Recommendations for Small Backyard Trees

Recommendations for Small Backyard Trees

Help for Home Gardener from the Help Desk of the
UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County

 Recommendations for Small Backyard Trees
Client's Request:  Hello! We have a west facing small backyard in central County that gets scorched with sun. I'd really love a small tree to plant along the fence to help shade the backyard. Ideally, the tree is drought tolerant, evergreen, not messy, and not poisonous. Thank you!

MGCC Help Desk Response:  Thank you for contacting the UC Master Gardener Program Help Desk with questions about plant selection. You have a west-facing yard in central County. I can commiserate--I, too, have a west-facing backyard in central County. I know how hot it gets. 

You are looking for an evergreen tree that is drought tolerant, not messy, and not poisonous. Be aware that all trees and shrubs will make some litter. Evergreens drop their leaves throughout the year, often with heavier leaf drop during certain periods. Many have flowers or fruit that drop. 

There are many plants you can choose from that fulfill at least most of your criteria. For example, Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) is a good tree, but it has fruit and can be messy over nearby paved surfaces. Prunus illicifolia (hollyleaf cherry) can be grown as a small tree or shrub, but again, it has fruit. Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis) can also be grown as a small tree or a shrub and it will provide Bay leaves for cooking. Responding to your request in the middle of summer, we can all appreciate the flowering Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia), but they are deciduous and often require appropriate pruning each winter. You may also want to consider some varieties of citrus as they are usually not deciduous, produce edible fruit, but they are not drought resistant.

There are several good resources for lists of trees. Sunset Western Garden Book has lists of plants that fulfill various purposes, such as plants for hedges, small trees, plants for waterwise gardens, etc. You can find this book at your local library (or some examples here). The Contra Costa Water District has a great resource website that can help with plant selection and guidance for watering: Another resource for selecting trees based on various criteria is the website from Cal Poly:

You will need to do a lot of cross referencing, making sure the plants grow in our climate zone (Sunset zone 14 or 15 or USDA Zone 9). But, you should be able to come up with plants that will do great for both shade and privacy. 

Fall is the best time to plant in our area when air temperatures are cooler but the soil is still warm. The plants will have some time to get established and winter rains will help with soil moisture. In spring, the plants will have a better chance of growing well.

Please don't hesitate to contact us again if you have more questions.

Help Desk of the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County (SEH)

Note: The  UC Master Gardeners Program of Contra Costa's Help Desk is available year-round to answer your gardening questions.  Except for a few holidays, we're open every week, Monday through Thursday for walk-ins from 9:00 am to Noon at 2380 Bisso Lane, Concord, CA 94520. We can also be reached via telephone:  (925) 608-6683,  email:, or on the web   at  MGCC Blogs can be found at You can also subscribe to the Biog  (//

By Steve I Morse
Author - Contra Costa County Master Gardener