There are a surprising number of small, tough-as-nails trees that will grow well in a not-so-good environment, but you probably haven't heard of most of them.
In the city and some first-ring suburbs, the lots can be small, the sidewalks plentiful and the soil a mixture of what looks like crushed bricks, rocks and clay. Add limited sunlight (because of nearby buildings, densely packed houses or mature trees) and you have a tree's worst nightmare.
Not enough room to grow, poor soil and lack of sun are all problems that plague urban trees. What can you do? You may be surprised to find out that there are trees that can handle such tough conditions.
If space is tight, you want a tree that stays small. Many people opt for crabapples, which can be a fine choice. But there are other small trees that can tolerate less light and perform better in poor soils.
One is the little known Amur maackia. Unlike a crabapple, this tree isn't messy. After a few years, it can be a real showstopper with its silvery spring foliage and beautiful white flowers. And it rarely gets taller than about 25 feet.
Another small tree that fares well in urban environments is hawthorn. As its name suggests, it does have thorns, so it's not particularly child-friendly. But it's quite beautiful and usually tops out at about 25 feet. (Be sure to select a variety that's resistant to the many diseases that can plague this tree.)
Pagoda dogwood, a beautiful shrubby tree, and ironwood (aka hophornbeam) also fare well in relatively poor conditions. These lesser-known trees rarely grow taller than 30 feet and have lustrous leaves and interesting bark. (Because they're somewhat susceptible to drought, they do a little better in clay soils than sandy ones.)
If you have a slightly larger yard that can accommodate a tree that will grow 50 or 60 feet tall, then you drastically increase your choices.
Honeylocust is a common tree that's particularly tolerant of poor soils and has attractive flowers, though it can be messy. While it usually stays smaller in an urban environment, it can reach heights of 60 feet or taller in good growing conditions.
Another common tree, Freeman maple, also is a good choice for poor conditions. This cross of a red maple and a silver maple grows very quickly and usually has a nice fall color.
Two less-common trees that perform well under poor conditions are the disease-resistant Dutch elms, Triumph and Discovery. They can be hard to find, but they are worth the search because they don't just tolerate poor soils; they actually seem to like them. Both Triumph and Discovery grow quickly, reaching a height of 40 to 50 feet in an urban setting.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture t the University of Minnesota. He also has written two books, "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).