unique addition to a xeriscape garden or backyard.
Utah juniper can be easily recognized by its twisted, low-to-the-ground shape, which differs from the upright and taller profile of the Rocky Mountain juniper, also found throughout the state. Its foliage is scale-like and yellow-green, much different than that of other junipers, which tend to have darker green or blue leaves. The light blue “berries” common to all juniper species begin to appear after two years.
Utah juniper is one of the toughest plants in the American West, often found clinging to rocky hillsides or growing out of sandy washes; thus, mature plants require little water. Coarse sandy or rocky soils that drain well are best for this tree, but it is not particularly picky. Keep in mind that while it is a native plant, it does have allelopathic characteristics, giving off chemicals that can have deleterious effects on other plants, so make sure to consult your local extension office or native plant specialist before adding this to your landscape.