To coincide with National Tree Week and the Woodland Trust's plans to plant a 100,000 trees, here's our guide on trees for small gardens. If you saw Channel 5's 'Plant a Tree to Save the World', last night, then you know how important it is to plant trees.
Trees play an essential role in our lives. They produce oxygen and store carbon, purify the air, support wildlife and create beautiful, comforting spaces where we can relax and connect with nature. From upland forests to urban woodlands and street trees, areas with tree cover are hugely beneficial to communities in a multitude of ways and recent research has confirmed that spending time near or surrounded by trees has a positive impact on physical and mental health.
National Tree Week
During National Tree Week (Nov 23rd - Dec 1st), environmental and wildlife organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the Tree Council are encouraging us all to get planting in gardens and community spaces as a way of celebrating the importance of trees and woodland. Although most gardens aren’t big enough for a woodland area or an orchard, there are many trees that thrive in small spaces and patio varieties that are suitable for even the tiniest of courtyard gardens.
Trees with Berries and Fruits
Cotoneasters, such as Cotoneaster frigidus ‘Cornubia’, are semi-evergreen trees with foliage that remains on the tree in most locations through all but the harshest of winters. They are very popular with birds once the prolific red berries ripen. From December onwards, the mature spreading cotoneaster in my next-door neighbour’s garden is adored by local blackbirds, song thrushes, redwings and waxwings. Its glossy berries light up the space and keep the birds fed for weeks.
Although hawthorn, crab apple and rowan are all deciduous, their vivid berries and fruits ensure a cheerful display throughout the autumn and often well into winter. Malus robusta ‘Red Sentinel’ is one of the best multi-purpose crab apples with white spring blossom loved by pollinating insects and blood-red fruits that taste delicious in jellies and jams. Our native rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is a robust yet graceful tree with large clusters of red berries which attract a wide range of birds. Rowan is an ideal tree for a wildlife border, as is hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which also provides nest sites and berries for the birds.
Malus Butterball crabapple and its blossom
In small gardens it is essential to include evergreen cover to avoid dull, empty areas during winter and early spring. A holly such as Ilex aquifolium creates all year-round structure in the garden. With vibrant foliage often variegated with gold or silver and ideal for cloud pruning, not to mention the colourful berries on female varieties, hollies are a valuable addition to any small garden. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is another valuable structural evergreen with gently serrated bay-like leaves and round red fruits produced in the autumn. It prefers a sunny, sheltered spot in neutral or acid soils.
Trees for Autumn Colour
For trees to thrive, they need to be planted in the right place in terms of soil pH, soil structure, aspect and exposure. Some trees remain an autumn dream for me due to my heavy alkaline soil, but if you have neutral or acid soil then you could add an amelanchier or acer – both have beautiful autumn foliage.
Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’ has pale pink flowers that fade to white in the spring and purple berries in summer. The foliage emerges a deep chocolate bronze and fades through green, turning orange and red in autumn. This elegant tree, also known as the Juneberry, is resilient and hardy. It tolerates damp soils and takes on the best autumn hues when planted in full sun. For truly sensational autumn colour, Acer palmatum is hard to beat. With many different varieties such as yellow-leaved ‘Katsura’, deep purple ‘Bloodgood’ and my favourite, the weeping Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ which grows happily in a container, there really is an acer for any autumn colour scheme. It’s worth noting that Acer palmatum prefers a sheltered, partially shaded spot where its foliage won’t be damaged by harsh winds or scorched by direct sunlight.
In areas with alkaline soils, try the spindle tree (Euonymus europeaus ‘Red Cascade’) for its flaming red autumn foliage and rose pink fruits with central luminous orange seeds. The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has dark green leaves that turn deep crimson in autumn, but unlike many acers it tolerates alkaline soils. Named for its flaking bark which peels away in winter to reveal the smooth coppery bark beneath, the paperbark maple adds interest to the garden all year round.
Trees for the Future
If (like me) you have already filled your garden with trees, there is another way to help - by supporting one of the tree-planting charities in the UK and around the world. My family sponsors a grove with Trees for Life: a rewilding charity that replants trees in the Scottish Highlands. The charity has already planted nearly two million trees at 44 sites and is involved in forming coalitions across the central Highlands and supporting communities to create linked areas of woodland that will absorb carbon and protect biodiversity.
On a wider scale, charities such as the World Land Trust also work with local communities to restore forest cover across the world, for example in Brazil, Kenya and Vietnam. By supporting both local and global tree planting, it is possible to restore endangered habitats and enjoy trees within your own garden – for the best of both natural worlds.
There really is a tree for every type of garden, so have a look at the hundreds of trees that we have available for you to make a difference and enhance your garden.
Nic Wilson, Writer and Garden Designer