Decorate Your Garden With Ornamental Trees
Learn how to choose a tree that will last, and delight, for years.
Every garden has room for a tree, whether it’s a majestic oak in a large plot or a compact conifer on a patio. When buying trees, you will find that most are sold as container-grown plants. Look for those in white or black woven fabric bags, or “Air-pots,” all of which are designed to promote healthy roots and encourage trees to establish well once planted. Trees are a long-term investment, so buy from specialty nurseries, where stock will be grown in ideal conditions and a quality guarantee or replacement is offered if plants fail.
Hedging and fruit trees are also available in bare root form from late fall to late winter. These are young, dormant plants removed from fields and supplied without a pot. They are cheaper than container-grown trees but must be planted as soon as you purchase them. A greater choice of trees is usually available if you buy them container grown; most large, mature specimens are only available in this form.
Selecting Sizes and Shape
Check the plant label carefully, and seek advice before buying a tree to ensure that its size and shape suit the style of your garden, and that it will fit your space when it matures. Also site your tree carefully when you get it home; if planted in the wrong place, it will be very difficult to move once established. Check out these types of trees for more details on what might work best in your outdoors space:
- Spreading: These may be small or large, but all spreading trees produce horizontal branches and are often wider than they are tall. They are ideal as focal points in a lawn or gravel garden but may take up too much space in a small plot.
- Weeping: Trees with this graceful look include the weeping willow as well as many smaller trees, such as flowering ornamental cherries (Prunus spp). Use the elegant silhouette of a weeping tree as a focal point in the garden for maximum impact, or add trees with light canopies to a mixed border.
- Fastigiate: With erect branches, held close together, fastigiate trees have a slim shape that makes them perfect for small gardens or tight spaces. Conical trees produce horizontal branches from the top to the bottom of the trunk; the shape is similar but broadens out more.
- Round-headed: Many trees, such as this hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Variegata’) produce a rounded canopy on a single clear stem; those with this shape usually allow light beneath them for underplanting. You can prune the stems to accentuate the lollipop shape and use the tree as a focal point.
Trees That Attract Wildlife
One of the major benefits of owning a tree is the huge variety of wildlife it attracts to the garden. Birds nest among the branches and feed on the flower buds and berries; insects are also drawn to all parts of these majestic plants.
Berries are an attractive feature in a garden, as well as providing a valuable source of food for birds and other animals in the winter months when food is scarce. If you have space, plant several fruiting trees that ripen at different times to ensure a long-lasting supply. Good choices for an abundance of berries are hawthorn (Crataegus), Cotoneaster x watereri ‘John Waterer’, rowan (Sorbus), mulberry (Morus nigra), elderberry (Sambucus), and cherry (Prunus). Most windfalls are readily eaten by birds, small mammals, and insects.
Other excellent trees for wildlife include thorny types that provide cover from predators, such as hawthorn and holly (Ilex), and those with nectar-rich flowers for bees and other insects, including crabapples (Malus). Hazels (Corylus) are also useful, producing an abundance of nuts for overwintering creatures.
When and Where to Plant
The best time to plant trees is in the late fall, although container-grown types can be planted at any time as long as the ground is not frozen, waterlogged, or bone dry. Bare root trees must be planted in the winter at the same depth as they were grown in the nursery field—indicated by a brown soil mark on the stems. Check your soil and exposure, and match your tree choices with your garden conditions since planting a tree in the wrong place may cause it to grow lopsided or fail to thrive. Remember that trees cast shade and draw large quantities of moisture and nutrients from the soil, affecting other plants growing nearby. They can also undermine foundations with their roots, so be careful to site your tree at a distance from buildings. Where there is space, consider a tree with a strong structure to act as a stand-alone focal point.
Make sure to be careful not to plant too deeply. Trees that are planted too deeply may fail to establish well or even die because their trunks become too wet and rot. Ensure your tree is planted at the same depth as it was growing in its pot or in the field. For bare root trees, look for a brown mark on the trunk that shows its original planting depth.
Aftercare and Maintenance
Most newly planted trees will need extra irrigation for up to two years until they are fully established. Drought stress can cause permanent damage, so it is vital that you water frequently and sufficiently so that moisture reaches the roots.
After planting, winter-planted deciduous trees will not need further watering until early spring when they come into bud; evergreens may require extra irrigation during a dry winter. Water deeply once or twice a week from spring to fall. Use a hose, but turn the tap only halfway on to restrict the water flow, and soak a wide area up to 6 feet (2 m) around the trunk to encourage the roots to follow the moisture. Keep the same area around the tree free of weeds to give it the best chance of thriving.
Apply a thick mulch, such as composted bark chippings, after planting and watering in to suppress competing weeds and seal in moisture; keep the mulch clear of the tree's trunk to prevent rot.
Staking Trees to Provide Extra Support
Large trees will require staking to guard against wind rocking the plant and tearing new roots. After three years, they will have sufficient anchoring roots to hold them steady, and the stake can be removed.
An angled stake is commonly used, although an upright one can be used for bare root trees. Drive in a wooden stake at a 45-degree angle, leaning it into the prevailing wind. Use a flexible tree tie to secure it about a third of the way up the trunk. On windy sites, use two upright stakes on either side of the root ball, attached to the trunk with long ties. Check ties every few months, loosening if necessary to prevent damage to the tree as it grows.