The dos and don'ts of choosing a tree for your garden: how to make the right choice

Our guide explains all you need to know about choosing a tree for your garden, with expert tips to help you find the right one for your plot

choosing a tree for your garden large trees planted in containers
(Image credit: Jacky Hobbs/Future)

Choosing a tree for your garden is something which should be given careful consideration. The right tree in the right place not only adds greenery, structure and height, but some will even give you flowers, fruit, or colorful bark. They attract and aid wildlife, and – being so big – add a soulfulness that other plants can’t offer. 

Choosing a tree for your garden can be a fun task, and time should be taken to get it right. 'There is a suitable tree for every situation,' says Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum, Gardens and Horticulture Services at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

'Having estimated the maximum size that the space can accommodate and the conditions in the potential site, you can then go deeper into the tree’s ornamental attributes,' he adds. 'Trees have many features that we can enjoy through the seasons: for example, the leaf size, shape and color; flowers; fruits; and bark.' 

Whichever tree you choose, it will help you to be more eco-friendly, and this is why many leading garden designers (including Sarah Eberle) are using more trees to create woodland-style gardens. 'Besides their sheer beauty and elegance, trees give a whole range of benefits which affect the wider environment,' says Tony. 

Not only are they proven to boost our mental wellbeing, they filter greenhouse gases and improve air quality. All these benefits mean that every garden, no matter how small, should have a tree. Whether it be the best evergreen trees or something with blossom and fruit, ask yourself, which is best for you?

Learn about choosing a tree for your garden with these simple steps

Whether you have a small or large plot, one that gets lots of sun or is often in the shade, there's a tree to suit your outdoor space. Our simple steps on how to choose a tree will help you to work out what will be most suitable for your plot.

Raised bed against a wooden shed with a tree, hosta and foxgloves.

(Image credit: Future)

1. Consider what you want the tree for

It's important to establish the reasons for why you want to add a tree to your plot. 'Do you want to plant the best trees for privacy,' suggests Tony Kirkham, 'or do you want a single ornamental specimen in the lawn or in a border for seasonal interest or to attract wildlife?' 

It might be that you want to opt for evergreens to ensure there is always a leafy backdrop to your plot in the colder winter months when deciduous trees have shed their leaves. Or perhaps you like the idea of a flowering tree that will give you a stunning display in spring, or maybe a fruit-bearing tree so you can enjoy a wonderful seasonal harvest. 

A good supplier can help with how to choose a tree by suggesting trees suited to your soil type, light levels, and garden size, as well as extra needs, such as reducing noise pollution or attracting songbirds. 

late summer, flowers, colour, fruit trees, grasses, hellenium, kniphfia,

(Image credit: Jacky Hobbs/Future)

2. Choose a tree to suit the size of your plot

One of the most important things you'll need to consider when choosing a tree is its eventual size. Particularly large trees won't always make the best trees for front yards, for example, while smaller varieties in a large plot might not give you the privacy or reduction in noise pollution that you wanted. 

Make sure you seek advice on the eventual height and spread of your chosen tree to ensure it won't take over your backyard. Tony Kirkham also emphasizes taking time to select the right spot for the right tree: somewhere that doesn’t block out too much light or spoil a view and won’t encroach on a neighbor’s garden once fully grown. 

When it comes to the best trees for small gardens, the most suitable option is to go for those that perform in more than one season. With limited space for additional trees, you'll need to make sure your chosen variety works hard to justify its inclusion in your plot. 

Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’, for instance, offers pink-yellow leaves that mature to lime-green and then burn gold in autumn, as well as red stems that shine in winter. The hazel Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’ produces pink catkins in early spring, purple-red leaves in summer, and curly branches that look splendid in winter.  

Acer with red foliage at Chelsea Flower Show 2012 - Satoyama Life

Acers are known for their stunning red foliage

(Image credit: Mabo / Alamy Stock Photo)

3. Think about the mood you want to create

Being so big, trees help to create the style of a garden, so when choosing a tree for your garden select one that suits the mood you want to create. 

For example, palms (such as Trachycarpus wagnerianus) produce an exotic effect for tropical garden ideas.

Madronas (Arbutus) have a wonderful Mediterranean look; the silver pear Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ is elegant and romantic; while apple trees suit traditional cottage garden ideas

Garden with decked seating area, table laid for breakfast, paved seating area and large fern palm in the centre.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Consider the tree's growth rate

Growth rates of different trees will inevitably vary, which might be a big deciding factor when you're wondering how to choose a tree. The tortoises of the tree world (such as Japanese acers, madronas, and Judas trees) can take years to morph from shrub size to tree size. 

At the other end of the speed scale, vigorous specimens can manage 3-6ft (1-2m) a year; they include eucalyptus and Leyland cypress (the latter should only be planted if you hate your neighbors or never want to see the sun again!). 

It’s also worth noting that some trees – including the beautiful handkerchief and Judas trees (Davidia involucrata and Cercis siliquastrum) – take several years to flower. 

CHELSEA 2021 BALCONY GARDEN DESIGNED BY MARTHA KREMPEL

(Image credit: Jacky Hobbs/Future)

4. Bear in mind how a tree will look throughout the year

Another important consideration when choosing a tree for your garden is how it will look at different times of the year. For example, if you want to create a permanent screen to shield your plot from view, you will need to make sure your chosen tree offers year-round foliage. 

If you only have room for a couple of different varieties of tree in your yard, it's best to go for options that can provide interest throughout the different seasons. 

Evergreens, such as holly and yew, which are available in gold or green forms and can be grown as hedging plants to contain their size. Plants with attractive winter bark also shine throughout the year: Acer griseum has a peeling copper trunk and the boughs of Prunus serrula ‘Branklyn’ resemble polished mahogany. 

But if you want both in one package, Arbutus x reyorum ‘Marina’ has evergreen leaves, as well as cinnamon bark that peels to reveal lime bark beneath; on top of that, it boasts autumn flowers, followed by strawberry-like fruit, which the Portuguese make into the hair-raising liquor Aguardente de Medronhos (madrona fire water); its only downfall is its slow growth. 

Bark of Prunus serrula 'Branklyn'

Prunus serrula 'Branklyn'

(Image credit: Wiert Nieuman / Alamy Stock Photo)

5. Don't forget about wildlife

Trees play an important role in any wildlife garden, helping to attract a wide range of insects and creatures, so it's worth remembering this and choosing a tree that will support a wide range of animals and birds. 

Rowans (such as rosy-berried Sorbus vilmorinii ‘Pink Charm’) and crab apples (such compact Malus ‘Adirondack’) provide nectar-rich spring blossom for bees, as well as autumn fruit for feeding birds in winter. Look for the best flowering trees when choosing a tree for your garden if you want to provide pollen for insects.

Trees with berries such as hollies (such as self-fertile Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’) offer birds evergreen shelter and winter berries. And birch trees (such as blush-barked Betula utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Pink Champagne’) provide birds with seeds and a wealth of insects. 

Small bird resting on the branch of an evergreen tree

(Image credit: MoonStruck / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo)

6. Opt for container grown trees in small spaces

In small gardens, on patios or even balconies, growing a tree in a container might be your only option if you have limited planting space or need to restrict its eventual growth. This can be done successfully if they are compact. 

Small Japanese maples (such as ‘Beni-maiko’, which has spectacular autumn leaves) are one of the best trees to grow in pots. As are bay trees grown as lollipop standards. 

Apple trees on dwarfing rootstock are also excellent in containers. Tony points out that a few large trees adjust to pots by suppressing their growth: 'These naturally develop into bonsai trees while still looking healthy and happy.' He recommends Ginkgo biloba, which has golden leaves in the Fall, and pink-flowered Albizia julibrissin for this. 

Olive tree growing in a terracotta pot

Olive trees can be grown in a pot on a patio

(Image credit: Future)

7. Choose fruit trees for homegrown harvests 

Fruit trees can give you more bang for your buck. Not only will they give you something beautiful to look at in your plot, you'll also get to enjoy a delicious crop of fruit. There are plenty of dwarf varieties of fruit trees that will work in a small space, so don't let the compact size of a plot deter you from growing fruit trees. 

Karim Habibi, owner of fruit nursery Keepers (opens in new tab), says his favorite fruit tree is a bush-trained medlar (Mespilus germanica), which produces caramel-flavoured fruit: 'Medlars are beautiful trees, unusual and easy to grow. The blossom comes late in the spring, and the tree matures to a good shape with very interesting bark.' 

If you like apples then choosing a tree for your garden is an easy task as they make fantastic garden trees, providing blossom and fruit. Karim recommends ‘Discovery’ and ‘Egremont Russet’. 

Since fruit trees require pruning, they may not suit someone wanting the best low-maintenance trees

Apple tree with pink apples

(Image credit: Future)

8. Plant it at the right time of year

Container-grown trees can go in the ground at any time of year, but are best planted between October and April. 

Root-ball and bare-root trees, which are often cheaper and arguably establish faster, should be planted between November and March. In all instances, it is best to purchase from a reputable specialist tree or fruit nursery to ensure quality. 

Varieties of tree to avoid

Unless you live in a stately home, avoid giant trees (such as oak and cedar of Lebanon), which will dwarf your house. Eucalyptus has a bad reputation because people grow it to create size at speed, and it eventually surges to a whopping 80ft (25m). This can often creating neighbor disputes. However, its size can be controlled with pruning. 

Tender trees (such as olive) are best avoided if you live in a cold area. And anyone prone to low moods may want to steer clear of choosing a tree for your garden which is too dark and evergreen (such as yew) to prevent the garden looking gloomy.

Large birch tree in a flower bed at Chelsea Flower show 2021

(Image credit: Jacky Hobbs/Future)

How far from the house should a tree be?

'Work out what the overall height of the tree is when mature and plant it three-quarters of its height away from the house,' advises Tony Kirkham. 'So, a large tree such as an English oak (Quercus robur), which will grow to 100ft (30m), should be planted no closer than 72ft (22m) away from the property.' 

In general, it is houses built before the 1950s, especially those on shrinkable clay soils or with old drainage systems, that are susceptible to damage caused by tree roots. 

View of a house with trees planted in the yard

(Image credit: Alamy)

How can I choose a tree to add structure to my plot?

Cypresses grow into columnar rockets and monkey puzzles have an open, rigid architectural form. Plus, some trees can be trained or cut into incredible lines and shapes. For example, lime (Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra) can be pleached (grown into an elegant narrow screen) and holly can be clipped into pyramids or boule standards that resemble huge green lollipops. 

And if you're wondering how to choose a tree which will add structure without casting too much shade, go with columnar trees, such as white-flowered Amelanchier ‘Obelisk’ or ‘Glenn Form’ and pink-flowered cherries ‘Spire’ or ‘Amanogawa’. All of which have fiery Fall color. 

Another option are trees with an open habit, and one of the best is birch, especially when trained as a multi-stemmed specimen. In his new book, The Kew Gardener’s Guide to Growing Trees, available at Amazon (opens in new tab), Tony Kirkham demonstrates how to do this: 'Prune a young plant low down on the trunk at ground level and allow it to produce suckers and train these to the number of stems required.' This can be done to any birch; some of Tony’s favourites are ‘Doorenbos’, ‘Grayswood Ghost’, and ‘Red Panda’. 

If you're looking for ways to add structure to a shady plot, there are plenty of trees for shade that will happily grow in an area of your garden that doesn't receive much sun. 

Amelanchier ‘Obelisk’ tree with white flowers

Amelanchier ‘Obelisk’ tree

(Image credit: Alamy)
Hazel Sillver
Hazel Sillver

Hazel grew up watching and helping her green-fingered parents cultivate their town garden in North Yorkshire in the 1980s. She was especially spellbound by her mother’s long rose bed of Hybrid Teas, which spawned her own obsession with roses. After experience in the fashion industry, Hazel became a health and beauty journalist, and worked for The Ecologist as Green Living Editor. During a period of injury, she studied horticulture and went on to work as a gardener and write about gardening for newspapers, such as The Guardian. Today, she enjoys contributing to brands, including Easy Gardens and Gardeningetc. Currently in rented property, she dreams of soon having her own garden again, to fill with favourite plants: perennials, trees, and – of course – lots of roses.