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How to choose trees for your garden

In the first of a new series Clare Foster introduces the wonderful wealth of arboreal possibilities and advises on choosing the right tree for your garden

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By House & Garden | October 26, 2021 | Gardens

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus wrote, ‘If a tree dies, plant another in its place.’ It is simple advice but we should all take heed. Trees are our lifeblood and we should plant as many as we can to enhance our own gardens and make the world a healthier place. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, reduce ozone levels and erosion, and provide habitats for birds and other wildlife.

The list of their benefits goes on but, quite aside from this, they are simply beautiful to look at, affecting light and shadow, offering varied leaf shape and colour, and providing another layer of interest to give your garden a sense of maturity and longevity. Think of a tree as an essential component of your garden and treat it like any other plant. Do not be daunted, just know what you are planting and what it will turn into one day.

So, how to choose the right tree for your garden? ‘The most important thing to think about is what you would like it to do,’ says tree specialist Robert Vernon, owner of BlueBell Arboretum & Nursery in Derbyshire. ‘Are you looking for an ornamental specimen or do you need it to screen an ugly view? Are you planting it in a lawn, arboretum or herbaceous border? Do you need something that looks best at a certain time of year? Do you want a productive tree? Deciduous or evergreen? Are you going to plant a single specimen, a group or an avenue?’

Once you have asked yourself these questions and worked out the tree’s purpose, think about your garden’s situation – sheltered or windy, dry or wet, shady or sunny – and, finally, your soil type, whether normal, acidic or alkaline. If you bear all these factors in mind, you are less likely to plant something unsuitable.

The next step is to think about size. ‘It’s nearly impossible to predict how tall a tree will grow in any specific area,’ says Robert. ‘They develop at different rates and respond to different conditions in cultivation, so there are huge discrepancies, for example, in the final heights of a cercidiphyllum growing in the wild in Japan and one in our arboretum in Derbyshire. You also have to take into account how long a tree will take to reach a certain height, and this varies hugely from genus to genus.’ Local tree specialists should be able to give an educated guess how tall a tree will grow over 10, 15 or 25 years, based on where you live and the conditions you are providing.

It can also be helpful to see a variety growing in an existing situation, so visiting an arboretum, where you can wander around looking at different named specimens, is advisable. It is all very well knowing that a tree may eventually reach 10 metres, but can you picture how that actually looks?

Once you have gone through your mental checklist, the parameters will become much clearer. The good news is that there are plenty of small ornamental garden trees that are both beautiful and easy to grow in most soils and situations. If you have room for just one, choose something like a crab apple, amelanchier or acer that will give the most year-round value, with spring blossom and autumn berry or leaf colour; or opt for a classic, like a magnolia, the spectacular spring blossom of which will lift the spirits each year. M. x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ is one of the most beautiful, with pale pink stellata-type flowers, and a compact height that will not exceed about 6 metres. If space is really restricted, you could plant a large shrub such as an osmanthus, viburnum or Portuguese laurel and, by pruning the lower branches and lifting the crown, give it the appearance of a small, multi-stemmed tree. If you are looking for an evergreen you can clip into shape, try Phillyrea angustifolia or make lollipops with deciduous beech or hornbeam, both of which maintain good structure in winter.

Planting Notes

Trees are supplied either bare-root or containerised, and the best time to plant is from November to February, as long as the ground is not waterlogged or frozen. Container-grown trees can be planted at any time of year but if you plant in spring or summer, when they are in growth, they will need much more regular watering. Each tree has its own cultivation requirements but, for an average hardy tree or shrub, make sure you prepare the soil thoroughly beforehand, digging in plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. Create a hole deeper than the container or length of the roots and add more compost and a handful of bonemeal before dropping the tree in and backfilling the soil, firming it down with your feet. Watering is crucial while the tree establishes itself, but it is best to drench it every three or four days rather than watering constantly – frequent light watering encourages surface rather than deep roots, leaving plants susceptible to drought.

It can be tempting to plant large specimens for instant impact or screening, but Robert Vernon advises planting whips (young single-stem bare-root trees) up to a metre tall. ‘Invariably the smaller plants catch up with and even overtake those planted as larger specimens,’ he says. ‘They are lower maintenance and usually establish much quicker’.

BlueBell Nursery’s top five garden trees

Best for year-round interest

Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’. This looks good at pretty much any time of year, with pinkish-white spring blossom that appears against bronze-coloured foliage, and spectacular red and orange autumn colour. Tough and easy to grow, it will reach approximately 8 metres in maturity.

Best for autumn and winter

Acer griseum. A versatile and beautiful maple with interesting cinnamon-coloured, papery, peeling bark and spectacular rosy-red autumn colour. Elegant and compact, it is slow growing, eventually reaching about 10 metres.

Best for spring blossom

Malus ‘Indian Magic’. A newly introduced crab apple with vibrant deep pink blossom in spring followed by long-lasting red and orange fruit in autumn. It will eventually grow to 4-5 metres.

Best specimen tree

Betula ermanii ‘Grayswood Hill’. A graceful tree with peeling, creamy pinky white bark and pale green, heart-shaped leaves that turn beautiful shades of butter yellow in autumn. An excellent choice for a prime spot in the garden, it will reach an eventual height of 12-15 metres.

Best for a container

Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’. Flowering dogwoods are excellent choices for large containers, and this cultivar produces masses of pink flower bracts in early summer, which on mature plants are followed by crimson strawberry like fruit. In the ground it may reach 5 metres, but in a pot its height will be restricted to 2-3 metres.

Written by Clare Foster.

This article originally appeared on House & Garden UK.