Small trees for suburban gardens

Let’s start by looking outside the box. Consider that many medium sized shrubs can be pruned to a tree shape. When pruned of their lower branches, they grow in to a compact tree shape.

Good examples include Viburnums, especially Viburnum odoratissimum, and some grevilleas such as Grevillea Moonlight and Grevillea Kay Williams.

Callistemons with their dense foliage and colourful bottle brush flowers need not be kept as a shrub either. Choose upright specimens like Kings Park Special and Wildfire, and trim branches from the base to encourage a tree-like shape. Trim off the lower branches as they grow, stakes them if required and callistemons are examples. They can be trimmed of their lower branches as they grow, creating a small tree effect.

Preventing Invasive Roots!

Some shrubs and trees can be kept small through regular trimming or hedging. However, some plants, even when trimmed to lollipop shapes will still have an enormous root system that will invade all the areas you don’t want them in. Ornamental figs Ficus species, are a perfect example. It may look innocent enough, but your cute lollipop-shaped topiary ficus species will send its invasive roots that spread under your house and way down the street.

Grafted trees have their limits

Some trees have been grafted onto the top of a strong, upright stem and are called grafted standards. Weeping standard mulberries are examples of terminally grafted trees. They will always retain the trunk height at which you buy them, so you know just how high your mature tree will be. However, they will fill out as they mature. Grafted standard grevilleas like ‘Gold Fever’ will give you the benefit of being bird attractors too.

Is a dwarf tree for you?

Have you seen the fantastic flowering eucalypts around? Summer Red (pictured) and Summer Beauty are in full show in spring and summer and can be seen with birds drooping off them enjoying the nectar and insects. The superior flowering plant material is grafted onto a disease resistant root stock with the result that you have a gorgeous flowering native tree of a compact size.

Trees grafted onto dwarfing root stock always stay compact. It’s most common to find fruiting trees like citrus and avocadoes grafted onto dwarfing root stock. You’ll enjoy small lemons, oranges and limes that will grow only half the size of their regular counterparts. In the tropics and subtropics, R2E2 and Kensington Pride/ Bowen mangoes and avocadoes can be purchased as grafted dwarf varieties.

Small tree care?

Give your decorative trees a light trim after flowering. It keeps them looking at their best. Fruiting trees are pruned either when leafless in winter or after fruiting when the sap flow has slowed. If the roots are getting a bit vigorous, grab a sharp spade and spade prune roots heading for the paving. Start root pruning when the tree is small.

Just because you have a small tree doesn’t mean you can forget its nutritional needs. A good all round feed of organic pellets such as Organic Xtra or fertilisers like Searles Kickalong will ensure you continue to have a showy tree. Remember, some native plants such and grevilleas prefer phosphorous levels below 2.4 so check the label and if required, feed them with a special native plant food low in phosphorous.

My favourite small trees for small gardens


Magnolias have a fossil record of millions of years and are pollinated by both bees and beetles. The evergreen Bull Bay magnolias Magnolia grandiflora, are a huge tree, and not suited to most suburban backyards so why not choose a more petite form like ‘Little Gem’ in the opening picture. The saucer-sized flowers are gracefully perfect.

If you love flowers, try a compact deciduous magnolia. They will erupt into flower on leafless branches in spring. I love Magnolia ‘Pinkie’ and M. stellata as they are quite suitable for pot culture too.

Grafted eucalypts.Provide home to a passing parade of happy birds and insects. ‘Summer Beauty’ is a lovely pink while ‘Summer Red’ has a vibrant red flower. Both tolerate light frost once established.


Frangipani infuse a garden with instant tropical beauty. In temperate climes, a frangipani will grow in a pot protected from cold winters. In the coastal subtropics they grow in happy profusion with little care, displaying a wonderful range of flower colours and sizes throughout summer and dropping their leaves in winter.

Crepe Myrtle

Crepe myrtles are a wonderfully showy tree, but can become large. The ‘Indian Summer’ Lagerstroemia indica x L. fauriei range are smaller while still being showy. You’ll find them in your favourite flower colour- bright pinks, purples, red and pastel shades. While they are cold tolerant, they’ll need a protected spot in frosty areas.

Small fruiting trees

Even without grafting, plums, nectarines and apricots make wonderfully showy small trees in spring and delicious fruiting specimens later in the season.

A wide range of citrus have been grafted on to Flying Dragon root stock for years now. They give plenty of fruit on a compact tree. Kaffir limes are naturally small whereas, cumquats can be kept to a manageable size with regular pruning.

If you’re in a warmer climate and would love a mango but don’t have the space for a massive tree, try a dwarf variety called Irwin. Tropical Apples on dwarfing root stock include Tropical Anna and Tropic Sweet.

And if you really hanker for an avocado and macadamia harvest, both of these are available as dwarf varieties too.