Perfect Plants – Small Trees

Decades of gardening for other people has taught me that there are topics that clients find difficult. I’m fairly
confident about what plants do but it can be hard to share that confidence with customers… who worry about ‘things getting out of hand’. It’s understandable – many popular species are monstrous things. Garden centre labels can be misleading and it’s important to research.

Thus when I say to my customers “You know what you need here? A tree” they’re sceptical, especially given that some of their gardens are little more than paved yards. But there are many genuinely small trees about, if you know what to look for. I could recommend a tree that grows to 20ft and they are aghast, imagining it filling what little space they have and blotting out the sun, undermining the house as it goes. In fact, a 20ft tree is really not very big. In a woodland amongst mature trees it’s just a sapling, and it’s sad how rarely a customer has given in and let me plant a small tree in their yard. There’s nothing like a tree to really give a space that third dimension, to relieve the monotony of the flat garden floor and the four walls that surround it.

As a compromise, they may plant a tree against the boundary – pushing it to the edge. I say plant it nearer the middle, off to one side of the lawn or at the front of the border, or near the house. Very few trees damage drains and foundations and they’re mainly vigorous trees with thick roots – exactly the kind we don’t want. I’d love to look out of my bedroom window through the upper branches of a tree, at all the birds there. In a garden you want a light airy canopy that the sun can shine through, casting a cool dappled shade. This will also make an environment for woodland plants – there are plenty of gorgeous plants that need shade.

It goes without saying that the tree needs to be interesting for as much of the year as possible, with flowers and fruit, newfoliage, autumn colour and bark effects, not to mention the overall form of the tree, with and without leaves. The first thing to avoid in a small garden is anything that simply fills the space with an overwhelming blob of foliage, so I would generally avoid evergreens. Pinus and Eucalyptus can have a light airy canopy but most get big. Some deciduous trees also have a dense canopy – horse chestnuts most obviously.

Here are a few suggestions: –
Acer – Japanese Maples are the obvious ones but most people go for the fine leaved forms, which are shorter, certainly, but also very wide and that means they take up a lot of space. Choose one of the taller varieties –
they are the epitome of light, graceful airiness. Wellknown varieties are Senkaki and Katsura, or species like
circinatum or coreanum

Sorbus – there are many small rowans with fine ferny foliage, spring flowers, autumn leaves and berries. S.cashmeriana, forrestii and koehneana are usually available.

Prunus – avoid the common flowering cherries – go for forms of incisa or subhirtella, or cultivars like Pandora or

Malus – ornamental crab apples like M.transitoria, sieboldii and toringoides. M. trilobata is one of the very best.

Betula – most birches are over 20ft but have a light canopy

Other possibilities – Quercus pontica, Magnolia wilsonii, Eucryphia glutinosa, Stewartia, Hamamelis, Cercis candensis, Genista aetnensis, Picrasma quassioides, x Chitalpa tashkentensis, Aesculus x mutabilis Induta, Nyssa sinensis, Sophora microphylla, Cornus alternifolia Argentea, Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana, Elaeagnus angustifolius, Halesia, Styrax.