How to plant native shrubs and small trees

Native trees and shrubs are a great way of providing food and habitat for birds, insects and other wildlife. They’re usually pretty tough and a bit wilder than their garden cousins, though no less attractive for that. Autumn (October/November) and spring (March/April) are the best times to plant but you can plant potted plants at any time of year - even winter - except when the ground is frozen or waterlogged.  Just remember if you do it in late spring or summer you’ll need to water them more.

Here’s a selection of good all-rounders - easy to get hold of, tolerant of a wide range of conditions and with plenty of interest.  

Crabapple Malus sylvestris

Crabapple (Malus sylvestris)

A small tree with a big display of pinky-white flowers in spring followed by orangey-red fruit in autumn. Ideal as a specimen in grass. 

Need to know:

  • 4 to 6m tall
  • Happy in sun or a little shade 
  • Little aftercare needed

English holly Ilex aquifolium

An evergreen tree with dark spiny leaves and showy red berries in autumn/winter (only female plants get berries so important to check when you buy). Good backdrop for other planting.

Need to know:

  • More than 5m in time but is slow growing and can be reduced by pruning
  • Happy in sun or a little shade 
  • Little aftercare required but can cut hard back (even to ground) if necessary to reduce size

Midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata

A small tree with abundant white flowers in spring and red berries in autumn.  Useful on exposed sites.
Need to know:

  • 4 to 6m tall
  • Happy in sun or a little shade
  • Little care needed 

Hazel Corylus avellana

A tall upright multi-stem shrub with big leaves which turn yellow in autumn. Yellow catkins in spring possibly followed by nuts.  Ideal at the back of planted areas or as a stand-alone specimen.

Need to know:

  • Up to 5m tall but can easily be reduced by pruning
  • Happy in sun or a little shade
  • Prune out taller stems at ground level if they get too big.

Common dogwood Cornus sanguinea

Medium-sized shrub with white flowers, black berries, good autumn colour and nicely coloured stems in winter. Looks good near water or as link between low planting and trees.

Need to know:

  • 1.5 - 2m tall 
  • Happy in sun or a little shade
  • In spring, can prune all stems to ground level to keep in check, every year if necessary.

Guelder rose Viburnum opulus

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

Not a rose at all, but a gorgeous medium-sized shrub with lacy-white flowers in spring and red berries in summer. Superb, autumn colour. Looks good on its own or mixed with others plants.

Need to know:

  • Up to 4m but can easily be reduced by pruning
  • Happy in sun or a little shade
  • Little pruning required but prune down to 45cms in spring if necessary to restrict size

Common juniper Juniperus communis

Evergreen shrub with needle-like, aromatic leaves and blackish, berry-like fruits in autumn. Ideal for windy sites and is particularly associated with Scotland.    

Need to know:

  • Varies in size depending on conditions. Often low growing and spreading but potentially up to 3m
  • Likes sun and well-drained soil 
  • Little care needed 

Sweet briar Rosa rubiginosa

A wild rose species, with prickly stems, lightly fragrant leaves, pink flowers in summer and red hips in autumn. Elegant stand-alone specimen. 

Need to know:

  • Up to 2m tall
  • Plenty of sun 
  • Remove any unwanted stems by pruning out at ground level and give occasional feed with a balanced fertiliser (beware prickles!)

Spindle bush Euonymus europaeus 

A medium-sized shrub with delicate yellow flowers in spring followed by unusual small red fruit, and then fantastic autumn colour. Good in front of small trees, or as back drop to smaller plants.

Need to know:

  • Up to 3m tall
  • Happy in sun or a little shade
  • Minimal care needed

Purple osier Salix purpurea

Purple osier (Salix purpurea)

Type of willow, with elegant stems, narrow bluey green leaves and silvery catkins in spring.  Great near water and can tolerate exposed positions.

Need to know:

  • Up to 4m but can easily be reduced by pruning
  • Lots of sun and deep soil that won’t dry out
  • In spring, prune to ground if necessary to restrict size

How to plant

Planting trees and shrubs is easy, there really isn’t any mystery to it. Here’s a step by step guide:

  • Dig a square hole twice the width of your pot and a bit deeper.
  • Dig in a handful of compost into the soil you have excavated, and a little into the bottom of the hole. For extra plant nutrients, also add Fish, Blood & Bone (a fertiliser which you can get from any garden centre).
  • Take the plant out of its pot and put in the middle of the hole, making sure the top of the pot compost is flush with the surrounding ground.
  • Fill hole with excavated soil, and press down firmly with foot until level with surrounding ground.
  • If you are planting a tree, hammer a stake in diagonally so that it crosses close to the tree and secure to the trunk with a tree tie.
  • Give it a good water and then spread a bag of compost or bark around the plant 8-10 cms deep, but don’t let this touch the main trunk. This ‘mulch’ will help keep weeds out and moisture in.  
  • Have a cup of tea and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Pruning tips

Pruning isn’t always necessary, particularly if space isn’t an issue and you don’t mind a wild look. But a little pruning can improve the look of shrubs particularly, and can even improve flowering.

  • Use clean, sharp secateurs, or loppers for thicker stems, as this will make it so much easier. The cut will also be cleaner and less likely to get infected.
  • Always start by applying the 3-D rule – any Dead, Diseased & Damaged stems should be removed first. To this you can add any crossing/rubbing stems and heavily congested stems in the middle of the plant (ideally you want an open centre with good air circulation). 
  • Light, routine pruning should be done after flowering, e.g. to tidy or thin out the shrub a bit.
  • Trace the stem you want to remove back to the branch it shoots from and cut there (but not flush, leave a couple of cms).

Be safe

Take care when using garden tools like secateurs and spades, and wear gloves when handling compost, fertiliser and prickly stems.

Useful links

There’s lots of great information online, whether you want practical advice or just to find out more about native trees and shrubs. Here are a few useful links:

The Woodland Trust
The Forestry Commission
The Royal Horticultural Society
The Tree Council

And if you have space, why not complement your native tree and shrub planting with some wild flowers? For useful seasonal tips on getting the best out of your wild flower seed mix, check out our How to grow wild flowers section.