There are two main types of plant-buying gardener: those who buy what is in front of them (often in flower) and then plan where to put it; and those who first plan what they want and then source it. No gardener ever entirely overcomes the first behaviour, it’s just that the impulses tend to be for more unusual plants in special nurseries – or late night online temptation.
The available garden space that most people have does tend to limit impulse buying to shrubs and herbaceous plants – it is a foolish gardener, or one with a very large garden, who buys a Wellingtonia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, on a whim. I am that gardener. I then compounded the error by dithering over where exactly in our 10 acres to put it and temporarily heeled it in quite close to the drive. When we sold the house ten years later, it was still in its temporary position, only it had grown considerably. I am struggling to phrase how relieved I felt that the wretched thing was now someone else’s problem without appearing utterly craven, and failing.
Sequoiadendron giganteum; Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’
I do learn from my mistakes and have not repeated that one, unless you count the Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ bought as soon as I clapped eyes on it in the excellent Kirkdale nursery in Aberdeenshire, but I placed it successfully, so I don’t. And an unnamed, as yet unidentified tree found (slightly root-bound) in a corner of the Dundee Botanic Garden plant shop that had such blazing pink and magenta autumn colour that I had to have it, no matter that none of the available gardeners (or for that matter, visiting gardening friends) knew what it was. It will probably turn out to be something ploddingly ordinary that is usually a shrub but that has been trained as a standard, and this denouement will almost certainly take place during a visit from gardeners I had been hoping to impress.
In his thoughtful and inspiring account of planting his former London garden, ‘Home Ground: a sanctuary in the city‘ (I urge anyone planning a garden to read this exquisitely written and photographed book), Dan Pearson describes his deliberations in choosing a tree for a prominent place. I particularly appreciated following his thought process as he debated the merits of first one species then another: even more so, his sharing of the fact that the first two he planted were not quite right and were subsequently moved. Too often, gardening authors only divulge the end result, which makes them appear very knowledgeable and decisive, but which can make the novice despair of ever commanding such a unerring grasp of plant possibilities.
Because they take a while to reach a good size, and you will be looking at it for many many years, if you are going to plant a tree both you and it deserve your spending a bit of time choosing what sort. Why plant any old thing when you could plant something that will enchant you year after year, whose seasons you can anticipate with delight, and which by observing it through the cycles of the years will enrich your life?
If you don’t know where to start, have a think about what pleases you in a tree – be inspired by childhood memories, great holidays, gardens visited, neighbourhood trees that you always notice, paintings and photographs. (Here is where I admit to Google Image searches, and an unhealthy Pinterest addiction.). Go and visit some local gardens, take your phone and photograph the trees you like best. Make a note of what you don’t like, too, as it is very useful in narrowing down the endless choices. Many books have been written on the subject (and please do add your suggestions – about books or trees – to the comments section, it would be lovely to hear from you.)
While we are discussing tree choices I feel I must take a swipe at the many excellent conservation organisations who routinely distribute free native tree saplings. While a spreading oak in the right setting feeds both wildlife and the soul, most of us simply do not have large enough gardens. This applies to most of the other native species too, and smaller native trees such as Sorbus, the rowans, are rarely as colourful as their ornamental cousins. I would make (and have in my garden made) an exception for both silver and downy birch, Betula pendula and B. pubescens: although the bark of the natives is not as striking as many exotic species or cultivars, the delicacy of the leaf in movement is unparalleled. And they cast little shade so you can grow lots of things underneath them. And… excuses, excuses.
Shadows of Betula pendula on the white rendered wall of the house
The important thing is to justify your choice of tree because you love one or more of its characteristics. Remember: at this stage you are merely gathering information and inspiration, not worrying overmuch about practicalities. The more trees on your list, the better. As you get your eye in, you will find you start to recognise certain trees, and with this comes a great satisfaction. The next stage is to look at your site with a gimlet eye to whittle down the list, and we’ll do that in the next post.