The best trees for making a big impact in small gardens

Just because you have a small garden, doesn't mean you can't grow a beautiful tree.

tree in small garden

by Eleanor Weaver |

If you only have a small garden or have limited ‘growing’ room to play with, you may think that a tree in your garden is out of the question. Fortunately, there are plenty of small trees available that you can introduce to your outside space. Whether you want to create a beautiful focal point, add a little more privacy or shade that a tree can provide, or help your garden to be a more vibrant landscape.

According to Nick Bailey, a gardening designer and TV presenter with over 30 years of horticultural experience, “The challenge with introducing trees to our gardens is finding the species or cultivar that is big enough to count as a tree but small enough to fit in our gardens. There are a few trees that fit the bill, reaching little more than 3-4 metres with spread a of 2-3 metres.”

Below we’ve shared some great trees for your small garden including some of Nick’s recommendations for Garden News that'll complement without dwarfing your outdoor space.

Best trees for small gardens

Japanese Maple 'Osakazuki'

Best for a pop of colour
Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki'

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Trees can be a great way to add a colour pop. With vibrant foliage that changes throughout the year from purple to a intense red autumn display, try a graceful Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). The Osakazuki is a great choice for the smaller garden as they are slow growing and tolerate shade well. They are also an attractive shape and work well in a large tub too.
Tree care: Water regularly throughout the growing season and lightly trim stems if necessary in autumn and winter. Plant in moist, fertile, well-drained soil in sun or dappled shade.
Tree size: Max height 4m, spread 4m
Review: "Small but very beautiful tree. Revived well to show gorgeous leaves."

Crataegus Prunifolia 'Splendens'

Top pick
Crataegus prunifolia 'Splendens' Tree

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Nick says, “This is one of my top 5 favourite small trees. It reaches little more than 5 metres and naturally produces a lollipop form. Flowers appear in spring followed by large fruit which ripens red, ready to accompany the striking orange and red autumn foliage. A true all-rounder.” A part of the hawthorn family, this tree will also encourage more wildlife in your garden.
Tree care: If you’re planting in spring or summer, water well for the first few months. Once planted, keep the area free of competing weeds and grass for the first couple of growing seasons. 
Tree size: Max height 5m, spread 4m

Magnolia Grandiflora 'Little Gem'

Best for year-round greenery
Magnolia grandiflora Little Gem

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Plant an evergreen Magnolia Grandiflora to add a dark note of drama whatever the season. Its glossy green leaves make it the ideal year-round performer but it won’t spread out of control and isn’t large enough to have any impact on neighbouring gardens. In late summer and early autumn, it has huge cream flowers with a delicious lemony perfume.
Tree care: Position in full sun or partial shade in well-drained, fertile soil. Somewhat hardy, it is best to shelter from cold winds.
Tree size: Max height 4-5m, spread 2.5-3m

Betula Pendula 'Fastigiata Joes'

Best for screening
Betula pendula Fastigiata Joes

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Nick says, “I first encountered this tree on a TV shoot. It’s the perfect small garden tree reaching little more than 4m with a 1-meter spread. It has a true columnar form but otherwise has every trait of a standard Betula pendula.” The elegant silver birch is always a good choice to provide quick cover in a small garden, and is available to order from late summer.
Tree care: Position in full sun or lightly dappled shade in moderately fertile, well-drained soil. Requires minimal pruning.
Tree size: Max height 5m, spread 2m

Fig 'Brown Turkey'

Best for wall growth
fig 'Brown Turkey'

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Highly ornamental with large glossy leaves, this tree will grow an abundance of rich and sweet figs in late summer/ early autumn. Best grown against a south or south-west facing wall, it's an easy tree to grow and if you want to focus on harvesting fruit rather than top growth, plant it into a large pot buried in the ground.
Tree care: Position in full sun. It will tolerate most soils, except very badly drained. Remove any frost-damaged or weak branches, and thin out shoots to let light in.
Tree size: Max height 5m, spread 2m
Review: "This arrived promptly and I planted it immediately following the instructions provided, it has flourished and gone from a small well-formed plant to a vigorously growing young tree. It has already produced its first fig and this coming season I hope to see more."

Arbutus Unedo

Best ornamental tree
Arbutus unedo

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This strawberry tree has the added bonus of ruddy-brown papery bark, not the mention the white urn flowers and strawberry-like fruits that appear in autumn. However, it's worth noting that the fruits are purely ornamental and are not to be eaten. It’s also evergreen meaning it looks perpetually good!
Tree care: Position in full sun. Plant in fertile, well-drained soil but it can tolerate alkaline soils. Requires minimal pruning. 
Tree size: Max height 6m, spread 5m
Review: "Tree arrived in perfect condition and taller than expected. Planted it straight away and it appears to be thriving."

Cercis Canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

Cercis canadencis Forest Pansy

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“Some would cite this plant as a large shrub but either way it’s perfect for small gardens with its ball-like form of 3x2m." Says Nick. "Foliage is large and lush with beautiful burgundy and purple tones which become a rich red in fall.” Winning the RHS Award of Garden Merit, it's easy to grow and maintain.
Tree care: Position in full sun or partial shade. Grow in fertile, moisture-retentive well-drained soil.
Tree size: Max height 4-8m, spread 4-8m
Review: "Easy ordering and although a longish wait for delivery my tree is now here. It has travelled well and is a good size and shape. Definitely worth the wait."

Adam's Laburnum

Editor's Choice
Adams Laburnum

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This slow-growing tree is ideal for smaller gardens and a beautiful choice for those wanting more flowers in their outdoor space. Adams Laburnum produces elegant blooms of canary yellow and mauve-pink in the late spring and early summer, similar to a brightly coloured clematis. Even better, it's low maintenance and easy to grow.
Tree care: Position in full sun. Grow in moderately fertile, moist but well-drained soil.
Tree size: Max height 4-8m, spread 2.5-4m

Prunus x Yedoensis

Best for blossom
Prunus x yedoensis

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Ornamental cherry blossom trees are perfect for small gardens if you choose one of the smaller varieties. With a graceful, sweeping shape on the 'Ivensii', its spring snowy white blossoms are gorgeous and will attract bees too. A beautiful focal point that'll fill your garden with colour.
Tree care: Position in full sun, though it will cope with shaded areas. Grow in moist but well-drained soil.
Tree size: Max height 3m, spread 3m

Ulmus x Hollandica 'Wredei'

Best for attracting wildlife
Ulmus × hollandica

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Designers often use rows of tall, pillar trees in town gardens to add a stylish punctuation point to a boundary and it’s a great option for privacy from the neighbours too. It also helps that this variety is a perfect way to brighten dark corners of your garden and attracts several species of moths and butterflies.
Tree care: Plant in moist, well-drained soil in full sun.
Tree size: Max height 4m, spread 2m

Tree care and support

Writing for Garden News, Graham Rice, award-winning garden writer and photographer, shares his top tips for planting and supporting your new tree.

Planting for the future

• Your new tree will be with you for a long time, so prepare the soil thoroughly before planting. It really is worth it.

• Don’t just prepare the planting hole, improve the soil beyond the hole to encourage the roots to spread out.

• The best soil improver is well-rotted garden compost or, even better still, composted garden waste from the green waste recycling; it’s almost always 100% weed free.

• Spread out the roots of bare root trees and work soil in among them as you refill the hole.

We say, if you’re not sure where to plant your tree, growing it in a pot offers a temporary solution. Experiment with positioning it in different locations until you settle on the perfect spot before transplanting it into the garden.

Supporting your tree

• All trees need support when they’re young otherwise the roots will rock in the wind and will never take hold.

• The tall stakes, once so popular, have been proven to be less effective than much shorter stakes.

• Choose a stake, the top of which can be tied to your tree about 60cm (2ft) above the soil or, for larger trees, about one-third of the tree’s height.

• For bare-root trees, first, dig your planting hole, then knock in your stake vertically. Plant the tree, fitting the roots around the stake.

• For container-grown trees, knock the stake in at an angle to avoid the rootball.

• Finally, water in well.

What is a bare root tree?

Bare root trees are small trees that are dug up when dormant, with all soil removed from the roots before they are packaged up and sent out to gardeners. They are usually less expensive but will quickly become established in your garden. There also tends to be a wider selection available than pot-grown trees, especially if you look online.

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