Choosing trees for a small garden by Endeavour

For a small garden, trees have to be chosen with great care if they are not to cause problems by overshadowing or eventually growing out of scale with the plot.  We all want to create an immediate effect and too often we select something which is inappropriate.

Dwarf conifers provide a foliage effect which extends throughout the year, but real dwarfs take several seasons to reach any size.  If they look good at planting they soon outgrow their station.

A group of small deciduous trees which usually remains in scale and suits our wet climate belong to the genus Sorbus.  It contains two principal groups: the Whitebeams with simple leaves and the Mountain Ashes with pinnate leaves.  Most are of modest size, never look scruffy, their neat appearance suiting the tidy gardener, bearing white flowers in spring and berries of varying colours and leaf colouring in the autumn.  They are not greedy and don’t cast a dense shade – allowing suitable planting beneath or equally suitable as a specimen on a lawn.

The Mountain Ash group includes several which are suitable, the tiny leaflets creating a lightness of texture and next to no problem at leaf drop.  This is a considerable advantage, especially in a wet autumn when large leaves falling and lodging on lawns and low growing plants are problematic.

My favourite is Sorbus vilmorinii, its numerous (up to 14) pairs of leaflets, dark green and closely set, give a fern like effect.  Small white flowers are followed by berries: green at first followed by red, through pink to pinkish white.  These continue to hang on the bare branches after the leaves have dropped, which turn a vinous red in a good year.

Similar effect is produced by Sorbus prattii, whose fruits are pearly white and the autumn foliage a purple bronze.  The bare branches are particularly attractive being rusty, hairy and with pointed buds.

Of upright habit is Sorbus commixta with elegant foliage, bronzy when young.  Large clusters of orange red fruits are produced.  Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ may grow a little larger, has very good autumn colours with creamy amber fruits.  A great pleasure to me is looking down from the bathroom window whilst shaving in the morning and watching a blackbird feeding on these berries.

Sorbus hupehensis has long, drooping leaves that open copper coloured but become a silver shade.  The fruits persist for a long time and are ignored by birds even in hard winters.  Hanging in clusters on rhubarb red stalks, they are porcelain white with pink tips.

These smaller varieties, together with larger ones, are worth their place in large gardens also.  Most of the simple leaved group are perhaps too large for the smallest gardens but one species, Sorbus folgneri, especially the selection ‘Lemon Drop’ is a delightful choice.  The spreading or pendulous branches are covered with a dense white fleece, at first becoming smooth and purplish brown as the wood matures.  The autumn colouring is spectacular, orange and scarlet with a dazzling silver underneath and bunches of yellow berries to follow.

Be assured none will disappoint.

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    Harry Jans - 'Around the World with Alpine Plants'.  

    Harry Jans has been employed since 1982 by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment as an expert on winter maintenance. He is a  passionate plant explorer and rock gardener, he is also a founder member of the Dutch Rock Garden Society of which he has been President for the last six years. In 2014, he received the prestigious Alpine Garden Society (AGS) Lyttel Trophy, the highest AGS award for individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the knowledge of alpine plants. Harry is a regular lecturer at conferences and study weekends in many overseas countries. He has written articles on alpine plant subjects, the topic for his first lecture.