When choosing trees for small gardens, it’s particularly important to do your research. Crucially, find out the ultimate height of the tree and how long it takes to reach that height. Some species are slow growing and might initially fit very well in a small garden but over time could dwarf your space, blocking out light and potentially damaging the foundations of your house.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tree species and cultivars with a compact habit that won’t outgrow their surroundings. A well-chosen tree, positioned effectively, will make a beautiful focal point and provide interest throughout the year.
Choose trees with berries to attract birds and provide perches and nesting sites. Or, for abundant harvests, grow apple, pear or cherry trees.
If you’re not sure where to place your tree, growing it in a pot could be the solution – position it in different locations and take it with you if you move. This is also useful if you need to protect the tree in winter.
If you’re looking for something really small, consider shrubs. Many can be crown lifted to give the look of a small tree while being shorter in stature – shrubs to try this with include viburnums, lilacs and elaeagnus.
As for planting, simply follow the easy steps in our guide to planting trees.
Feast your eyes on our pick of the best trees for small gardens.
There are lots of small, slow-growing Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) to grow won’t overcrowd your garden in a hurry. The foliage provides blazing autumn colour and grows in an attractive shape. Grow them in a sheltered spot, out of direct sun, or try it in a large tub.
They might not be conventional trees but topiary bay, box and yew make up for it with their versatility. Choose ready-trained lollipop, spiral or pyramid shapes, or save cash and train your own, in given time.
Crab apples are great all-rounders, with plenty of food for wildlife, colourful fruit and spring blossom. Try growing a variety like ‘John Downie’ to make your own crab apple jelly, or an upright variety like ‘Golden Hornet’ (pictured) to save space.
Stewartia pseudocamellia is also known as the deciduous camellia. A summer prelude of white flowers attracts pollinators in their dozens, and is followed by an autumn show of crimson-coloured leaves. An unfussy tree, grow it in a spot where it can’t be missed.
Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’
Elegant Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ has slim, silvery foliage and slender weeping branches. It will tolerate most soil types, as long as it’s in a sunny spot. Creamy-white, sweetly scented blossom appears in spring.
Espalier apple trees
To make the best use of space, choose a ‘family tree’ espalier, where each arm is a different variety of apple. Plant against a warm, sunny wall or use as a garden divider. Reliable fruit supply, great spring blossom, and a compact clematis can even be grown up through it. You could also train them as single cordons or fans.
Peaches make lovely small trees, and contrary to what you might think, they’re hardy and will provide a crop in the UK. To get fruit it’s essential that they’re planted in a warm, sunny and sheltered spot – frosty spots will increase the risk of damage to the flowers. Well suited to training as a fan or espalier. Also consider apricots.
Magnolias are truly grand plants, and while many are too big for a small garden, there are just as many shorter types to go for. Try species like Magnolia wilsonii, Magnolia macrophylla × macrophylla subsp. ashei and Magnolia stellata, or cultivars like ‘Alexandrina’ (pictured) and ‘Sayonara’.
These glossy evergreens can often be spotted growing in urban gardens where they enjoy growing in the sheltered microclimate cities provide. Eriobotrya japonica is grown for its scented flowers, fruits and glossy foliage, while Eriobotrya deflexa (pictured) is prized for its bronze-tinted leaves and scented flowers.
Amelanchier lamarckii has white, showy blossom in early spring and purple fruit in summer. In autumn, its leaves fade from dark green to gold. A. lamarckii prefers growing in a sunny or part-shady spot in moist soil, and can reach an eventual height of 6m.
The snow gum, Eucalpytus pauciflora subsp. niphophila, provides year-round interest, with grey, green and cream patchwork bark and evergreen grey-green leaves, which grow longer and narrower with age. Bears small, snow-white flowers in summer. It will tolerate most soil types, but prefers full sun, and can grow to a height of 8m.
Commonly known as redbuds, Cercis trees are grown for their spring and summer blossom, with some cultivars having dramatic bronze or purple foliage, too. Cercis chinensis ‘Avondale’ will reach around 3m tall, while Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ will grow to 8m.
The paper-bark maple, Acer griseum, is a slow-growing small tree with dark green leaves that turn a rich, crimson colour in autumn. Once the leaves have fallen, its trunk and stems provide winter interest, as the chestnut- coloured bark peels away to reveal the new, orange-red bark beneath. Tolerates partial shade and grows to a height of 10m.
Ornamental cherries are perfect trees for small gardens. Their spring blossom is breathtaking and will benefit pollinators as well as being a feast for the eyes. Cherries to consider include Prunus x yedoensis, Prunus ‘Pink Shell’ (pictured) and Prunus serrula.
Figs are native to Syria and Persia, but have been grown in Britain since Roman times. Although the species doesn’t offer a reliable fruit crop in the UK, it’s still worth growing for its striking, lobed foliage. Shelter the fig against a warm wall. ‘Brown Turkey’ is considered one of the best varieties for growing in the UK.
Some birches can grow to a height of 30m or more, so for small gardens choose a shorter birch like Betula utilis var. jacquemontii or Betula utilis ‘Fastigiata’. Their white stems provide fantastic contrast to other plants in the garden.
Hardy palms are brilliantly architectural plants, suiting different garden styles, from gravel gardens to Mediterranean and tropical gardens. Small and hardy palms to grow include the Mexican blue palm, Brahea armata and the Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis.
Most rowans (Sorbus) have pretty, pinnate leaves, complemented by spring flowers and autumn berries. They’re good trees to grow for wildlife and you’ll find plenty that are appropriately sized for small gardens. Check out species like Sorbus wardii and Sorbus forrestii, as well as cultivars like ‘Rosiness’ and ‘Eastern Promise’.
The Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa) is a lovely small tree native to Japan and Korea. In early summer it bears masses of tiny flowers that are surrounded by conspicuous white bracts. When autumn arrives, the foliage turns a vibrant shade of crimson along with strawberry-like pink fruits. You could also grow Cornus florida and Cornus mas.
This neat evergreen is a great choice for interest all year round, providing plump red fruits and white bell-shaped flowers in autumn. Arbutus unedo often grows into an attractive multi-stem specimen and especially enjoys growing in coastal areas. Can be crown lifted to improve its appearance.