As suburban gardens become increasingly smaller with each passing year, it can become difficult to choose small trees to fit into these smaller gardens, with many people even opting out of the opportunity.
Even if your garden’s restricted size may dictate to grow a minimal selection of plants, planting a small tree as a focal feature or element of shade should still be considered and there are some suitable choices that can be made to successfully make your outdoor living environment a beautiful one.
Small trees for small gardens and backyards
Although most people have been growing the reliable mock orange Murraya paniculata as a successful hedge, if allowed to grow naturally, it will become a handsome, evergreen small tree to five metres high and four metres wide. This is a multi-trunked species that just happens to lend itself perfectly to being pruned as a hedge, yet is actually a delightful small tree. Mostly untroubled by many pests or disease issues, the murraya is also a relatively fast growing species and combined with reliable watering and a little feeding, can be expected to reach its maximum height within seven or eight years from planting.
Regular tip pruning every six months or so will encourage a thick canopy to develop. Of course you will still be able to fully enjoy the delightful fragrant white flowers consistently throughout the summer period. Look for specimens that have not been heavily pruned into a small shrub. It should have a strong, vertical leader stem that can be further encouraged whilst removing any lower branches while in its initial stage of growth.
If spectacular flowers tick the boxes for you, then of course considering the use of Tibouchina ‘Alstonville’ should be highly considered. This long-time favourite of many gardeners can simply take your breath away when in full bloom from mid-summer through to late autumn. Tibouchinas’ are capable of growing well in heavy; clay based soil and welcome a slightly acidic pH in the soil of around 6. Their large velvety leaves are the perfect foil for the deep violet large blooms that smother the entire canopy as they become a true beacon of the garden.
As Autumn progress’s, it’s always a joy to fully embrace the colours of the season and allow the gentle and warming winter light into smaller garden spaces. This is where many deciduous species can truly provide the best of both worlds. It goes without saying that in cooler climates, an obvious choice is often the many beautiful and breathtaking Japanese maples, Acer Palmatum that are commonly seen. However, for warmer localities and even drier gardens, no matter how beautiful, they can struggle to play their intended role.
In place of Acers, consider the use of the ever faithful Crepe myrtle Lagerstroemia indica sp. Crepe myrtles have been around for as long as I can recall, yet are seldom used in smaller gardens. They welcome strong, annual pruning of the vertical branches and can be easily maintained to a manageable height of around three or four metres. Being of a deciduous nature they will present fiery colours of red, orange and gold to light up the garden from May through June (and earlier in some districts), after which the fallen foliage makes the perfect mulch and soil conditioner.
Being water misers once established, they are capable of growing in most parts of the country with ease and can handle frost well.
For a delicate Autumnal feel in the garden, consider searching for the unusual Cape Wedding flower or Forest Wild Pear, Dombeya tiliacea. This is a semi-deciduous species from South America that deserves better recognition to grace our gardens. The delicate maple –like foliage on this relatively fast growing species is a delight, while the pure white bell shaped blooms that form in pendulous clusters of two to five along its branches are a real treat at the beginning of Autumn. It will reliably flower with the cycles of the moon each year on schedule on cue with Easter no matter the date! This smaller form of Dombeya enjoys a slightly protected site away from intense heat and can handle light frosts well. During mid-spring and summer, it also enjoys deep watering while young, yet once fully established, can become self-reliant. Its delicate foliage will provide dappled light suitable for growing many shade loving, understorey plants such as bulbs, bromeliads and woodland style perennials.
In small gardens, consider using small trees as feature plantings in the front garden, or towards corners where seating can be placed underneath. Remember to keep deciduous species away from house gutters and avoid planting directly underneath any power or telephone lines. Although robust in growth, the above mentioned species are not regarded as having aggressive root systems, yet some thought should be placed as to where old (terracotta) drains or sewage pipes occur as they could be damaged with age or the movements of foundations and be leaking small amounts of moisture into the surrounding soil where any plant will (naturally) seek out and make the most of the situation.
There are many opportunities to bring beauty and a sense of serenity and peacefulness to any sized garden, yet making the most of smaller spaces under the protection of a small tree is something quite humbling and can provide the perfect environment to place garden benches for sitting and chatting with friends, placing a collection of your favourite pot plants or provide shelter for that prized orchid collection where having a suitable green house may not be an option. Whatever the reason, planting a tree is one of the best jobs anyone who gardens can undertake, and knowing that in your own small way, you are helping the environment makes it all the more worthwhile.
Natives trees for small gardens
Native tree species are always worthwhile considering for smaller gardens and a few worth giving a go in frost free areas are Melicope rubra ‘Little Evodiella’, Breynia ‘Ironstone range’, Native Daphne, Phaleria clerodendron and Waterhousia floribunda ‘Weeping lillypilly’.
Growing to an average height of around five metres, the little Evodiella is quite spectacular when in bloom as it produces its clusters of bright pink flowers directly on the trunk and branches while all the time being clothed in deep green shiny foliage that are a haven for small nectar feeding birds and butterflies. This species will be regarded by your local bird population as a “haven tree’ as small birds such as finches, wrens and honey eaters will often hide in amongst its branches to avoid larger more territorial or aggressive species.
Breynia ‘Ironstone Range’ is not commonly sighted or considered as a small tree, yet will easily reach a medium height of just over four metres tall. Unlike the little Evodiella, its primary feature is not of flowering value, but rather its attractive deep burgundy, fern like foliage that will take centre stage in the garden. Once mature, it will take on a gentle weeping habit similar to that of a Japanese maple and in many cases (for warmer, humid climates) makes a wonderful alternative to that much loved (southern) species. It casts a gentle dapple light into the garden and can handle regular strong tip pruning if a dense canopy is desired.
The Weeping lillypilly, Waterhousia floribunda is now a common sight in many streetscapes, yet should not be discounted for its high value as a small shade or screening tree. This lovely native belongs to the large family of lillypilly species scattered around the country and is highly adaptable in its planting locality. Enjoying full sun and able to grow successfully in confined sites, the weeping lillypilly boasts evergreen shiny foliage that is untroubled by insect concerns and will produce dainty, pendulous sprays of cream flowers from late spring into early summer providing a valuable food source for foraging native bees and other pollinating insects.