A tree will offer a wealth of seasonal food and shelter for all sorts of creatures. Adrian Thomas suggests a few suitable specimens for a smaller garden
How many of us are put off from planting a tree because we don’t think we have the space? Or because we’re nervous of choosing badly and ending up with something that romps out of control like the proverbial beanstalk?
It's true that a badly chosen tree can quickly become a nuisance, blocking out light from garden and home, inhibiting the growth of plants beneath, and just looking out of place. I know it only too well: I moved into a house where a tulip tree had been planted only a few metres from the back door. It was barely 10 years old but its branches were already knocking (literally) at the first floor windows; it had to go, because they can grow to be 30m (100ft) tall!
However, while a tulip tree is clearly a big mistake in a small garden, having some kind of tree is so important, not only because of the all-season interest it will bring you, but because trees are elemental in the lives of so much garden wildlife, be it as a nesting place, song perch, safe retreat or free-standing food source.
The good news is that there are all sorts of wildlife-friendly trees to suit even the smallest space. It's all about judicious choice, and in some cases a cunning plan to keep them in check!
Your first option is to pick trees that are inherently small. For example, whereas the red-berried common rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, will typically grow to 10-15m (32-50ft), its Chinese cousin Sorbus vilmorinii, with its pink berries, normally only reaches about 5-6m (16-20ft), yet it’s just as much a hit with winter thrushes.
Another possibility is to choose one of the trees that’s receptive to pruning. There are many trees that won’t enjoy such treatment, but – as a rule of thumb – if a tree species can be used as a hedging plant, it’ll be quite happy being kept under control. This includes yew, hollies and hawthorns, all of which have so much to offer for wildlife.
The third option is to choose fruit trees that have been grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. This is the magic trick by which the ‘head’ of one tree has been bonded onto the ‘feet’ of another, giving you the fruit type you want up top while the roots determine how large (or small) the tree will ultimately grow.
The naming system used to indicate the tree’s eventual size is a little baffling! For example, an M27 rootstock for apples produces a smaller tree than an M9, which is smaller than an M26. Don’t worry, our guide below will help you select the right one for your space.
In fact, fruit trees are a godsend, in that they can be turned into espaliers, fans and cordons, which are effectively two-dimensional trees that hug a wall, with all the same benefits for wildlife (and for you) as if they were growing out in the garden.
All those options mean there is a tree for even the smallest yard. Here, then, are my picks of the best small trees that will look good but will also pack a punch for wildlife.
Wildlife-friendly trees for small gardens
Amelanchier laevis A multi-stemmed small tree with masses of white blossom in spring, small midsummer berries loved by blackbirds, and often fiery foliage in autumn. Try looking for one of the smaller or more upright cultivars such as Amelanchier laevis ‘Snowflakes’. H and S8m (26ft)
Ilex aquifolium (holly) If left, this familiar evergreen tree with spiny leaves would become large spreading tree, but you can keep it pruned to the height you want, creating a dense head of foliage that’s used by roosting finches and nesting blackbirds. It’s also the foodplant of the holly blue butterfly, a garden regular. Female plants will bear red berries taken greedily by thrushes, robins and wood pigeons. H12m (39ft) S8m (26ft) if unpruned
Malus sylvestris (crab apple) These deciduous trees have lots of spring blossom that’s great for bees, and then bear big crops of miniature yellow and red apples in autumn that often persist until midwinter to feed fieldfares and redwings. Most only grow to 6m (20ft), but weeping varieties such as ‘Sun Rival’ are even smaller at H8m (26ft) S4m (13ft)
Sorbus hupehensis (rowan) Deciduous rowan trees have large heads of white spring flowers, followed by berries that are often red but some are white, pink or yellow and adored by members of the thrush family. They also often have great autumn foliage colour. Choose Sorbus hupehensis, S. cashmiriana or S. commixta, none of which should get much over H6m (20ft) S3m (10ft)
Euonymus europaeus (spindle) A native shrubby tree, the spindle grows only to about 6m (20ft) with especially fine red autumn leaf colour and bright pink berries with orange seed-casings eaten by robins and blackbirds. The gorgeous cultivar ‘Red Cascade’ is usually even smaller at H4m (13ft) S2.5m (8ft)
Frangula alnus (alder buckthorn) This shrubby native tree is the foodplant of the brimstone butterfly, together with the purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). The alder buckthorn in particular is one of the very best plants for bumblebees, and both then have small berries in autumn. H and S4m (13ft)
Crataegus spp (hawthorns) Your choice includes two native species (Cratageus monogyna and C. laevigata) and a range of non-native varieties such as Crataegus prunifolia. They rarely exceed 8m (26ft) but can be kept much smaller through pruning. Almost all have excellent blossom for insects and copious red ‘haws’ for birds. H and S8m (26ft)
Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) This evergreen, native to southern Ireland and the Mediterranean, is rather tender, but there is a hardier hybrid to try, Arbutus andrachnoides. It’s compact, has leathery leaves, and – unusually for a tree – has autumn flowers rich in nectar, at the same time as red fruits for the birds. H and S6m (20ft)
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