Even a small yard can benefit from a shade tree -- as long as its mature height and width don't overpower your landscape. Small shade trees, or those that grow to 30 feet or less, create a pleasant place for the kids to play out of the summer sun. When planted on the west or south side of your home, shade trees can even cut your summer cooling bills by up to 12 percent, says the Arbor Day Foundation.
When choosing small shade trees, first consider the tree's mature size. Note any power lines or overhangs that may interfere with tree growth, and ensure that you plant trees far enough from structures, fences and walls. Dig a planting hole that's at least three times the size of the root ball, and till the earth around the planting site to about 10 times the size of the root ball in order to improve aeration, giving roots a chance to spread and grow. Depending on your tree's preferences, you may need to amend the soil to change the pH level or add more nutrients.
For fragrance and color, choose a small, flowering shade tree such as the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia). This North American native grows from 20 to 30 feet tall and blooms with tall panicles of red flowers in spring that attract pollinators. It's hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 8 and thrives in moist, well-draining soil. For early color, plant a star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). This deciduous tree grows slowly to 20 feet tall and blooms with large, aromatic white flowers in late winter and early spring. Hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8, the star magnolia produces the best blooms in sunny sites. Cultivars include the "Water Lily," for aromatic pink blossoms, and "Pink Stardust," a pink-bloomer that grows to 12 feet tall.
Small shade trees that bear fruits add color to the landscape after fall leaves have blown away; some species even attract wildlife to the yard that your children will enjoy watching. After it blooms in spring, the apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora) produces sweet, edible fruits. Reaching heights to 25 feet, this natural hybrid grows well in sun or partial shade and is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8. Standing just a bit taller at 30 feet, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) also bears edible fruits. This native tree grows well in shade and tends to form dense thickets, so it's best used at the edge of your landscape. It's hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9 and attracts butterflies.
For colorful foliage throughout the growing season, plant a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). These versatile trees grow in a range of sizes and colors, from the 5-foot-tall "Ukon," with its bright yellow foliage, to the 25-foot-tall "Sango Kaku," which has brillant coral leaves. The 14-foot-tall "Atropurpureum" has purple-black foliage. Japanese maples are hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8 and grow best in light or dappled shade and moist, rich soil. The Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) grows to 25 feet tall and is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. This North American native has multiple trunks and purple new growth that ages to green, then turns yellow and red in autumn. The "Prince Charles" cultivar has blue-green summer foliage and orange-red fall color. Plant this tree in sun or partial shade and moist soil.