Deciduous trees lose their leaves in autumn, unlike evergreen trees, which keep their leaves all year round. Deciduous trees are grown for their attractive ornamental features such as decorative bark, flowers, coloured foliage or autumn fruits, and their shape and form create height and structure within a garden. The leaves of deciduous trees can develop beautiful colours before falling in autumn. Most ornamental trees are single stemmed with one woody trunk, although a few varieties – notably birches – can be bought or grown as ‘multi-stems’ with two or three trunks, while others have a bushy habit. Deciduous trees come in a range of sizes, many of which make great trees for small gardens. Some even make great trees for pots.
Deciduous trees can also serve a practical purpose in the garden. They can help screen overlooking windows, unsightly views or create shelter from wind. Trees can be immensely valuable for wildlife too, providing nesting sites as well as song posts and shelter for birds. Flowering trees attract pollinating insects, while autumn fruits, seeds and nuts provide food for a wide range of birds and mammals. What's more, the leaves from deciduous can be gathered up in autumn to make a nutritious leaf mould.
Choosing deciduous trees for your garden
The size, shape and growth habit of deciduous trees varies enormously, so it’s important to choose the right variety for your garden. The most common tree shapes are round-headed, spreading, pyramidal, columnar and weeping. Think about how large the tree will eventually become and how its shape will impact the space you plant it in, particularly in relation to nearby houses and buildings.
Top things to consider when buying a deciduous tree:
- Ultimate height
- Shape and width
- Root spread (which tends to match the tree’s height)
- Speed of growth
As with all long-lived hardy plants, check that the tree suits your garden conditions, particularly the soil type, amount of sun or shade, cold and wind tolerance. Although there’s a lot to think about, it’s worth getting it right as a tree will become a major feature in your garden for many years to come.
Growing deciduous trees: buying advice
- Buy trees grown in the UK or with plant passports to confirm they are free from pests and diseases, to prevent bringing new pests and diseases into the country
- Consider the eventual height of your tree carefully – with luck it will be there a long time so you don't want something that will outgrow its space in five years
- Deciduous trees are available from garden centres but you'll find more choice at specialist nurseries
Where to buy deciduous trees
Top 20 deciduous trees for gardens
Snowy mespilus, Amelanchier
Amelanchier trees provide excellent long-lasting appeal, with delicate white flowers in spring and attractive rounded green leaves that give good autumn colour. Round-headed or slender and upright in shape.
Height x Spread: 10m x 12m
Also known as ‘lady of the woods’ for its graceful shape, silver birches look beautiful all year round, with many varieties offering handsome coloured bark. As well as our native Betula pendula, there are numerous varieties offering a range of bark colours including pure white, cream, pink and orange. The bark of some varieties peels in strips and looks gorgeous when backlit by the sun.
H x S: variable, up to 30m x 10m
Indian bean tree, Catalpa
Mainly grown for its bold foliage, Indian bean tree has large, heart-shaped leaves that can be green, gold or purple. An unusual way to grow Catalpa is to prune all the stems back to within 30-60cm of the ground in late winter – a process known as pollarding – which encourages straight stems bearing extra-large leaves. Unpruned mature trees bear clusters of white flowers in summer.
H x S: up to 10m x 10m
Candyfloss tree, Cercidiphyllum
Candyfloss tree is grown for its attractive rounded leaves that turn beautiful shades of yellow in autumn. As temperatures fall in early autumn, the leaves give off a burnt-sugar ‘candyfloss’ scent.
H x S: 20m x 15m
Flowering dogwood, Cornus
Flowering dogwoods gradually develop into a small bushy tree with large, bold, flower-like bracts in summer. Many varieties have excellent autumn leaf colour, too.
H x S: variable, up to 6m x 4m
There's a few hazel varieties to choose from, including purple-leaved varieties and those with unusually twisted or contorted stems. Usually hazels form bushy, multi-stemmed small trees. They include our native hazel, Corylus avellana, widely used for hedging, as well as fruiting types grown for nut production. Excellent for wildlife.
H x S: 4m x 4m
Hawthorns are commonly used in hedging, as well as small trees. A number of cultivated varieties make attractive and wildlife-friendly garden trees, forming rounded heads of branches bearing spring flowers in bright red and pink as well as white, with good autumn leaf colour and decorative fruits or 'haws'. Excellent for wildlife.
H x S: 6m x 6m
Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus
Hornbeam trees are often used for screening as the oval, deeply veined leaves often remain on the twiggy stems through winter. The variety 'Fastigiata' is tall and slender, and can be used in topiary. Hornbeam is a popular hedging plant as it responds well to trimming.
H x S: up to 25m x 20m
Flowering cherries, Prunus
Flowering cherries are a glorious sight in spring, wreathed with blossom in shades of pink and white. Japanese flowering cherries are particularly noted for magnificent displays of blossom. However, the flowering season is short and apart from those varieties that have good autumn leaf colour, they have no other season of interest. These small to medium trees vary considerably according to variety and include weeping, wide-spreading and round-headed types.
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H x S: variable, up to 10m x 10m
Honey locust, Gleditsia
The honey locust tree is an attractive foliage tree with deeply divided, almost fern-like leaves on a rounded head of branches. Green, golden and purple-leafed forms are available. Gleditsia can be hard pruned to encourage more young growth that is brighter-coloured than mature leaves.
H x S: variable, up to 12m x 8m
Sweet gum, Liquidambar
H x S: up to 25m x 8m
There's a wide variety of magnolias to choose from. Those that that grow into small-trees and have large ‘tulip’ shaped flowers make an incredible spring display of blooms in shades of pink, purple or yellow. Most magnolias form wide-spreading bushy trees.
H x S: variable, up to 10m x 8m
Crab apple, Malus
Crab apples make superb small garden trees, giving at least two seasons of interest with clusters of pink, red or purple spring blossom followed by autumn fruits in brilliant colours including yellow, red, or orange. The crab apple fruits sometimes remain on the tree for much of the winter. Tree size and shape varies, depending on the species, and includes dwarf, weeping, upright and spreading forms. Crab apples are excellent for wildlife.
H x S: variable, up to 8m x 6m
The maple genus is a large and diverse group, with trees grown for attractive, often colourful leaves or decorative peeling or patterned bark. Sizes range from compact Japanese maples, grown for their finely divided leaves in a wealth of colours, up to Norway maple, which has large lobed leaves and forms a medium sized tree.
H x S: variable, from 3m x 2m up to 30m x 15m
Weeping flowering pear, Pyrus salicifolia
Weeping flowering pear bears masses of white flowers in spring. It has a beautiful weeping habit and slender silver leaves. It eventually forms a wide-spreading canopy.
H x S: 7m x 7m
False acacia, Robinia
False acacias are mainly grown for their decorative foliage, which can be green or gold. Varieties vary in size and shape, with small bushy trees, medium-sized round-headed types or pyramidal options to choose from.
H x S: up to 25m x 15m
Willows should be chosen with care to match the site, as sizes range from the huge weeping willow that forms a large tree, down to much smaller weeping trees like the Kilmarnock willow, and bushy ones grown for catkins.
H x S: variable, from 3m x 2m up to 15m x 15m
Sorbus is a varied genus that includes our native rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) and whitebeam tree. Most bear clusters of white flowers in spring and colourful autumn fruits in white, pink, orange, yellow or red. Excellent for wildlife.
H x S: up to 10m x 8m
Lime trees are sometimes used in pleached hedging but are most commonly grown as large, standard trees. Tilia ‘Winter Orange’ is a medium-sized tree that makes a handsome winter feature with young stems in a brilliant shade of orange.
H x S: up to 35m x 15m
Pearl bush, Exochorda
Technically a deciduous shrub, peal bush grows to a height of around 2m and makes a huge statement in spring, with masses of white blossom.
H x S: 2m x 3m
Advice on buying deciduous trees
- Consider the space you have and the impact on nearby buildings before you buy
- If you have room for only one or two trees, choose varieties with more than one season of interest, such as spring flowers followed by autumn fruits, decorative bark or attractive foliage
- Deciduous trees are available from garden centres and nurseries. Bear in mind that specialist nurseries may offer more choice
Tips on planting deciduous trees
- Autumn, winter and early spring are the best times to plant trees, so they can settle in and make root growth without the stress of supporting leafy growth
- During the dormant season, the range of trees available is wider as they can be bought bare-rooted – dug up straight from nursery fields – with the bonus of avoiding plastic pots
- Container grown trees can be bought and planted in spring and summer but must be kept watered during their first growing season
- Always plant a tree at the same depth as it was growing previously. Put a piece of wood across the hole to get the level right
- Stake and tie the tree for the first couple of years until well rooted