A Tree In Your Small Garden Space Adds More Than Just Beauty

There's no reason you can't use a tree as a focal point, even with limited space available.

Photo©Andrii Posonskyi/123rf

Many of us live in urban areas or have limited space in our gardens. Making small gardens look good can be challenging, especially if you’re worried about how much your beautiful plants will grow. Trees may not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning a small garden, however limited space doesn’t mean you can’t include a tree in your garden design.

Small gardens present challenges that mid-sized and large gardens don’t. You want to fill your garden space with lovely plants, trees and flowers but at the same time need to be careful how you do that. A small garden can go from well-presented to overcrowded without much margin for error, however small trees provide height interest, drawing the eye upwards and making the space appear larger. They make the most of vertical space, allowing more room for plants and flowers to grow at ground level and adding structure to the garden’s design.

Smaller spaces also tend to have issues with getting adequate sunlight. Urban gardens can be quite boxy, and fences can cast a lot of shade on areas where sunlight might be preferred. It is rare to find urban gardens with light shade or full sun. A well-positioned tree can help diversify the planting area underneath by providing full or dappled shade. However, whether your garden has partial, full or no shade, there is a tree option that will thrive in your garden.

An often-overlooked aspect of garden trees is the bark and glossy foliage. Having a tree with intriguing bark can provide an additional garden focal point. From peeling bark to bark that presents in unusual shape or color, having a bark type that is interesting can transform your garden space. Silver birch, paper bark maple and crepe myrtle are some good bark tree choices.

As well as all the usual benefits of planting trees — oxygen production, attracting wildlife, providing shade or a healthy fruit crop, and improving one’s mood through enjoyment of their beauty with stunning flower or regal leaf displays — trees of all sizes, including compact trees for smaller gardens, can bring about mental health and even life transformation.

Choosing A Tree For A Small Garden

Given the limited space in small gardens, it’s important to put careful consideration into choosing the right tree. Factors to think about include:

HEIGHT AND SPREAD. Check the tree description to get the expected rate of growth per year, and plan accordingly. Get tips for cutting back the tree if needed.

DECIDUOUS OR EVERGREEN. Do you want an evergreen tree for year-round interest? Or would you prefer a deciduous tree with summer flowers and vibrant autumn colours?

CONTAINER PLANTING OR GROUND PLANTING. Do you plan to decorate a patio or terrace with potted trees or plant trees directly into the ground? When is the best time for planting?

SURROUNDINGS. Trees are much more likely to thrive when planted in the right conditions. For example, a sunny but windy spot needs a tree that flourishes in full sun and tolerates an exposed position. Check that your soil is right for the tree you choose.

LEVEL OF MAINTAINENCE. Our lives are becoming busier and for some gardeners it can be difficult to find the time to get green-fingered. If you’re pressed for time but still want beautiful small trees, then choose a low maintenance tree.

Evergreen Trees

Evergreen trees are a great option for providing year-round greenery in small gardens. They are available in many styles, from traditional-looking needle varieties to fruit-bearing trees with glossy foliage. They can be cut back easily and molded to fit your garden space. Another advantage of evergreen types is their root networks tend to be more contained and less intrusive, meaning you don’t need to worry about interference with existing structures.

Bay Tree. Growing as a shrub or small tree in the ground, bay trees are also well-suited to container gardening and make excellent trees for small gardens. The leathery dark green foliage responds well to clipping and can be shaped into formal designs to add structure to a small garden. The leaves are also aromatic and are often used in cooking to add flavour to stews, soups and curries.

Holly. Holly is often grown as a shrub but makes an attractive small tree. The glossy, spiky leaves are sometimes variegated, with additional interest coming from small white flowers in spring and shiny bright red berries in autumn. Synonymous with Christmas, two holly trees flanking the entrance make a spectacularly warm welcome for family and friends visiting over the festive season.

Italian Cypress. This evergreen tree can reach over 100 feet tall. However, because of its slender, columnar shape it’s one of the best trees for small spaces. Pruning annually helps maintain the narrow growth and keep the tree at a manageable height. Italian cypresses are beautiful trees that thrive in the ground but also make excellent small garden trees in pots and containers..

Flowering Trees

One of the single best ways to transform your garden into a beautiful and interesting place is to plant flowering trees. Flowering trees provide focal points that can easily distract from any lack of space you may have. They also add bursts of color and dynamism to your small garden.

Magnolia. Magnolia trees are ideal for small gardens and produce an abundance of opulent blooms in spring or summer. Different varieties have tulip- or star-shaped flowers in a rainbow of colours, from bright yellow to deep pink. Deciduous species flower on bare branches for maximum impact, while the dark green foliage of evergreen magnolias contrasts beautifully with the brightly coloured blooms.

Ornamental Cherry. Ornamental cherry trees are incredibly popular and absolutely perfect if you have a small garden. They tend to be small trees that offer a lot of color and look stunning in general. These flowers are a valuable nectar source for early pollinators.

Rose of Sharon. Boasting lobed or heart-shaped leaves and gorgeous flowers in shades of pink, purple or white, deciduous hibiscus trees are hardy and easy to care for. They flower late in the season, with blooms lasting through summer and into autumn. They make ideal small ornamental trees for the patio or terrace and grow well in pots.

Fruit Trees

Whether you’re growing a fruit tree for picturesque berries or to grow your own produce, many fruiting trees are great for small gardens. If you don’t want to collect the fruit, having a fruit-littered floor from a small tree is perfect for attracting wildlife; birds love fallen fruit.

Crab Apple. Crab apple trees are highly ornamental and bear delightful blossoms before the fruit comes in. These early spring flowers are irresistible to bees, butterflies and other early pollinators. The apple-like fruits appear in autumn and are popular with birds and other local wildlife. Crab apples aren’t edible raw but make delicious jams and chutneys.

Plum Tree. There’s lots to love about growing plum trees. Not only are they easy to grow and produce a high yield, they also bear masses of pink or white spring flowers from late March. Choose a sheltered part of the garden and mulch, or use fleece to offer extra protection against cold temperatures. A late frost can kill the blossom and result in a poorer yield.

Hawthorn. Hawthorn is often used for hedging but makes a great standalone tree for a small garden. They are one of the best trees for supporting wildlife in small gardens, with flowers providing nectar for pollinators and berries providing food for birds and small mammals right into winter. They are undemanding and require very little pruning.

Autumn Color

Few sights in the garden can beat a glorious tree resplendent in autumn shades of crimson, copper and gold. A tree is the perfect way to add autumn colour and interest to a small garden otherwise filled with spring and summer flowers.

Japanese Maple. Japanese maples are the ultimate small trees for striking autumn foliage. They can be grown in pots or in the ground and have an elegant habit that suits a small space. Acers come in all shades of green, yellow, red, orange and purple, but they really shine in autumn as the colours become more and more vibrant.

Silver Birch. With its distinctive silver-white peeling bark, this hardy tree creates interest throughout the year. But the silver birch looks particularly special in autumn, when the triangular green leaves turn a cheery yellow hue, brightening the garden during wet, dreary weather. Silver birches are versatile trees that thrive in almost all conditions.

Dogwood Tree. Dogwood trees bloom creamy-white flowers from late spring to early summer, and the green leaves turn majestic shades of red, crimson and orange in autumn. For small gardens, choose a more compact variety, such as angyo dwarf, which reaches a maximum of six feet tall. They suit contemporary gardens well and are ideal for Japanese-themed gardens or as a standalone specimen tree.

Maria Brett is a passionate writer and garden enthusiast and enjoys nothing more than spending time in her outdoor space.

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