A tree is for life, so choose carefully what you plant

A tree is for life, so choose carefully what you plant

From November onwards, tree planting fits well into gardeners’ schedules. When trees in the open ground finally lose their leaves, suppliers can safely move them. Trees in large pots also do well when the weather is cool and the soil is moist. Think of Chekhov, the master of the short story: “In his work,” wrote Donald Rayfield, an expert on this story, “not to plant a tree becomes as great a sin as cutting down a tree.”

Tree planting is now embellished with virtue. In 2020, with lockdowns looming, carbon capture was the trend of the year. Councils advertised the thousands of trees they were planting. Britain is painted as a forested landscape of the future. Save the planet, plant seedlings. My first walks during weeks of social isolation were through hundreds of small trees planted with plastic sleeves spaced a foot or so apart.

The first lockdown was a time of heavenly sunshine but no rain. In 2020 and in the dry year of 2022, many newly planted seedlings died due to drought. The target numbers look good, but they don’t translate into trees. I’ve watched the workers stack them: farmers need to know how to do it.

Like the dog, the tree isn’t just for Christmas: it’s for life. The choice requires thought. My expert guide is hiller’s Guide To Trees And Shrubs, It has been updated in its 2019 paperback edition and is available online for £17.59. This volume has guided me for 50 years, and its contents evolve as options increase. The current editors are John Hillier and Roy Lancaster, who are as experienced as anyone could want. If I need quicker advice for more usual trees, I head to Notcutts Nursery in Suffolk and their lists of plants suitable for particular locations, either in their old printed catalogs or online, with filters to guide or confuse us.

To pick one tree in the garden I also recommend Alan Titchmarsh How to Garden: Small Trees, was published in paperback by the BBC in the days when the best garden presenters were king of their gardening coverage. It is less than 100 pages long and is available online for £10.95.

Q is now entering this market. Newly released Basic Tree Selection Guide Not a book that can easily be taken to the park (Filbert Press; £50; 528 pages). It is several times heavier than the Heller guide. “I am passionate about trees and enjoy growing them in my garden,” Dame Judi Dench wrote in a requested citation printed as “Editorial review.” “This book will certainly help anyone choose the right type for their garden.” Is the great lady right?

Pocket handkerchief tree, or Davidia involucrata © GAP Photos/Elke Borkowski
Close-up of small white flowers on a tree
maakea amoreensis, © GAP Photos/Fiona McLeod

The guide, like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, consists of three parts. One is about the “hidden benefits of trees,” exploring “ecosystem services.” One is titled “Think Like a Tree,” which is philosophically impossible because trees cannot think. The third is the AZ tree directory, and is probably the most used part. Color photographs, usually of individual specimens, represent several selected trees. They are excellent and justify the text’s comments on the neglect of this or that tree, whether it is the tetradium tree, the bee tree, or the white-flowered Macia amurensis, “perfect for adding an unusual touch to gardens.”

The book features two lead authors, Henrik Sjoman, scientific coordinator at the excellent Gothenburg Botanical Garden in Sweden, and Ariet Andersson, a garden designer and journalist with a keen interest in climate change. She won a gold medal at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in 2016.

I am amazed at the conjoined English in the first two parts of their book. Here’s an example close to the heart of this newspaper: “The exchange of stocks and shares for the tree’s investment in the structure of leaf, bark and root and the precarious balance of nature’s stock exchange, when it comes to the profit and loss of a mature tree, have become clear-cut.” If you can understand this well, it is, I’m afraid, part of “growth economics”. Metaphors and verbiage loom large, led by “fractal dynamics” and “ecotons.”

Beneath that lies a deeper problem. Throughout, the authors assume that conditions in the tree’s natural habitat govern the conditions it will need to succeed in the garden. In some ways, yes, but in others, which they don’t address, interestingly, no. There is no complete overlap, as years of gardening and observing have taught me. When they discuss the beautiful swamp cypress, or Taxodium, they assume that it will only flourish in moist soil near water, as it normally does in the wild. It has developed a broad base of its trunk there, as they well show, but I know swamp cypresses which are wonderful in cultivation and which never go near water.

Or again, they assume that a beautiful pocket-handkerchief tree, or davidia tree, must have moist, nutrient-rich soil, but every night I drive home a 60-year-old specimen that grows to a good height and blooms freely, even though its roots are in soil. Unfertilized alkaline next to a raised asphalt surface for parking. The acidity or alkalinity of soils and their hardness (about which the authors have been unhelpfully ambiguous) usually transfers from nature to gardens, but other aspects do not. Hillier’s guide is more useful, because it omits the environmental propaganda and tells us what trees are suitable for British agriculture.

As for “ecosystem benefits”, I agree that they are divided into “support, supply, culture and regulation”. I like to see the outlines of trees through the autumn mist, but not through the fog of vulgarity and drawn-out diagrams. Apparently one of the environmental benefits for seniors is that “being outside in nature helps us maintain good personal mobility, which can lead to fewer falls” (my garden is the only place I fall).

For infants, “pregnant women who have more trees and green environments close to their homes usually have babies with a healthy birth weight.” One study suggested this theory as tentative for northern Europe, but it cannot be universally valid. Does Saudi Arabia have a high percentage of young children? What about the children who live in the treeless tundra of the Arctic? They seemed to me restrained enough, when they were fastened to their mothers’ backs, while I spent months in their villages.

Far from being “essential,” the evidence is misleading. It recommends the yellow-leaved Robinia freesia, even though bacteria and fungi have wiped it out in most parts of Britain. She recommends using pine trees without even mentioning that pines have been systematically cut down in many areas to stop the deadly phytophthora that thrives around pine roots and then spreads. He never hints at the tendency of fireblight to infect Sorbus Joseph Rock, another killer.

The evidence is also selective. It says nothing about the spring catkins of Alnus cordata, nothing about the famous white-barked birch, Betula jacquemontii, and nothing about the oaks, Quercus ilex. Surprisingly, there is not a word about the winter-blooming cherry, my favorite garden tree, which has given Financial Times readers months of enjoyment. A kind of canceled gardening pervades the text: There is nothing on the trees that I and so many of you love, like the white-flowered pterodactyl, or the lovely Malus Transitoria, or the lovely heptacodium, or Sorbus hupehensis or Sorbus vilmorinii.

If you are concerned that your baby may be born too small, come and walk around my garden and enjoy the ecosystem benefits of these and other familiar trees. In the meantime, let The Hiller Guide be your first resort for arboriculture.

Robin Lane Fox will present the National Garden Scheme’s annual lecture, on ‘What visiting a garden does for us’, on Thursday 23 November. Tickets are available for either the live or streamed event. All information and reservations at www.ngs.org.uk

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