Trees for small spaces to suit the urban gardener

Beautiful maple in a pot

Anyone living in a city who thinks trees are just for people with big gardens, think again.

Urban dwellers may not have the space for a huge tree with majestic spreading canopies, but you can bring the beauty of trees to a patio, terrace, balcony or even a windowsill, says Dr Gabriel Hemery, forest scientist, photographer and author of The Tree Almanac 2024.

Book jacket of The Tree Almanac 2024 by Dr Gabriel Hemery (Robinson/PA)
Dr Gabriel Hemery’s glorious new book. (Robinson/PA)

Dr Hemery suggests: “Select a tree to suit where you live, both general climate and the specific location where you want it to grow (for example, whether in a sheltered spot or shaded from above).”

Be aware that there are many thousands of species and varieties of trees, meaning that a ‘maple’ can range from a huge sycamore, which will fill a large garden, to a ‘dwarfing’ variety of Japanese maple suitable for a patio container.

Alongside size, think about leaf colour, overall shape, flowering, and fruitfulness.

“The style and material of container can have a big impact on the growth of a tree and its health,” he observes.

“Small pots can help restrict a tree’s growth, but it might need more careful nurturing. Stone or terracotta pots help prevent trees blowing over during autumn and winter gales. Bulbous shapes are best avoided as repotting can be difficult.”

He offers the following tree suggestions for those with small spaces.

1. Evergreens

Most conifer trees are evergreen, meaning they bear leaves (usually needles) all year round, making them ideal for adding structure and colour when planted in a pot for a patio or small garden. Choose a dwarf variety and plant in the largest pot you can using a well-drained compost.

A good choice are dwarf varieties of Hinoki cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa including ‘Meroke Twin’, which grows one metre in height with attractive sprays of foliage. The golden foliage and neat columnar habit of Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’ is very compact.

For the miniature rock garden, a dwarf variety of Japanese red cedar Cryptomeria japonica ‘Vilmoriniana’ provides great structure and purplish colour in winter. Another good option would be a prostrate growing juniper like Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’.

2. Spectacular colour

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There is a wide choice of Japanese maple varieties suitable for growing in containers, many with very attractive foliage. Make sure the pot is well-drained and expect to repot every five years.

With red foliage throughout the growing season, ‘Crimson Queen’ is a popular favourite, while the pink leaves of ‘Corallinum’ turn green before bright scarlet in the autumn.

If you like feathery leaves, then consider ‘Ornatum’ or ‘Orange Lace’. The spectacular leaves of the unusual variety ‘Amagi Shigure’ dazzle from pink to red to purple through the growing year.

3. Fruit

Olive trees provide an exotic look to a patio during the summer, yet need careful watering during dry periods and must be moved inside before any hint of frost. The diminutive fruit of crab apple trees, as used in the tradition of wassailing in the orchards of old, make attractive hardy patio specimen plants given a large pot.

Citrus trees, whether lemon, lime, or orange, grow well in a conservatory or on a windowsill, and even enjoy a spot of fresh air during summer months. Just make sure you bring them indoors when temperatures drop. They tend to benefit from a regular dose of fertiliser rich in nitrogen.

4. Screening

Trees used for screening (Alamy/PA)
The right trees can provide the perfect screen for your garden. (Alamy/PA)

Any selection of pot-grown trees can be carefully arranged to provide screening, whether to hide less attractive elements of the garden or to increase privacy. Privet and box are great examples, and both can be trimmed into attractive shapes, although sadly the latter is prone to the devastating box hedge caterpillar.

Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) and mountain totara (Podocarpus nivalis) are good alternatives, although smaller in stature. Sweet bay is another good option, with the bonus of providing fragrant leaves for the kitchen.

5. Bonsai

Growing bonsai extends the cultivation of trees to another level of nurture and artistic endeavour. Traditionally, the Chinese art of penjing aimed to recreate natural treescapes in miniature, more commonly known as ‘bonsai’ in English.

Single trees or even clumps of trees are grown in shallow pots and over many years become dwarfed with repeated pruning of their roots and branches.

Japanese maples including ‘Deshojo’ are popular subjects, as are many conifers especially pines and junipers. The beginner is best advised to start with the popular houseplant weeping fig Ficus benjamina, which is easy to care for and can remain indoors all year round.

The Tree Almanac 2024 by Dr Gabriel Hemery is published by Robinson.

Do you have a small garden? Have you planted any trees? Why not share your plant choices in the comments section below?

Also read: Surprising uses of milk in your garden

– With PA

Written by Hannah Stephenson

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