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Trees for small gardens

We are frequently asked to suggest trees suitable for small gardens, but it is important to consider some wider questions before making a recommendation.

For example, what exactly is the tree being asked to do in the garden? Is it being asked to fill a gap in a boundary, add height to a planting, act as a focal point in a lawn, block a view, and so on? Does it need any special qualities such as being evergreen, providing winter interest, or not producing pollen? The question of tree or shrub has to be considered. Many medium to large-sized shrubs could fit the role of ‘“small garden tree”, particularly if the lower branches are removed to create the look of a trunk, or trunks. Trees that stay small tend to be slow growing, whereas many shrubs can grow to a mature height of say 3m in a few years, and then not grow much larger. Consider the ultimate height of your tree if you do not want to have to reduce its size in future.

The RHS lists the top five smaller garden trees as follows:

Acer griseum AGM. The Paperbark Maple. A small Acer which comes into its own in winter when its spectacular peeling bark is more evident. Lovely underplanted with spring bulbs.

Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Ballerina’ (ABOVE). Somewhere between a large shrub and small tree. Bronzy new foliage, then bright white blossoms, and finally good autumn colour.

Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ AGM (ABOVE). The Cockspur Thorn. A neat round-headed hawthorn with glossy leaves and long thorns. It has red berries and good autumn colour.

Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’. A lovely upright rowan tree with feathery leaves and bright yellow berries.

Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ (ABOVE). This cherry is tall but very narrow. It has profuse pink blossom and provides height without casting a large area of shade.

To these we would add the following:

Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’. The winter flowering cherry. A lovely small tree which carries tiny pink (or white) blossoms from November to about March. Never a massive show of blossom, but a continuous succession of delicate blooms through the depths of winter

Parrotia persica. Persian Ironwood. This wide and spreading large shrub or small tree has attractive bark and spectacular autumn colour. It carries small red flowers in spring before the leaves emerge. Though it will eventually get big if left unpruned, it is easy to keep within bounds.

Sorbus vilmorinii AGM. Vilmorin’s Rowan. An attractive small tree with a glaucous tinge to the leaves which develop a purple autumn colour. Its berries start off pinky-red and fade through pink to almost white.

Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ AGM (ABOVE). Weeping Pear, the willow-leaved pear. This fast-growing small tree has a very elegant weeping habit creating an umbrella shaped specimen. It has creamy white blossom followed by silvery foliage.

Acer japonica. Japanese maples. A huge group of highly ornamental, slow-growing deciduous trees. The more upright varieties make lovely specimen trees given time, but are still garden-worthy when small.

Arbutus unedo AGM. Strawberry Tree. An evergreen tree or shrub with rough shredding bark and shiny green leaves. It has clusters of small white bell-shaped flowers in autumn, at the same time as the fruits from the previous year are ripening. These are scarlet rounded knobbly fruits.

Heptacodium miconioides AGM (ABOVE). Seven Son Flower Tree. This flowers in very late summer and autumn with white flowers in clusters of seven. An unfussy, deciduous tree with attractive tactile bark.

Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (ABOVE). A highly ornamental shrub or small tree, usually grown as a multi-stemmed specimen with pink flowers in spring growing directly from the branches. The leaves are large, purple and heart-shaped with spectacular autumn shades.

Ficus carica. Common Fig. Widely grown in sheltered sites in the UK, figs make a shapely architectural specimen tree with large deeply-lobed leaves.

Before getting too carried away with your choices, remember to consider the growing conditions in your garden, and check that the soil and site is suitable for your chosen tree. People are often concerned about potential problems caused by tree roots, particularly in restricted spaces. The RHS provides helpful and reassuring advice here