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The best trees for small gardens

Good Housekeeping UK logo Good Housekeeping UK 07/04/2020 Adrienne Wild

Gardening with a kids. Grandmother and her grandchild enjoying in the garden with flowers. Hobbies and leisure, lifestyle, family life © Getty Gardening with a kids. Grandmother and her grandchild enjoying in the garden with flowers. Hobbies and leisure, lifestyle, family life Wondering which trees to plant in a smaller outside space? In small gardens, it’s particularly important to consider leaf, bark and berries as well as flowering, since most trees have such a brief season of brilliance.

Here, we run through 10 of the best trees for small gardens, which have all been given the RHS Award of Garden Merit...

a close up of a tree branch: Acer griseum © Crocus Acer griseum Acer griseum

Acer griseum is a great tree for a small garden. The bark is the colour of cinnamon and peels away naturally in thin layers, hence its common name is paper bark maple. In autumn, the leaves turn vibrant shades of deep crimson before falling off to reveal the interesting bark. In April, clusters of small yellow-green flowers appear, which are followed by brown, hairy, winged fruits.

Native to central China, this small, slow growing acer has the potential to reach a height and spread of 5 x 4m in 20 years. Best planted in a sheltered spot, where it is backlit by sun so that the peeling bark glows. 

a close up of a plant with red flowers on a tree: Acer palmatum © Crocus Acer palmatum Acer palmatum Osakazuki

Another noteworthy small tree is Acer palmatum Osakazuki, which is ideal for border planting and will also grow well in a large pot or container for many years. It makes an elegant specimen, approximately 3.5m x 1.2m within 15 years, with leaves that turn glorious shades of bright scarlet and orange in the autumn.

As well as its vibrant colour, it is also admired for its distinctive winged fruits, which are often described as dangly earrings. It will grow well in loam, clay, sandy and chalky soils and thrive in all aspects except north facing. 

a close up of a tree: Acer palmatum © Crocus Acer palmatum Acer palmatum Dissectum Garnet

The acer variety Garnet has feathery, heavily dissected foliage that resembles the colour of a garnet stone throughout the spring and summer. It holds its colour well compared to other red Japanese Maples, before turning shades of scarlet for a striking display in autumn.

Ideal for small gardens or growing in an oriental style pot, Acer palmatum Garnet grows to a mound measuring 2 x 3 metres in 20 years. This wonderful red Japanese maple will create a stunning feature near a pond. It is suited to a sheltered position in dappled shade and prefers slightly moist, well-drained acidic soil, although lime is tolerated.

a red apple sitting on a branch: Malus × robusta © Crocus Malus × robusta Malus x robusta Red Sentinel

This tree is a wonderful, ornamental flowering crab apple tree, which has glossy green leaves and bears masses of white, fragrant flowers in spring. The flowers are followed by small, blood red, edible fruits late in the season that stay on the bare right through the winter months.

It’s self-fertile, so doesn't need a pollinating partner, and the edible and disease-resistant fruits are a good resource for birds in early winter. After 10 years, the tree will reach up to 4m and ultimately grow to 7m. It’s also available on a dwarf rootstock to produce a specimen that’s just 1.5m tall, with a bushy head up to 90cm wide, which is perfect for growing in a pot. 

a plant growing in a tree © Crocus Salix caprea Kilmarnock

Salix caprea Kilmarnock is the ideal tree for planting in the centre of a small lawn or for growing in a large tub on a balcony or patio. It has a weeping habit and will rarely grow to more than 3m. In winter, the stiffly, pendulous branches are clothed for several weeks with silky, silver catkins, studded with golden anthers.

The male catkins are twice as big and showier than the female ones – fortunately Kilmarnock is male! Leaves follow the flowers to form a green umbrella. It requires a moist, fertile soil to thrive – suffers badly on dry, shallow soils, and full sun. Other than that, it requires no other attention. 

a plant in front of a tree: Pyrus salicifolia © Crocus Pyrus salicifolia Pyrus salicifolia Pendula

This variety is a weeping form of the willow-leaved pear. It is a very elegant, small tree with long, overhanging branches, suitable for even the smallest garden. It grows to only about 7 m tall and 7m wide, making it perfect for smaller gardens, where it can be grown in a large container on the patio or used as a specimen tree in the centre of a small lawn. It copes well with urban pollution and alkaline soils.

In spring, the delicate, weeping branches are clothed with silver grey, willow-like foliage and tight clusters of buds that open to reveal fantastic, creamy-white flowers. These flowers are followed by small pears, which are hard and completely inedible.

a close up of a flower © Crocus Prunus amanogawa

Perfect for a tight corner, the Amanogawa cherry is a gorgeous, slim-fit fastigiate or column-like tree that is clothed head to foot with lightly fragrant pale-pink double flowers in late spring. The young foliage has a bronze colour, before turning green in summer. Come autumn, they burst into shades of orange or red, creating a medley of colours before dropping off.

Due to the narrow habit, the tree is ideal for a small garden, or for an ornamental hedge, especially in urban gardens, as it is both tolerant of pollution and compact, reaching just 6 x 2m in 20 years. It will grow well in any soil but does need plenty of sunshine to flower well. 

a close up of a fruit tree © Crocus Sorbus Joseph’s Rock

Finely cut foliage, bee-friendly, pearly-white spring blossom, good autumn colour and berries that hang onto the tree until the birds pick them off in winter. What more could you ask of a garden tree?

Also known as the Yellow Berried Mountain Ash tree, Jospeh Rock is the best, with an upright and neat form, growing to only 6 x 4 metres in 20 years. Its small stature and distinctive silhouette make it perfect for the average suburban garden and especially for attracting wildlife.

Make a feature of it by planting a well-shaped specimen in the lawn or plant it in a bed amongst a carpet of leafy perennials like hostas and ferns or spring-flowering bulbs.

a white flower on a plant: Magnolia stellata © Crocus Magnolia stellata Magnolia stellata

The beautiful Star magnolia is slow growing with a compact, twiggy habit, but in time becomes a broad-spreading, small tree or large shrub. It takes around 10-20 years to reach heights of 1.5-2.5m and has the potential to reach 4m.

It will thrive in a tub or any spot in the garden that receives full sun to light shade, and is happiest when planted in neutral or acid soil. Avoid planting in exposed positions and low-lying frost pockets though, as frosted flower buds rarely open and flowers will become brown and turn to mush. Mulching in spring will keep the roots cool and moist.

a large tree: Gleditsia triacanthos © Crocus Gleditsia triacanthos Gleditsia tricanthos

If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic, there is the easy-going Honey Locust tree, Gleditsia tricanthos. The variety Sunburst makes an impressive mop-headed tree, clothed with pretty and delicate weeping frondy-like foliage that is first yellow and later on light green, making it another worthy lawn specimen.

The variety Ruby Lace has thornless stems and attractive young leaves that are ruby red, turning bronzy-green as the summer progresses and then yellow-gold in autumn. Gleditsia has an open, light canopy, inconspicuous green-white flowers followed by long, flat twisted seedpods. It is suitable for growing in a large tub of John Innes compost on a sunny, sheltered patio.

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