Trees for small gardens

Deciding what small tree to squeeze into a modern pint-pot garden can be a real problem. A look at a tree nursery list will have you salivating but if space is challenged, stop right there. Drool away by all means but do not buy anything on impulse.

Never ever buy a tree without paying close attention to the final size that your specimen will reach. Many are parkland trees.

My next door neighbours have a garden 40 metres long and in to it are packed the following: two eucalyptus, one Norway sycamore and a liquidambar. All will make over 20 metres in height. Expensive work for the tree surgeon will ensue and the house itself might suffer from roots questing for water and stability. So what should you grow?

Trees for small gardens

Salix viminalis – the common willow

An elegant solution is the common willow Salix viminalis. With an annual haircut you can keep it to the size you want. Willows put on good growth in one season and new stems are rich and vivid in colour. Give the plant an annual short back and sides and you will have the perfect mini-tree that will not outgrow allotted space.

Trees for small gardens

Give willow a good yearly haircut

An excellent way to treat your willow is to establish three main stems and to cut them back to about a metre and a half. This gives the extra height. The beauty of three stems is that you can rotate your hard hairdo – two one year and the third the following. That way you will always have a framework of branches to look at.

Trees for small gardens

A great tree for small gardens

There is a large selection of willows to choose from – go with the branch colours you like best. There are oranges, blacks, yellow. Their silvery leaves are pretty good too and look graceful all summer long.

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Catharine Howard
Catharine Howard is a designer, garden coach and garden writer. Topics are anything to do with horticulture and the inspiration behind design. She lives and gardens in Suffolk.


  1. What a curious article. The size of any tree can be kept in check with an “annual haircut”, including those your neighbours have (and who knows what they are, there are so many species of eucalypt, and I guess the Norway “sycamore” is a maple?).

    Salix viminalis (usually referred to as the common osier, rather than willow), can be a beautiful tree, but is high maintenance and incredibly thirsty – and will happily get its roots into any little crack in old fashioned clay drains and sewers and then block them up.

    There are so many inherently small shrubs and trees to choose from, plus the option of rootstock choice to govern final size: Salix viminalis wouldn’t be my first choice, and certainly not in a small garden.

  2. Frances, I couldn’t agree more about the neighbours. There should be a law against such light-robbing trees on a boundary.

  3. Our garden is very small and even small trees are too big for it but I recently read somewhere, of a solution – buy young bushes with a single upright stem and train them into standard trees. If I remember rightly, Cotoneaster is one bush that can be trained this way. Buddleia is another I think.

    • Cotoneaster frigidus Cornubea is a possible candidate – but they do grow quite large. Lynne if you click on this link you will get to post on my blog on trees for smaller gardens – I still have to do a write up on trees for diminutive gardens – probably in a week or two. If I am efficient I will come back and give you the link.…smaller-garden

  4. We have just got rid of a weeping larch as it got too big but will be replacing it probably with an acer

    • Acers are a good choice because they come in sizes down to really micro with the palmatum dissectum cultivars.

  5. We also have a small back garden which contains a greenhouse, large shed and hen coop, with 2 hens and a bantam pecking around.

    The trees which work best for us are acers. We have two Japanese Maples, one a lovely red and the other, green with leaves turning golden at back end.

    Our next door neighbour grows Cypresses at the back of her garden. Although she has them cut back annually, the gardeners never take off enough height. They stop the early morning sunlight from reaching my husband’s tomatoes and we find that they are ripening later each year.

    I wish people would consider their neighbours when deciding which trees and shrubs to grow and whether they will affect neighbouring gardens.


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