Trees and Garden Design

Trees are often the most dominant feature within a garden and are used for a multitude of reasons within garden design. Their volume dictates the space they occupy, offering character, drama, height and focus. Often the planting of a single tree solves many design issues for a garden space.


Because of their size, trees should be planted before any other plants in that part of the garden. If forming a shelter belt, trees could be positioned beyond or at the boundary of the designed garden space. In the 1860’s Osgood Mackenzie planted the important shelter required to allow establishment of the remaining garden at Inverewe, NW Scotland. Scots Pines were the main species used on the barren peninsula. This area benefits from the Gulf Stream and rarely suffers from frosts. However the shelter of the pine woodland allows the rest of the garden, half hardy species and exotics to thrive.

Exotic planting in Inverewe Garden
Exotic planting in Inverewe Garden

On any scale, planting trees and shrubs leads to a feeling of enclosure and security felt not only by ourselves but also the rest of the living world. The creation of habitat and food supply by planting trees is one of the most important methods of improving biodiversity.


Shade is an important feature offered by trees. Our warmer summers make this essential in some gardens and their transpiration makes trees far more cooling than a physical shade structure. 

This transpiration process is also an air conditioning feature. Planted with care near buildings, trees can replace the need for energy consuming air conditioning units in a building.


Trees are often chosen to provide seclusion to garden owners. Evergreen trees particularly and right to light must be considered. There are many design solutions to offer privacy without falling-out with your neighbours.

Pleached trees, trained as ‘hedge on stilts’, offer beautiful structure and form. Branches in a single plane above a clear stem provide additional seclusion above a fence or existing hedge. They are usually formed from deciduous trees such as lime or hornbeam so are particularly useful during the summer. Their cost and ongoing maintenance is however important to note.

Physical Features:

A tree may be chosen for its physical features such as bark, flowers, fruit, leaf shape or size etc. as well as its overall physical shape. In a winter garden, the bark of a tree is such an important feature when lit by the low sun.

Bark of Tibetan Cherry, Prunus serrula
Bark of Tibetan Cherry, Prunus serrula

The dominance of a tree dictates the surrounding space and planting. The choice of tree has to be informed by soils and conditions, as well as the desired outcomes. An Olive tree or Cyprus ( Cupressus semprevirens) immediately suggests a Mediterranean atmosphere.

If the soil and climate are not appropriate another tree could be substituted such as Taxus baccata standishii, an upright form of yew.

Specimen Trees:

These are trees that become the predominant feature within a garden. They are often planted singly and are chosen because of particular characteristics or even ‘personality’.

Crazy conifer at York Gate Garden, Leeds
Crazy conifer at York Gate Garden, Leeds

Sometimes existing trees within a garden can be saved by select and careful crown lifting or pruning immediately adding maturity to an area. Specimen trees can offer focal points and determine the transit through and around a garden.

Multi-stemmed trees are a favourite of garden designers. In a small space an intimacy and woodland edge feel is created by a single tree. The planting of several trees close together gives a similar effect. Birches and their interesting bark and stems are often used in this way for good reason. 

Structures including trees:

Tree seats, tree houses and trees enclosed by an area of decking are ways of encouraging connection with trees through touch. 

A tree seat is a lovely feature. The direct contact and close connection with a tree creates an intimate and contemplative area.

tree seat
Tree Seat

Tree houses are playful for adults as well as children. We are all brought closer to nature when up in a tree canopy and given that bird’s eye perspective.

Decking that wraps around a tree can be used to link a single specimen with a copse or woodland  in another part of the garden or even beyond the garden boundary. This use of borrowed landscape immediately links your garden with its surrounds. 

Trees are so important in garden spaces that they should never be selected in haste. They are hopefully going to be around for many years, well beyond the tenancy of the garden owner. Increasingly climate change will have to be considered in making this choice along with the needs of local wildlife.

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