You are here: Planting trees in your garden

From tiny acorn to mighty oak: there are few things more satisfying than planting a tree and watching it grow over the years. But choose carefully as trees should only be planted where there is space to grow.

Can I plant trees anywhere in my garden?

You don’t need permission to plant even the biggest tree but think carefully about where you are planting it. While most trees growing near buildings cause no damage, in some cases subsidence and structural damage can be linked to tree roots, according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).  So, while tree subsidence is not a common occurrence, it’s important to think about where you are planting in relation to the house. Don’t plant an oak two metres from your front door, for example. The recommended minimum distance to plant a new tree from a building is five metres. That said, trees planted closer than five metres is not an indicator of definite damage to a house.

Properties in areas with clay soils may be at higher risk of damage from trees than chalky soils. Tree roots draw moisture out of clay soil, causing it to shrink as it dries out which may cause subsidence whereas chalky soils are more stable.

What about the neighbours?

Trees add so much to a garden. They can create structure and drama as well as give us delicious fruits and colourful blossoms. Some will grow to a significant height and girth. Choose the wrong type, however, and it may eventually not only block the sunlight from your home but cause future conflict with your neighbours. Planting a row of leylandii trees on your boundary line may seem like a great way to create some privacy as they are fast-growing and provide excellent screening, but they can get very tall unless regularly trimmed. Thousands of homeowners across the UK are locked in disputes over the giant hedges.

Tree size and form

Before you pick a tree for your garden, think about the following:

How big can the tree get? The height after 10 years is one of the best ways to compare different tree species and varieties. The height of a tree will determine how much space it will need and how far the roots are likely to spread. Long-living trees like oak and maple are effective at storing carbon dioxide, according to the Woodland Trust. However, large deciduous trees can eventually grow 20 to 40 metres tall.
Canopy spread – most trees grow upright with a gradually spreading form, but some species of oak can be as wide as they are tall while others are more columnar in form. Will the canopy cast a lot of shade or spill over into your neighbour’s garden?

Aims of tree planting

What do you want from your trees - fruit, flowers, all-year-round colour or attractive leaves?  Do you maybe need trees to block sightlines or provide screening?  Top trees for blossom include Crab Apple, Hawthorn, Magnolia and Flowering Cherry. There are few trees that can be planted close enough to each other to create a hedge. However, Beech is a deciduous tree that form a very effective hedging screen. Cherry Laurel, meanwhile, is an excellent evergreen choice for an instant hedge as is the Robinia tree. Birch is popular for the colour of its bark and tracery of bare branches in winter.

Space to grow

Your tree might be tiny when first planted, but its roots and branches will soon spread out. Make sure it has space to grow. Flowering cherry trees are popular for smaller gardens for their showy spring flowers, fruit for birds and autumn leaves. Other trees suitable for smaller spaces include Crab Apple, Hazel, Blackthorn and Goat Apple, according to the Woodland Trust. Medium-sized tree options include Holly, Yew, Elder, Field Maple and Hawthorn. Look at what’s already growing successfully in your neighbours’ gardens for inspiration. Oaks and many of the maples, make large trees and are too tall for small gardens. Trees should only be planted where space allows.

What are the space constraints? Consider factors such as proximity to buildings, overhead power lines, underground drains, pavements and other trees. Make sure there is plenty of room for your tree to grow above and below ground. If power or telephone lines are above the planting location, you will be limited to a smaller mature height tree or need to plant elsewhere.

Site conditions

Choosing a tree that will thrive in your garden is key to its long-term survival.

Some trees will like full sun while others prefer some shade. Is it a sheltered or exposed (sun and wind) garden or close to the coast? Wind can dry out soils and even uproot newly planted trees. Most woody plants require full sunlight to grow but some perform well or even prefer light shade.

Is the area predominately wet or dry? Alder, Willow, Poplar and Swamp Cypress are best to plant for areas that get saturated for more than one week per year. Choosing the wrong tree for a water-logged area can cause root decay. Prunus, for example, hates wet sites.

Soil conditions

What is the soil like? Mostly chalk or clay? Take soil samples from your garden to test for pH (alkalinity or acidity), salinity and fertility.  Read up about preferred soil type of different trees.
Is it free-draining or occasionally flooded? Tree roots require oxygen and water to develop and thrive. If drainage is a problem, ask an arborist for advice on how to correct the problem.
How deep is the soil? Is the soil deep enough to sustain a tree healthily?  Check the soil depth by digging a test pit. Depending on the tree species, at least half a metre of soil is necessary. Trees will suffer in shallow soils

Other factors to consider

Is the tree exposed to extreme weather conditions? Hardiness rating – The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) cold-hardiness rating runs from H1 (requires a heated greenhouse) to H7 able to withstand freezing temperatures below -20C
Deciduous or evergreen? Which is your preference?
Insect and disease resistance – Experts recommend buying trees that are produced from seed sourced and grown in the UK. Trees that are imported bring with them a higher risk of disease.

Plant native species – once established native species require little maintenance or special treatment as they’re adapted to our weather conditions. 

Growing trees in containers

Planting trees in containers is becoming more popular, especially in small gardens or patio where space is limited. Container-grown trees can be used to frame entrances and to provide interesting focal points.  Top trees for containers include Japanese Maples, Olive, Bay Tree, dwarf conifer and and apple or pear grown as a fan, according to the RHS. While growing a tree in a container will restrict its size, it’s best to avoid fast-growing, large or vigorous trees as most will struggle in the restricted space. The container should be large enough to accommodate the mature tree. Remember pot plants need regular watering in the dry summer months and can be messy if the water runs out of the bottom.

Attractive, healthy trees can enhance the enjoyment of your property, boost its kerb appeal and improve air quality. Selecting the right tree for your garden can be daunting but many plant nurseries have experts to advise you.