Trees – the biggest mistakes we make in the garden….

January 5th, 2014
Posted In: Gardening know how

Trees are one of the major elements in a smaller garden.

They are the biggest and slowest-growing plants in the garden. When a mature tree dies or is taken down, you are faced with the choice of spending a big sum on a fully grown tree or waiting for years for a young tree to grow. So it’s really worth choosing your trees carefully and planting them properly.

And I can see that I have certainly some big mistakes. In 2010, we planted two tall thin holm oaks on either side of a bench, with the aim of topiarising them into neat shapes. I bought them for £50 each, as it would have cost £500 to buy them already topiarised.

(One garden designer friend said ‘Oh, Alexandra, I see what you mean, but it is going to take about three hundred years for them to grow into shape). But – spoiler alert – she was wrong!

In the third winter, the gales blew both holm oaks into matching 45 degree angles. I consulted a friend, Fern Alder, a garden designer who is passionate about this subject.

holm oak blown over

One of two matching holm oaks, both blown partly over

Mistake 1 – buying too tall a tree

Firstly, Fern told me that I had planted trees which were a bit too tall to start with. I’d made the common mistake of thinking that if I bought a bigger one, then it would be quicker to get to where I wanted to be with it. ‘Cut about a third of the leafy top off,’ she advised. ‘No more – it’ll shock the tree too much.’

When we planted the two holm oaks, we also planted three silver birches and three small fruit trees, all of which were just young whips at the time. They have grown substantially more than the holm oaks in the three years, and seem able to withstand the gales.

Mistake 2 – planting too deeply

Fern then peered into the holes made on one side as the trees rocked over. She couldn’t even see any roots. ‘They seem to have been planted too deep,’ she said. ‘It’s really important to make sure that the hole you dig for a tree is no deeper than the depth of the pot it comes in. If any of the trunk is buried in soil, then it will begin to rot.’

We had, in fact, moved a lot of soil round the garden and I think it had been piled on top of the bed, thus raising the soil level around the planted tree. It’s also possible that one of them was quite pot-bound, with its roots curling round in the pot: ‘Sometimes that means they just keep going round,’ said Fern.

See more expert advice on how to plant a tree here.

Our choice is now between digging the trees up and re-planting them (not easy, and not, in Fern’s view, necessarily the best approach as the roots further down may be well established). Or we could take away some soil around them, push them up into place (very strong men will be needed) and weighting it down on one side with bricks or stone.

She also gave me some mycorrizal funghi to encourage the roots to re-grow. And, although the trees were secured with a stout stake, it would have been better to secure them with two, one on each side – which is how many newly-planted trees now seem to be secured in the countryside now.

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We got the trees back upright, secured them with strong supports and they have grown well since. In 2015, we made the first topiary trim. I got an expert topiary cutter to do it, as it’s not something I think either of us can do.

Topiarise holm oaks

The photo at the top shows the two holm oaks on either side of the bench in 2022. The photo above is just after their first topiary cut in 2016.

So a tree is a big investment in time, effort and money. But it is so worthwhile. These two trees make the garden look smart in the most dismal of winters. And they add a tailored punctuation point when the garden begins to look wild and overgrown in the summer.

But it’s important to remember two things. Firstly, it’s often harder – not easier – to buy a bigger, more mature tree. Secondly, planting a tree is not just about sticking it in the ground. It needs to be the right depth, properly supported, and, if the roots are beginning to curl round because it is pot-bound, they either need untangling, or you need to buy another tree.

See here to find out how to choose the perfect tree for your garden. And here for small garden trees with glorious autumn colour.

It’s very important, too, to have trees pruned properly and to take professional advice when something seems wrong. Many people who claim to be knowledgeable about trees aren’t, so see here to find out the difference between a tree surgeon, an arborist and a chain saw expert.

One of the most important things about trees is that they increase garden privacy. So to make the right choices, see this post on perfect-for-privacy trees.

Pin to remember tree mistakes

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