Every garden should have at least one tree – they add height and structure, give welcome shade, screen neighbouring buildings, provide food and habitat for wildlife and, of course, add beauty.
The ornamental trees grown in gardens are generally smaller than woodland trees. They are chiefly chosen for their especially attractive features, such as pretty spring blossom, beautiful autumn foliage, attractive bark or berries, or edible fruits – and often, a combination of these. They change with the seasons, bringing you closer to nature. There is an ornamental tree to suit every garden, including trees for small gardens. Some, including dwarf fruit trees, make great trees for pots. Others make excellent screening trees, giving welcome privacy.
How to grow ornamental trees
Plant ornamental trees at the same depth as the rootball, watering in well. Ornamental trees are low-maintenance plants, requiring little pruning and watering after they have initially established.
More on growing trees:
- 20 trees for small gardens
- 10 trees for spring blossom
- Evergreen trees
- Eight trees to grow in pots
- Trees for autumn colour
- Alan Titchmarsh’s favourite trees
Where to grow ornamental trees
Ornamental trees can be grown as a standalone focal point in a lawn, in the middle of a mixed shrub and flower border, grouped together to make a little copse or grove or in a front garden so that the neighbours can enjoy it too. Many look beautiful underplanted with spring bulbs, which flower before the tree comes into leaf.
How to plant ornamental trees
Container grown trees can be planted all year round, but spring and autumn are the best times, when the soil is warm and moist. Bare-root trees are dug up from a field and supplied without roots.
To encourage roots to grow out in search of water and nutrients, prepare the soil thoroughly over a much larger area than just the planting hole – break up compaction at the base of the planting hole to allow the roots to spread.
Dig a square hole that’s slightly wider than the pot your tree is in, but no deeper. Lightly fork the base and sides of the hole to ensure the soil isn’t compacted. Plant your tree so that the top of the rootball is level with the soil.
Backfill around the rootball with the excavated soil, shaking the tree a little to help the soil settle around the roots. Use your heel to firm gently all around the rootball and ensure there is good contact between the roots and the soil. You could add a tree guard if you’re worried about local wildlife nibbling the bark.
Stake the tree to prevent windrock, which can tear the roots and create a gap around the base of the trunk that can fill with water and encourage rot. The stake should be about a third of the height of the tree, hammered in at a 45° angle. Attach the trunk to the stake using an adjustable tree tie. Leave the stake on for at least a year.
Water the tree thoroughly, then keep it watered during dry spells for at least the first year. After that it should get all the water it needs from rainfall.
How to care for ornamental trees
You may need to prune your tree as it grows, to enhance its natural shape. It’s also an opportunity to cut away any dead, diseased or crossing branches to keep the tree healthy. The best time to prune deciduous trees is while they are dormant, from November to March.
Advice on buying ornamental trees
- Decide what you’re looking for in a tree – do you want spring blossom, autumn colour, winter interest, or a tree that looks good across several seasons? Do you want it to be deciduous or evergreen?
- Check that your site is suitable – check the site and soil requirements of your tree
- Check the ultimate height and spread and how fast it grows
- Look at trees growing in front gardens in your area for inspiration
- Ask for advice – many specialist tree nurseries are happy to discuss options with you
- For the widest possible choice, visit a specialist tree nursery or buy from a specialist online retailer
- Trees are either supplied as container-grown trees throughout the year, or as bare-root plants in the dormant season, from November to early March. Bare-root trees are often cheaper, and you may find a wider selection is available
Where to buy ornamental trees online
15 of the best ornamental trees to grow
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) make an excellent focal point in the garden, particularly in autumn when their leaves turn breathtaking shades of red, crimson, orange or yellow. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, including favourite Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’, and many acers are slow growing and compact. Grow them as a free-standing specimen, as a part of a border, or in a large container, in a sheltered position. Choose the best tree you can afford, with an attractive shape.
Height x spread: Approx 3m x 3m, depending on variety
Best for: Small gardens, autumn colour, pots
Amelanchier lamarkii, also known as snowy mespilus or Juneberry, gives interest over three seasons – it has pretty blossom in spring (loved by bees and other pollinators), berries in summer (popular with birds) and fiery foliage in autumn. Amelanchier trees are often described as the ultimate tree for a small garden. Look out for multi-stemmed specimens, which give the tree a beautiful shape, which is especially appreciated in winter. Grow as a small specimen tree in the lawn, or in a mixed border, in sun or partial shade.
Height x spread: Approx 3m x 3m
Best for: Year-round interest, small gardens, wildlife
Black elder (Sambucus nigra)
Black elder is a large shrub or small tree with pretty, pale pink lacecap flowers in early summer, stunning finely cut purple-black foliage and small, dark berries in autumn. This tree is not only attractive but productive, too – you can make elderflower cordial from the flowers and elderflower syrup or wine from the berries, which are high in vitamin C. Elder is also a good tree for attracting wildlife – the flowers provide nectar for insects and the berries provide food for birds. It’s suitable for small gardens, as it can be cut back in winter to keep it to the desired size.
H x S: 3m x 3m
Best for: Culinary uses, spring blossom, wildlife, small gardens
Crab apples are brilliant garden trees – attractive, productive and good for wildlife. They look good almost all year round, bearing masses of pretty blossom in spring, small red or yellow fruits in summer through to winter, and good autumn colour. Crab apples are terrific for attracting wildlife – the flowers are a good source of early pollen and nectar for insects, especially bees, while birds, including the song thrush and blackbird, enjoy the fruits. Crab apples are edible and can also be made into jams, jellies or cider. Crab apples are also quite compact in size, and some have an upright or columnar habit, making them a good choice for smaller spaces. Grow in moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Crab apples are good pollinators for apple trees, too.
H x S: Approx 4m x 4m
Best for: Year-round interest, small gardens, culinary uses, wildlife
Dogwood (Cornus kousa)
Native to Japan and Korea, Cornus kousa (or Japanese dogwood) is a large shrub or small tree with two seasons of interest. In early summer it is covered in stunning white bracts (the tiny flowers are in the centre), followed by stunning foliage in autumn, when the leaves turn bronze and crimson. In a good year, the tree may also bear strawberry-like pink fruits in autumn, too. Grow Cornus kousa in rich soil, in full sun to partial shade.
H x S: Approx 4m x 4m
Best for: Summer flowers, autumn colour, small gardens
Hawthorn or May (Crataegus) is a British native. In spring (typically May, later than many other trees – hence its common name), it is smothered in tiny blossoms in shades of white or pale or dark pink. These are followed by masses of brightly coloured haws (fruits); many varieties also offer good autumn colour, too. Hawthorns are fantastic for wildlife – they can support 300 varieties of insect, including bees, which are attracted to the nectar and pollen in the flowers. The haws are attractive to migrating birds, including redwings. Hawthorns are tough trees that are useful for difficult sites. They will grow in most soils, in sun or partial shade.
H x S: 5m x 4m
Best for: Wildlife, spring blossom, difficult sites
Judas tree (Cercis)
The Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) is a one of the prettiest flowering trees, with pink, purple or white blooms that appear on the bare branches and trunk in late spring, and are popular with bees. These are followed by pretty, heart-shaped foliage and attractive seed pods. Some varieties offer stunning autumn colour. Cercis do best in sheltered, sunny gardens in the UK. Many are sold as multi-stemmed trees, which give additional interest, especially in winter.
H x S: Approx 4m x 4m
Best for: Unusual flowers, autumn colour, sheltered sites
Lilacs are beautiful shrubs or small trees that are garden classics, flowering in late spring. The purple, pink or white flowers are great for cutting and have a strong scent. Lilacs thrive in a sunny location, in well-drained, fertile, humus-rich soil that is alkaline to neutral. They do well on chalky soils. The smaller varieties can be grown in pots.
H x S: From 4m x 4m
Best for: Chalky soils, spring blossom, cut flowers
Magnolias are grown for their stunning tulip- or star-shaped flowers, in a range of colours from white to pink and deep magenta. Most flower in spring, but some bloom in summer. Magnolias can be deciduous or evergreen, and range in size from small shrubs to large trees, so be sure to check a plant’s ultimate size before buying. Most prefer neutral or acidic soil but if you don’t have this, the smaller varieties grow well in pots. Magnolias do best in a sunny, sheltered spot, away from frost pockets.
H x S: From 3m x 3m
Best for: Spring flowers, acid soil
Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)
Paperbark maple, Acer griseum, is a slow-growing, spreading tree with dark red or chestnut bark, which flakes and peels back to reveal new, smooth, orange-red bark beneath. Its dark green leaves turn deep crimson or red in autumn. The paperbark maple is perfect for growing as a small specimen tree in a mixed border or as a standalone specimen, where its beauty can be fully appreciated. Grow Acer griseum in moist but well-drained soil in sun to partial shade.
H x S: 10m x 10m
Best for: Autumn colour, winter interest
Pride of India (Koelreuteria paniculata)
Also known as the golden rain tree, Pride of India (Koelretueria paniculata) is an unusual tree, with lots to offer – attractive yellow flowers in summer that attract pollinating insects, followed by lantern like seed pods. The pretty foliage is pink-bronze in spring and yellow in autumn. This medium-sized tree does best in a sunny spot and can cope with pollution.
H x S: 6m x 4m
Best for: Summer flowers, autumn colour, urban areas
Rowan, or mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), has pretty, fern-like leaves which glow in shades of orange, purple and red in autumn. Clusters of creamy-white flowers in spring are followed by yellow, orange, red, pink or white berries in autumn, depending on the variety. These can often persist on the tree well into the winter. Rowan trees are slim, tough trees, so are ideal for many gardens, including those in exposed locations. They are great for wildlife, too. The leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of some moths, while the flowers attract pollinating insects. The berries are enjoyed by birds, including blackbirds and thrushes. Grow in moist but well drained soil, in sun or partial shade.
H x S: From 4m x 2.5m
Best for: Wildlife, autumn colour, exposed locations
Silver birch (Betula utilis)
Silver birch or Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) really comes into its own in winter, when its shimmering white bark really stands out. The bark peels each year to reveal a fresh layer beneath. In spring, yellow catkins dangle from the branches, while the leaves turn gold in autumn. Silver birch has a light, pyramid-shaped canopy, ideal for growing spring bulbs underneath. There are several varieties of silver birch to choose from, many of which are medium-sized and highly ornamental. They can be grown on their own as a focal point in the garden, or in groups to show off the incredible white bark – look out for multi-stemmed trees, which really have the wow factor. Jetwash or clean the bark with an organic detergent in winter to keep the bark sparkling white. Silver birch can host 300 insect species and the seeds are particularly popular with greenfinches. Grow in moist but well-drained soil in sun to partial shade.
H x S: 15m x 8m
Best for: winter interest, wildlife
Stewartia monadelpha is a beautiful deciduous tree that makes a handsome addition to the garden. Known as tall stewartia, it can reach 20m in its natural habitat, but rarely exceeds 8m in the UK. The trees are often multi-stemmed, which perfectly showcases the peeling, rust-coloured bark. In early summer white, camellia-like flowers emerge and are soon covered with bees. In autumn the leaves turn a spectacular shade of red before falling. Grow Stewartia monadelpha in full sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained soil, in a sheltered spot. Stewartia rostrata is a more compact choice.
H x S: 8m x 6m
Best for: Summer flowers, autumn colour, winter interest
Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)
The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, is a large, bushy, evergreen shrub or small tree, with rough bark and dark green, bay-like leaves. Its bell-shaped autumn flowers resemble those of heather, while its fruits, which appear at the same time as the flowers, resemble strawberries. They’re edible but have a bitter aftertaste if eaten raw, so are best turned into a jam or jelly. Better still, leave them for the birds, who love them. Grow Arbutus unedo in a sheltered spot in moist but well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. It’s tolerant of chalk and acid soils and and thrives in coastal areas. It’s also tolerant of pollution.
H x S: 8m x 8m
Best for: Evergreen foliage, chalky soil, acid soil, wildlife, urban or coastal areas