Make time to plant a tree this year. No, you DO have enough space…

lewis-williams-garden-design-oak trees quercus robur

As we rapidly approach autumn “proper”, now is the time to be thinking about choosing and planting trees, in order that they can go into the ground whilst dormant.  Although container-grown trees can be planted at any time of year, much more stress is placed on them if planted during spring or summer. The best time to buy (and plant) a tree is between November and March. Indeed, if you decide to purchase a bare-root tree, you will only be able to source these in autumn and winter.

Unfortunately, many people are nervous about planting trees in their gardens, particularly if space is tight. Perhaps this is because we so often see examples of trees that have outgrown their space. Retaliation in the form of drastic pruning often leaves sad-looking, unnatural silhouettes of dismembered giants.  The gardening adage of “right plant, right place” is never more true than with a tree.

All of this can be quite easily avoided with a bit of research and careful tree selection, according to the conditions and size of a garden. Even a small courtyard can accommodate a tree in a container. Acer palmatum varieties (Japanese maples) can look stunning container-grown in a courtyard setting. If you fancy fruit, Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’ is an attractive Fig tree, more than happy to be kept in a pot, and adding a slightly tropical feel with its large leaves.

Not only can we match the size of the tree to the space, but there are fantastic choices widely available which put on a display across a number of seasons. This often comes with the added bonus of attracting a range of wildlife.


A small selection of trees, for small to medium gardens


For a winter feature – Prunus serrula

prunus serrula tibetan cherry small tree garden designThe Birch Bark Cherry has stunning mahogany-coloured bark, which gleams in Winter, and is postcard-worthy against a backdrop of snow. This tree wants a sunny spot, and is happy in most soil types. Whilst the standout period may be the winter months, Prunus serrula also has attractive white flowers in Spring (although not quite as showy as some ornamental cherry trees), later followed by inedible cherries, with the leaves turning a mellow yellow in Autumn before falling. Grows up to around 10m in height and width, at a relatively modest rate.

Above: Richly-coloured bark of Prunus serrula     (photo courtesy of


A good all-rounder – Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’

amelanchier x grandiflora robin hill blossom serviceberry juneberry small garden treeAlso known as Serviceberry or Snowy Mespilus, this is a tree which also looks highly attractive in multi-stemmed form.  With a relatively dense, upright form, it offers something throughout the year.  A profusion of pale pink blossom in Spring is followed by bird-attracting fruits. Leaves start bronze-tinted in spring, changing to green in summer, before a flame-red display of autumn colour finishes the season. Growing to around 7m/8m in height, and less in width, this tree needs neutral to acid soil (i.e. lime-free), and a sunnier spot gives the best autumn colour.  Amelanchier lamarckii would be another option, the main differences being pure white flowers and a softly spreading habit.


Above: Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’      (photo courtesy of


An evergreen choice – Arbutus unedo

evergreen tree, arbutus unedo, strawberry tree, garden design, small trees for small gardens

Arbutus unedo, commonly known as the Strawberry Tree, is a compact, shrub-like tree. Although happy in most well-drained soils it ideally needs to be placed in a sheltered, sunny spot. Growing at a modest rate, it features glossy, bright-green leaves, and unusual strawberry-like fruit in autumn. Another quirky feature is the fact that the tree both blooms and fruits at the same time – the previous year’s fruit ripens around the same time as the current year’s white blooms appear.  Eventually, this attractive tree will reach a height and spread of around 8m.

Above: Strawberry-like fruit on Arbutus unedo (Strawberry Tree)


For a focal point in a mixed planting scheme – Catalpa bignonioides

catalpa bignonioides aurea foliage plant garden design focal point

To some extent in this list, this tree is the odd one out. Catalpa bignonioides – the Indian Bean Tree – is no small tree if left alone, and will reach a considerable size in time. A fairly gargantuan example can be seen at RHS Garden Harlow Carr in Harrogate.  However, it is one of a selection of trees and shrubs which respond well to being cut back hard in late winter/early spring, a technique called pollarding. This restricts the tree’s size, and in the case of Catalpa, produces even bigger than normal leaves. Grown in this way, the tree can be incorporated into a mixed planting scheme as a foliage plant, acting as a backdrop to herbaceous plants or shrubs. The huge leaves can suffer damage if exposed to strong winds, so a more sheltered position is ideal if possible. Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’ has golden-green leaves, whilst Catalpa x erubescens ‘Pupurea’ has leaves which emerge purple-black.

Above: Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’. Pollarding annually sacrifices flowers for larger leaves and a more compact plant.
(photo courtesy of


Other situations and suggestions

For a narrow space, try Betula pendula fastigiata, a slimmer, pyramidal version of the popular silver birch. Whilst narrow, this will grow up to 10m tall.  Any other trees with “fastigiata” in the name would be worth investigating, as this indicates a fastigiate form – the botanical term for a tree with upright branches.

For maximum benefit to wildlife, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is an excellent choice and will grow to around 6-8m high.

Finally, many shrubs will grow into tree-like forms. To add some dark, dramatic foliage, try either Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, one of the Black Elders, or a smoke bush such as Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’.  Both will grow into attractive, small trees. A bit of judicious pruning along the way will help achieve the ideal shape.


Before you go out to buy your tree

This is just a small selection, there are many more trees out there to choose from. Also, this isn’t the most unusual selection. For more intrepid gardeners, there are more adventurous choices available, especially if you live in the warmer parts of the UK.  If you’re still unsure which trees are right for your garden after doing your own research, it may also be worth speaking to a reputable tree supplier for some advice, before you place an order.

Whatever your choice, crucial to protecting your investment is thorough ground preparation and good aftercare. That could be a separate article in its own right, but a good place to start would be this shrub and tree planting guide on the RHS website –

Thanks to Chew Valley Trees ( for kindly allowing me to use some of their images.