Saturday, 30 November 2013 00:00

Time to plant a tree or two

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You may not know this but we are in ‘National Tree week’.

The major online plant shops are promoting this as a time to buy trees. And why not? Trees are completely wonderful, an important addition to any garden, and they're much more colourful and interesting than people think because many flower and have fruits, as well as changing colour. And this is a great time to plant them, especially given how late Autumn is.

My garden, as you know, is small but I wouldn’t be without my trees. They add height, structure, cover for birds and lots of beauty and colour interest from their flowers, fruits and leaf colours. If I could plant more trees I would, but I already have twelve in just 140 square metres, four of which I inherited, and there has to be room for everything else too.

I think the selection of trees for a small garden is much more critical because each one needs to be very special. One of my prime requirements is that they don’t stop the ground under and around them from being able to grow flowers and shrubs, so they can’t create too much shade or drop poisonous needles.

Based only on my personal experience, I’d recommend many of the trees in my garden. The inherited small silver birch (unknown variety) adds elegance and lovely colours throughout the year and a beautiful noise as the wind goes through it, but it does drop catkins and twigs.

Silver birch (betula unknown)

The inherited Rowan (Sorbus unknown, probably aucuparia) has interesting shaped branches, stays small and is lovely when covered in its white flowers and orange/red berries (spring and late summer/autumn). The bird feeders sit in it and the blackbirds live in it and then eat all the berries.

Rowan tree (Sorbus unknown)

The leaves on mine go yellow in autumn but there are others I would recommend that turn much more beautiful colours at the end of the year such as ‘Joseph Rock’ with red leaves and yellow berries and the somewhat larger S. 'Olympic Flame' with red leaves and berries.

Above: Sorbus 'Joseph Rock   Photo source: Harleynursery.co.uk

The inherited fruiting cherry (unknown) is really too big for a garden this size and is the one I have to have cut and thinned on a regular basis. Its leaf cover is very dense causing a lot of shade and the blossom is so brief that I think the smaller, more decorative, non-fruiting versions would be a better choice.

The beauty of pink blossom and burgundy leaves in parents' old garden

I am particularly fond of the dark leaved trees with pink flowers. These include Prunus cerasifera Pissarii but this can get quite large at 5x4m, so smaller ones to look at are:Pendula Pendula Rubra AGM (3x3m) though it has green leaves but good autumn colour; Royal Burdundy AGM which is 5x3m; and Kiku-shidare-zakura (below) which is also weeping and, at only 2.5x2.5m, can also go in a pot.

Above: Prunus Kiku-shidare-zakura   Photo source: Suttons.co.uk

The smaller Acers are also great value. I have four acers (two A. palmatum ‘Orange Dream’, an A.palmatum ‘Sunset’ which is like a purpureum but smaller (and is not ‘Orange Sunset’) and an A. palmatum dissectum ‘Garnet’) the latter two of which are brilliant red as I write, and the former two are turning orange again from their Summer acid green. These colours look great day and night, especially if you have a handy spotlight nearby.

Left: Acer palmatum 'Sunset'. Right: Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'

The Eucalyptus niphophila I planted is a tall, straight, slow growing one and, though its bark is not quite as spectacular as others, it’s very pretty green/grey white with reddish stems to the leaves. It’s a great size for a small garden and has not had to be reduced. It is now about 5 metres high. Apparently it has white flowers that attract bees and I can’t believe I have never noticed these. It throws old leaves down but only behind the greenhouse, so it’s not a problem.

Eucalyptus niphophila

Crab apple John Downie is a small, tall-ish, thin crab apple so again a good choice for a smaller garden if you want a fruit tree. I have to admit that I am still not very good at apple tree pruning and don’t get the amount of blossom and fruit I would like but I’m working on it and I know it is my fault not the tree’s.

Weeping fruit trees are also a good idea. My mum has a beautiful weeping silver pear, Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' AGM, which she grows a lovely pale blue geranium under and through. It can get big (8-12m) unless you prune it, but is slow growing and can be controlled as a small tree.

Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' around Geranium

She also has a tree I covet, Styrex japonicus. She has it over a bench because its lovely, scented, white flowers which come out in Summer hang down and are best viewed from underneath. It can get a bit big (ie 8-12m x 4-8m) but it is also slow growing and will achieve this over 20 years and can be pruned back. It is very pretty and highly recommended.

Styrax japonicus                                 Photo shot by Gondahara on May20, 2006

Cornus contraversa 'Variegata' or 'the Wedding Cake tree' is a classic. It is beautifully tiered, has lovely leaves, white flowers in June, good colours in Autumn with berries and is pretty hardy.  But it can get quite big too (8mx 8m), so not really one for very small garden sadly. More for medium sized ones where it can be a feature tree or mix beautifully with others.

Above: Cornus contrversa variegata  Photo source: Suttons.co.uk

The Albizia julibrissia "Ombrella = Boubri PBR" I planted is doing exactly what I needed it for. It is gently hiding a large expanse of my neighbour’s house wall and it has lovely foliage like a mimosa which closes at night. It has spectacular pink flowers in summer and is a tree you see a lot in the South of France, Spain and Italy. It looks much more tender and exotic than it is because it is hardy to -17 C. Apparently this Ombrella form is a rare form. The more common A. julibrissia rosea AGM, which is very similar to look at, is frost tender. I have raised the crown on mine so it doesn’t create too much shade for the nearby climbing roses and it looks very elegant. It now comes with green or purple leaves so really worth searching out if you live south of Scotland and want something exotic, elegant, flowering and controllable with light, beautiful, leaf cover.

Albizia 'Ombrella'

The Rhamnus alerternus ‘Argenteovariegata’ or Italian buckthorn I have in a very large pot down the side passage to hide the water butt is also very successful. Technically it’s a shrub not a tree but is now two metres high (could grow to 4m) and looks like a tree so I’ve included it. It has cream edges to its pretty leaves, very small flowers and then berries and it is evergreen. It looks lovely outside the kitchen window.

Rhamnus alerternus

Talking of large shrubs that look like trees, two of my three Pittospurums are now pretty tree-like. Both P. ‘Garnettii’AGM and ‘Irene Paterson’ AGM are single stemmed and now 2m high. P ‘Tandara Gold’ would be too if I hadn’t been cutting it into a ball shape.

My newest tree, the Aronia prunifolia ‘Brilliant’ is actually a shrub grafted onto a tree stem at 1m. It is supposed to be turning a fabulous colour right now and is not making a very good job of it. Autumn is late like the rest of the seasons so I suppose I should give it a couple more weeks to try.

Apart from the Acers, the unusual star of the show however is the Cytisus bantandieri which I have grown as a tree not a many stemmed shrub. It is semi evergreen with silky grey/green leaves, has enormous yellow flower clusters in early summer which look and smell like pineapples (hence its common name of Pineapple tree) which the bees adore. It casts very little shade and can be easily pruned to shape. I can’t recommend it more highly as a tree for a small garden.

Cytisus batandieri

I miss my Fremontadendron californicum horribly and this is a good and unusual choice if you can cope with the garish yellow/orange flowers and eye and skin irritating leaves and seed pods because it flowers all season.

Fremontadendron californicum

I also miss my Arbutus unidos or strawberry tree with its fabulous bark, dark evergreen leaves and red and white fruits. When I planted it I didn’t realise how big it could get and there simply wasn’t room for it beside the Pineapple tree, so it had to go. They can be controlled like any tree by planting them in pots but it seems a shame.

The only other tree I have “unplanted” is the Amelanchier ‘Snowflakes’ which along with A. ‘Ballerina’ and A. ‘Robin Hill’ is recommended by almost everyone who writes on best value small trees. It would be nice to have it turning red now but the flowers were so sparse and short-lived and the foliage so dull for 50 weeks of the year that it just didn’t have enough wow factor to deserve a permanent place in this garden.

The Catalpa bignonioides or Indian bean tree has always been on my wish list but I really don’t know where I could put one. They have huge, beautifully bright leaves (if regularly pruned) but a lot of them and they can grow to more than 12x8m, so the shade cover would be quite serious to say the least. I also covet a Cercis or two for their flowers, leaf shape and colours and a Euonymous for their crazy seed colours. They can be shrubs or small trees and would be more manageable than a Catalpa, especially in a large pot. I just can't decide whether to go for the Cercis with fab pink flowers or the ones with better Autumn colour.

Where to buy trees is always the question. Crocus has a good reputation generally. However, for tree specialists, online I like Barcham Trees where you can actually select the tree you are buying from a moving photo of it but my favourite place to buy trees is Frank P Matthews Ltd whose brand is Trees for Life. They are just outside Tenbury Wells but also sell online and through garden centres. The basic selections on my shopping list should be available from any good garden centre and I shall be visiting Neal's in Wandsworth and my new favourite Court Farm Garden Centre, in Tolworth to check - when I get a minute.

Just writing and researching this blog has made me salivate and linger for longer than necessary over the Google images tree pages and FlickR selections so, guess what I am doing to celebrate National Tree week! Surely I can squeeze a couple more in somewhere – even if only in large pots?

P.S. And whatever you do, please don't be tempted to let a Sycamore grow in your garden. In my view they are the worst and largest weeds around town - and I have real experience of this. Pull up every seedling you see.

Read 17188 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 October 2014 09:18