Choosing the best early blossoming trees for a small garden

Val Bourne

Acclaimed gardening writer, Val Bourne, advises on which trees will provide an early splash of spring - and how to cultivate them.



Cherries, apples and crab apples provide the most choice for small gardens. Some flower early in the year and others are later - and blossom can vary from plum-pink through to warm-white.

Cherry blossom

Many of the decorative Japanese cherries are too vigorous for small gardens. But the Japanese Apricot (Prunus mume) is a shrub often grafted to form a small tree. ‘Ben Chidore’ has madder-pink flowers on dark, bare branches in late winter or early spring. The larger Prunus serrula combines shiny mahogany bark with simple white blossom in spring but this open tree provides lightly dappled shade - which is ideal for a smaller garden.

When it comes to crab apples I recommend Malus ‘Harry Baker’ for its large, dark-pink flowers, ruby-red fruits and good autumn colour. If you prefer red leaves and wine-red blossom the best variety is Malus ‘Profusion’. ‘Gorgeous’ will provide pink buds and white blossom followed by orange fruits.

The winter-flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’) has spidery black branches and tiny confetti-like flowers that appear over many months - usually from November onwards. It’s a slow-growing, long-lived tree that tolerates city pollution – and my all-time favourite!

The best weeping cherry, with branches that often touch the ground, is the pink-blossomed form of the Yoshino cherry - Prunus x yedoensis ‘Shidare-yoshino’. This has ‘Subhirtella’ blood and it’s elegant and graceful.

Apple blossom

Apple blossom can also look highly attractive and if the trees are grafted onto semi-dwarfing rootstocks (M26) they will reach up to 10ft (2.5m) in height with a slightly wider spread. These look much less stunted than those grown on dwarfer stocks. You will need two compatible trees to get fruiting apples. 

A good specialist nursery like Keepers will provide suitable pollen matches to ensure a crop - although some apples are self-fertile and you may only need one. Trees need to be planted at least 8-10ft (2.5m) apart and they will produce fruit after three years ultimately yielding approximately 40 pounds in a good year once mature.

The following varieties of apple trees have exceptional blossom

'Sunset'
  • apple-pink blossom
  • Cox-type aromatic eater
  • fairly self-fertile

'Red Falstaff'

  • apple-pink blossom
  • late eating Braeburn-type eater
  • fairly self-fertile

'James Grieve'

  • apple-pink blossom
  • dual-purpose eater/cooker

'Golden Delicious'

  • white blossom
  • dual-purpose eater/cooker

'Annie Elizabeth'

  • maroon blossom
  • baking apple

Quinces

Quinces have much larger apple-blossom flowers and medlars have white blossom studded with red anthers. Both make interesting small trees.

Planting

Most trees are container-grown these days and can theoretically be planted throughout the year. 

However, avoid extreme weather and never plant in very hot spells or when the weather is very cold. Any new tree will need staking to avoid wind damage which can snap a young trunk or cause the roots to rock. 

The stake can usually be removed in the third year. But you must regularly check and loosen the tie if needed.

Planting a bare-root tree

The best time to plant is between November and March as this is the period when trees are dormant. Avoid planting in very cold or windy weather and never plant in frozen or waterlogged ground. Never let the tree's roots dry out whilst waiting to plant. Wrap them in damp paper and place them in a cool, frost-free place like a garage or shed.

Dig a hole large enough for the tree's roots and loosen the soil in the bottom. If using a stake, drive it into the ground until it is firm before inserting the tree. The stake must be no higher than one third of the height of the tree's stem. Place the tree in the hole up to its root collar level (ensure that the stake is on the side of the prevailing wind) and spread out its roots. Replace the topsoil whilst occasionally gently shaking the tree to ensure the soil is in contact with the roots. Firm in the soil and if using a stake attach it to the tree with a tie.

Firm gently with your feet or hands.

Water trees immediately after planting and then ideally weekly during the first growing season. Regularly weed around them and check the stakes and guards.

A mulch of bark or a mulch mat (up to 50 cm from the stem) will keep moisture in and prevent the weeds from growing.

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.