Every garden should have a tree, even if it’s a really small one. Trees are the ultimate low-maintenance garden plant – choose the right one for your garden and it’ll happily look after itself, rewarding you with year after year of ornamental colour and structure without any fuss at all.
Whatever size your garden – even if you just have a balcony – there are many kinds of small tree which can fit the space you have to fill. Even if it’s as small a space as a container, there are all sorts of dwarf trees which are suitable for patio growing, including dwarf conifers, dwarf fruit trees and acers.
If you have a courtyard or urban garden, the addition of a small tree can turn it into a tranquil space to relax with shade and privacy. It’s well worth lifting a few paving slabs to plant a tree in a paved garden so that you can give your tree plenty of root space, then you won’t have to worry about watering or repotting it.
If you plan to plant a tree in a small garden, choose a variety that will typically grow to no more than 4-8m in height. Trees that are getting too large can always be topped and kept to the right size, but you don’t want a large root system growing under the house. A tree’s root system eventually grows to about twice the size of the tree, so it’s important to allow sufficient space from the house.
Why trees are so important
Trees play an enormous part in the good biological health of our surroundings, as well as our own personal health and wellbeing. They’re essential in any landscape, both in the countryside but possibly even more so within a city, where temperatures are warmer and pollution levels are high. With green space diminishing and trees often felled to make way for new developments, it’s a great idea to plant a tree in your garden whether it’s big or small.
- Trees do the most effective job of filtering and cleansing the air. By the natural process of photosynthesis, they convert carbon dioxide in the air into pure oxygen for us to breath, and they do this more efficiently than any technology ever could.
- Trees provide cool shade and moisten the air, helping to keep temperatures down in harsh urban environments. The combination of high air temperatures and pollution is particularly toxic.
- Trees help reduce flooding – their root systems are sometimes more than twice the size of the actual tree and the whole system is constantly absorbing water from the ground. After heavy rainfall, drains can’t always cope which results in flood. In simple terms, the more trees there are to absorb water from the ground, the lesser the risk of flooding, or the quicker a flood is cleared.
- Many trees provide a rich source of nectar for bees as well as a habitat for pollinators and wild birds. By planting a tree in your garden, you’ll also be offering a new nesting and feeding space for wild birds, safe from predators within its canopy.
10 great small trees
These attractive silver-leaved trees like a hot, sunny location. They’re extremely drought tolerant and compact enough to grow happily in a container, making them ideal for growing on the patio or a sunny terrace. Olives take a while to ripen so they may not quite get to harvesting stage after a UK summer, but their ornamental appeal and neat, structural habit makes them a wonderful tree to grow in a small space. They can also be pruned into a neat ‘lollipop’ shape, which sits well with contemporary or classic styles.
Acer (Japanese Maple)
Japanese Maples are slow growing with a fairly compact eventual height, depending on which variety you choose. Their distinctive, delicate foliage provides a long season of interest, often changing colour from spring, through to summer and autumn. Many varieties have spectacular autumn colour, with colours ranging from fiery red to orange, pink, purple and yellow. Acers are ericaceous, so unless you have acid soil they’re perfectly happy grown in a pot with ericaceous compost.
Crab apples and other small fruit trees, like cherry, peach and apricot, are ideal for wildlife gardens, with nectar-rich blooms which attracts bees in spring, followed by summer and autumn fruit for wild birds. Many fruit trees are quite compact in size and suitable for a small garden. All crab apple or pear trees tend to be fairly small, but if buying a cherry or apple tree, check the eventual size of that variety, as some can get quite large.
Some birches, such as common silver birch, can get very tall, although they can be suitable for a small garden if topped at a height of around 8-10ft. One of the best birch varieties for growing in a small garden is Betula utilis var. jacquemontii – a beautiful upright variety with striking white bark. You can get single or multi-stemed trees, which are both suitable for small gardens, however the multi-stemmed tends to be lower growing.
These magnificent trees produce a wonderful display of blooms during spring, so they’re a great low-maintenance way of injecting lots of spring colour into a small garden. Magnolias are all fairly compact – Magnolia stellata is one of the smallest, producing masses of white star-like blooms.
Also known as Sumac, this fantastic small tree really has a lot to offer when it comes to seasonal interest. With bold green foliage which turns to glowing shades or red and orange in autumn, along with attractive upright red flower clusters which last well into winter, it really is a tree for all seasons. Plus, the flower clusters can be dried and used to season dishes, it goes particularly well with middle-eastern food or as a topping on humous. Growing to a height of less than 8m, it’s perfectly well suited to a small sunny garden.
This wonderful small tree is ideal for planting in a front garden or small rear garden, typically reaching a maximum height of around 5m. The foliage is bronze tinted and provides a long season of contrasting colour in the garden, along with a fantastic display of white flowers in spring. This tree can tolerate a bit of shade, too, so it’s useful for enclosed gardens which receive less sunlight.
Arbutus, also known as Strawberry Tree, is a compact tree with a structural rounded habit. It has dense evergreen foliage which provides year-round screening, with the addition of unusual round yellow and red berries for colour. Arbutus look great in a small garden and are extremely low maintenance.
Hardy palms are ideal for growing in sheltered small gardens and can also live happily in a large container. The Mediterranean fan palm (pictured) is a good choice, with broad fan-like leaves which grow outwards from a woody trunk. This low-maintenance and easy to grow palm creates an exotic look and is ideal for a sunny or partially shaded spot. Combine it with bright flowering plants to really accent the tropical theme.
Rowan, also known as Mountain Ash, is a wonderful variety with plenty of seasonal interest, and it’s great for wildlife too. The delicate green foliage emerges in spring along with a mass of white flower clusters which bees love. In autumn the foliage turns to rich shades of red and orange, followed by heavy clusters of eye-catching red berries. Growing to a compact size and exceptionally reliable, it’s a fantastic low-maintenance choice for any garden.