Here in the UK, we have a special affinity with trees. Our ancient woodlands and forests are cherished and cared for by thousands of dedicated volunteers and in the 1000-year-old ‘Major Oak’, in the heart of Sherwood Forest, we have possibly the most legendary oak tree of them all as the tree which reputedly sheltered Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
It was also an oak tree which reputedly hid King Charles 11 in 1651 during the Battle of Worcester. Our native trees are home to a vast variety of birds, insects and other wildlife and our beautiful landscape would be much poorer without trees.
While most of us don’t have room to plant a large tree like the mighty oak, this doesn’t mean we can’t have trees in our gardens. You just need to know which are the best trees for small gardens and the RHS is an excellent source of information. So if you are looking for a suitable tree under which to place a comfortable two-seater bench read on.
There are pros and cons to both variations. The advantage of an evergreen tree is that it keeps its leaves throughout the year and this means no sweeping up of dead leaves every autumn. A deciduous tree will lose its foliage in autumn, but you will quite often see a spectacular display of glorious colour before it goes dormant for the winter.
The right tree in the right place is a thing of lasting beauty, but if you plant in the wrong place, it can be disastrous. If you plant your tree too close to a building or fence, for instance, this could damage foundations or knock over fences. If you plant in a container but then decide it is in the wrong place, you may find it very difficult or impossible to move it. Similarly, if you plant in the wrong soil or the wrong part of the garden your tree could fail to thrive. Consider also that if you plant your tree alongside your neighbour’s fence, it could provide them with unwelcome shade and leaf fall. Planting a deciduous tree where it can shed leaves onto a pavement or road could cause problems for other people.
Before you commit to buying your tree the most important thing to research is the size of it. Even small trees can reach average heights of 15-25 feet and can have an almost equal spread. If this is a factor, then a large shrub like a Lilac or Viburnum may be a more practical choice while a weeping variety can be a consideration if there is plenty of room to spread, but you prefer to restrict the height. Trees which are columnar in form are perfect where space is at a premium. Columnar trees for small gardens come in a variety of forms depending on whether you prefer fruit, blossom or foliage and it is always best to study advice from specialist nurseries. Flowering examples include Prunus Amanogawa, Japanese Cherry, which is fabled for its lovely pink blossom and narrow shape and the equally lovely Magnolia Stellata. The easy to maintain Italian Cypress is perfect for making a bold statement but beware as this can grow quite tall. Some of the Common Junipers have striking blue/green foliage and with their upright, columnar shape are generally slow growing.
The Japanese Maple Acer Palmatum is very difficult to beat if you want a delicate small tree. With spectacular reds and golds and finely cut leaves, this will add grace and beauty to any garden. Be sure to plant in a fairly sheltered spot and out of direct sunlight as it doesn’t like strong winds and sun at the hottest part of the day.
The Photinia Red Robin, which has glossy green leaves, is usually sold as a shrub but with careful pruning, you can keep it producing new shoots of red as it grows to its maximum height of around 15 feet.
The aforementioned Japanese Cherry is a popular choice, but you could consider the Amelanchier which reaches a height and spread of 13 feet x 3 feet. This has snowy white flowers in late spring followed by late summer berries which blackbirds love. Of a similar size is the Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ which bears purple leaves preceded by bright pink flowers.
With limited space in a smaller garden, it will help you to visit a garden or specialist grower where you can see different small trees.