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Design Basics Trees for Small Gardens

One of the most important plantings you will make in your garden is to plant a tree. A tree adds scale and structure to a garden; its bulk prevents your garden looking fussy and itty-bitty, and pulls together the various elements in your scheme. The tree's foliage throughout the seasons, and flowers if these are significant, will add impact to your garden design.

Magnolia 'Leonard Messel'
Magnolia 'Leonard Messel'
Yet today, most of us have a small garden, or even a courtyard, and the challenge of selecting a tree that is suitable can seem daunting.

Trees provide shade in summer, a brilliant burst of foliage or flower interest, or a quiet backdrop to your planting. A well-chosen and well-placed tree will link the house with the void of the garden, a space that lacks the height and bulk of a substantial building, and prevents the house dominating your garden design.

Work through the choice and placement issues carefully as any tree should be enjoyed for many years after planting.

Consider the height and width of a tree when selecting, a tiny whip-like stem in the plant nursery may bulk out to become a very substantial round-headed tree in your garden. A single tree will add the same element of structure as a grouping of, say, three or more trees. But remember always to consider the long-term impact and the relationship between the tree(s) and your overall design elements of terraces, borders, arbours and the house itself.

Think about contrast of foliage and form when choosing your tree, perhaps a tall slender tree to lift the eye above a border of rounded, flatter shapes; or rounded tree to balance out a vertical element. A tree with horizontal form will provide a large area of light shade for your terrace but not block light and sun. Do not overdo the contrast though as this could result in a scheme that is 'restless' and fails to develop an overall coherence.

As most of us have smaller, even courtyard, gardens today, the choice of a tree becomes more difficult as we have to consider the impact of a tree on our neighbours and on the foundations of our house. Whichever tree you select, you should try to opt for one that can remain in place without too much attention from the tree surgeon or having to be removed after a relatively short period.

In regard to your neighbours remember that any branches or roots that intrude into their property can be removed without notice, and this may seriously damage or visually spoil your tree.

Albizia julibrissin
'Albizia julibrissin', the silk tree

Prunus 'Accolade'
Prunus 'Accolade'
Trees that are unsafe are your responsibility if they are on your property, and the choice of tree can avoid planting brittle or potentially dangerous trees. As complicated and expensive legal issues can arise over trees on your boundary or in your garden (and we do not attempt to advise on these but recommend that your consult your lawyer) it is far better to choose a tree which will not outgrow its position, sucker and emerge in your neighbours tomato patch, or become a hazard.

Hymenosporum flavum
Hymenosporum flavum, Australian frangipani

More Garden Style and Design

There are many wonderful trees suitable for smaller gardens

Hymenosporum flavum, the Australian frangipani, is a relatively fast-growing, open tree that will eventually reach 9.0m. Very pretty golden yellow flowers appear in early summer and the glossy leaves are attractive year round.

Sophora microphylla and S. tetraptera (Kowhai) are those most commonly grown. S. tetraptera is faster than its southern cousin but more tender. To 9.0m Lacks the tangled (divaricated) appearance of the juvenile S. microphylla and a more pendulous habit when mature. The flowers are yellow and borne in spring in the familiar clusters; seedpods are long and ripen dark grey.

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Last revised 10 Aug '00