Garden design with small trees for small gardens

//Garden design with small trees for small gardens

Small and beautiful – choosing the right small tree for your garden

One of the most common issues I find in the many new gardens I visit each week is the lack of perfectly sized trees for the particular space. They are often not singing from the treetops but they have either grown too big and now dominate the space, or have been relentlessly pruned until their little fingers and toes look all knobbly and truncated.

Choosing the right tree for the right place is an art based on knowledge and observation.

Trees must be chosen carefully. 

Often I arrive at a client’s garden there is either one massive tree that dominates the rest of the garden or there is a sad lack of trees. People sometimes assume that planting trees will create too much shade or crowd a garden out, but if your garden is small to medium, well positioned trees with a delicate and spacious leaf and branch character can create a canopy that will give your garden a sense of height, enclosure and intimacy.

Evergreen trees

Small evergreen trees (3-5metres) 

The more robust the evergreen presence you want, say for privacy, the more dense the leaf canopy will be. This can have the advantage of being perfect for screening but they will still cast shade and if you grown them near a fence careful that over time they won’t block out your neighbours view or light.

These are some of my favourites: Arbutus Uendo and Magnolia Little Gem.

Photinia is an old favourite and if you have acid soils you can go for the Rhododendrons and Camellias. 

Delicate small trees

For a more open canopy that lets dappled light through, you could think of

Amelenchier lamarki, Weeping Birch, Weeping Cherry, Malus Red Sentinal, Sorbus Pink Pagoda, Viburnum Tinus , Pittisporum ‘Silver Queen’, Cercis Forest Pansey and Albezia (which needs a lot of sun but a sheltered position.

There is also Prunus Amanogawa, Hamamaelis and the perfectly formed, classic of all small trees, the Japanese Acers. The only trouble with these is they like to be the centre of attention and need a lot of neutral space around them. Laburnum, Golden Showers, is a tree that has gone out of fashion but after the yellow display of flowers in Spring has a very interesting branch structure.

There is also the increasingly commonly planted Olive tree to think about as well as Ligustrum Excelsior Superb. Both have reasonably open branch structures.

All of these trees will give your garden a lovely sense of breadth and depth without a tree surgeon being called in every year.

Also the lovely vertical fruit trees like Malus ‘Adirondack’ and Malus Ballerina can be tucked away in a bed and nicely contrast any weeping trees you might have.

Deciduous small trees

Some examples are Acer grissom, Salix exiguta and the two small Magnolias, ‘India Magic’ and ‘ Laura’.

Unusual Trees

For more unusual trees you could try Rhus lacinata (though it will sucker with its roots over the years) You could also think of Euonymous Red Cascade, Liquidamber ‘Gum Ball’ or the majestic, if slow growing, Cornus cows ‘Miss Satori’.

Acacia pravissima is another interesting tree with an open canopy, especially if you are considering a Mediterranean style garden.


Some shrubs can be turned into trees by pruning the lower branches.

Some examples are: Sambucus ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ and Sambucus ‘Black Lace’,


A tree is not a tree without a lovely well balanced undergrowth to give it context and grace so you can look to planting under trees.

Taller Shrubs

Underneath this layer one can plant a layer which I call Tall Shrubs. These plants can contribute lots of height when needed but can also be pruned severely each year depending on the plan you have for the shapes in your garden.

Smaller Shrubs

Smaller shrubs can then be chosen that will tend to give longer periods of colour and fit snuggly under the ‘umbrellas’ of the trees. 

Some interesting shrubs that come to mind are: Rosa rugosa, Teucrium fruticans, Japanese Quince, most of the Hebes, Hydrangeas, Cistis, Pittisporum ‘Tom Thumb’ and the Choysia range.

Ground Cover

Ground cover can be used as the ‘glue’ that holds all the different layers together. Not only can you plant these in large ribbons and drifts to give your border a sense of flow and unity but they solve the practical job of suppressing the weeds whilst the trees are establishing themselves.

Some tried and tested ground covers that I like are the Geraniums, Sedums, Chaerophyllum ‘Roseum’, White Bay Willow Herb and Persicaria.

Smaller Ground Cover

The smaller ground covers tend to be at the front of borders where they won’t be swamped by the bigger plants. Some nice examples are: Pachysandra, Ajuga, Brunnera, Galium odoratum, Epimedium, Bergenias, Lilly of the Valley and Periwinkle.


It is surprising how many gardens I visit and see unsightly spaces that a week chosen climber could easily transform. They can make a wonderful backdrop to the new tree you have chosen or even the smaller Clematis can be grown up the trunks,

Climbers hide fences, can shoot up trees like rambling roses or drop languidly gown from shed grooves or pergodas. They are a first choice for many unsightly wall or tool shed and with their exuberant need to spread out can give your garden a new dimension of space.

More unusual climbers are Akebia, Campsis, Berberidopsis coralline and Solanum


The bulb range is enormous. Some come out before the trees have come into leaf to grab the early sunlight when they can, others push through other plant life tenaciously. As I have written in previous articles plan your bulbs with the months of the year in mind and you can have bright splashes of colour almost all year.

I would like to include another dimension to designing you garden with layers- and that is what is called ‘Window Plants’ . These are plants that even though some are quite tall they can be planted in the middle or even the front of a bed and you can see through their spacious foliage to other plants.

They can be planted around your chosen tree and you can still see the trunks.

Examples of these- and please look them up as they have a great ethereal feeling, are Sanguisorba ‘ Pink Elephant’, Dierama, Qaura, Molinia Tranparent and Molinia ‘Karl Foestar’, Allium Sphaerocephalon and the more commonly known Verbena Bonsariensis and Stips gigantia.

So look at your garden and see if the powerful atmosphere a small tree can be added to give your garden more depth and more light canopy. And don’t just plant one. See how three or four can be planted in combination to revitalise that unlimited extra space in the garden – the sky!

Where to Visit in June

Every year Parham resists its borders and transforms them with new themes.

The whole place has an intimate and timeless quality.

Opening times

House | 14:00 – 17:00

Gardens | 12:00 – 17:00

Big Kitchen Restaurant | 12:00 – 17:00

Last Admission | 16:30

Parham Park, Pulborough RH20 4HS

What to do in June

Lots to do so stop reading this and get out there! But if

you are just having a quick tea break read on.

Dead head roses and give them their Summer feed

Divide finished bulbs

Water any new plants you have put in this Spring

Pinch out Fuchias to help them flower in bushy sprays

Cut back old geranium foliage as they will grow again 

Plant out seed potatoes and tomatoes, the latter in the

sunniest place you have

Believe it or not it is still not too late to plant runner


By |2021-06-03T10:56:17+01:00January 4th, 2021|Articles|Comments Off on Garden design with small trees for small gardens

About the Author:

In 2006 I formed Glorious Gardens, gathering together skilled practitioners to offer not just design but implementation of these designs and maintenance packages where we could look after the gardens once we had created them. Throughout my career I have designed gardens to inspire people with the heart aching beauty of nature, with shapes, colours, moods and proportions to pleasure the body and calm and delight the mind. I am also an artist who works with colour and abstract shapes and I bring this sensitivity to the 4 dimensions of a garden. I am very good at listening to clients and I’m able to draw out the essence of what a client wants for their outdoor space.