Watch your garden investment grow with trees

Garden investment grown with trees
Trees may not live forever, but they usually outlive the gardener who plants one to leave a lasting heritage. Think carefully about not only the kind of tree you select but also where you put it in the garden.

Along with the hardscape — paths, terraces, fences and garden shelters — trees form the bones of the garden. One of their most important functions is to give scale to a design; they provide the over-story. A mix of trees, shrubs and low plants fosters a plant community that lends richness to our gardens.

Full of benefits
Screening is an important function. Small trees such as crabapples will serve in place of a hedge to block out a neighbor’s house, with foliage in the summer and a haze of bare branches in the winter.

Or choose small evergreen trees that won’t need the pruning that a hedge does, such as slender Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis”) or mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), a conifer native to the northwest. Even though it is an alpine tree, it does well in our lowlands and won’t grow to towering heights like many of our other native conifers.

Heighten borrowed views by repeating conifers seen beyond the bounds of your garden with large or small ones in your own garden. If your garden is not so spacious, the small conifers mentioned above would work well, as would many dwarf conifers that take years to reach even 10 feet.

Plant trees for the shade they provide. Reduce the heat load on your home in the summer by placing them to the south or west. Choosing deciduous trees will let in the winter sun.

Plant a tree to shade a terrace or deck and create a sheltered spot for outdoor living.

To provide fruit, consider a plum tree. While other fruit trees may need spraying to control insects, I have never had insect damage on my plums.

Well-placed trees will anchor a garden composition. Arrange them so that the grouping swoops up to crescendos at selected points, linked by lower-growing shrubs and perennials. The variety in height adds excitement.

Add interest, too, with contrasts in leaf texture and color. Plant a dramatic deciduous specimen such as tall stewartia (Stewartia monodelpha) against a neutral background of evergreens to accentuate the beauty of the summer flowers, fall color and intriguing winter bark of the stewartia.

Choosing the right one
Selecting a tree requires vision. Consider carefully the ultimate size of the tree, and then imagine it in your garden. Trying to keep a big tree small can be expensive, and you will never win. The tree loses, too, because topping a tree promotes weak, unhealthy, new growth.

For a list of trees that do well in our climate and information on how tall they grow, visit the City of Seattle website at The list is intended for trees on planting strips but is also useful for selecting trees anywhere in the garden.

Nursery visits take you up close and personal with trees. Wandering the rows, you may discover trees that you never heard of and find one perfect for your garden. Ask the nursery professional for guidance.

A good investment
Unusual trees may not be available in large sizes, but a small tree will eventually catch up to a larger one. I grew a favorite tree in my garden from a gallon pot, an epaulette tree (Pterostyrax hispida). Long panicles of bloom rain down from it in June.

Trees should be one of the first investments you make in your garden. The sooner you put that tree in the ground, the sooner you will get rewards and have the satisfaction of watching it grow.

When you plant a tree, it is not just for you — it is a gift for the next generation.

By Phil Wood

Phil Wood is the owner of Phil Wood Garden Design in Seattle and is a widely published freelance writer.

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