Trees to plant in small gardens


The weeping fig tree at Plant Galore Garden in Nairobi. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

Even small gardens can accommodate trees, but most times this is the last thing on gardeners’ minds when designing a small space.

Yet factoring trees will add value to your property, add colour to a garden, act as noise, dust and privacy barriers and attract wildlife— birds and small animals.

Because nobody wants to plant the wrong tree in the wrong place, Oscar Kwaliamba, head of landscaping at Crystal Gardens in Nairobi and a landscaper for 16 years, shares his wisdom and go-to trees for small gardens.

“Having a tree in a small garden is possible. Of ultimate importance is knowing the size of a tree at maturity. That way, you can weigh the space you have against the eventual tree size and choose one that will be a perfect fit, without being a bother or outgrowing the space,” Mr Kwaliamba says.

Before planting a tree, consider the soil, climate and space of your garden and the growing habits of your tree of choice.

Trees are highly adaptive and will grow in a wide range of soils if they are planted with ample natural compost. Incorporation of compost with red soil helps improve the soil conditions in especially areas with black cotton soil, he says.

“Trees with small narrow needle-like leaves like Casuarina do well in dry areas as they lose less water to evapotranspiration while trees in cool, wet areas will have broad leaves to shed off excess water,” explains the nature-lover.

When it comes to a small garden, one should grow columnar rather than arching trees.

Columnar trees grow narrow and upwards, thereby occupying less space. Spreading or arching trees will spread out taking more space horizontally. Besides this, it’s important to know the kind of shade a tree gives.

Those with dense shade mean little will grow underneath them and are therefore not ideal for the lawn or flower borders.

Ideal trees

The Thika palm; Japanese fern tree (Felicias decipens)

Loved for its lush green and striking foliage. Its compact shape ensures that it is self-limiting and ideal for a small space. The leaves appear fern-like and have white flowers with a pink tint which are hidden in the dense foliage.

“Many homeowners get surprised when it’s a flowering tree,” the passionate gardener says.

Planted in a row, the slow-growing palm tree, which is propagated from seeds, is as a wind-breaker, and screen and noise mufflers. A lone one provides good shade on a lawn.

The Yellow Oleander (Theveita Peruviana)

This is an evergreen tree with showy bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers, with five overlapping petals. Plant several together for colour effect along the driveway or a single one as a focal point of your garden.

You can raise seedlings from cuttings or seeds and once planted, yellow oleanders are trouble-free. Please note that its seeds are highly toxic.

The Mimosa tree (Acacia podalyriiforia), Queensland Silver wattle

“I recommend this tree because of its attractive grey-like foliage and its fragrant spherical, rich yellow flower heads. It’s an ideal tree for your lawn or as a colourful addition to your front yard,” Mr Kwaliamba says, adding that this loosely branched evergreen hairy tree grows 3-5 metres tall and can be grown from seeds soaked in warm water until swollen or propagated from semi-ripe cuttings.

The Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense)

This is a good ornamental tree used as a specimen plant for its large and string flowers or shade in the garden with extra benefits. When crushed and boiled the seeds give oils useful for soap-making. The bark has medicinal value and is used as a component of skin ointments. “

Plant it in the front yard because when in full bloom, the entire canopy turns pink. A magnificent sight to behold.”

The Yellow Bells Trumpet bush (Tecoma stans)

This small tree has funnel-shaped bright yellow, orange or red flowers that draw attention to both man and insects (bees and butterflies). It can be an open tree or shrub with several slim trunks, good for the lawn or the flower border.

“The Tecoma is unique because it can be grown in a container on a balcony as long as it receives full sun that rarely grows beyond three metres,” Mr Kwaliamba notes.

Water the Tecoma freely during early growth. One can sow seeds or make cuttings from semi-hard branches.

The Bottlebrush (Callistemon)

Bottlebrush trees are known for their colourful terminal or auxiliary bottlebrush-like spikes of tiny flowers that can be white, pink, or red.

It is drought-tolerant and therefore suitable for the dry areas, and is propagated from seeds and semi-ripe cuttings. Grow in full sun on your front yard, within the border plantings or lawn area, in well-drained neutral to the acidic moderately fertile soil. These attract lots of bees and birds.

The Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)

A native of the Himalayas and East Asia, this sun-loving tree is grown for its juicy orange-yellow fruit. It has scented flowers and glossy green leaves making it perfect for the lawn.

The Orchid tree (Bauhinia)

This is a spreading tree with rounded, rich green leaves with heart-shaped bases best planted adjacent to the house, for its shade and colourful flowers - light magenta – purple, blue, or white flowers. This tree may require restrictive pruning.

The Weeping Fig tree (Ficus Benjamina)

The Ficus has been unfairly treated because of its robust root system that destroys foundations. Yet if you are pressed for space, this tree comes in handy. It can be customised to fit your space by limiting its growth through topiary work that can adjust its form, therefore adding interest to the garden. In addition, restrictive pruning can also render it harmless in a small space.

Its variant, Ficus Variegata has white splashed leaves that make for a perfect postcard picture! Good for driveways, within the lawn or as shaped focal points in the garden.

“More importantly, Ficus in a pot will snugly fit onto your balcony space or porch,” the landscaper says.

The Italian cypress

This is a narrowly columnar or conical tree with horizontal branches that bear dense sprays of grey-green or dark leaves usually with rounded abruptly pointed tips. It grows up to 6m tall with the Stricta variety forming an almost pencil-like tree.

There you have it. Ten trees that will add variety, colour, and structure to your outdoor space, albeit small.