Use Trees for Structure & Color

Learn ways to make the most of trees in your garden design.
Textured Trunks of Trees Focus in Woodland Setting

Textured Trunks of Trees Focus in Woodland Setting

This woodland garden features trees with textured trunks and underplanted with a variety of woodland shade plants, such as ferns and hostas, and colorful iris and spring bulbs, that frame the way to an ornamental pond.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

This woodland garden features trees with textured trunks and underplanted with a variety of woodland shade plants, such as ferns and hostas, and colorful iris and spring bulbs, that frame the way to an ornamental pond.

As a kid, trees simply were something fun to climb. But these days, trees have the potential to offer color and texture to your garden space throughout the year. As well as lending height and beauty, they cast cooling shade, absorb greenhouse gases, and provide homes and food for wildlife. Here's how to make them work in your planting design.

Creating a Woodland Setting 

You can create a woodland effect with just a few well-chosen specimen trees in a small garden or with a more varied selection on a larger lot. Look for varieties with unusual stems for a striking effect even after the leaves have fallen in the winter.

The dappled shade cast by your chosen trees will offer sufficient light for a collection of shade-loving plants. When choosing underplanting for your plan, look for a selection of plants that will provide year-round interest. 

Adding Height and Privacy 

Any tree will add height to a garden, but to give a more contoured effect, underplant it with shade-tolerant shrubs. Trees’ imposing stature can be deployed to great effect in a city garden overlooked by many windows. Use species with airy canopies to shield a seating area; plant them close to the space that needs extra privacy, rather than on the boundary where taller trees will be needed to mask upstairs windows. Alternatively, plant a wall of pleached trees, which form a line of clear, stiltlike stems topped by a screen of leafy branches just above head height.

Using Trees as Focal Points

When selecting a tree for a focal point, opt for a year-round star performer.

Choose a cherry or crabapple that will be covered with delicate blossoms in the spring, provide a leafy canopy in the summer, and put on a finale of blazing colors and shining fruits in the fall.

Alternatively, in a modern or formal garden, you could opt for a shapely evergreen or a smart topiary specimen. Site your tree in the center of a lawn, at the end of a pathway, or in a border to punctuate a corner or curve in the design, and use small trees in pots to make an impact on a patio or in a courtyard garden. 

Framing Features

A long, tree-lined lane makes an impressive entrance, and a similar effect is possible in a small garden with fewer trees and a little pruning and training. Plant six to ten trees on either side of a pathway, and train their stems on frames to form arches of foliage. Use the same technique with a pair of matching trees to create a decorative arbor over a seat.

Providing Color and Texture

Before buying trees for color effects, look for those that offer more than one decorative feature. Spring blooms have instant appeal but last just a few weeks, while the deep red bark of a Prunus serrula or stunning white birch trunks provide color all year. If flowers are your  passion, include a few different species, such as a cherry and the early summer blooms of Cornus kousa, to extend the display.

Plenty of good tree choices are available for fall color, prolonging the season of interest into early winter when the fallen leaves carpet the ground. Textures also add an extra dimension to planting designs; consider the pleated foliage of hornbeams or the spiky needles of pines and other conifers.

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