People have grown trees in their gardens since ancient times. But as gardens become smaller and more valuable as outdoor living spaces, is there still room for a tree? I know from living with the smallest of garden spaces that whether or not to plant a tree isn’t an easy decision, but it can bring real garden benefits. Trees add volume and height to the garden, as well as year-round interest with foliage, flowers, bark and fruit.
But how do you sort through the many offerings in catalogs and nurseries to find a tree that will suit your garden’s size, soil, climate conditions and design requirements, as well as satisfy your taste? Here you’ll learn how to select a tree for a smaller garden, as well as pruning techniques that can widen your choices.
Selecting the Right Tree
When choosing a tree for a smaller garden, standard reference lists are not always helpful, as most of these lists were drawn up when a small garden was much larger than it is today. Plenty of trees are suitable for smaller spaces, however; there are just three things to consider: size, shape and rate of growth.
Mature size: It is important to know what the mature size of the tree is likely to be. In a nursery or garden center, the trees are generally only a few years old and bear little similarity to their eventual size. Beware: Many information labels on trees at garden centers or nurseries say only how tall the tree will be in 10 or 20 years, and in most cases that is not the mature height. There can be a big difference between the size of a tree at 20 years and 50 years.
Shape: Shape is just as important as size, perhaps even more so in relation to the garden’s design. Upright trees can be an obvious choice for a small garden, as they occupy less space while providing the benefit of a vertical element, including the creation of a focal point and maybe screening from neighbors.
But upright trees do not provide the best shade. For that we need a more spreading shape, usually with larger leaves, to create a canopy under which there is room to sit or dine. (Avoid a tree whose branches drop too low to the ground.)
Rate of growth: Some species are slow growing and will not provide the instant effect you may be looking for. On the other hand, you don’t want to be fighting a battle against a tree that is quickly outgrowing its space and is not suited to selective pruning or trimming.
Environmental benefits. Planting trees in small city gardens can be invaluable to wildlife, providing nesting and roosting sites for birds, nectar and pollen for insects, and a home for aphids and caterpillars, which are important sources of food for many birds.
Trees that offer environmental benefits and are best for space-challenged gardens include the hawthorns (Crataegus spp) and rowans (Sorbus spp). Both produce berries in autumn, which provide food for wildlife and great decorative color. Trees such as Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’, Sorbus sargentiana and Crataegus laevigata ‘Pauls Scarlet’ are favorites for smaller gardens, as they fulfill the size, shape and rate-of-growth needs while benefiting the environment.
Controlling Size and Shape
Though choosing the right tree is vital, selective pruning and training can also help trees in smaller gardens. Using these methods, some trees that would normally be considered too large for the small garden, such as common hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and the maidenhair tree (Ginkgobiloba), can be considered.
The Greeks and Romans were some of the first to practice this in ancient times, when clipped evergreen trees were a principle ornament of their gardens. Interestingly, the head gardener in Roman gardens was known as the topiarius, so it’s easy to see where we get the term “topiary” from.
Topiary in small gardens tends to be decorative, using mainly small-leaved evergreens grown in containers, such as the privet honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata), which is shown here clipped into standard balls.
Pretty Trees for Patios, Paths and Other Tight Spots