Best ornamental trees for small gardens

Val Bourne / 13 October 2016

Colourful blossom, fruit and foliage can bring a small space to life. Find out which ornamental trees are best for a small garden.



Late autumn is a tremendous time to plant new trees whether they’re bare-root or container grown. The soil is still warm enough for root development and deciduous trees will soon be entering their period of dormancy before becoming active again next spring.

Acer shirasawanum ‘Moonrise’

This new golden acer, which was released at The Chelsea Flower Show of 2016, by Hilliers is the first golden acer to have scorch-free foliage. Discovered by Carl Munn of Oregon it was a chance seedling from A. shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ and it’s twice as vigorous as its parent. The carmine new growth turns lime-green by summer. In autumn the red-winged fruits are flattered by reddening foliage. It’s proved hardy to -22°C In America and could be grown in a container. If you’re garden is shady many Japanese acers could do well for you, but always try to find well-grown trees with a good shape. A more mature tree is likely to succeed, but the biggest killer is frost on the new foliage.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Moonbeam’

This white-stemmed birch was propagated from a fine Himalayan birch growing at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. It forms a much smaller tree than most, has a good white trunk and is topped by dark, twiggy branches. Give it a bright, centre stage position so that you can see its monochrome beauty in spring and undeprlant it with a bright-pink carpet of Cyclamen coum. It will reach 6m in height after 10 years.

Crataegus orientalis

Hawthorns, or crataegus, make fine garden trees. They tolerate drought, polluted city air, salt-laden winds, limey soil and chalk, although they prefer sunny positions in well-drained soil. This one has unusual grey foliage and it forms a small airy tree and flowers in early May, producing clusters of a dozen or so creamy-white frilly flowers studded with pink anthers. Large haws follow and they start off as warm amber before deepening to an orange-pippin colour. The fruit is ignored by birds so the colourful haws persist into winter before dropping. A native of south-eastern Europe and south-west Asia, sometimes called the Eastern thorn, it was introduced to this country in 1810. It will reach 4m to 5m (13ft to 16ft) in height.

Malus ‘Harry Baker’

Crab apples are a very useful group of smaller trees and they bear colourful fruits in autumn. The blossom is able to cross pollinate domestic apple trees, so they’re a good addition to gardens, and some have pink blossom and dark foliage so they are extremely decorative. This one, named after fruit expert Harry Baker, has exceptionally large pink flowers, maroon-coloured foliage and ruby red fruit that makes good crab apple jelly. More importantanly this crab apple is healthy and disease resistant. 4m after 10 years.

Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’

This widely available hybrid crab apple bears masses of bright-red fruits that shine through winter, cheering up the garden and the gardener. In spring this upright tree is covered in delicate white blossom, but ‘Red Sentinel’ is grown mostly for its vivid crab apples. Healthy and robust, it will scale 8m in time but can be positioned on a boundary.

Prunus ‘Kursar’

A classic small cherry tree that many think is still the best one, despite being bred by Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram pre-1952. ‘Kursar’ flowers early, usually beginning in March before the flowers appear so the bright-pink blossom is seen against dark branches. It has a lovely habit of showing a touch of pink in the downward-facing buds in February and finally finishes flowering as the new coppery foliage appears. In autumn the foliage colours up well. ‘Collingwood Ingram’ is also excellent, and similar, but both have elegance unlike those heavy-skirted cherries. that flower later. 3m

Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’

The weeping willow-leaved pear can be left to its own devices and allowed to flow down to the ground to form a pale-green fountain. However this tree is often better trimmed into a rounded mophead, or trained into an umbrella shape. Then it will form a dense mound and look almost silver in summer light. 3m

Cotoneaster ‘Hybridus Pendulus’

Another weeping tree, but one that’s almost evergreen and for six months of the year its also peppered with small red berries. It’s useful in smaller gardens because it rarely exceeds 2m and it can be shaped or trimmed. It always looks fresh, due to high gloss foliage, and the inconspicuous June flowers are adored be bees. The berries are also popular with birds in winter.

Amelanchier ‘La Paloma’

This snowy mespilis has everything going for it because the new foliage, which appears in April, is copper-red when young. The white, slender-petalled flowers look almost like stars when they appear in spring, just after the foliage. In autumn the foliage colours up to orange and red, although the colour of this round-headed small tree ( or large shrub depending on your view) is more intense on acid soil. 4 - 5m x 4 - 5m

Prunus incisa ‘The Bride’

These spring-flowering Fuji cherries all tend to have pale blossom with touches of carmine and ‘The Bride’ is covered with white bloom that emerges from pink-tipped buds. Each individual flower is blotched in carmine too, so there’s nothing stark or white about this pale cherry. 3m

Bare-root or container grown?

Bare-root pros and cons

Most gardeners prefer to plant bare-root woody plants because these do settle in better. These arrive as bare ‘sticks’, between November and March, but race away in spring.

Ideally the ground should be prepared beforehand and then covered with cardboard, or an old blanket, to prevent it from freezing, and then it’s possible to plant straight away unless the weather is very cold.

If you’re unable to plant straight away unwrap your package and keep the roots damp and cool so that the roots stay hydrated. A cool porch that doesn’t get frosted is ideal.

Or you can heel them in by making a slit trench, in a sheltered part of the garden using a spade.

When planting add some blood, fish and bone but avoid adding manure because it can scorch the roots.

Position the plants carefully so that the tree is planted at the same depth as it was and usually it’s easy to see where the soil level used to be by looking at the trunk.

Container-grown trees

The modern trend is for container-grown trees, rather than bare-root, so some trees are now only available in this form.

Use a tree specialist because their watering regime, usually drip-fed irrigation, is likely to have been better. Frank Matthews Trees of Life (www.frankpmatthews.com’ 01584 812800 supply many garden centres and they list suppliers in your own area and it’s possible to contact them.

Container-grown plants can be planted for ten months of the year, except for July and August when summer droughts are common. If you do buy then keep your potted plant watered and out of the sun. Very cold weather is also not suitable.

It pays dividends when planting to dig a hole twice the size of the root ball so that the roots can penetrate new ground better.

Add blood, fish and bone to encourage root development and firm in.

Those in windy gardens will need to order tree stakes and ties at the same time.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.