Trees and Shrubs

Trees are ideal for providing height for the back row of a mixed border. Most small gardens don’t have a lot of room for trees, so you must choose carefully. There are plenty of very attractive decorative kinds that won’t outgrow their welcome, but if you only have room for one tree, make it a good one. Plant as far away from the house as their eventual height will be.

Don’t be tempted to plant a large forest tree such as an oak or beech, or a willow with far-ranging roots. They can cause problems with foundations and drains. If you already have a large specimen oak or beech which you want to remove, or prune radically, check with your local council first, as there may be preservation orders in operation. Felling such a tree can cost you £1,000 in some cases!

Shrubs are woody-stemmed plants that create the basic shape of your garden and are a good choice for a garden that is easy to look after. Once planted there is little to do. There are many types of shrubs available and you can choose them for particular looks to suit your garden. Some small compact shrubs make good container plants for all year interest. Shrubs vary in size from quite small plants, suitable for a rock garden, to huge plants which take up as much room as a tree, so read the label carefully before you buy.



• Acer pseudoplatanus ‘brilliantissimum’ is very slow growing, achieving 3 m (10 ft) eventually. It has bright, bronzy, salmon-pink maple leaves and is a relative of the sycamore.

• Chinese red birch Betula albosinensis is a typical birch, but with spectacular pinky red peeling bark

• Judas tree, Cercis sequastrum, has a craggy appearance, with mauve-pink pea flowers growing straight out of the branches in late spring, followed by kidney-shaped leaves. It needs a mild garden, so is unsuitable for colder regions.

• Crab apples. There are many good varieties, such as

Red Jade, with large spring blossom, followed by small berry-like fruit that attracts the birds in autumn. See below under fruit trees for another use for these trees.

• Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Rubylace’ eventually reaches 4.5 m (15 ft). It has delicate ferny foliage that changes from red in spring to bronze later on.

• Salix caprea ‘Pendula’ or Kilmarnock willow is a small, well-behaved weeping variety that has pussy willows in the spring. It reaches from 1.8 m to 3 m (6-10 ft), depending on the stem it has been grafted to.


Give your trees a good start in life: after planting make sure that they grow into an attractive and appropriate shape, reduce competition from weeds and protect them from animals.


If you want a multi-stemmed tree or one with branches close to the ground, buy one with shoots along the length of the trunk. Prune out only those that are badly positioned, or crossing other shoots, and allow the others to grow. Shorten the remaining sideshoots to within 5-10 cm (2-4 in) of the trunk. Do this only once.

If you want a tree with a dominant central leading shoot, make sure that it has not developed two leaders -perhaps because the growing tip has been damaged. Prune one of them back to its point of origin, leaving the dominant or most upright leading shoot to continue upward growth.

If you want a tree with a clear trunk, cut back all the new shoots above the branching head to about 10-15 cm (4-6 in) during the summer. When the plant is dormant, cut the shoots right back to the stem.

Some trees – such as crab apples – are best with a rounded, branching head rather than a tall central dominant shoot. Remove the lower shoots to produce a stem. When the tree has reached about 60 cm (2 ft) taller than the required final height of the clear stem, remove the tip of the leading shoot.


Trees will become established more quickly and grow faster if you ensure that they do not go short of water. Insert a pot close to the roots so that water penetrates to the roots quickly instead of running off the soil’s surface.

An organic mulch, such as garden compost, pulverised bark or cocoa shells will conserve moisture, keep down weeds and can look more attractive than bare soil. Make sure that the ground is moist and weed-free before applying it. The layer needs to be at least 5 cm (2 in) thick to be effective.

Although less attractive visually, inorganic mulches are just as effective at keeping down weeds and conserving moisture. You can make the sheet look more attractive by covering it with a layer of gravel.


• Check variegated trees once or twice each summer and remove any all-green shoots. They grow faster than the patterned leaves and eventually take over the plant.

• Don’t grow grass right up to the trunk of a tree. You risk damaging the bark when mowing or strimming and ultimately risk killing the tree.

• Protect new trees from rabbits as they will strip the bark in winter. Surround the bottom 90-120 cm (36-48 in) with a special spiral tree guard which has holes for ventilation, or make a collar of wire netting at least 90 cm (36 in) high.

• If you have a big tree in your garden that blocks out the light, don’t try to do anything to it yourself.

It’s a job for a professional, who will have the right equipment and expertise to lift the crown by removing the lowest branches or thin it out to let more light through, without spoiling the shape of the tree. This service doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a lot safer and prevents a beautiful tree from becoming an eyesore.

• Evergreen trees and shrubs will benefit from wind protection for the first autumn and winter. Fix wind¬break netting or a plastic sheet around four canes or stakes, but leave the top open. Remove it in the spring.


You might think that fruit trees take up too much room in a small garden, but nowadays various compact forms are available. You can also train fruit trees into a wide range of space-saving shapes on fences or trellis, which makes them both decorative and productive as wall plants or garden dividers.


For a crop to ‘set’, most fruit trees require another variety (and in some cases two) to cross-pollinate them. If there isn’t another tree of the same species that flowers at the same time as yours within about 100 metres – maybe in a neighbour’s garden – then you’ll need to plant one. Consult the nursery or garden centre to see which varieties will cross-pollinate each other. Ornamental crab apples have a long flowering season and cross-pollinate most varieties of apples. ‘John Downie’ is a good pollinator for apple trees, and has its own crop of rosy crab apples in autumn that are decorative and make excellent crab apple jelly. Otherwise, grow a self-fertile fruit variety, such as ‘Greensleeves’ apple, ‘Conference’ pear, ‘Victoria’ plum or ‘Stella’ cherry.



The most popular fruit tree types are now available growing on dwarfing rootstocks. These keep the trees naturally dwarf and also encourage them to start flowering and fruiting when they are much younger than usual. This means you could plant a fruit tree instead of a flowering tree at the back of a border or as a specimen tree in the lawn, knowing it won’t outgrow its welcome.


Patio peaches and nectarines are available that are naturally small trees producing full-sized fruit. They are ideal for growing in pots on the patio.


Instead of growing a conventional tree, buy cordon-trained apple or pear trees (which are grown on dwarfing rootstocks) and grow them against a post-and-wire support as a fruiting ‘hedge’, or over an arch or fruit tunnel.

FAN-TRAINED TREES You can buy trees of plums, nectarines and peaches trained in a fan shape to grow against a sunny wall. This helps to ripen the fruit, as well as saving space and looking good.


These have one main trunk with two tiers of branches growing out horizontally to make a flat tree. They can be grown against a wall or used as a living ‘garden divider’. Pears need warmer conditions than apples to grow well and ripen, so they are a good choice for espalier training against a wall.


These have one trunk, but each branch is a different variety of apple chosen to pollinate its neighbours. This way, you can enjoy a range of flavours and be certain of getting a good crop.


Shrubs form a permanent framework for the garden and help to give it shape throughout the year. If a border formed entirely of shrubs doesn’t appeal, used them as part of a mixed border. If you get them off to a good start, they won’t need much attention or effort from you, which has got to be a good thing!


A few plants such as rhododendrons and lilacs may be sold with their roots wrapped in hessian or plastic. These have been lifted from a field. When planting them, prepare the ground, remove the root wrapping, but don’t disturb the rootball.


If you are planting a new border or group of shrubs, space them out on the ground while they are still in their pots so that you can see what they’ll look like.


You can plant a mini border using dwarf shrubs. Choose a mixture of foliage and flowering shrubs, deciduous and evergreen so that there is plenty to look at all year round.

Shrubs with a strong profile or bold shape, such as Fatsia japonica, yuccas and phormiums, make good focal points. Use a brightly flowered shrub as a focal point to view across the garden against a background of less colourful shrubs.

Foliage lasts longer than flowers and in a dull corner or shady border yellow leaves or bright lime-green or bronze foliage can be as bright as blooms.


After five or ten years, most shrubs increase greatly in size, so don’t overcrowd your shrubs initially. Plant the main shrubs with final spacings in mind. Read the labels! Fill in with cheaper, quick growing shrubs that you can dispense with and not feel too guilty about getting rid of.


Quite large shrubs can be moved, with care. There are bound to be times when you change your mind, or the dwarf variety you thought you had turns out to be a monster. Move deciduous plants when dormant. Evergreens are best moved in autumn or spring. If the plant has prickly branches, tie them into an upright position to make the job easier.

• First of all, prepare the new hole for the plant you are going to move. Make sure it will be large enough.

• Dig a trench all round the plant then use a fork to loosen the soil around deeper roots. If the shrub is large you may need to reduce the amount of soil attached to the roots with a fork, being careful not to damage the roots at the same time.

• Use a spade to cut underneath the rootball, working around from different sides. If the plant and rootball are heavy, get help.

• Ideally, you want to replant as soon as possible, but if there will be a delay, wrap the rootball in a plastic or hessian sack until you can get it back in the ground.

• Make sure the plant is at the same level as previously. Fill the hole carefully and stamp down the soil to remove air pockets. Water well and continue to water for some time, until growth restarts.


Where space is short, go for reliable, free-flowering plants, especially if they offer the bonus of other attractions later in the year. You need a variety for seasonal colour and a leafy background to your borders.

Here are some good suggestions:

CHAENOMELES JAPONICA (ornamental quince)

Spectacular spring flowers are produced in white, pinks and reds, with medium-sized green fruits all summer which ripen to gold in the autumn. They can be slightly untidy shrubs but can be pruned regularly and are a real bonus in a mixed, natural or cottage-style setting.

CORNUS ALBA ‘Spaethii’ Cornus give good colour in the winter from red stems, visible after the leaves have fallen. The green and gold variegated leaves of this variety are a bonus.


This works equally well as a ground cover shrub or leaning against a wall. Herringbone-shaped fans of foliage keep their tiny leaves in all but the most severe winters. The branches are outlined in orange or red berries in autumn.


Fatsia is a favourite with flower arrangers, who cut single leaves or whole stems to use with cut flowers. This architectural evergreen with big ‘fig leaves’ flowers in late autumn, when there’s not much else going on. You can expect clusters of fluffy, cream-coloured balls.

HAMAMEUS (Witch hazel)

One of my favourite winter and early spring shrubs, it also has good autumn leaf colour. The flowers appear on the bare stems of branches in winter as scented, yellow, orange or red spiders. H. intermedia ‘Pallida’ can grow quite big in time. We have one in the garden that we keep small by pruning. The yellow flowers are just wonderful, and last a long time. HEBE Most varieties grow naturally small and compact. These evergreen flowering shrubs are fairly hardy and come in a range of colours from white to blue, pink and purple. They make good, low hedging plants or a border along a path. Hebe x andersonii ‘Variegata’ has a good spread of 60-90 cm (2-3 ft), wavy spearlike foliage in mid-green and cream. The lavender ‘bottlebrush’ flowers are seen from July to October. We have many hebes in the garden that we inherited many years ago. Their range of foliage and colour has much to recommend them, and they can be easily propagated to fill gaps and replace old shrubs.


This grows into a big shrub, but we keep ours small by cutting off the new shoots just beyond the clusters of flowers in midsummer. That way, you still get clusters of berries late into winter. The spiny evergreen branches make a good boundary plant to deter intruders but this plant can also be grown up against a wall. Watch out for the spikes!

HIBISCUS SYRIACUS (Hardy hibiscus)

This is a slow-growing, upright shrub with large flowers, similar to the houseplant. If the weather stays fine, hibiscus will flower continuously from midsummer to autumn. They don’t need pruning.


Tree peonies grow slowly and stay as medium-sized shrubs for many years. They need a sheltered spot, otherwise the large tissue-papery flowers are spoilt by the wind.

The foliage is good, even when there are no flowers.


Suitable for a container, raised bed, or at the front of a border, this dwarf shrub has blue, starry flowers in summer and autumn and good leaf colour in autumn.


The small, compact Weigela ‘Florida variegata’ has cream and green leaves and clusters of pink flowers in summer.

It looks good planted with roses, as the leaves contrast well with them, or is equally good as a specimen plant on an otherwise boring border. Weigela florida ‘Foliis Purpureus’ is good in a border and has plum-purple leaves and deeper pink flowers.

24. February 2015 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Plants & Trees | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Trees and Shrubs


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