Small trees for gardens

Posted: Monday 20 January 2014
by Adam Pasco

It's easy to assume there's no room for trees in a small garden, but consider the options and you might be surprised.

It's easy to assume there's no room for trees in a small garden, but consider the options and you might be surprised. When choosing any plant for your garden the golden rule is to choose the right plant for the right place. This applies equally to a shrub or group of perennials as to trees.

Most native trees are better suited to woodlands than our gardens due to their massive eventual size (unless you're a bonsai enthusiast, that is). What most homeowners want, however, are ornamental trees that not only grow slowly, but won't grow too tall or broad. Strong or invasive roots are always a concern, as they can damage drains or the foundations of buildings and walls. Always keep this in mind, seeking advice from an expert if necessary.

Site your tree with consideration of soil, aspect, proximity to your house and neighbours, underground services, and also the tree's effect on light. Will the tree provide welcome, cool shade for your summer garden, or could it potentially block light from windows, or overhang and annoy the neighbours?

There's as much to keep in mind when selecting the right planting site as there is to choosing a tree with ornamental value. Factors to consider include flowers, foliage, fruits and berries, structure, shape, form, autumn colour, as well as stems and bark.

With some plants it's love at first sight. I still remember my heart skipping a beat when I first saw the tiered, structural form of a majestic wedding cake tree, Cornus controversa 'Variegata', pictured above. This tree has distinct branches stretching horizontally outwards, each clad with creamy green variegated leaves. It flowers in early summer and looks superb growing by itself where its striking form can be fully appreciated. I've sited mine to partition the garden, dividing the top half from the bottom. Its espalier habit makes this a perfect garden tree, allowing views between the tiers of branches to the garden beyond.

What of my other favourite small trees? Snowy mespilus (Amelanchier lamarckii) is a deciduous tree with white flowers through spring and early summer, and fiery autumn foliage colour, growing slowly to perhaps 4-5 metres.

Japanese maples (Acer japonica varieties) are valuable and versatile. There are so many to choose from, but I love the golden-leaved Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'. I've been growing a tree in a large patio pot of John Innes No.3 compost for many years, and it's only reached about 2.5m in height. Any tree growing in a pot will require regular watering, and a large, heavy pot and compost are essential to provide extra weight and stability to ensure the tree doesn't blow over in strong winds.

Silver birch (Betula varieties) make good garden trees, especially when pruned early in their life to produce multiple stems, or planted in tight groups to produce a similar effect.

Crab apples (Malus varieties) provide interest almost all year round. There's spring blossom for bees to enjoy, a canopy of foliage to provide welcome shade through summer, good autumn leaf colour, and brightly coloured fruits carried on branches right into winter.

My neighbour has Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' growing in their front garden. Even in January their bare branches are clad with deep red fruits, which shine like jewels when caught in shafts of winter sunlight. Blackbirds and others do eat the fruits, but as the tree produces so many others they continue to put on a show for many months.

There's no shortage of great trees for small gardens, so do give serious consideration to whether there's one suitable for your garden. Remember that it's possible to keep strong-growing trees down to size by pruning. Hard pruning or pollarding in winter and early spring is handy for some, while pinching out the tips of shoots can also help. Winter's a great time to plant a new tree, so start planning now. You'll love the addition to your garden, and your garden birds and wildlife will be glad of it, too.

Which small trees do you grow, or would like to grow?

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Small trees for gardens
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

oldchippy 20/01/2014 at 17:42

Hello Adam I made the mistake of planting a cedar in my garden(as posted on your gardeners world facebook site),after just 9 years it had grown to big for the garden,now I have cut it down and about to look for a replacement,Oldchippy.

JamesO 21/01/2014 at 17:56

Thinking of adding a Prunus Amanogawa have a small space that could fit they have wonderful blossom in spring

Judy Shardlow 21/01/2014 at 18:36

I like Amelanchier alnifolia 'Obelisk' or Liquidamber styraciflua Slender Silhouette' - great trees that don't take much space ;-)

Adam Pasco 24/01/2014 at 15:35

Hi oldchippy. Hope you find a good replacement. Cedar does look lovely when it's small ... but it grows!

Adam Pasco 24/01/2014 at 15:35

Hi James. Yes 'Amanogawa' is a lovelyy columnar flowering cherry. I used to have one in the front garden of previous house. However, I do think some other small trees provide colour and interest over more seasons than cherries. Personally I think better options are rowans (flowers,berries and autumn foliage colour) and crab apples.

See more comments...