Trees for small gardens

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Most of us do not have room in our gardens for more than a couple of trees - so which is the best variety to plant?

James Alexander SinclairWe are getting very close to the end of the bare-root planting season. This is your last chance to plant trees and hedges, which have been dug out of the ground (as opposed to their cossetted cousins that are pot grown).

This also means that it is a good time to think about trees - mind you any time is a good time to think about trees. Most of us do not have room in our gardens for more than a couple of trees - so which is the best variety to plant? Whole books have been written on this subject but I thought it would be interesting to document my top five and see whether anybody disagrees. The proviso is that I reserve the right to change and modify my top five at any moment and without any logical reason. I tend to fall in and out of love with trees and plants with the same sense of fidelity as Zsa Zsa Gabor in her prime.

At number five: Abies Koreana, the Korean Fir. I know that conifers are a little suspect among the high echelons of garden society and I also believe that many of them (especially the miniaturised varieties) look ridiculous, but there are always exceptions. This is one: it has slender leaves with white undersides and cones to die for.

Number four: Amelanchier canadensis. Some may consider this a shrub and they would be right. However, I include it because it makes a good, narrow growing, multi-stemmed tree with stunning white, starry flowers in springtime followed by edible fruit and dark red leaves. Can stand a bit of wet.

Number three: Sorbus hupehensis. A Chinese Rowan with many fingered leaves, which turn yellow and red in autumn. The flowers are white with yellowy centres and these are followed by pink-stained, white berries that hold for most of the winter.

Number two: Malus tschonoskii. Nearly perfect for all but the tiniest garden. Neat, upright habit, white and pink flowers, staggeringly beautiful autumn leaves and a scattering of yellow and red fruits. It is becoming very popular as a street tree - in areas where such trees are not immediately snapped in half by marauding vandals.

And at Number one...

Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis', which is the perfect tree for a small garden. It has unassuming, but elegant leaves, though its great strength is that, throughout the winter, whenever the temperature climbs a bit it will burst into flower (either pink or white).

There are so many that I have had to leave out of this list (no acers for example) but I do not pretend that it is a perfect selection - feel free to contribute your own ideas.

Everybody should plant trees. If your garden is really too small then plant them in somebody else's (if necessary under cover of darkness).

Update: read James's follow-up blog on trees for small gardens, Trees for small gardens 2.

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Trees for small gardens
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

Gardeners' World Web User 13/03/2008 at 16:40

Could you be persuaded to list your 5 favourite very, very small trees sometime? Very small being up to 3 metres tall.

Gardeners' World Web User 10/04/2008 at 11:17

I have a sapling almond tree which I grew from a seed nut brought from Spain about three years ago. It is about four foot tall and in a container. It seemed very happy for a while, but now it's getting very thin and 'woody' looking, particularly on the side not facing the sun (it's a walled garden facing east I'm afraid) and some of the leaves fall off easily. There is new growth at the bottom, but it just doesn't look happy. I put bubble wrap around around the container to keep the roots warm which seemed to help for a time, but wonder what I should do next? Help please!

Gardeners' World Web User 14/04/2008 at 15:36

Hi Louise, most likely is bad drainage. Almonds do not like to have wet feet. Might be worth repotting with lots of grit - this will also give you a chance to make sure that it is not pot bound.

Also, if it is looking better on one side than the other try rotating the pot occasionally so that each side gets an equal helping of light and sunshine. Hope that helps a bit.

Gardeners' World Web User 18/04/2008 at 09:54

Ref: Almond sapling (as above) Thanks so much for your earlier advice, have now spotted some new leaves that have a white mottling effect and even curling slightly in some places. I thought this might be due to pink aphids which I've been dealing with, but someone else thinks this could be red spider mite? Thanks again, Louise BP

Gardeners' World Web User 11/05/2008 at 09:56

Yesterday I planted a sorbus aucuparia and a eucalypus gunni next to each other infront of our fence to use as a screen. I am unsure about how far apart should they be planted and how far away from the fence? Could you advise me, please. Denise

See more comments...