These are the 10 best trees for small gardens

If you thought you didn’t have space in your small garden for a tree, think again!

We’ve got some good news if you love trees but think you need a large garden to accommodate one. There are some gorgeous specimens out there that can be grown in the tiniest of spaces. And you don’t need to have 15 years under your belt as a fully-fledged bonsai tree-growing specialist. Many trees are naturally compact and small and some can even be grown in pots.  

In fact, there are so many amazing trees suitable for a small garden, it can be hard work whittling it down to just one. Luckily for you, we’ve done the research and got the shortlist down to our top 10.  

A beautiful small Acer tree with red leaves growing in a garden during late May.Credit: Shutterstock/James Hime
Some – but not all – acer trees are suitable for small gardens

To be fair, it’s still not an easy choice. Things you need to consider include whether you want spring blossom, autumn colour or evergreen foliage; and do you want your tree to provide fruit, or berries for passing wildlife?  

Another thing you need to think about is the tree’s suitability for your soil conditions and garden aspect. For example, is the chosen spot for your tree in sun or shade? 

So whether you have a courtyard, balcony or just a modest plot, these are the best trees for small gardens. 

Pay close attention to tree names

In this article, we have been careful to quote the botanical (Latin) name of the tree. This is because common names can be misleading if you are shopping for something specific, particularly online. For example, there are lots of Japanese maples out there, not all of which are suitable for small gardens.

1. Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’

Best small tree for year-round colour

The coral bark maple is one of the finest Japanese maples out there. It has all-year-round interest. In spring it has amazing, lime-green foliage in the traditional acer-lobed shape. As autumn approaches, the foliage darkens and turns a striking golden colour, sometimes as dark as orange.  

Like most acers, the coral bark prefers dappled sunlight and should be grown in moist, but well-drained soil. 

In winter, the bare stems denuded of foliage reveal the reason it is called coral bark maple – because the bark is an attractive coral-red colour. Other than that, it is pretty low maintenance, so you can just sit back and enjoy those amazing autumnal colours.

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Acer palmatum 'Sango kaku', Ornamental Trees

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Acer palmatum 'Sango kaku', Ornamental Trees

2. Paulownia tomentosa

Best for giant heart-shaped foliage

Known as the foxglove tree for its impressive purple flowers, it’s an ideal choice for the back of a border, where its heart-shaped foliage makes it a real head-turner.

It can outgrow its space if left unpruned, so many gardeners prune the branches back hard each year to stunning effect. This encourages masses of the giant, heart-shaped foliage.

However, doing this hard pruning each winter does mean forgoing the foxglove-like flowers in summer.  

Alison Marshall from Torre Abbey Gardens near Torquay says the foxglove tree is one of her favourites.   

“The reason I like this tree is that you can either leave it to grow naturally, where it grows these beautiful foxglove-like flowers in the canopy. Or you can prune back the new growth each winter and it produces these amazing, massive heart-shaped leaves that look so impressive. All our visitors are constantly asking us what it is, and how we get the tree to produce such huge leaves.

“I grow mine on a single trunk to a height of 4ft. I then cut back the new growth each year to one bud, but I keep the stem itself completely clear of shoots itself. It has a real wow factor in the garden. 

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Paulownia tomentosa, J Parkers

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Paulownia tomentosa, J Parkers

3. Acer griseum

Best for its gorgeous, copper-coloured winter trunk

The paperbark maple is a deciduous, compact tree perfect for a small garden. It’s grown for its ornamental, coppery, flaking bark and deserves a place as either as a single focal point in a small garden or – if space allows – it also makes an attractive feature  as a group of three.

You can usually get both multi-stemmed and single-stemmed trees. 

Marshall says: “I just love the coppery or even cinnamon-coloured bark. The trunk looks wonderful all year round, but it really comes into its own in winter. It’s enough to brighten even the dreariest of dark days. I particularly like the bark when the sun shines through it and it takes on this almost translucent, coppery colour. Definitely a must for any small garden.”

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Acer griseum, Jacksons Nurseries

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Acer griseum, Jacksons Nurseries

4. Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’

Best for massive pink flowers and big red fruits

If you would love a tree with all-year-round interest, then this Chinese dogwood is for you. Early in the season, it produces huge pink flowers (technically they are modified leaves, but beautiful all the same).  

This is followed by masses of large red fruit that look like large strawberries. These can be made into jams or even fermented into wine.

The deciduous leaves then turn a gorgeous crimson colour in autumn. In fact, it’s one of the best trees for autumn colour. Finally, in winter, many of the trees have an impressive, gnarly trunk, which looks lovely.  

We spoke to Joe Wheelan, head gardener at the National Trust’s Nymans to ask him what his favourite trees for a small garden were. This was one of them. 

“This is probably my favourite flowering dogwood,” he says. “It grows to about three metres [9ft 10in] by three metres [9ft 10in] with beautiful rich pink flower bracts that show for several weeks. It’s also got a lovely upright form, which shows consistently year on year and hasn’t been badly affected by some of our hot spells. In autumn, large red fruits also appear.” 

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Cornus kousa 'Miss Satomi' Tree, Ornamental Trees

5. Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’

Best small cherry tree with stunning white blossom

Wheelan loves this small Fuji cherry. “A relatively common cherry, but also one of the best,” he enthuses. This very small cherry tree has unusual zig-zagging branches and masses of flowers. Just as winter ends (in early March), ‘Kojo-no-mai’ bursts into life with an abundance of bright white flowers that develop pink centres.   

“The foliage is serrated (incised), with new foliage having a bronzed tinge. It’s also very compact, rarely growing more than two metres (6ft 7in) by two metres (6ft 7in). It’s an ideal pot plant too.” 

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Prunus incisa 'Kojo-No-Mai', Thompson & Morgan

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Prunus incisa 'Kojo-No-Mai', Thompson & Morgan

6. Magnolia stellata

Best for starry white flowers in spring

Every garden should have a magnolia somewhere. There are lots to choose from, but probably the best for a small garden is the star magnolia – Magnolia stellata – due to its compact size. It’s a deciduous magnolia producing masses of white star-shaped flowers in spring. Whelan also loves this small magnolia. 

“Magnolia stellata produce a mass of stunning, bright white, star-shaped flowers opening from silky buds quite early in spring, around March-April. They’re also very lightly scented.”  

Another benefit of star magnolia is that they aren’t too fussy about the pH of the soil. Whereas many magnolias prefer it slightly acidic, stellata tends to cope with chalk soils and alkaline conditions.

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Magnolia stellata, Waitrose

Love scent? Choose white flowers 
 
At a recent day out at Mr Fothergills HQ in Suffolk, our Homes Editor-in-Chief Amy Cutmore had a fascinating chat with garden expert Bob Flowerdew. “Bob explained to me that often, white flowers will produce a stronger scent than their colourful equivalents,” she says. “This is because the plant needs to use less energy to produce a white pigment versus a brighter colour, so can put more ‘effort’ into creating fragrant blooms.”

7. Arbutus unedo

Best evergreen tree for privacy

Another favourite small tree of mine is the evergreen, compact strawberry tree. Despite its common name, it doesn’t produce true strawberries, but it does produce attractive, red, strawberry-shaped fruit.  

Although they are technically edible, the taste really isn’t that great, but they do look stunning when hanging from the tree in late summer. The tree also produces small, bell shaped fragrant flowers that often appear at the same time.

It is fairly fastgrowing but shouldn’t reach more than eight metres (26ft) high after about 15 to 20 years.  

The strawberry tree has a neat habit, and its dense canopy is ideal for growing at the edge of the garden to provide some privacy from overlooking properties.

This is a tree that is often popular in coastal regions due to its tolerance to wind and salt spray but is just as suitable in other areas of the country. Grow in sun or partial shade in moist but well-drained soil.  

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Arbutus unedo, Ornamental Trees

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Arbutus unedo, Ornamental Trees

8. Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’

Best for impressive, dark purple foliage

The eastern redbud is a shrub-like, deciduous tree grown largely for its spectacular purple foliage. It only grows to five metres (16ft 5in) and so is an ideal contender for the smaller garden. The leaves also make a great contrast to other coloured foliage at the back of a mixed border.  

The tree is usually grown as a multi-stemmed specimen and the leaves are an attractive heart-shape, spanning up to 12cm (5in) across. In autumn, the colour changes to vivid and vibrant shades of bronze, red and orange.

Another attractive feature are the bright pink flowers on the bare stems in early spring. It’s a small tree with a real wow factor. It prefers moist, but fertile, well-drained soil in full or partial sun.  

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Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy, Crocus'

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Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy, Crocus'

9. Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’

Best weeping tree with attractive silvery foliage

If you desire a low-maintenance and relatively slow growing architectural plant for your garden then this deciduous weeping pear tree could be it. As its Latin name suggests, Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ has a pendulous or drooping habit and makes a wonderful specimen on a lawn or at the back of a mixed border.  

It has attractive, silvery long foliage, similar to willow, and in spring produces creamy-white flowers. Later in the year it produces inedible, green, pear-shaped fruits. Grow this tree in full sun in well-drained soil for the best results.  

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Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula', RHS Plants

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10. Sorbus vilmorinii

Best for beautiful crimson berries that fade to white

I love the vilmorin rowan for so many reasons. It grows to just five metres (16ft 5in) in height, meaning it can fit into most small gardens. It has gorgeous feathery or even fern-like foliage, which is a feature in its own right, but the real show-stopping factor to this tree are the clusters of colourful berries.

They start out as a bright crimson and fade to a near white towards the end of the season. An additional feature of this tree are the large creamywhite flowers in spring.  

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Sorbus vilmorinii, Pippin Trees

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Sorbus vilmorinii, Pippin Trees
Simon Akeroyd

Written by Simon Akeroyd he/him

Updated:

Simon Akeroyd was previously a Head Gardener for the National Trust and RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and has written more than 30 gardening books during his career. He also writes regularly for national newspapers as well as garden and lifestyle magazines.

Simon has presented and been featured in TV gardening programmes and worked as a horticultural researcher, writer and producer for the BBC.

During his career, he’s also managed many gardens including RHS Wisley, RHS Harlow Carr,  Sheffield Park, Polesden Lacey, Coleton Fishacre, Compton Castle and Agatha Christie’s Greenway.

He believes passionately in encouraging everyone to grow plants. Not only do plants make our surrounding space look more beautiful, but they help the wildlife and the planet too.

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