Anticipating the Spring: planting trees, part I

Tracy Wilson chooses trees to plant this winter which will stand up to salt gales

25th September 2006

If you suggest to most people who live in an exposed area that they might like to plant trees, they immediately panic. They worry and think ‘we don’t want to go there, real effort, trees aren’t going to like it, we’ll only ever see poor, stunted, stubby little things’. But if the response we’ve had today at our nursery on the first day of our Tree Week is anything to go by, people have got a huge, inbuilt love of trees and the desire to put something back into the landscape which is one of the key things that we should all be thinking about seems to be built into our psyche somehow. It’s something you can certainly adapt and adopt and work around, even if you’re in the most exposed of conditions. You just have to be a little bit selective. The trouble is that so many people go off to these beautiful gardens and arboretums and they see these wonderful Japanese Maples and other beautiful trees which – let’s be brutally honest – they’re just not going to hack it, by the sea; they’re going to get fried by the salt wind and that’s the end of story. As I’ve said with other things, the best you can hope for with a tree in a very exposed situation is that it’s going to tolerate coastal exposure.

Creating defences

What you have to remember is that you must constantly build up a series of barriers towards giving you that shelter and that protection. If you can do that, then you’re going to start to create a position of shelter whereby you’re growing the slightly more fragile things because they’re going to benefit from that little bit of protection.So, your first ‘front’ of trees whether they’re growing as a hedge or as individual trees are, without putting too finer point on it, going to get the c**p beaten out of them. That’s the way it’ll go: they’ll end up wind-pruned, burnt – by the middle of summer you’ll have brown edges on them. You only have to look at the Sycamores growing as a first row, they grow like weeds - the leaves are cooked, but they still grow. They will then offer protection to something that’s on the leeward side of them. So that’s really what you’re looking to build.

Choosing the right trees

Perhaps you live in a nice coastal village or town and you’d like to plant a tree in your garden to create a bit of shade, maybe something to tie one end of your hammock to – I don’t know quite what you’re going to tie the other end to, so maybe you’d better plant two trees! – but you're looking for one specimen for whatever purpose. How do you go about choosing it? Well, there’s a limited palette for you to look at from – but it’s not that limited.

Interestingly, any of the trees that belong to the Rosaceae family – and that includes the Cherry, the Crab Apple, the Thorns – are pretty tolerant of coastal exposure, plus of course they’ll give you lovely blossom. In the case of the Thorns and the Crab Apples, they will also give you very attractive fruit. Saying that, even some of the ornamental Cherries will give you good fruit, but not as reliably as the Crab Apples and the Thorns. On top of that, obviously there are the ornamental Sycamores which will all do well.

I thoroughly recommend you to look at the Sorbus family. Sorbus aria, which is the Whitebeam, has a good reputation for coastal exposure and is often recommended. If you’re not sure what Whitebeam is, think of those perfect silvery lollypop trees that you quite often see in motorway service stations – that’s the Whitebeam. They’re beautiful, grown for that silvery leaf. In the same family, the Rowans and Mountain Ashes are at this time of year just covered and dripping in beautiful, lush, jewel-like berries in big clusters (the Blackbirds have been stuffing themselves on the red ones). There are fantastic displays of berries on those. Again, you will get some burning on the ends of the leaves but they will tolerate it except in extreme exposure – for that you will have to look at the Whitebeam, not the Mountain Ash, type). They would all be well-worth looking at. There are some superb varieties within the Crab Apples: I suppose my favourite would be the variety called ‘Everest’, which has a fairly small fruit about the size of a cherry tomato, yellow with a red cheek. It has loads and loads of fruit on it. Another favourite of mine would probably be ‘Direkteur Moerlands’, and that has fruit which are the size of plums in what I can best describe as a cross between a day-glo pink and a day-glo purple with a hint of orange – it’s a very difficult colour to describe! They look, and indeed they are, beautifully edible and they make a fantastic Crab Apple jelly with a colour like you’ve never seen, they really are quite wonderful. So you’ve got beautiful fruit on those ones and they’re also lovely in the spring with very pretty blossom.

For Thorns, my favourite would probably be Crataegus prunifolia. This one has a single white blossom like the ordinary, traditional Hawthorns in the spring. It has a single oval leaf, not a pinnate leaf as the ordinary common Hawthorn has. It has an evil thorn on it – a long and quite vicious thorn well over an inch long. In the autumn it sets beautiful, glossy red haws on it. Then from the end of October up to Christmas it gets fantastic autumn colour – real flame colours. It’s a small, round, mop-headed tree so it’s suitable for small gardens. After that, if I were going to go for a traditional flowering Thorn then I would probably look at one called ‘Crimson Cloud’ – that’s a single-flowered one. I like the singles because it means the bees can get in and pollinate them so that you get a good crop of haws in the autumn. Then there are the more popular double ones like ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ in which the centre of the flower is white and the outer edge of the petals is deep crimson: the overall effect is beautiful. So those ones would be my favourites. Cherries – I’m not so fond of. If you get the big Japanese ones, they have lovely blossom on them but you can guarantee that the day the flowers come out you’ll get a spring gale and you can watch your blossom vanishing off down the road! So I’m never quite so keen on those. But another family which also does well, again one of the Rosaceae family, is Pyrus, the Pears. Probably my all-time favourite tree is Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’: it is a lovely, lovely tree. If you can imagine something that is the shape of a fat exclamation mark, that’s the habit of the tree. It’s broadly columnar but has a fat bottom (really we can all identify with this!). The nice thing is that the leaves have quite a glossy finish which makes it quite resistant to the wind, they’re a nice, light apple-green. It has single white flowers on it, very early in the spring. It does sometimes set fruit – like little pears – but do not attempt to eat them unless you're planning dentures – they're hard as wood. Again, it has gorgeous autumn colours of deep plums and burgundies and reds. It will hold its leaves until Christmas – it’s almost semi-evergreen because it’s in leaf again by March, so you’ve got a very short period of dormancy with it. It’s a neat, tidy tree and it’s ideal for any small garden. So they would be my front runners in what I think of as traditional trees.

Of course there are other things which you could consider to be either a tree or a shrub: a Eucalyptus for example. I’ll discuss these next week!

Tracy Wilson, 2006