Top trees for small spaces

by Rhiannon James

Eriolobus trilobata. Copyright: Barcham Trees plc

It can be a nerve-wracking experience, choosing something with as much presence and permanence in the garden as a tree, especially if you have a small space. It’s worth the nail chewing though because trees bring so many benefits to city gardens. The canopy might create a secluded spot in an otherwise overlooked space or some welcome shade in a sun-baked backyard. Trees also bring height and volume into a small garden and the best offer interest throughout the year through their shape, foliage, bark, flowers or fruit. On top of all that, trees are immensely valuable to wildlife and the wider environment too. We asked the experts to pick their favourite small-scale trees for space-challenged city gardens.


Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’

copyright: Barcham Trees plc

“Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’ is a beautiful crab apple with gorgeous, abundant blossom in spring and autumn colour. Its small red fruits are charming and look like little jewels dotted around the tree. Towards Christmas they’ll put everyone in a festive mood and will remain on the tree for most of the winter. This tree has a lovely shape and a compact habit so it won’t take over the garden or overshadow neighbouring plants. It’s simply delightful.”

Ana Sanchez-Martin, garden designer, (






Azara microphylla

credit: Inao Vasquez

“With so many wonderful trees to pick from, it’s always a challenge to pin down a single, definitive choice. However, you can’t go far wrong with Azara microphylla, a small evergreen tree from Chile. This wonderful plant has proved reliable and hardy in central and greater London for the twenty or so years I’ve been using it. It has a graceful habit with tiny, glossy, dark green leaves and the nondescript flowers produce a powerful vanilla scent in early spring. It’s best to plant Azara microphylla as a small tree and let it develop – early growth is rapid and it will soon be making an impact. Plant it in light shade in a soil that doesn’t dry out and where it’s protected from the worst of the wind and you’ll be rewarded with a tree that has year-round beauty.”

James Aldridge, garden designer (



Cornus kousa

credit: A. Engelhardt

“Often described as a shrub, Cornus kousa is a small tree of great beauty with highly decorative bracts in spring and summer. It’s a slow-growing and demanding plant, requiring a deep soil with a pH from neutral to acid, but given the right conditions and, it has to be said, a degree of patience on the part of the gardener, Cornus kousa will reward you tenfold with masses of elegant colour in the spring and then again when the leaves turn crimson and burnt orange in the autumn. It’s a deciduous tree but its airy form means it can be underplanted with evergreen ferns and hellebores to extend its season of interest.”

Kate Gould, garden designer, (



Prunus domestica

copyright: Ashridge Trees Limited

“No garden should be without a fruit tree – they offer beautiful spring blossom and wildlife value as well as an attractive and delicious harvest. Dwarf or trained forms need careful pruning but are ideal for small gardens – wire-trained espaliers can form living fences, fans will clothe bare walls whilst pyramids are good for narrow spaces.
Personally, I would choose a plum tree because it’s impossible to buy tasty plums in the shops and the snowy blossom against the dark twigs has a delicate, oriental beauty. A fan-trained plum is ideal for a south or west-facing wall where it will grow to a height of about two metres and a width of about three metres. If a dwarf rootstock is used, the tree can also be grown in a large tub if necessary. A variety that’s disease-resistant, self-fertile and dual-purpose (with fruits suitable for eating raw or cooked) such as ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ (purple fruits) or ‘Oullins Golden Gage’ (red-flecked yellow fruits) would be ideal.”

Helen Wallis, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (


Luma apiculata (also called Myrtus luma)

credit: Esther Moline

“When it comes to year-round value it would be hard to ask for more than you get from this small tree. Throughout the year it is clad in tiny, aromatic, glossy dark green leaves and from mid-summer to mid-autumn it produces small, cup-shaped, fragrant white flowers, which are followed by edible purple-black fruits. If this isn’t enough for you, the star of the show is the cinnamon-coloured bark that peels to reveal creamy white patches. Grow it in a well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade.”

Declan Buckley, garden designer (






Eriolobus trilobata

copyright: Barcham Trees plc

“I want an Eriolobus trilobata for Christmas. Also called Malus trilobata, it’s the differences between this tree and other crab apples that make it so special. The deeply lobed, maple-like leaves turn the most wonderful burgundy colour with creamy-white undersides at the end of November and the clean white blossoms in spring are also lovely. This tree is native to the Mediterranean region so it only fruits after a good hot summer but even without the fruits it’s well worth growing. It has a symmetrical upright habit and so it’s perfect as a single tree in a small garden or in a row or avenue to create a formal look in a larger garden. It’s available from Barcham Trees (”

David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (






Acer griseum

credit: Mr T in DC

“This small tree lacks recognition outside the more regal and botanical gardens of our land and yet, with its superb red exfoliating bark and excellent autumn colour, it’s a perfect specimen plant for a lawn or the centre of a border. It will be happiest in a well-drained soil. Some legwork might be needed to locate a specimen, but it’s well worth the effort.”

Chris Collins, Blue Peter gardener (








Amelanchier lamarckii

credit: Joost de Vries

“This tree scores ten out of ten for seasonal value. In March to April the branches erupt into a mass of white star-shaped flowers and the coppery young leaves unfurl. In the summer, after the flowers, attractive dark red berries appear and the leaves become bright green before turning crimson in the autumn. Amelanchier lamarckii is usually grown as a multi-stem and doesn’t get much taller than four to five metres. It’s an ideal specimen tree for a small garden and is suitable for sun or partial shade.”

Sara Jane Rothwell, garden designer (








5 Responses to “Top trees for small spaces”

  1. Johnny Day

    I have to agree with Ana – to provide that blast of colour throughout the winter the Red Sentinel just can’t be beaten.

    We find it will continue to grow in a large planter, so you can take it with you if you move house etc

  2. Sarah Woodruff

    But you don’t list names for all of the trees mentioned!

  3. Judy Tipping

    how can i buy eriolobus trilobata cos’ your site gives no further info x

  4. Rhiannon

    Hi Judy, where are you based?

  5. Sven

    Japanese Maples always good.

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