Choosing a new tree for your garden calls for careful evaluation says Jane Moore. Opt for small and beautiful with a golden acer, a single trunk Japanese cherry with spreading arches of perfume, or what about a statuesque birch tree?
It’s a big subject but let’s talk trees this month. Whatever the size of your garden, it needs a tree. That is a fact and not one that you should shy away from. Trees give scale and proportion to a property, framing it, adding height and structure as well as softness and subtlety with the changing seasons. Whether it’s a multi-stem birch, a flowering cherry or a pencil thin evergreen your house needs a tree or two to accentuate its good looks or distract from its less than alluring façade. If only it were so easy for us humans…
Not one for beating about the bush I know that trees can be both a joy and an utter pain. Homeowners, and I am one, fear the costly maintenance, the loss of limbs and leaves and annoyed neighbours muttering about too much shade, bird droppings and so on. It’s a question of choosing the right tree for your situation and there, dear reader, I aim to assist.
Small and beautiful
It’s debatable when a shrub becomes and tree and vice versa and I intend to leave that hot potato well alone here, instead we’ll concentrate on a handful of small trees or shrubs that can give you that tree ‘feel’ without towering over the whole street.
These little trees are often the stars of the garden, providing height and interest even in a larger garden such as The Bath Priory. In a small garden such as my home garden these are often your only trees. A good example is my favourite little Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’, which I may have mentioned before, with its deep purple heart shaped leaves and lovely ‘umbrella’ habit. Think of the lovely Japanese Acers in this group too, along with flowering Cornus and even a crown lifted Cotinus would sit well in this group. These shrubby trees often branch low down giving a slightly multi-stem look but they do need some clear stretches of stem so they look like proper little trees.
I love a multi-stem birch and who doesn’t frankly? However be warned as they aren’t cheap by any means. If you do decide to fork out for one then the classic choice is the Himlayan White birch, Betula utilis or jacquemontii, with ghostly pure white stems which are a feature in their own right. Pair them with dainty bulbs or herbaceous perennials beneath and you have instant Chelsea, darling.
For those of us with budget restraints, you can achieve that multi-stem loveliness by simply planting three sapling birches together in one hole as a cluster. It’s not quite the same effect and they’ll take a while to grow but it works. Or you can forget the multi-stem thing which is a bit artificial to be honest and just go for a naturally branching tree such as the ‘Forest Pansy’ mentioned above, or an Amelanchier which gives a lot of bang for your buck with charming starry flowers in spring followed by spectacular autumn colour.
The good thing about a simple straightforward single trunk tree is that they’re way cheaper and you get far more choice than you do with multi-stems. A lot of really great trees don’t respond well to multi-stemming so nurseries tend not to do it – or when charge big bucks for it. Think of the beautiful handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, or flowering cherries. These trees look perfect with their canopies arching over the border or lawn beneath and it’s a crime to force them into behaving differently. My favourites include the Japanese cherries, especially ones with spreading branches such as ‘Shirotae’, rowan trees of all descriptions and of course birches which personally I prefer in their natural shape of a single trunk.
“If you’re looking for something more statuesque then go for a birch, a magnolia or even an architectural pine variety”
Houses and roots
A tree close to the house can do wonders for framing your property and softening it’s less attractive features. However every homeowner lives in fear that planting a tree too close to the house will lead to damage, mainly from the roots, whether that’s from them contributing to subsidence or invading drains and blocking them. But there are trees that are fine for planting close to the house and again it’s a question of choosing wisely.
Good varieties include fruit trees of all descriptions such as apples, plums, pears and so on. That of course includes their ornamental namesakes such as the flowering crab apples, especially Malus floribunda, one of my favourite trees as it’s smothered in blossom in spring, as well as ornamental plums and flowering cherries. Besides these you can plant any rowan variety and some of them are really lovely with pink, white or yellow berries as well as the more usual orange and red.If you’re looking for something more statuesque then go for a birch, a magnolia or even an architectural pine variety. Birches such as our own native birch Betula pendula have a soft wispy quality and that wonderful white bark. Look out for ‘Tristis’ with a more weeping habit and ‘Dalecarlica’ with finely cut leaves. As for Magnolias it’s a job to know where to start as they’re so lovely and there are oodles of varieties. Do avoid the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora as it’s a bit of a beast. And Magnolia stellata, while lovely in the garden, is a bit twiggy and shrubby rather than tree-like. When it comes to pines my choice is Pinus pinea, the stone pine, which has the most delightful umbrella habit and enormous cones.
Finally, do remember that most trees close to buildings do no damage whatsoever, partly due to modern building techniques. So don’t be afraid to plant a tree, choose sensibly and you won’t regret it one bit.
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener