Choosing Trees for the Garden

The mild weather this year has been fantastic for most gardeners as it gives us a chance to get outside and get ahead with winter chores ready for spring. There are a few inconveniences of course, such as tree nurseries not being able to lift field-grown trees until they’re dormant which means we’ll have to wait a little longer to add new arrivals to the collection.

Acer in autumn colour in Aberglasney’s Asiatic Garden

At Aberglasney, we’re in the process of buying and planting replacements of ash trees that sadly had to be removed because of dieback. Buying and planting a tree is, to me, one of the most exciting things a gardener can do. I was explaining this to Aberglasney’s students and one said “so this job has to be good for two hundred and fifty years”, which I thought was a very good way of putting it. It’s quite true because a well planted, well cared for tree will give us and many generations to come plenty of enjoyment.

Unfortunately, very few trees that are planted actually reach maturity in gardens and towns and the reason for this is often poor tree selection. If you choose the right tree for the right spot, chances are it’ll outlive us all and be around for hundreds of years.

So, what are the most important things to consider when selecting a tree? For a start, their final size is a crucial factor. If you stop and look next time you see a tree being removed or pruned, it’s nearly always outgrown its spot. The next factors to consider are its boundaries, any shade it’ll cast on its neighbours, the leaves it’ll drop during autumn and even its new owner/tree planter. It may surprise you that the most frequent reasons for trees die is because it becomes necessary to remove them and not because of things like drought, disease, frost and other obvious threats.

Cornus ‘Miss Satomi’ and primula in Bishop Rudds walk at Aberglasney

So, how do you select the right tree? This is where nurseries, books, and the internet become really handy – although I personally find looking at specimens that are settled and mature in other gardens is most helpful. Plenty of time should be spent researching what you’d like, but more importantly what fits your garden.

Although Aberglasney Gardens cover eleven acres, we often face situations like those in private gardens in places where space is in short supply. Lack of space has influenced our choices and therefore we have many examples of trees which are suitable for smaller gardens here. I’ll discuss some of our best below…

The first is a Wedding Cake Tree (Cornus contraversa ‘Variegata’) which is pyramid shaped, layered like a wedding cake and has a final size of less than 10 metres. It has many lovely qualities including white flowers in spring, variegated leaves in summer, and good autumn colour, but its best quality is its beautiful layered shape which can be enjoyed year-round. It’ll make an excellent long-lived plant in a medium sized garden.

Cornus contraversa ‘Variegata’ in Aberglasney’s Pool Garden

Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus kousa) also make wonderful home garden trees – they’re all good performers with wonderful white flowers and fine autumn colour. We find the less well known Nyssa and Liquidambar are by far the best for autumn colour at Aberglasney and would make great trees for a home garden.

Nyssa sylvatica in autumn colour by Bishop Rudd’s Bridge

There’s a huge range of trees available for smaller gardens with Japanese Acers probably offering the widest choice of colour and shape. However, there are many other options. If you’re a fan of conifers then there’s an excellent amount of small and dwarfed conifers to choose from. Stellata type Magnolia also make great trees for small gardens, as do the smaller Japanese flowering Cherries which of course bring such beautiful springtime blooms. Alternatively, fruit trees can be used and come in a variety of sizes.

Acer and Prunus in autumn colour

The important thing to take from all of this is to make sure the final size of the tree is suitable for the space you have, and remember, patience is a virtue.

Tips for the week:

  1. Mark out your vegetable garden
  2. Have a look for a spot for a small tree
  3. Prepare the ground for February Sowing
  4. Prune your fruit trees
  5. Tie in climbers
  6. Prune climbing roses
  7. Start forcing Chicory, Rhubarb and Sea Kale