Trees can bring height, structure, and drama to borders, not to mention some precious winter interest. But planting around them can be daunting: Will they suck up all the water? Will trees eventually shade out their planting companions? Or will they outgrow their space entirely?
To get the lowdown on these pressing horticultural matters we consulted Sarah Jarman, one half of one of our favorite up-and-coming British design duos, Jarman Murphy, on how to landscape with trees to create the best design for your garden.
Photography courtesy of Jarman Murphy, except where noted.
“We use multi-stem trees as much as possible as they add a natural feel to the planting and have stems which intertwine and add interest. Clients really fall in love with them,” says Sarah Jarman, whose own garden has a multi-stem Amelanchier lamarckii, a small tree with gorgeous white blossoms in spring, verdant summer foliage, and beautiful fall color. “I enjoy it every day of the year. Even in winter the stems and branches create beautiful shapes.”
She suggests going to a specialist nursery (her own favorite is New Wood Trees in South Devon) but multi-stems are now sold by most garden centers and plant nurseries. Acer griseum and Prunus serrula also work brilliantly as multi-stem trees with year-round appeal.
Many smaller crab apples also work well in borders with their manageable size and beautiful spring blossom and autumn fruits. “Malus ‘Evereste’ has featured in a recent design for clients and it was repeated through a large planting area near a terrace,” says Jarman. “It is a real performer but still has a wild and natural feel. As a small to medium tree, it needs minimum maintenance and will not outgrow a garden.”
Just as important as the tree is what goes underneath, says Jarman, so consider drought-tolerant plants that are also not adverse to some shade. “The multi-stem trees cast some shadow around their base, so we always add some Gallium odoratum to froth out over the base of the tree,” says Jarman, who then carefully adds additional perennials and bulbs that won’t compete with the tree for water.
Mulch really well around the base of the tree (avoiding the stem) and reapply after the first season. This will not only help to feed the tree but will help keep the ground moist too.
“We advise clients to drip-irrigate their trees or to water the tree with a trickling slow hosepipe so that the water seeps through to the root ball. Water when first planted, and then for the first spring and then the following two summers is a good guide to ensure your tree does not become stressed,” says Jarman.
Considering a specimen tree? See Required Reading: New York City of Trees and Architects’ Roundup: 10 Landscapes Designed Around a Single Tree. And for more tips on landscape design with trees, see our Garden Design 101 guides:
- Trees: A Field Guide to Planting, Care, and Design
- Birch Trees 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care, and Design
- Japanese Maples: 5 Favorite Trees to Grow
- For a magnificent landscape defined by its specimen trees, see A Family Affair: Lady Llanover’s Legacy in South Wales.
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