The Power of Small Trees

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Creating a canopy atmosphere in your small garden

Some people are frightened of trees, fearing they will grow too big, involve annual costly pruning and block out precious light to the house. One of my weekly jobs as a garden designer is to get on my knees and beg people to take the plunge. I have seen so many trees outgrowing their spot in a garden that I am hereby willing to share my secrets!

A small tree can give a sense of height to the smallest of gardens without necessarily dominating the space. This height allows the garden to feel like a landscape, and interesting underplanting can create a more richly layered garden. Light can filter through if the canopy is thin enough and create dappled shade.

Small trees can also bring more birds and complex shapes in the garden and provide Spring and Autumn colour. This month’s article will involve lists of my favourite trees and where the height isn’t mentioned, they will get no more than 4 metres tall.

You will still need to check if they suit the specific conditions in your garden.


Focal Point trees

Cerces Merlot, the famous Japanese Maples, Acer griseum with its lovely bark (5m), Amelanchier

‘Ballerina’ and Cornus kousa ‘Miss Sartomi’- the latter getting taller but over many decades. Spring Colour

Cercis Ruby Falls (great examples of this at Wisley Gardens), Magnolia Jane Platt (2m) Magnolia

Susan (2.5m), Gleditsia ‘Sunburst’ (5m), Exochorda ‘Snow White’ (3-4m)

And of course the beauty Prunus autumnalis ‘Rosea’. Weeping shape

Betula ‘Youngii’ (5m)- this can always be thinned out after ten years or so, Salix pendula (3.5m),

Catoneaster pendula and Hybridus as well as Catoneaster ‘Coral Beauty’ (1.5), Prunus pendula

‘Rosea’ and Prunus Kiku Shidaew Zakura, and Malus Royal Beauty’.

Plus Acacia pravissima (5m) and the weird looking Larix ‘Puli’. Evergreen

Camellias in general, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus repens (2m) and Ceanothus (Trewithan Blue (3m)- These last two like full sun.

Plus Magnolia ‘Little Gem’, Hoheria ‘Snow White’, the infamous but effective Photinia ‘Red Robin’ (5m) Eriobotrya deflexa (5m) Myrtus communus (2.5-3m) is also a very elegant tree.


Trees that want to grow taller but lend themselves to attractive shaping

Ligustrum Excelsor Superba, Olive, Pittosporum tenuifolia, a lot of the Hawthorns actually,

Arbutus uendo, the strawberry tree- (you can eat the fruit though there is a reason they are not stocked by Sainsburies) If you want a lush, topical theme have a look at Calalpa Aurea which need prune once a year.

Generally really interesting looking trees

Corkscrew Hazel- both the Red Majestic at 3m and maxima ‘Purpura’,

Salix exigia (best to take off the lower branches) Betula ‘Trinity (3m)-how to have a Birch without getting a giant,

Sorbus cashmiriana (it says it is taller than 4 metres but I’ve never seen one that tall in the UK- the Queen of all small trees!),

Eucalyptus France Blue (only 2.5m in height so you won’t be swamped one day) Cercis Carolina Sweetheart’ (3m) Also the famous Rhus typhina (4-5m) and

Afganistani ‘Albezia’- a gorgeous tree but needs a hot sheltered environment.


Upright small trees

Cersis ‘Texas White’, Witchhazel ‘Jelena’, Sorbus ‘Autumn Spire’, Prunus ‘Ananogawa’, Amelanchier ‘Obelisque’, Malus Adirondack (3M=m), Malus ‘Red Obelisk’)


Turning Shrubs into trees

Quite a few shrubs get attractively leggy to become small trees. Some good ones are: Sambucus ‘Blacklace’ and ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ and Cotinus ‘Grace’. Also have a look at the delicate Sorbaria aichisonii which can be underpinned to give it a tree like form.


Fruit trees

Try Ficus ‘Brown Turkey’ and a peach tree in sheltered but hot spot, any fruit trees with the right grafting stock which is a technique which limits their growth eg M6, M26, M27 MM106.
Other fruit from the Malus crabapples- Malus ‘Jellyking, Malus toringo ‘Scarlett’ (2.5m) and a Hawthorn ‘Big Golden Star’ if you like chewing on the nuts- a necessity in rural communities in early Spring in the past


Autumn Colour

The Sorbus tree range: ‘Rosiness’, Scalaris (‘Chinese Lace Tree’) and ‘Eastern Promise’ plus three Euonymous: ‘Red Cascade’, oxyphyllus and ‘Karen. There is also the fabulous Liquidamber ‘Gum Ball’.


What to do in the garden this April:

Start hoeing any bare areas of earth before the weds take hold – if you do this once a week you will be weed free all year

Sow sow sow. A lot of your summer vegetables can be sown directly into the ground now

Mulch your beds with compost and bark chips to seal in the moisture from winter and prevent growth of new weed seeds

Feed all your shrubs and roses with a handful of bonemeal dug about an inch deep around the base of each plant.

Feed iron loving plants that are grown in pots with some Iron Fertilizer Not too late to give Dogwood and Willow and big cut back

You can apply both Moss Kill and Braodleaf weed killer to your lawns –wait a coupe of weeks then vigorously rake out all the dead thatch.

You can also reseed the lawn where there are obvious patches

You can sow annuals indoors or in your greenhouse – rather than that trip to the supermarket you could try growing Marigolds and Lobelia in trays


Where to go this April

Wisley gardens is one of the UK’s most visited gardens. One of the major 4 RHS gardens, the variety and inspiration you will get there is mind blowing. It covers 240 acres so expect to spend a whole day there or more!

Wisley Ln, Wisley, Woking GU23 6QB

By |2024-02-16T16:31:23+00:00February 16th, 2024|Articles, Blog, Trees|Comments Off on The Power of Small Trees

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.