Designing a Garden with Trees

Planting a tree enhances your landscape, but choosing the right tree and position is important.
Large Sculpted Garden

Large Sculpted Garden

A wooden obelisk mirrors the conical topiary, and adds a vertical element to this part of the design. An old apple tree heightens the humor in the garden. When the ripe apples fall, they mimic the boxwood balls.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Trees provide permanent features in a yard. They will be there for a long time, and, once established, are difficult to move; think carefully about what you want to plant and where. Consider also the final height of the tree or, at least, its height after eight or ten years if it is a slow-maturing type. In small urban yards there is rarely space to plant a large tree; it will not only plunge your own house and garden into darkness, but the neighbors may suffer too. Don’t be tempted by melancholic weeping willows or blue Atlas cedars. By the time they are too large for the space, you will need to pay an arborist a handsome sum to remove them without destroying anybody’s property. Instead, think small, or choose a tree that may be pruned regularly to keep it in check. 

Positioning Trees 

A tree in the yard is like a large piece of furniture in a house: its sheer volume limits its placing. Before committing to a final position, ask friends to help by holding up long canes or broomsticks where you are planning to plant. Look at them from key points in the house, such as a kitchen or living room, and in the yard, perhaps from an entrance or seating area. 

Consider, too, the position of the sun in relation to the tree and the shade it will cast. Think of how and when you use particular areas. To create a brightly lit breakfast area, for example, plant your tree on the west side of the garden, or position a tree on the east or north side of your property to catch the setting sun on an evening terrace. A play area needs shade during the hottest part of the day, while vegetable beds need sun all day. 

Trees also make beautiful features in a garden room. Several of the dogwoods, such as the early summer-flowering Cornus controversa or C. kousa, and Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), with their cut foliage and fall tints, make striking focal points in a lawn, courtyard area, gravel garden, or at the end of a vista. Alternatively, select a tree with multiple stems such as a silver birch; the white trunks and branches take on a leading role in dark winter months when the leaves have fallen. 

Key Features

Choose trees that will be happy with the soil and climate in your yard. A local nursery should be able to advise you as to what will perform best in your area. There are also a host of decorative features to take into account. 

As trees flower for a comparatively short time, it may be best to regard blossoms as an added bonus rather than the main attraction. Fruits, berries, or interesting seedpods are worth considering, as they often last longer than flowers. But the most enduring feature of any tree is the color, texture, and shape of the foliage and stems. Feathery acacias and cut-leaf maples, for example, offer a light, soft touch, creating dappled shade. Use the layered open habit of Cornus alternifolia to introduce horizontal lines, or a cherry with an upright habit to add a vertical dimension. 

While fall color is a seasonal attraction, use trees with year-round yellow, red, or variegated foliage sparingly. The dark purple leaves of Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’, Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’, or bronze-leaved Malus ‘Profusion’ can add drama but, to prevent them from looking gloomy, set them against lighter colors. Too much yellow can also be overpowering, though trees such as Acer japonica ‘Aurea’ or Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginata’ can brighten up dull areas. A tree with colorful foliage, such as this variegated form of Cornus controversa, creates a spectacular show in a border, providing height, design focus, and a shady area beneath for woodland plants.

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