Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens



There are some wonderful quotes and sayings about trees;

for example, there’s the Greek Proverb –

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”



In summer, the shade from a deciduous tree is welcome in a sunny spot, especially in a warm climate. In the winter garden, the exposed framework of branches gives a whole new look to the garden.

I find the changing outline of deciduous trees fascinating and they can provide ornament in a small garden as well as larger gardens. You just need to choose your tree or trees carefully.

By definition, ornamental deciduous trees for small gardens should provide interest and colour at more than one season of the year. They will take up room in a small garden and be a focal point so they need to look good.


Firstly, consider what you would like to gain from your ornamental deciduous tree –

  • Attractive bark? This would be especially noticeable in the late autumn and winter when the leaves have fallen.
  • Spring blossom?
  • Colourful autumn foliage?
  • Colourful, or variegated spring and summer foliage?
  • Attractive shape when the branches are bare of leaves?
  • Edible fruit or berries? Just because a tree is productive doesn’t mean to say it can’t be ornamental too.
  • Good for wildlife?

acer, pink leaved - winkworth arboretum

Also consider the ultimate size of your ornamental deciduous tree when it’s fully grown. This will be both the height and the spread.
With the height, remember that even some trees which are said to be suitable for small gardens can grow to 15’ or 20’. If you’re looking around a garden centre or nursery, they should show the eventual size of the tree. As a rough guide to the spread, the roots below ground will have the same diameter as the width or fullness of the crown of the tree. The crown is the top growth, ie all the branches and foliage.


Five Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens

Himalayan birch (Betula utilis ‘jacmontii’)

If you have a larger small garden, do consider the Himalayan birch (Betula utilis ‘jacmontii’). This has an almost pure white trunk of paper-like bark and is very attractive throughout the year. The white peeling bark of the main trunk echoes the frost and snow of the chilly winter season and forms a cool backdrop to colourful herbaceous perennials during summer.

If you would like to enjoy the beauty of ornamental bark but are not sure if your garden is big enough for a full sized tree, then growing a multi stemmed tree rather than a single branched tree may be an option. This is achieved through coppicing. Coppicing is a technique where multiple stems rather than a single stem is encouraged to grow. For the purposes of an ornamental garden, it gives a tree with a vibrant winter show of colour.


corkscrew hazel, planting design, corylus avellana, hazel tree

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Hazel is a native tree that is attractive in a small garden. For greater decorative interest, the corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana contorta), or ‘Harry Lauder’s walking stick’ is a particularly twisted specimen, as the name ‘contorta’ suggests. Harry Lauder was a famous entertainer in the early 20th century, known for his walking sticks, and particularly for having many made from a twisted hazel stem.

The corkscrew hazel offers you catkins in spring, nuts in autumn and a twirling sculpture of stems in the winter. It is also happy in a raised bed or large pot. Corylus avellana contorta ‘majestic red’ has purple-red stems, purple foliage and pink catkins.


Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

The Rowan tree is also known as mountain ash, and the witching tree; it has many legends attached to it. The Rowan tree has serrated leaves which are pretty during the spring summer and autumn; with blossom in the spring. It is probably at its most fulsome in autumn before its berries are eaten by birds. A good tree for wildlife in a small garden; the different cultivars can offer you red berries or yellow berries.

Rowan tree - sorbus - mountain ash


Japanese maple (Acer)

There are so many acers to choose from, offering a range of leaf shape and colour that it does have to be personal choice. But for a long season of interest in a small garden I particularly like Acer palmatum ‘sango-kaku’, with yellow foliage and bright red stems.


Sambucus nigra, early spring, black elder tree

Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

For decorative purposes, the black elder forms an effective backdrop to silvery evergreen shrubs such as Santolina. With pink cups of blossom in the spring and purple berries in autumn, purple stems and delicately shaped black leaves, Sambucus nigra can grow to a good size, but equally will be happy in a large container for some years.


If you are growing trees in containers perhaps because you’re wary of their eventual size, or because you only have a patio garden or terrace, you will need to give them more attention than if they were growing in the ground.

Growing ornamental deciduous trees in the soil, perhaps within a mixed flower and shrub border, is generally the best way of having an easy maintenance plant. Once established, trees are easy to care for; their deep roots mean they can find their own water, and if you’ve prepared the soil well before planting, a regime of adding a yearly top dressing of compost will keep them fed. Trees generally need some pruning, but this may only need to be a task you do every other year.

Trees are a vital part of the wider landscape; ornamental deciduous trees for small gardens bring structure, height and shade as well as colour, scent and fruit, creating a changing background to give pleasure throughout the year.

Nathan admiring acer, Scotney castle garden, marie shallcross, kent, national trust garden

Related Gardening Blogs from Plews Potting Shed

Trees in the Garden – Questions and Answers

Autumn Pruning – some Questions and Answers

Apples: Designing the Garden of Eden?

Summer Gardens – Architectural Plants

Silver Birch tree - Betula pendula -winter


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