Cold Hardy Trees: Tips On Growing Trees In Zone 4

Cold Hardy Trees: Tips On Growing Trees In Zone 4

By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

Properly placed trees can add value to your property. They can provide shade to keep cooling costs down in the summer and provide a windbreak to keep heating costs down in the winter. Continue reading to learn more about cold hardy trees and growing trees in zone 4.

Growing Trees in Zone 4

Young zone 4 tree selections may need a little extra protection to make it through the winter. It’s not uncommon for deer or rabbits to rub or chew on new saplings in fall and winter. Tree guards placed around the trunks of new trees can protect them from animal damage.

Experts argue about using tree guards for frost protection. On one hand, it is said that tree guards can protect a tree from frost damage and cracking by keeping the sun from thawing and warming the trunk. On the other hand, it’s believed that snow and ice can get beneath the tree guards causing cracks and damage. Unfortunately, with many cold hardy trees, especially maples, frost cracks are just part of growing trees in zone 4.

Adding a layer of mulch around the root zone of young trees is perhaps the best winter protection. Do not pile the mulch up around the trunk, though. The mulch should be placed around the tree’s root zone and drip line in a donut shape.

Cold Hardy Trees

Below are listed some of the best zone 4 landscape trees, including evergreen trees, ornamental trees and shade trees. Evergreen trees are often used as windbreaks, privacy screens and to add winter interest to the landscape. Ornamental trees are often small-flowering and fruiting trees that are used as specimen plants in the landscape. Shade trees are larger trees that can help keep cooling costs down in the summer or create a shady oasis in the landscape.


  • Colorado blue spruce
  • Norway spruce
  • Scots pine
  • Eastern white pine
  • Austrian pine
  • Douglas fir
  • Canadian hemlock
  • Bald cypress
  • Arborvitae

Ornamental Trees

  • Weeping cherry
  • Serviceberry
  • Thornless cockspur hawthorn
  • Flowering crabapple
  • Newport plum
  • Korean sun pear
  • Japanese tree lilac
  • Little leaf linden
  • Eastern redbud
  • Saucer magnolia

Shade Trees

  • Skyline honey locust
  • Autumn blaze maple
  • Sugar maple
  • Red maple
  • Quaking aspen
  • River birch
  • Tulip tree
  • Northern red oak
  • White oak
  • Ginkgo

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What states are currently experiencing drought?

As of early August, the U.S. Drought Monitor found more than 20 percent of each state below is experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

  1. California: 59 percent of state
  2. Georgia: 28 percent of state
  3. Massachusetts: 40 percent of state
  4. Nevada: 22 percent of state
  5. New York: 27 percent of state

UNH Extension

Trees are often considered the backbone of the yard, giving the landscape structure, height, texture and color. Since they are expensive and potentially very long-lived, it is important to choose a species that that will fit in the garden when it reaches maturity. A small yard may only be able to accommodate a tree that reaches 15 to 20 feet. Fortunately, many of the most popular and attractive flowering trees remain fairly small and can fit in yards with limited space.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Redbud is one of the few small flowering trees that is native to eastern North America. It is a deciduous, often multi-trunked tree with heart-shaped leaves and pea-like flowers that bloom on the bare branches in early spring. Redbud grows best in well-drained, consistently moist soils in full sun to part shade. Though often listed as cold hardy to zone 4, dieback is possible under extreme winter conditions. The species can grow 20 to 30 feet tall and wide, but some cultivars (cultivated varieties) remain smaller or have a weeping habit, such as ‘Ace of Hearts,’ ‘Cascading Hearts,’ ‘Appalachian Red,’ or ‘Pink Heartbreaker.’

White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)

Jerzy Opioła [CC BY-SA (]

White fringetree is another small tree from eastern North America whose range doesn’t quite extend into New Hampshire. It is usually multi-trunked, reaching just 12 to 15 feet tall and wide in most landscape settings. The leaves of white fringetree are oblong and often shiny on the upper surface, and the delicate drooping flowers bloom in May and June. White fringetree has separate male and female plants, and both must be present for fruit production. The female trees produce dark bluish fruit in late summer that is attractive to wildlife.

Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa)

Leonora (Ellie) Enking (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kousa dogwood has largely replaced flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) in the landscape, because it has much better disease resistance and cold hardiness. It is a small, deciduous tree with a vase-shaped habit when young that develops into a more rounded form, ultimately reaching from 15 to 30 feet tall. Showy “flowers” appear in May and June (the true flowers are held in a small yellow cluster surrounded by four large, white bracts). Showy pinkish red fruit develops in summer, which is edible, but so full of seeds as to not be worth the effort. Fallen fruit can be messy, so it might not be the best tree to plant near a deck or patio.

As kousa dogwood matures, its bark exfoliates and creates multi-colored areas that are especially attractive in the winter. Kousa dogwood is tolerant of a variety of soil types and even grows well in sandier locations. Some weeping cultivars remain much smaller than the species, and they can be planted closer to buildings, such as ‘Kristin Lipka’s Weeper’ and ‘Lustgarten Weeping.’

Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata)

Japanese tree lilac has lilac-type white blooms in midsummer and attractive reddish-brown peeling bark on younger stems. At maturity, it can reach 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. A popular cultivar named ‘Ivory Silk’ is slightly more compact and has a rounded crown. Though Japanese tree lilac will grow best in well-drained soil with consistent moisture, it can tolerate both sandy and clayey loams. Bloom is most prolific when planted in full sun. Japanese tree lilac is considerably more resistant to some lilac pests such as powdery mildew, scale and borers. Hardy to zone 3, this small tree is cold hardy enough to survive throughout New Hampshire.

Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)

Star magnolia is a small tree that is often grown multi-stemmed. It is hardy to zone 4 but should be placed in locations out of prevailing winter winds and southern exposure to keep the buds from opening early in the late winter. Planting in full sun to part shade in an area with rich, well-drained loam will yield the most robust plants. Large white flowers with 12 to 18 petals open in March and are the showiest feature of the tree. Depending on which cultivar is grown, star magnolia can grow between 10 to 20 feet tall, with a slightly narrower width. Some notable selections include ‘Centennial’ and ‘Royal Star.’

Flowering Crabapple (Malus)

Though not native, crabapples are lovely in bloom, and they provide food and cover for wildlife. The mature height of crabapples varies widely and should be researched before purchase. While some cultivars only reach about 10 feet, others can exceed 20 feet. Growth habit also differs between cultivars, from weeping to rounded or vase-shaped. Crabapples are usually grown for their showy spring flowers that range from white to deep pinkish-red, but the fruit can also be very attractive. Some trees have persistent fruit that lasts through the winter and feeds fruit-eating songbirds. Note that crabapples can be very disease prone, so it is best to plant resistant cultivars, like ‘Cardinal,’ ‘Prairifire,’ ‘Adirondack,’ ‘Tina,’ or ‘Ruby Tears.’

Tree Spacing

The biggest mistake gardeners often make is planting trees too close to the house or to each other. Trees purchased from the nursery are usually young and short, and it is easy to forget how big they will grow. Ideally, the tree should fit in the spot it is planted without pruning. When they are spaced too close together, trees often become one-sided as the competing branches shade each other out. If one of the trees is removed, the one that remains is typically very lopsided.

Trees that are too near the house will require continual pruning as they grow. It is very difficult to control tree size through pruning without negatively impacting the form and overall look of the plant. Luckily, these issues are easily avoided by spacing trees according to their mature canopy spread. For example, if a tree is expected to grow 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide, it should be planted at least 15 feet from the house. This simple planning will help ensure that the new tree will be an asset to the landscape for years to come.

Dogwood Trees

Nathan Blaney/Getty Images

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Nathan Blaney/Getty Images

Dogwoods give you "four for the price of one." Best known for their spring blooms, they also provide fall foliage, a horizontal branching pattern for winter interest, and red berries the birds eat.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is indigenous to the U.S. Its blooms are often pink, but Cherokee Chief's (zones 5 to 9) are red. It becomes 20 to 25 feet tall (12 to 15 feet wide). The fall foliage ranges from reddish-bronze to purplish.

Each state has more than one zone due to the differences in climate and topography. Some have multiple hardiness zones. For example, Montana has four different zones. There are 22 states that have Zone 4 regions.

Zone 4 States
Alaska Arizona Colorado Idaho
Iowa Maine Michigan Minnesota
Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire
New Mexico New York North Dakota Oregon
South Dakota Utah Vermont Washington
Wisconsin Wyoming

Top 10 narrow trees for small gardens

  1. Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’: This narrow, upright evergreen is a smooth-leaved holly that reaches about 6 feet in height but is only 2 to 3 feet wide. Like other hollies, the male and female plants are separate. The females of this species produce tiny purple berries, but only when a pollinating male plant is nearby. ‘Sky Pencil’ hollies are lovely trees for small gardens, and their evergreen growth habit means they provide winter interest, too. Hardy in zones 5-9. Source.

2. Crimson Spire™ oak (Quercus robur x Q. alba ‘Crimschmidt’): This unique oak tree is very tall — up to 40 feet — but remains fairly narrow at just 15 to 20 feet wide (yes, that’s quite narrow for an oak!). The fall color is exceptional. A stunning tree all around, but an especially valuable tree for small gardens due to its ability to support a wide array of native insects and the songbirds who eat them. Hardy in zones 5-9. Source.

3. Prunus serrulata ‘Amanogawa’: This lovely flowering Japanese cherry is slender and columnar, making it the perfect tree for small yards and gardens where color is desired. It blooms in early spring when the branches are covered in pale pink flowers. The blooms are followed by green leaves that turn a beautiful orange in the autumn. ‘Amanogawa’ will reach 25 feet in height but only 10 feet in width. It’s a seriously beautiful narrow tree. Hardy in zones 5-8. Source.

4. Populus tremula ‘Erecta’: This thin cultivar of the Swedish aspen tree is great for slender garden areas and small yards. It’s very cold hardy and has heart-shaped leaves that move in the wind. Though it’s deciduous and looses its leaves in the winter, this columnar tree’s structure is lovely even without its foliage. Though its width is very limited, it can grow up to 40 feet tall. And, it’s hardy all the way down to zone 2. Source.

5. Betula platyphylla ‘Fargo’: Otherwise known as the Dakota Pinnacle® birch, this columnar tree has leaves that turn a brilliant yellow in the fall and white, peeling bark. It’s also resistant to the bronze birch borer, which is another definite plus. Among the most statuesque of all the columnar trees for small gardens, the Dakota pinnacle birch grows upwards of 25 feet tall at maturity but is only 8 to 10 feet wide. Hardy in zones 3-7. Source.

6. Carpinus betulus ‘Columnaris Nana’: Though hornbeams are fairly rigid, narrow trees to begin with, this variety is even more well-behaved. They’re like perfect garden sculptures that reach only 5 feet tall at full maturity. The slow growth rate of ‘Columnaris Nana’ means it takes a long time for this columnar tree to reach that 6 foot height, which is yet another reason that makes this tree a must on any list of trees for small gardens. Rich, medium green leaves grace the branches they turn a brilliant yellow in the autumn. Hardy in zones 4-8. Source.

7. Acer palmatum ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’: Though most Japanese maples are wide spreading, this cultivar boasts very upright growth, making it one of the best trees for small gardens and tight spaces. The foliage is deep red all season long even the stems are red. ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ maxes out at 15 feet in height and spreads just 6 feet wide. Hardy in zones 5-8. Source.

8. Liquidamber styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’: This beautiful variety of sweetgum, grows upwards of 60 feet tall, but its very tight, short branches mean the plant’s spread is a mere 6 to 8 feet, making it a real standout in the landscape. The red fall color is spectacular, and it’s fairly fast growing. Yes, this sweetgum variety also produces spiky seed balls like other sweetgums, but not huge quantities of them. ‘Slender Silhouette’ is also a larval host plant for many different butterflies and moths. It’s a great narrow tree for a small garden! Hardy in zones 5-8. Source.

9. Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’: A slow-growing tree unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, this narrow tree is straight out of a Dr. Seuss book! It’s upright branches look a bit like a saguaro cactus, hence the cultivar’s name. This unique false cypress is evergreen and reaches a height of about 10 feet, with a spread of just 6 to 8 feet. In my opinion, it’s the most unique of all the trees for small gardens. It’s hardy in zones 4-9. Source.

10. Chamaecyparis nootakatensis ‘Vanden Akker’: Skinny is the best word to describe this columnar tree for small yards and gardens. The thinnest of all the weeping Alaska cedars, it reaches 20 feet tall but is only 1 foot wide! That’s right – 1 foot! The tight branches weep while the central trunk grows straight up. This extremely narrow evergreen tree is a truly amazing addition to any compact garden space. Hardy from zones 5-8. Source.

Want more choices? Visit this page for an additional list of: 15 Dwarf Evergreen Trees for Yards and Gardens.

As you can see, small-space gardeners have lots of options when it comes to narrow trees for the landscape. All of these choices add vertical structure and interest, and let’s face it — they look downright fabulous while doing it! Include some of these trees for small gardens in your yard and enjoy everything they offer.

For more on gardening in small spaces, check out our list of recommended books:
Small-space Vegetable Gardens by Andrea Bellamy
Small-space Garden Ideas by Philippa Pierson
The Less is More Garden by Susan Morrison

And for more advice on growing in tight quarters, check out these other posts:

Do you have a small yard? Tell us how you bring it to life in the comment section below!

Watch the video: 9 Fastest-Growing Trees In The UK - Gardening Tips For Beginners And Experts In The UK