Selecting and Planting Trees and Shrubs for the Garden

Selection and Planting

So we have decided that your trees and shrubs and the soil in which you plant them must be compatible, and that your chosen plants must be prominent in the landscape without dominating it. Your next step must be very carefully considered, for what you decide can affect the appearance of your garden for the next twenty years, perhaps more. Your choice is vast. You may like to have a willow, or an oak, or an elm, or a lovely Ginkgo biloba as a focal point at the end of the lawn. Your plan must depend entirely on the size of your garden.

Your domain may be so small that a couple of apple trees on the lawn is as far as you can go. An apple, pear or plum tree in the middle of the lawn, or somewhere near the end of it, will provide you with both wonderful blossom in spring and harvestable fruit at the end of summer, if not before, so don’t dismiss this idea out of hand.

Or you may prefer to have a purely decorative scheme. And immediately you have the choice from a myriad of (mainly) shrubs that will provide you with colour and possibly perfume at the appropriate season, and for the rest of the year will make what might be termed an architectural feature of your garden.

With many new housing estates, it must be agreed that planting even a single tree is not a feasible proposition. But there will still be room for a few shrubs — roses are shrubs and there cannot be many gardens in Britain that have none. Nor need the owner of one of the new-style compact estate gardens limit himself to roses. The range is wide, but selection is a much more serious operation than, say, sending off an order for seeds or bulbs. They will provide you with a fleeting rainbow of colour, but your woody trees and shrubs are permanent, and the garden must to a very large extent be built around them. If you are starting a new garden from scratch, it is a good idea to plan first where you will have these corner posts.


One factor to consider is that they will all be slow to get into their stride. True, nowadays, you can buy container-grown plants that are three or four years old and transplant them to give the effect of a mature garden overnight, but this is expensive, and there are still thousands of people who prefer to begin with young plants and watch them develop.

If you adopt this more conventional approach you must be prepared for a wait of a few years before they have matured. Because of their ultimate spread, they have to be planted several metres apart, and this means a lot of empty space for the first couple of years or so. This area is not wasted – you can effect a temporary fill-in with flowers or bulbs, or quick ground-cover plants. Indeed many of these can remain in position even when your shrubbery is worth showing off to visitors.

Trees and shrubs, once planted, will generally withstand all but the most outrageous weather conditions, but while still out of the ground they do need some care. If one arrives with the roots still shrouded in the ball of soil in which it was grown, keep this intact so far as possible: that piece of soil is its ‘home’ and it may not take kindly to a sudden change of environment. If there is no soil attached, you have as compensation the opportunity to inspect the roots closely. There should be a good long tap root and plenty of smaller, very fibrous ones: these are the ‘feelers’ that will seek out nourishment and create good root development, the secret of healthy growth. Skeletal, almost hairless root development is ominous —reject any such plant.

If the weather is frosty, try to keep your new plants in a cool (but not freezing) place under cover until you can deal with them: being dormant they will not normally come to much harm for a few days. Otherwise, if you cannot plant them straight away, heel them in. Dig a shallow trench, lay them in at an angle of approximately 45 degrees, and firm the soil back again, covering the roots. When you are ready to plant, soak the roots in a bucket of water for twenty-four hours beforehand. Never plant them dry – dried-out roots take a very long time indeed to acclimatize themselves and begin working.

With the reservation that it is unwise to plant in waterlogged soil, ensure that the surrounding soil is well moistened as soon as you have finished planting, and if the plant needs staking put the stake in first, so that you do not unwittingly drive it through the roots.

There is a way of getting almost instant coverage with even very young plants, and I discovered it by accident. A very knowledgeable friend who showed me round his garden was busily making notes as we went of the plants I especially admired, telling me that I must have some, or cuttings from them, for my new garden. I had forgotten the incident when one day he rang to say that my plants were ready for collection. We had no space available at the time, so hastily dug out a long narrow bed, about a metre wide, across the lawn, and bore home our new treasures.

There must have been about fifty of them, perhaps more, a mixture of all sorts, and not all just cuttings: some buddleias, dogwood, broom, daphne, euonymus, eleagnus and many more, including a number of variegated-leaved perennials. We spaced them out, staggered to give each as much room as possible, planted them, and left them to their fate while we got on with more urgent tasks around the new house.

It was a hot dry summer and we did make one concession. We kept them well watered, and how well they repaid us for our trouble. We had very few losses indeed but the happy surprise was that they grew in towards each other and in no time at all we had a very colourful ‘nursery bed’ that was one of the main features of the garden. There was no plan to it. It just happened that the plants were of differing heights and colours, and the variegated leaves of many of them added to the effect. They were hopelessly overcrowded in terms of permanency, but by the following year we had prepared a special bed two or three metres wide. We transplanted some and left the remainder intact. They, with more room to breathe, immediately spread their wings, and that improvised border is still a feature of the garden, and the new shrubbery likewise has prospered.

The moral of all this is don’t be afraid to plant closely so that you get some immediate effect, and be prepared to discard some of your plants after a year or so. You may not need to throw them out completely. It is surprising how many odd corners you can find in even the smallest garden for one individual plant.

Because nursery owners, for all their love of the subject, are essentially commercially minded, it is natural that more attention should be paid to quick-moving stock. I believe it was because of the greater promotion afforded bulbs and seeds that it took me such a long time to realize that there is, in practice, a wider choice of trees and shrubs than of any other kind of plant. If you live at the seaside, and your house has the full benefit of unrestricted sea views across the promenade and all that that implies, such as gallons of spray and a howling gale, will any of your seeds or bulbs survive? What will give protection to plants in the lee, and come up for more? Cotoneaster will. So will euonymus. So will escallonia, though this one would appreciate a little protection itself.

Or do you live in a town area, with impoverished soil and no means of adding the necessary humus that will make it a fitting home for your bright summer flowers? Your annuals or bedding plants will put up some kind of show, struggling against all the odds, but neither they nor you are likely to be very happy. But give a trial to Polygonum baldschuanicum, much more easily pronounced as Russian or mile-a-minute vine, and once it gets established it will cover everything in sight with myriads of little pinkish-white flowers, adding up to a pretty formidable sight.

Or have you a boggy area? Few plants relish wet feet, but the salix (willow) is an obvious choice in trees. And I can recommend one shrub, Cornus alba, the white-flowered dogwood, that will fill the gap here, and as a bonus will provide plenty of flowers for the house in summer and red foliage and/or bark as an encore in autumn. What other plants are so versatile or so busy on your behalf over such a long period?

Do you wish to make a strong natural division to mark the boundary of your property, but do not relish being shut in by a fence or wall? There can be only one answer – a hedge, and there are dozens of subjects from which to choose. Some roses make a fine hedge, likewise several varieties of berberis and cotoneaster (one of which, Cotoneaster hybrida pendula, nominally a shrub, can also be grown as a small tree and so bring an extra dimension to your hedge to break up the line: it is an evergreen carrying hundreds of red berries in autumn and winter). And who could resist the so-called common beech, Fagus sylvatica? Bright green leaves in spring turn to those lovely copper shades in autumn and remain through winter — and it thrives anywhere, except on the heaviest of clays.

Perhaps you fancy something in tubs, something movable to provide a change of view, to form a contrast to the lawn, or furnish a patio? Plenty of fuchsias thrive in these conditions.

There are other bonuses, too. You can choose both trees and shrubs to give you an outline shape in half a dozen forms: spreading, round, upright, erect (less spreading than the upright ones), pyramid shape or weeping, or even prostrate, which means they are good for ground cover. You can have spring-flowering subjects — think how almond blossom brings joy to so many streets in towns and cities — and those that show leaf and bark colour, or a cascade of berries, in autumn. Those same city streets come to life in late summer with the rowan, or mountain ash, and its mass display of berries.

There are dozens that flower, and many of them are perfumed flowers, too. There are others whose foliage is scented. There are some that specialize in certain conditions of soil or situation: chalk, clay, sand, wet, dry, sunny or shady. Some will climb a wall, although they may need support in this exercise, and others will remain doggedly close to the ground. As we have seen, some keep their leaves, and even offer flower, through the winter. They will all bring grace and dignity, and a touch of exclusiveness, to your garden.

28. April 2011 by admin
Categories: Plants, Trees and Shrubs | Tags: , | Comments Off on Selecting and Planting Trees and Shrubs for the Garden


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