It’s well known that adding height and structure can help to make a small garden feel bigger, and the right tree can certainly help with this. Trees are also great for wildlife and many will provide attractive flowers, foliage and textures through the seasons. However, some trees can get pretty big and you might be worried about having to chop them down in a few years. In this list of ornamental trees for small gardens, we pick out some great options that will look stunning and add height and structure to your garden – all without taking up too much space.
What is an Ornamental Tree?
You might say that ‘ornamental’, Is a subjective term, based on personal opinion. What one person thinks is attractive, another might think is less so. So, when choosing an ornamental tree for your garden, it’s worth deciding on what ticks the boxes for you. Do you want something that flowers? Perhaps you’d like some fragrance in summer or colourful leaves in the autumn? What about blossom in the spring and fruit or berries? Of course, some trees will offer a combination of these. Think of what you’ll hope to achieve with the space you have available.
You might also see ornamental trees referred to as a ‘specimen tree’, which just means that it’s grown on its own space, as a stand-out attraction or visual feature.
Why Grow an Ornamental Tree?
Ornamental trees are perfect for adding interest and structure to your garden. They can be used as specimen plants, focal points or even just to add some green! Trees have several practical benefits, such as providing shade in summer and shelter from the wind in winter. They can also help to reduce noise pollution and can even improve air quality.
Ornamental Trees for Small Gardens
Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum)
The delicate leaves on these trees are captivating as they form intricate shapes, dancing around gently in the breeze. They come in a variety of sizes and colours, so you’re sure to find one that suits your style. Acers are known for their vibrantly coloured leaves and are deciduous – often giving their best show during the autumn.
- Stunning autumn colour
- Beautiful form and delicate leaves
- Works great in a Japanese / zen-styled garden
Californian Lilac (Ceanothus)
A small, evergreen tree that is perfect for those who want something a little different. It has an interesting, contorted growth habit and produces clusters of blue flowers in the spring and summer. The Californian Lilac is also known for being drought tolerant, making it a great choice if you’re looking for a low-maintenance tree.
- Interesting, contorted growth habit
- Produces clusters of blue flowers
- Drought tolerant
Crab Apple (Malus)
A small deciduous tree that is covered in beautiful spring blossom. Crab apples are also known for their attractive fruits which can be used to make jams and chutneys. Some varieties also have coloured leaves in the autumn.
- Covered in beautiful spring blossom
- Attractive fruits
- Coloured leaves in autumn
A classic choice for a small garden, the magnolia is prized for its large and incredibly fragrant flowers. These appear in early spring before the leaves unfurl, making for a stunning display.
- Large and incredibly fragrant flowers
- Appear in early spring
- Leaves unfurl later in the season
Ornamental Cherry (Prunus)
The ornamental cherry is another popular choice for a small garden. These trees are covered in pretty pink blossom in the spring, followed by dark green leaves. Some varieties also have attractive autumn foliage, turning a range of colours from yellow to red.
- Covered in pretty pink blossom in spring
- Dark green leaves in summer
- Attractive autumn foliage
Also known as a dwarf willow, this stunning little tree is widely loved for its flamboyant ‘flamingo’ foliage in spring. This includes variegated leaves with a mix of green and white and pink tips. Also, look out for Salix Integra ‘Flamingo’ – also known as Flamingo Willow. These make a great specimen tree either in the ground or equally happy in a large container.
- Long, cascading branches
- Covered in green and white variegated leaves
- Eye-catching pink tips emerge for a brilliant display
Chusan Palm (Trachycarpus Fortunei)
This is a stunning palm that originates from the far east. It’s perfect for those looking to create a tropical feel in their garden, yet hardy enough to withstand a cold winter. The Chusan Palm can grow to around 20m tall, but don’t worry – it’s very slow growing so won’t reach this height overnight!
- Long, cascading leaves
- Perfect for creating a tropical feel
- Slow growing, so won’t take over your garden overnight!
Korean Fir Tree (Abies Koreana)
This is a beautifully shaped evergreen tree that is perfect for adding some year-round interest to your garden. It has lovely, soft needles and produces small cones. They can get big eventually, but are slow growing and can be kept in a container to limit the size. Korean Fir can also make a good Christmas tree, so could even be brought indoors for a week or two!
- Beautifully shaped
- Soft, attractive and evergreen needles
- Produces small cones
June Berry (Amelanchier Lamarckii)
A small deciduous tree that is perfect for those who want something a little different. June Berry has an interesting, contorted growth habit and produces clusters of white flowers in the spring and summer. The berries are also edible and make a great addition to pies and crumbles.
- Interesting, contorted growth habit
- Produces clusters of white flowers in spring and summer
- Berries are edible and make a great addition to pies and crumbles
Chinese Red Bud (Cercis Chinensis)
A small deciduous tree with a beautiful, weeping habit. The Chinese Red Bud has clusters of pink flowers in spring, followed by dark green leaves. Some varieties also have attractive autumn foliage, turning a range of colours from yellow to red.
- Beautiful, weeping habit
- Clusters of pink flowers in spring
- Dark green leaves
Can I Grow an Ornamental Tree in a Container?
Yes, you can grow a tree in a container – as long as you choose the right tree! Some trees are better suited to life in a pot than others, so it’s important to do your research before you buy. Container-grown trees are perfect for small gardens, balconies and patios. You also have the added benefit of being able to move them, should you wish.
Just be careful about feeding and watering, as you might need to do a little more for container-grown trees than if they were in the ground. They can also sometimes be a little more susceptible to pests and diseases, so be vigilant and treat any such problems with the appropriate products.
When is the Best Time to Plant an Ornamental Tree?
The best time to plant an ornamental tree is in the autumn when the soil is still warm from the summer sun but there is less chance of drought. This gives the roots a chance to establish themselves before the cold winter weather sets in. Spring is also a good time to plant, although you will need to water more regularly during the first summer.
How to Care for Ornamental Trees
Ornamental trees are generally low-maintenance, but there are a few things you can do to keep them looking their best:
- Prune in late winter or early spring, before the tree starts to grow.
- Feed with a slow-release fertilizer in spring.
- Water regularly during the growing season.
- Mulch around the base of the tree to help retain moisture.
- Protect young trees from frost damage by wrapping them in horticultural fleece or bubble wrap.
- Check for pests and diseases regularly, and treat as necessary.
Of course, it’s always best to check the labels and ask your supplier for any extra advice when buying your new tree.
So there you have it – a selection of small trees that are perfect for adding some interest to your garden. With a range of shapes, colours and sizes, there’s sure to be one that’s perfect for you.
Before buying your new tree, be sure to check the eventual height and spread and consider how quickly it might outgrow your space. You’ll also need to think about the position of your new tree and check the requirements for the best results. For example, how much sun does it need? What kind of soil is best? Will it be okay in a container?
Most suppliers will be able to provide all the information you need about keeping your new tree happy and getting the most out of it. With proper care, ornamental trees will thrive and add interest and beauty to your garden for many years to come!
What’s your favourite ornamental tree? Which did you get for your garden? Do you know of any unusual varieties? Tell us about it in the comments below!