Thursday, 17 January 2013

Tall trees and tiny plots

"Make it stop!" clients plead as they point towards upwardly mobile trees.  But how can you make a tree stop growing when that's what it was made to do?

Yes, you can prune; yes, you can get the top section removed by a tree surgeon; yes, you can remove badly placed branches and lift up the canopy a bit. But guess what? That tree will still want to grow. Trying to keep something energetic, like a Norway spruce or a towering ash tree "compact"  is just mad. It's like trying to do Chinese foot binding on a giant.  These trees were intended to grow as members of a towering forest gang, not to be decorative in a suburban back garden.

You can indeed hack bits off and chop bits back, but you aren't going to do the tree much good.  If you are trying to keep a large tree small, chances are you are going to end up spoiling its natural, graceful habit and end up with multiple leaders, access for disease via pruning wounds  and a generally less healthy and robust tree. If you don't want your big tree to grow big - don't cut it back, get rid of it and choose something which will be a better size for your garden!  Better still, if you are planting, rather than just inheriting, a tree, make sure you know its predicted size and spread at maturity to see if it suits your purposes.

Also, when you find those little knobbly fingers of baby sycamore and ash growing in your borders, don't let them reach their teenage years before you decide you don't want a self-sown tree shading out your flowers. Be vigilant and ruthless in hoiking them out as you spot them - it's much easier when they're 10cm rather than 10m tall.  All you need is a trowel, not a tree surgeon as long as you keep a look out.

Not all trees are Godzilla.  There are many friendly, reasonable and rewarding ones which will add height, interest, wildlife appeal and structure to your garden.

Amelanchier Lamarkii (15-20ft) works hard to merit a spot for most of the year - with bronze foliage in spring, followed by delicate white blossoms which are rich in nectar for pollinating insects. The flowers are in turn replaced by berries, much loved by birds, in addition to being edible for humans. Its leaves also put on a final show for autumn before it bows out during the coldest months.

Amelanchier Lamarkii in spring

Hollies grow tall but are generally slow growing and are tolerant of being pruned or clipped to shape.

Crab apples (15-20ft) are decorative, useful and produce fruit which is attractive to birds and looks lovely lining the vase of autumnal flower arrangements (use a smaller vase inside the outer one and fill the gap with these small, colourful fruits).  There are lots of readily available varieties, with 'John Downie' being one of the most popular (and reputedly the best fruit for making wine and jellies)

For further suggestions, try some of the links below which give the advice on preferred planting conditions, and the final size of a range of small trees - all feature photos to help you decide on the aesthetic merits of each variety:

The Guardian - 10 of the best trees for small gardens

The Royal Horticultural Society - Trees for smaller gardens

Crocus: suggestions for small garden trees

These are articles and sites which I have found useful and are my personal suggestions. They are not sponsored or advertising links.

For some sound pruning tips, follow this link to Fine Gardening


  1. I once planted a tree next to the house that became a monster. I had to cut it down. Lesson learned! It really is hard to make a tree smaller! :)

  2. I learned from someone else's mistake in my last house. They had kindly planted a Christmas tree about 10 feet away from the living room. I'm sure once upon a time it was fine, but when we bought the house there was a 50ft tree looming over it! Death was inflicted upon it by the tree surgeon as soon as contracts were exchanged...

  3. I see a Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria) planted in a garden less than 20ft from their front door!! I'm always tempted to knock on the door to tell just how big their tree is going to get!

  4. I walk past a similar property every morning - but I think they already know about the size issue as the tree is about 50ft tall already. It's 20ft from the front door of...a bungalow...

  5. Good advice and good resources...thanks!

  6. Sometimes its just handy to have things in one place.

  7. Very good information about planting trees. Before planting the garden full of a variety of different trees, shrubs and perennials, one should gather knowledge about full grown sizes of all the things, soil, shadow or sun lovers and so on. At least ask the exspert's information.

  8. I think sometimes we just fall in love with a plant and want it no matter what - it's a bit like buying fabulous shoes that don't quite fit.