Best trees for small gardens – 8 varieties that thrive in a tiny space

The best trees for small gardens will add some style and sophistication without taking up too much of your compact outdoors space

Small garden with decking and trees
(Image credit: Franchie Cristogatin)

When you think of the best trees for small gardens, your mind might automatically think small garden = small trees right? Well, actually that's not always the case and trees in small gardens can be big and bold, you just have to pick the right ones.

As a  Gardenesque expert explains, ‘Trees can add structure to the landscape and garden and some make excellent hedges and screens whilst others are ideal as statement pieces. Using trees in the garden can screen an unattractive view or area, filter noise, and air pollution if you live in a major city. They are also a haven for garden wildlife providing pollen for insects and shelter for birds, as well as adding color and interest throughout the year.'

And despite what you might have been told, you don’t even have to be the proud owner of a large garden to reap the rewards. Whether you have a small garden, patio, terrace, or balcony there are a number of small trees that take their time to grow, while adding some color and creativeness to your great outdoors. 

‘Both ornamental and fruit trees are ideal for growing in small gardens, whether it be in a border or container,' Gardenesque experts say. 'The ideal types of trees to grow in pots are slow-growing or dwarf varieties. The height and spread vary depending on the tree but most will reach a maximum of 16ft in their lifetime. Generally, a potted tree can grow 4 to 10 feet tall.’

So, to discover the best small garden trees for your mini but mighty outdoor footprint, keep scrolling. Or if you're looking for more modern garden ideas, head this way. 

1. Olive trees

Olive trees are having a bit of a moment in garden trends. Hardly a surprise as you all love to create that Med-vibe in our backyards. The slow-growing evergreen tree adds a touch of greenery and sophistication to any space while growing around 1 to 12 inches per year. 

Gardenesque expert says, ‘Bring a taste of the Mediterranean to your outdoor space with an olive tree. Ideal for container gardens, their neatly shaped, evergreen grey-green foliage looks great in patio pots placed either side of doorways or lining a pathway.’ 

Just be sure to pop these beauties in a sunny spot and your small tree will be thriving all year round. 

2. Japanese maples

urban balcony ideas

(Image credit: Matthew Williams)

Helping to add color and calm to your outdoor space, the Japenese Maple – which is more formally known as the Acer palmatum – comes into its own if well-watered. It also doesn't need pruning, which makes this small tree ideal for those who want the benefits plants bring without the upkeep. Plus, it will instantly bring in that calming, zen-like vibe associated with a Japanese garden.  

Gardenesque expert says, ‘Japanese maples are small, deciduous trees, known for their spectacular display of bright red and orange-colored leaves in autumn.  Place the plant out of the wind and out of the direct sun. Keep it well watered in summer and don’t let it dry out.  They grow slowly and stay compact so don’t need any pruning, just remove any dead or diseased branches.’

3. Pear trees

Rooftop garden with potted plants

(Image credit: James Merrell)

Growing your own fruit is always a pleasure. And luckily, it doesn't matter how big or small your balcony, patio garden or rooftop is, as with a pear tree all you need is a pot and a spot to pop it in and you're good to go.

'The ideal choice for a pear tree in a small space or patio container is the ‘Concorde’ or ‘Conference’ variety. It is a naturally compact short tree that is self-fertile and will produce a bumper yield of fruit every time.' *Adds pear tree to basket*.

4. Tree ferns 

dicksonia tree

(Image credit: Alamy)

Always liked the idea of creating a tropical haven in your own outdoor space? Well, now you can by adding tropical plants, like tree ferns, to your great outdoors. 

The Gardenesque expert tells us, 'A must-have for a tropical-themed garden are tree ferns. They are wonderful architectural plants and can be planted in a pot or in the ground.' But perhaps the best thing about tree ferns? 'Tree ferns will live happily for years in pots and just need to be moved into a greenhouse over winter.'

And – these brilliant tropical plants can help to provide some much-needed privacy to any balcony, rooftop garden or patio thanks to their sprawling stems. So go wild and add some tree ferns to your patio garden, allow them their own little corner on your balcony and let them run wild on your rooftop.

5. Cordyline australis

potted plants mixed with stones and tree trunks

(Image credit: Future)

If you're wondering how to design a small garden that has style and statement–making at the forefront – you might want to consider adding a small tree that ticks of these credentials. Just like a cordyline red which looks just as pretty potted up on a patio or balcony. 

Richard Cheshire, Patch plant doctor says, 'As well as bringing a nice aesthetic to your garden, trees can also become a home to many wildlife such as birds, bees and other pollinators that encourage our gardens to really flourish. A tree can transform your space by creating privacy and tranquillity, all whilst making the atmosphere a little cleaner.'

6. Bay trees

Small bay tree in pot

(Image credit: Getty)

Fan of using bay leaves to cook? Then why not consider doubling up and adding a  bay laurel to your small space? Along with adding some calming aromas and a statement look to your outside space, you'll also be able to grow your own herbs for indoor and outdoor dining. 

Richard says, 'These are structural plants that are happy to be pruned back to the desired shape. Whether you enjoy topiary or simply like to keep a tidy-looking tree to fit a small space, these plants are ideal. If you keep it in a 24cm pot, it will grow up to 6 ft.'

Plus, the beloved bay tree is super easy to look after. All you need to do is make sure it's in a sunny spot, with a handful of shade, and you're good to grow. 

7. Citrus trees 

Lemon tree in a pot on a patio

(Image credit: Getty)

Sustainable living has never been more important – you only have to read up on the latest garden trends to know this. So what better way to champion biodiversity, and naturalistic planting by putting the planet first and growing your own citrus fruits? 

According to the experts, citrus plants come into their own when potted – and can inject color and citrus aromas into your great outdoors without taking over. 

Richard says, 'These plants do not need to be large to make an impact. Citrus trees like the dwarf lemon tree can display scented flowers before producing fruit at around 3-4 years old. It can grow up to 8ft but it will take many years to get there.'

8. Cherry trees

a garden with planting and a green roof

(Image credit: Chris Tubbs)

Talking of fruit – another brilliant type of tree to add to your garden or balcony is a cherry tree. 

'Ornamental cherries are an iconic landscape feature for any garden,' Melissa Finley from the New York Botanical Garden explains. 'There are many small varieties available on the market that generally reach 8-10 feet tall, with a number of different growth habits and either pink or white flowers. Try the classic Prunus ‘Okame’ cherry, a beloved variety with candy-pink flowers in early spring and slow growth. Or try the spectacular weeping variety, Prunus serrulata ‘Kiku-Shidare-Zakura’ known for its large and showy double flowers.'

However – here's a word of warning, 'These trees can grow to many different sizes, so make sure you check before buying and cut back to your desired height,' Melissa warns. 

What trees if you want them to stay small?

The best trees for small gardens will depend on the style of garden you are after, the aspect of your garden, and how much space you have.  As a general rule, you'll want small trees that are slow-growing. Plus, taking into account your space, you may want to look out for options that thrive in containers – not just in the ground. 

According to Gardenesque experts, ‘Olives are slow-growing as is the Amelanchier which won’t grow more than 4 to 5m in its lifespan. Dwarf Japanese maple trees and box are also incredibly slow-growing and can live in their containers for years. While Dwarf fruit trees will also stay small if trained or contained in a pot with regular pruning.’

And Melissa Finley concurs. She says, 'Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Mini Mondo’ will grow 4-5’ tall in 10 years. While the Dwarf Pencil Point Juniper - Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’  will grow 3’ tall by 2’ wide.'

What small trees grow the fastest?

Fast-growing trees are brilliant – especially for large, sprawling spaces. That's because these trees will not only grow (and keep growing), it means you don't have to wait an eternity to see the fruits of your loins. 

However, when it comes to small trees for your small great outdoors, you might want to stay away from fast-growing options to make sure they don't take over your compact space.  As your tree might be tiny when you first buy it, but the roots can spread out faster than you can keep control off. 

As the Gardenesque expert told us, ‘Cherry Laurel, leylandii, Sorbus, hawthorn, and willow are all fast growers but they are best suited to larger gardens.’ 

Freelance writer

Becks is a freelance lifestyle writer who works across a number of Future's titles. This includes Real Homes, Top Ten Reviews, Tom's Guide, TechRadar and more. She started her career in print journalism at a local newspaper more than 8 years ago and has since then worked across digital and social media for food, fashion and fitness titles, along with home interior magazines. Her own interior style? She's big on creating mindful spaces in every corner of her home. If it doesn't spark joy or happiness, it has no place here. When she’s not writing, she’s reading and when she’s not reading, she’s writing.