Best trees for small gardens: find the ideal pick for your space

Choose one of the best trees for small gardens and you can add structure and interest to any outdoor space all year round

best trees for small gardens
(Image credit: David Giles)

Introducing one of the best trees for small gardens will bring many benefits. As well as creating a strong focal point, trees create some dappled shade, they attract wildlife, clean the air and with their ever-changing foliage, blossom and fruits, there is always something new to look at as the seasons roll round. If you choose carefully, there are plenty of trees which enhance a small garden, and they will not cause problems by getting too tall or bushy. 

October and November are the ideal months to plant a tree. This is also the time when bare root varieties are available from garden centres and nurseries, offering a wide choice and lower prices than mature pot-grown trees. Find the perfect variety for your space in our selection below, then head over to our small garden ideas for more ways to maximise every inch of your compact space. 

1. Olive

olive tree in a large pot on a patio

(Image credit: Architectural Heritage)

Olives are slow growing which makes them perfectly suited to smaller spaces, reaching up to 2m in 8-10 years. The silvery grey foliage stays intact year-round and they will thrive in a container. When planting, add a spade of horticultural grit to the soil to ensure good drainage. They can be ‘standards’ – that is, trees with a bare trunk and a shaped rounded top, or for a less formal effect, they can be left to grow irregularly. Olive trees need a sheltered spot to survive the winter. If you live in an exposed area, or your garden is in a frost pocket, wrap them up in some horticultural fleece if freezing conditions are forecast. 

Between April and October, feed olive trees once a month with a tomato feed, such as Tomorite, and keep them hydrated during the summer, watering until the liquid flows from the bottom of the pot. If they start to shed their leaves, a drink of water, a light prune and some food should solve the problem.  

2. Silver birch

the trunks of several silver birch trees

(Image credit: Jesse Dodds. UnSplash)

It is hard to beat the pale beauty of a silver birch tree and the good news is that there are varieties which are suited to smaller gardens. Betula utilis jacqumontii is a medium-sized tree with an elegant, slender shape. It will grow to approximately 7m x 3.5m over 20 years. Hardy and suited to all kinds of soil and conditions, it has airy green leaves in the spring, with yellowy brown catkins, turning to a glorious golden yellow in autumn. Once the leaves have fallen, the snowy white bark is revealed, which is a stunning feature in itself. 

The tree is easy to care for: simply prune any dead or damaged branches in late summer to midwinter. If the bark looks grubby, it can be washed with plain water and a sponge. 

Silver birch can be planted in the ground as ‘bare roots’ between November and February, providing the ground is frost-free. Container versions can be planted at any time. Keep the area around them weed-free for the first few years. 

3. Amelanchier 

Amelanchier deciduous tree

(Image credit: B Van Der Lans iVerdi ‘Perennial Power’)

These small deciduous trees, also known as Juneberry and Serviceberry have clusters of dreamy white star-shaped flowers on soft copper coloured foliage in the spring. The leaves turn to dramatic fiery reds and vivid orange in autumn. Try Amelanchier Lamarkii ‘Ballerina’ as this variety will not grow taller or spread wider than 4-5m. Its small red berries are popular with birds. Despite the delicate blossom, these are hardy trees, which can cope with damp conditions and most soil types, although they do prefer clay or sandy soil.  

4. Magnolia

magnolia tree

(Image credit: H van der Laar, iVerdi ‘Perennial Power’)

The dramatic over-sized tulip-shaped blossoms in spring makes the magnolia a real statement tree. A variety such as magnolia x soulangeana has flushed pink flowers. The neat, rounded shape means that it suits smaller spaces, and it will make a splash in a front garden.  Expect it to grow to about 6m tall with a spread of 4 metres over 20 years. These trees need full sun or partial shade, and moist conditions. Avoid exposed areas, as a frost can ruin the display of blossom, turning the pretty petals brown. When planting, water well for the first few months, and during any dry spells in summer. A rabbit guard might be necessary if you live in the countryside. 

5. Crab Apple

Crab apple tree

(Image credit: Fiona Cumberpatch)

A compact crab apple tree can light up a small garden. In spring, it has beautiful clouds of pretty blossom, while in autumn, it produces a profusion of tiny, richly coloured fruits, in shades of scarlet, yellow, gold and red and it has attractively coloured leaves. The height of these trees can vary widely, so check carefully before you buy. Smaller ones include malus ‘Butterball’ and malus ‘Wisley Crab’ which can reach a height of around 4m. Malus x Zumi is a pretty rounded tree with golden fruit. 

Plant them in a sunny site, in moist but not wet soil. In winter, remove any damaged branches, or ones that cross over each other. Bare root varieties should be planted between November to March, while container grown trees can go in at any time.

6. Acer

Bright red Acer tree in a garden

(Image credit: iVerdi ‘Perennial Power’)

If you love a riot of autumn colour, then an acer is a must. They will introduce a pop of blazing orange, red, or a rich pink, and once the gorgeous leaves have fallen, many have ornamental bark which makes a lovely feature. There are many different types to choose from, but Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ is a good choice, as it is a dense, small tree which grows to 4m tall over 20 years. Acers prefer partial shade – the sun can scorch their leaves – and they will grow happily in containers or in the ground. For pot grown trees, use ericaceous compost to plant them in, as this ensures a more vibrant foliage colour. Avoid banking up the soil in a volcano effect around the bough, as this may encourage disease. Acers rarely need pruning: they are low-maintenance trees and an asset to any garden. Want to know more? Head over to our guide to how to grow acers and you'll find everything you need.

7. Ornamental Cherry

Ornamental cherry tree

(Image credit: iVerdi ‘Perennial Power’)

A confetti of pink or white petals in spring is the hallmark of cherry trees, and there are some very pretty smaller varieties which suit a compact space. Try Prunus yedoensis for its weeping branches and romantic white almond-scented blossom which is loved by bees and butterflies. It will reach around 3m tall in 10 years. Another option is the Cherry ‘Pink Shell’ which has pastel pink flowers which turn to white in April, contrasting beautifully with its light green leaves. This is another tree will not grow beyond 3.5m. 

Ornamental cherry trees prefer full sun and moist, well-drained soil of any type. Once established, they are very low maintenance. The most difficult decision is choosing which variety to go for! 

8. Chinese Dogwood

Chinese dogwood tree in full bloom

(Image credit: iVerdi ‘Perennial Power’)

Known for their show-stopping displays of flowers in June, the dogwood or Cornus Kousa delivers throughout the seasons, with pretty autumnal foliage and an unusual pink fruit shaped like a strawberry. Not every variety is suitable for a limited space, so check carefully before buying. For tiny gardens, a dwarf dogwood, such as Cornus kousa ‘Angyo Dwarf’ will only reach 1.2 – 1.5 m tall, but other varieties can grow as tall as 8m. These trees need full sun or partial shade, and they prefer a moist, free-draining neutral to acid soil.

How to plant a small tree

Water the tree first in the container you bought it in. Dig a square-shaped hole that is twice as large as the tree’s rootball and soil. It is important that the hole is deep and wide enough for the tree’s roots to spread out. Put a 20 litre bag of John Innes No.3 compost into the hole and work it into the soil. Release the tree from its pot, taking great care not to damage the roots. Place it in the planting hole. Refill the soil, making sure that the tree is planted the same depth as it was in its pot. Refill the hole with soil and press it down firmly. Water around the tree with a full can. Keep the tree well-watered, until it is firmly established.  

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