Gardening can be like staring at a sweet shop window. The cornucopia of treats makes our fingers itchy, just grown-up kids desperate for a little bit of everything from the pick-and-mix stall. Whatever the size of our gardens, we can all indulge our fancies by choosing some annuals that take our eye. From a pint-sized pot to rolling acres, annuals enable us to start afresh each year with new colours and combinations. And like all good confectionary, the candied spice scent of Night Stocks (a personal favourite) is an intense pleasure, but tantalizingly ephemeral.
Picking a tree is different. Unless you have bottomless pockets, a tree is a long-term investment in cash and time. It’s worth a little effort to think carefully about what to choose. Even small garden specimens can last a generation and we might want to consider the survival of the trees we plant long beyond our own lifetime. We have our favourites, but every garden is different, and your taste might be different to ours. So instead of a list of suggestions, here are five top-tips for how to look for a tree that will suit you.
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#1 Why have a tree?
A simple question, but worth asking. Do you want a tree to provide privacy and shield a neighbour’s house, for wildlife, for autumn colour, for spring blossom or for fruit? Perhaps there is little flowering in your garden through May, so a spring blossoming tree would be ideal. Alternatively, maybe you have a slump in colour at the end of June, so a summer bloomer would suit. Are you desperate for auburn leaves in Autumn, or a zinging lick of lime in April? Maybe you want something evergreen too…Understanding what you want the tree to do for you will help you narrow down the choice.
#2 What are your conditions?
You may have heard the phrase ‘right plant, right place’; a concise way of talking about your local conditions. There is no point having a plant that loves sandy, free-draining coastal conditions if you have a heavy clay that freezes over winter. Perhaps you have a 2m2 plot in which case a 20m tall tree probably isn’t the best choice. Work your way through the six questions below and note down your answers, which will whittle down the range of options to something more manageable.
- Soil texture. Is your soil heavy or light? If you aren’t sure, have a look online for some advice. A good place to start is the RHS Soil types / RHS Gardening
- pH. Is your soil acid or alkaline? If you don’t know, get down to your local DIY store or garden centre where you can pick up a pH testing kit for around £2. Instructions will be in the pack!
- Does your soil retain water, or easily dry out?
- How big do you want the tree to be? Trees are usually labelled as ‘size in 5-10 years’ but remember we are thinking for the long term. 10 years is a short time for trees, so think about the ‘ultimate height and spread’.
- Will the tree be in sun or shade?
- What shape will fit? Some trees are broad and sprawling, others grow as columns. Columns block less light, sprawlers can support hammocks and adventurous kids!
#3 How to choose?
Now you’ve written down what you want your tree to do and have an idea of your conditions, it’s time to go window shopping. We will cover some books that can help you choose, but for most people the best place to start is with the ‘Find a Plant’ tool on the RHS website: Find advice & tips on garden & indoor plants | Plant finder & selector / RHS Gardening.
Fill in all the parameters you are sure of, like soil type and sunlight. Then choose what colour and size you fancy, you can even specify different shades for autumn leaves and spring blossom. At the bottom of the list, under the ‘Plant Characteristics’ header, pay attention to these key items:
- Click the drop down box for ‘Plant Type’. Right at the bottom of the list click ‘Tree’.
- Under the ‘Habit’ menu you can choose from ‘Columnar/Upright’, ‘Spreading/Branched’ etc.
- For plants good for wildlife, you can click ‘Native to Britain and Ireland’ and ‘Perfect for Pollinators’.
- Trees ‘Noted for Scent’ will add an extra dimension to your space.
- Click ‘Award of Garden Merit’ to be extra sure the tree is a good do-er and comes recommended by the RHS. Helpful for less experienced gardeners.
The more you fill in, the narrower the choice. If you are an old-hand in the garden or are looking for a particular choice plant, perhaps something less commonly grown, you could also peruse the specialist books, catalogues and encyclopaedias that cover garden worthy trees and shrubs. We recommend these:
Start with ‘The Tree Book’ by Dirr and Warren, or if you’re also interested in shrubs, ‘Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs’. Both books have several thousand entries alongside a great number of useful photographs. You can buy them from NHBS Academic & Professional Books and Summerfield Books.
For the most complete collection of garden trees and shrubs ever written, get The Hillier Manual of Trees & Shrubs – from the RHS. It contains over 14,000 plants! Just beware there are no pictures to aid you, so be prepared to search elsewhere for an image. That said, if the tree is in cultivation, it’s in The Hillier Manual.
#4 Where to buy?
By this point you’ve got your heart set on a stunning specimen to impress the neighbours and are raring to get going with the garden spade. Always try your local nursery first and you might be lucky enough to see the tree you’re after there. If not, here’s where to look:
- Type the name and cultivar into the RHS ‘Find a Plant’ tool. Generally, under the image of the tree, there will be a button ‘Sold by X nurseries’. Click the link and it will take you to a list of suppliers
- If there is no supplier on the RHS website, get hold of a copy of their latest annual ‘Plant Finder’ catalogue. This is the place to find specialist nurseries supplying plants to the public, many by mail order: RHS Plant Finder / RHS Gardening
- Try a Google or Bing search.
Just one last thing to consider…always buy a British grown tree. We must emphasis how vital this is for keeping destructive pests and diseases out of the country. At your local nursery and online you can find high quality plants grown right here in the UK; they should be labelled as such but if in doubt, ask! If a supplier’s trees aren’t UK grown, look elsewhere.
#5 Buy, plant and enjoy!
Try this video if you want to know the right way to plant How to Plant a Tree : Planting Containerised Trees – YouTube
Then simply keep the tree watered and watch it grow. You are planting for the future, and the anticipation of the first flush of leaves might inject a little hope, excitement and anticipation for better times to come. Trees tickle the senses and are a bonanza for wildlife, but they also add a certain je ne sais quoi to a garden which, at best, can engender feelings in us that border on the transcendental. The dormant season is a great time to plant trees in most gardens, so why not start 2021 with something to celebrate, a New Tree for a New Year.