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Alfie Bines

Q. We have a small garden in Muswell Hill and would like to plant a decorative tree. Can you advise on something suitable which we can enjoy but which won’t get too big.

A. You are correct to be aware of avoiding the wrong choice of tree for a small garden. It is surprising how many trees with the potential to become huge we see planted in small spaces; my least favourite being Eucalyptuses which in any case should be confined to the Australasian section of botanical gardens. Take great care even when thinking about planting trees which are described as small in text books or on websites. In my early days of gardening we planted a Robinia pseudoacacia “Frisia” for a client. Described in a respected reference book as a beautiful “small” tree with golden foliage, it then chose to grow to 8 or 9 metres in just 7 years and had to face the chop. Not small at all.

Your timing is good. Autumn / Early Winter is an excellent time for tree planting and you will also find that the available range from nurseries and garden centres is at its best.

Here then are a few relatively small trees we have tried and tested over the years.

The sorbus family has some excellent contenders. They are all-rounders with good flowering, foliage, berrying and autumn colour. For the bigger small garden, Sorbus hupehensis is one of my favourites with blue tinted foliage and white berries making it very suitable for a contemporary situation. Sorbus vilmorinii is even smaller with long lasting red berries.

If you fancy a crab apple, and they also provide a great variety of attributes, possibly plant Malus Van Eseltine which is a slim type with rose coloured flowers and yellow fruits.

Ornamental cherries are mostly too spreading for the small garden, but a pencil-shaped tree cloaked with decent pale pink flowers in spring is Prunus Amaganowa.

Consider Crategus mongyna Stricta – a very upright form of Hawthorn. It is easy to grow and blossoms well in white in May.

Although most willows are brutes and need parks rather than town gardens in the longer term, there are a couple of dwarf hybrids which are distinctive in their own ways and suitable for the smaller garden. The “Kilmarnock” willow, Salix Caprea ‘Pendula’ has a weeping form and does not tend to grow upwards! Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ is a Japanese type with flamboyant pink flamingo foliage in Spring. Its foliage then fades to a dappled green and white.

Finally if you’re inclined to favour the unusual, set yourself the challenge of planting the excellent Crepe Myrtle or Lagerstroemia indica, which if you are very lucky will produce great pinky red flowers in late summer. (Lucky meaning a long hot summer for which Muswell Hill is of course famous.)

P.S. I’d be very interested to hear about successful small trees readers have grown.

Alfie Bines
About Alfie Bines (24 Articles)
I have been tending the gardens of North London for longer than I care to remember accumulating a huge amount of horticultural knowledge along the way.