Trees are natures carbon mops, filtering out many of the pollutants in our air and creating a fresher, more enjoyable environment. In any garden much thought should be given to the choice of tree that you want to plant and the smaller the garden the more important this becomes. A tree is going to be a commanding feature in the garden and if the garden is small then the tree can quickly outgrow its space, crowding out the garden and even taking it over.
When designing a new garden, trees really should be the first feature to be considered, where are they to be planted, which variety to choose, and how tall and wide will it get. Bear in mind what it will look like in ten and twenty years time and be mindful of the aspect in which you are planting it. If your choice specimen is going to get upwards of 5metres is it going to stop the sun from hitting your garden or is it going to make your house very dark.
Some trees have a damaging root system and should be avoided in all but the largest of gardens. The most infamous variety in this part of the world is the Variegated Poplar or Populus candicans ‘Aurora’. I say infamous because about thirty years ago there must have been some garden centre or nursery who made millions as every second garden if not more seemed to have one of these attractive looking trees growing in their midst. The aesthetically pleasing foliage is what the tree is grown for, new growth starting off a blush pink as the buds open in spring opening up to full leaves of white mixed with green. It was recommended for small gardens as it was marketed as dwarf. But dwarf was meant in Poplar terms, it can still reach a height over 10 metres or 30 feet. But the reason for its infamy and why I could never recommend it as a garden plant is that the root system is a menace. It’s a quick growing tree and to produce that speedy growth, the roots travel far and fast in search of water and nutrients allowing next to nothing stop it in its quest. Loving septic tanks and leaking water pipes as they will provide the thirsty roots with much loved moisture. They will do untold damage to these tanks and pipes as soon as they get a hold, patios, footpaths even house foundations don’t prove a suitable deterrent to these vigorous bullies. I have often seen suckers appearing from the root system in the middle of lawns up 20 metres away from the original plant and indeed the roots can travel up to 60 metres wreaking havoc as they go.
About 10 or more years ago as this damage was becoming apparent people were clamouring to get them out of their gardens as much as they sought after them 10 years previous.
Most trees you will be glad to hear are much better behaved but it does illustrate the point that some time and thought should be given to choosing what is going to be an imposing influence and friend in your garden over the next number of years. If choosing for pure elegance and as a statement piece then, provided your garden is big enough look no further than Cornus contraversa ‘Variegata’. Known as the Wedding Cake Tree because the branches create a fabulous tiered effect as the tree matures it really is a living work of art. They are slow growing however. As a poor student this gardener purchased one for my parents 25th wedding anniversary, I still remember, it cost me £200 Irish pounds and believe me that hurt as a student, but being the perfect son I rocked home from Orchardstown Garden Centre in Waterford where I was doing my work experience year, one weekend with said Cornus. Now 25 years later it has developed into a magnificent specimen. However during the intervening years I had to stop myself from pruning it and interfering with the shape and thank God I did. It often looked like it needed attention and bits looked wrong, but as is often the case with nature, once left to its own devices it has blossomed into something really special.
You do need a garden of a certain size though for her as she will grow, to an eventual height of 8 – 10 metres with a diameter of 5-6 metres. One of the finest specimens you are likely to see in Ireland can be seen in Mary Byrne’s garden, ‘Hillside’ in Annmount, Glounthaune. This garden is open from time to time and for groups. Next time you see it advertised make your way to see the Cornus if nothing else.
Cornus alterniafolia ‘Argentea’ the Silver Pagoda Dogwood will provide you with the same statement piece but with an altogether more delicate feeling, the leaves being slightly smaller, indeed the overall height and spread will be less than that of contraversa ‘Variegata’ never growing higher really than 4 metres. Similarly Cornus alternifolia ‘Golden Shadows’ will remain relatively low and is an ideal choice for a small or medium specimen tree. It’s beautiful shape and habit is further complimented by the green and gold foliage which takes on beautiful copper hues during the autumn before it sheds totally for the winter. All of the Cornus or Dogwoods mentioned will produce panicles of white flowers during spring but often go largely unnoticed on ‘Variegata’ and ‘Argentea’ as the foliage is similar in colour but on ‘Golden Shadows’ the contrast between foliage and flower is another reason to introduce this beauty to your garden.