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Small trees

Trees for small gardens

Whitebeam and one of the old apple trees
Whitebeam and one of the old apple trees, late September 2013

Many people shy away from trees if they have small gardens and that’s a shame. There’s plenty of varieties that can be grown successfully in large containers (provided you water them well in summer).

Small trees won’t impoverish your soil around them too much, especially if you choose one with an open canopy – but don’t plant one near the house.

Deciduous trees create their own little woodland ecosystem – I have a whitebeam (Sorbus aria) that doesn’t come into leaf until the end of April at the earliest, so daffodils, wood anemones, white bleeding heart, and bluebells are just some of the plants that take advantage of the extra spring light.

NOTE: I was sold the whitebeam 20-odd years ago when I was young and impressionable as a ‘tree suitable for small gardens’. It can grow from 15-25m and it’s up to our roofline, so be warned. I still love it.

Potted guide: tree planting

Container-grown trees can be planted at any time, unless the soil is frozen or waterlogged, but are easier to care for if planted in autumn or winter.

Bare root and root balled trees should be planted immediately, or heeled in (temporary placing in the soil to prevent roots drying out).

  • Soak the container thoroughly, or steep the root ball in a bucket of water for an hour.
  • Loosen the soil generally to eliminate compaction and improve drainage and fertility by incorporating fish, blood and bone, organic matter and lime (if required).
  • Remove plants from containers or fabric wrapping (some trees must have the wrapping left on – this will be specified by the grower –  but normally it should be taken off).
  • Almond blossom on Robijn
    Almond blossom on Robijn – no nuts though

    Dig a hole no deeper than the roots, but 2-3 times the diameter. Break up the soil at the sides and bottom. With container-grown plants, the top layers of compost should be scraped away, and the point where the roots flare out should be near the surface. Place the tree in the hole, refill and firm soil gently.

  • Pile some of the remaining soil around the tree to create a ‘lip’, to direct water to the root ball. You can also half-bury a 2-litre pop bottle with the bottom cut off – this gets water straight to the roots.
  • If the tree requires staking, use two short stakes, one either side, with a crossbar joining the two. Position the stakes on the upwind side of the tree, so that the prevailing wind pushes the tree away from the stake.
  • Regular watering is essential. If your tree is planted in a lawn, an area about 1m in diameter should be kept clear of grass.

Best trees for blossom

One of the prettiest – and most fleeting sights of the year – is ‘May blossom’flowering cherries, crab apples, and plums.

I’ve had a dwarf weeping flowering cherry with double pink flowers for 20-odd years. It’s lovely in flower, but so frustrating when the blossom’s battered by heavy rain and high winds.

I also have the crab apple John Downie, now a few years old. It has a good display of blossoms, fruit and autumn colour. I’d recommend it.

Adding to the display is a small, purple-leaved ornamental plum which looks incredibly delicate and must be, as it’s taken 25 years to reach about 6ft (it was planted as Vanessa’s tree after she was born – typically the whitebeam was for Nick – rampant, with a deplorable excess of personality.)

There’s also the Japanese blood plum Lizzie, which has to be the best bargain buy ever – I got her, almond Robijn and cherry Regina in a mystery bundle for next to nothing. Lizzie flowers from February to May is a heavy fruiter when young and has great autumn colour. The cherry’s just getting into the blossom stride by the end of April, as is the almond.

I mustn’t forget the three apple trees dotted about, two of which are diseased and decrepit but I’m too sentimental to get rid of them (i grew one from a Cox’s Orange Pippin pip when I was eight). The third is Red Falstaff in a half barrel, which dies earn its keep.

Apricot surprise

There’s also apricot Kioto, which I was convinced would do nothing this far North, but bore a heavy crop in its first year, with pretty pink blossom in March.

Buy a variety that gives you interest in other seasons, so it earns its keep. Here’s three recommendation from the RHS, all weeping, compact, deciduous and their maximum height is 2.5-4m.

  • Flowering cherry Kiku-shidare-zakura: leaves are bronze when young, later glossy green. Flowers are fully double, rich pink, to 3.5cm wide.
  • Single pink weeping cherry (Prunus × subhirtella Pendula Rubra): ovate leaves turn orange and red in autumn. Flowers single, deep rose-pink from red buds.
  • Crab apple Malus Red Jade: white flowers opening from pink buds, followed by small, shiny red fruits in autumn/winter, with good autumn colour. For stockists, log on to www.rhs.org.uk/plants.