When choosing trees for small gardens, it’s 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’s 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. If you only have a patio or balcony, there are also lots of ideal trees for pots. If you want to plant a tree to give you some privacy, consider our recommended screening trees.
How to choose a tree for a small garden
If you’re not sure where to place your tree, growing it in a pot could be the solution – position your tree 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.
Here, Joe Swift shares his favourite trees for small gardens:
As for planting, simply follow the easy steps in our guide to planting trees.
Here are 20 of the best trees for small gardens.
Small trees for autumn colour
Japanese maples – there are lots of small, slow-growing Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) that won’t overcrowd your garden. The foliage provides blazing autumn colour and grows in an attractive shape. Grow them in a sheltered spot, out of direct sun, or try them in a large pot. There are some lovely varieties to choose from, but Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ is a particular favourite.
Paper-bark maple – 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.
Amelanchier – Amelanchier trees, including Amelanchier canadensis and Amelanchier lamarckii, have white, showy blossom in early spring and purple fruit in summer. In autumn, its leaves fade from dark green to gold. Does best in a sunny or part-shady spot in moist soil, and can reach an eventual height of 6m.
Cercis – 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. Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas tree, reaches 4.5m.
Japanese dogwood – the Japanese flowering 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. Also try Cornus florida and Cornus mas.
Small fruit trees
Cherries – fruiting cherries are perfect trees for small gardens. Their spring blossom is breathtaking and their fruit is delicious. Choose a cherry on a dwarfing rootstock to ensure it grows in your small space. Available as a standard tree or fan-trained.
Figs – native to Syria and Persia, fig trees 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. It reaches 3-4 metres in height.
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.
Peaches – 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.
Patio or dwarf fruit trees are also ideal for small gardens and can be grown in pots.
Small trees for wildlife
Hawthorn – hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, is a wonderful choice for a small garden and one of the most wildlife-friendly trees you can grow. Native to the UK, it’s a caterpillar food plant for a number of moths, bees visit the flowers in spring and birds love the calorie-rich berries in autumn. The species can reach 6-8m in height and there are plenty of cultivars to choose from.
Rowans – most rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia) have pretty, pinnate leaves, complemented by spring flowers and autumn berries. They’re great trees to grow for garden birds such as robins, blackbirds and thrushes, which love the nutrient-rich berries. An excellent choice for a small garden would be the cultivar ‘Rosiness’, which reaches 4m. For a slightly larger space you might consider ‘Eastern Promise’, which can reach 8m.
Crab apples – 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’ to save space.
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.
Stewartia monadelpha – Stewartia monadelpha is a handsome deciduous, multi-stemmed ornamental tree with white, camellia-like flowers that are a magnet for bees. It can reach 8m in height. If that’s too large for your space, consider Stewartia rostrata, which reaches 4-6m.
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 × Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei and Magnolia stellata, or cultivars like ‘Alexandrina’ (pictured) and ‘Sayonara’.
BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine offer:
Save 20% on magnolia tree range
Select from six different varieties of spring-flowering magnolia trees at Gardening Direct (discount automatically applied).
Small evergreen trees
Loquat – these glossy evergreens can often be spotted growing in urban gardens where they thrive in the sheltered microclimate cities provide. Eriobotrya japonica is grown for its scented flowers, fruits and glossy foliage and can ulimately grow to 8m in height. Eriobotrya deflexa is prized for its bronze-tinted leaves and scented flowers and will eventually reach 5m
Topiary shapes – they might not be conventional trees but topiary bay, box and yew make up for it with their versatility. Choose a ready-trained lollipop tree, spiral or pyramid-shaped tree, or save cash and train your own, in given time. Bay and yew can become very large if left unchecked, so do keep them trimmed.
Strawberry tree – 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 thrives especially in coastal areas. Can be crown lifted to improve its appearance. It can reach as high as 8m.
Snow gum – 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 can grow to a height of 8m.
Small palm trees
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), Canary island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) and the Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis).