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Gardening: Trees for Small Gardens

Small garden? Reckon you don’t have room for a tree? Think again, says Flo Whitaker. There are trees to suit every location – and now’s the best time to plant one.

If there’s a prize for the most unfussy tree, hawthorn is surely a contender. Windblown into mad, sculptural shapes; they anchor themselves into thin soil and endure the extremes of downland weather, so will easily cope with whatever conditions your garden has to offer – only deep shade and waterlogged ground deters them. Hawthorn is a terrific food plant for wildlife; producing clusters of nectarrich white flowers in spring and blood red berries in autumn. Some cultivar forms have pink flowers, while others offer spectacular autumn leaf colour.

Nothing says ‘spring’ more than an ornamental cherry, (Prunus) bedecked in blossom, but choose with care – some can grow as wide as they are high, although may take a considerable time to do so. Many cultivars also produce autumn fruits which, although highly decorative, are usually bitter and inedible, (unless you’re a blackbird). In a small garden, plants that offer more than one season of interest are particularly useful, so decorative bark/stems are other factors to consider – especially at this time of year. The Tibetan Cherry, (Prunus serrula) produces amazing mahogany coloured glossy bark. The birch family, (Betula) are also noted for fabulous bark; the variety ‘Jacquemontii’ has the whitest, ghostliest bark imaginable.

Cultivars with a pendulous or ‘weeping’ habit are often less vigorous than their upright counterparts – useful to remember if space is very restricted. Tall-growing shrubs with multi-stemmed habits can be employed to give the aesthetic appearance of a tree – they helpfully straddle the tree/shrub divide. Members of the viburnum family have much to offer in this regard, as do cotinus and cornus.

Trees in pots are useful in a small, patio-style space; giving height and interest to an area which may offer nothing other than a uniformly flat surface. No two trees ever grow in the same way and they have the extraordinary ability to quickly take on characterful aspects. Acers are especially good at this trick; appearing venerable and stately from an early age. The general rule for acers is that they require shelter and shade but, while the former is correct, some acers are happy in bright light. As a guide; the darker their foliage, the more sunshine-tolerant, (the reddish leaf pigment is nature’s sunscreen). If you like acers but cannot provide sheltered conditions, members of the sambucus family, with their acer-like foliage and robust constitutions may fit the bill. Try Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ for ultra-dark leaves, or ‘Sutherland Gold’ for zingy, bright foliage. Sambucus enjoys a sunny spot and, unlike acers, laughs in the face of an easterly gale.

Potted evergreens are stalwarts of the winter garden. Instead of vigorous, potbusting taproots, conifers tend to make clumps of fine roots, making them ideal for containers, so long as the compost remains moist. When planting any tree in a pot, avoid multi-purpose compost. What they really enjoy is a soil-based medium that has slow-release fertiliser and water-retaining material added. Soil-based composts are much heavier than multi-purpose types as they also contain grit/sand to mimic natural soil conditions. This also has a practical advantage as heavy pots are less likely to topple over in windy weather.

Some folk reckon conifers are boring because, ‘they don’t do anything.’ Nonsense! How can you accuse a plant of laziness when it looks good for 365 days of the year with virtually zero effort from you? They do have seasons of interest – they’re just more subtle about it. Old leaves, (‘needles’) are quietly shed during growth spurts – typically in spring and autumn. Their juvenile foliage is brighter in colour; giving pink-ish, golden or silvery highlights and, of course, there are wintery cones and dramatic, frost-rimmed outlines to look forward to. For most of the year, conifers modestly stay in the background, but, come winter, they step forward into the spotlight, resplendent in their smart evergreen costumes. No matter how small, every garden has space for a tree – and the garden centres are currently full of them. What are you waiting for!

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