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Small gardens' top trees

With suburban plots getting smaller and medium density housing increasingly popular, finding the right trees for small gardens can be tricky. Horticulture expert Penny Cliffin shares her favourite picks.

Finding trees small enough not to shade and overcrowd suburban and townhouse gardens can be a challenge. The criteria I have used to define ‘small’ tree is 4-6m (unless stated).

This selection of top small trees includes those suited for both cooler climates and warmer climates. Tolerances to climate, soil and pests is included where possible in the table on the right.

Cook Straight kōwhai

Our native kōwhai is a great evergreen tree for small gardens, with yellow flowers in spring, which provide nectar for our native birds and insects. The Cook Straight kōwhai is the smallest, most shrubby species (3m). The delicate Sophora microphylla doesn’t get quite as tall as it’s larger leaved cousin Sophora tetraptera.

Crab apple

This tree has many attractive species and cultivars, featuring spring blossom, upright form and small apple fruits suitable for making crab apple jelly, or just feeding the birds.

Crepe myrtle

An aristocrat among small trees, this white crepe myrtle ‘Natchez’ has stunning bark, scented white frilly flowers in late summer and brilliant autumn colour. Its vase shape makes it ideal for making a focal point (or a small grove) in a courtyard. It will tolerate moderate wind and is drought-tolerant once established.


The pendulous narrow upright form and showy white flowers in late spring/early summer make Eddie’s White Wonder dogwood a popular small tree. After the flowers finish, there are small, red fruit which are attractive to birds. In colder climates, it also boasts a red autumn colour.

Eastern redbud ‘Forest Pansy’

Stunning deep red to purple, heartshaped foliage sets this tree apart. Masses of pink/violet pea-shaped flowers form on the trunk before the foliage emerges, and autumn tones of red and yellow give the final seasonal flourish, followed by distinctive zigzag twigs in winter.


A suprisingly frost-tolerant subtropical fruiting plant with bright red stamens in early summer, followed by juicy green (pineapple guava) fruit in autumn. Feijoas can be pruned to be small, scuptural trees showed off their interesting branch structure and bark. Grey-green foliage is tolerant of coastal conditions.

'Paul's Scarlet' hawthorn

Stunning bright pink/red blossom festoons this tree in late spring. It is hardy to cold and tolerant of heavy soils. It will grow taller than 6m eventually but can be pruned to be kept smaller.


The lemon tree produces dark, glossy green foliage and white highly scented flowers, followed by large, yellow fruit all year round once established. Hardy to mild frosts.


The striking, upright, architectural, juvenile form of our native lancewoods lends them to be widely used in contemporary gardens. Once they begin to transform into their adult form, their trunks become twisted and their leaves change shape, changing their shape to a small rounded tree form.


This fruiting species can be kept trimmed as a large shrub, or pruned up to expose the trunk. White flowers in spring are followed by fruit, which turns orange in late summer and stays on the tree into autumn if not picked. Good autumn colour.

Maple – Japanese cultivars

The delicate foliage of a Japanese maple makes a striking focal point in a courtyard space. There are many different cultivars available, some with lime green, purple or bronze foliage, some with even finer cut-leaf texture. A sheltered position is advisable to avoid wind burn of these delicate leaves.

Shad bush

A delicate tree with tiny, white, spring flowers, open, airy habit and brilliant autumn colour in cooler climates. Grow Amelanchier in moist, well-drained neutral to acidic soil, in full sun to partial shade. A sunny spot will result in the best autumn colour.

Wedding cake tree

This creamy, variegated tree forms an elegant pyramid of tiered branches in layers spaced up the trunk, giving a layered cake effect and a yellow autumn colour if cold enough.

Penny Cliffin (MAppSc and BHortSc, GDHE, ProfAccredGDSNZ) is a past lecturer in the Unitec landscape programmes; Past president of the Garden Design Society of New Zealand (GDSNZ).

She is also a Fellow of the Royal NZ Institute of Horticulture; Registered Master Landscapers member and awards judge; Member of The Tree Council NZ, Forest and Bird and the International Dendrology Society. She leads garden tours with a plant focus both locally and internationally -


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