The only way to choose a tree

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Harry’

For a long time now, I’ve been umming and ahhing and being generally indecisive about getting a new tree for the garden. Regulars will know that I don’t have a big garden, it’s a medium-sized town garden but with a woodland/country feel to it. We live in an area known affectionately as ‘la campagne en ville’ – the countryside in town – and we are lucky to have a whole forest of trees nearby, and lots of trees in the neighbourhood.

Magnolia ‘lolanthe’ buds

I’m still aching for another tree though. One option swimming around my head is a witch hazel. I saw several of them in full flowering splendour at Kreftenbroeck arboretum, a privately owned garden in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant, which I visited one Sunday in early March. The trees were stunning against a bright blue sky, and I’m enjoying thinking about that right now as today has been grey and cold.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Moonlight’

The arboretum had a wonderful collection of witch hazels, mainly Hamamelis intermedia, which were grouped together along a secluded pathway that straddled the valley site. I would have missed them entirely, if I hadn’t caught a flash of colour and made my way up the hill to investigate.

A woodland pathway edged with Hamamelis at Kreftenbroeck

One thing that struck me about these trees is that while they are not large or tall, they are wide and spreading. Look how the branches expand outwards and even arch over the pathway. Although they are known to be slow growers, it is clear that they need space to expand and not be crowded out by others.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘August Lamken’

At their most pretty against a blue sky, they need that backdrop for their flowers to stand out. This made me realise, that stunning as they are, they weren’t going to be right for my garden. The site I have in mind is enclosed on two sides by a wall, covered in climbers, and has the neighbour’s mature trees overhanging it. The space wouldn’t be wide enough, nor the sky expansive enough.

Sharp yet curvaceous beech hedging

This didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of other ideas from Kreftenbroeck that could be applied even on a small scale. Look at the wonderful structure this curved beech hedge adds, enhancing the natural contours of the hill. Sharp hedging is a big thing in Belgian gardens, and it adds so much structure and interest when designed imaginatively.

Yew clipped to perfection to make an intriguing arch, softened by more organic shapes at ground level

The usefulness and practicality of wood, as well as its beauty, were nicely demonstrated in this unusual bench.

And finally, here’s an idea to hide an ugly or dead patch in a hedge. Clever, isn’t it?

Making the most of a gap in the hedge

So the lesson I learnt from those beautiful witch hazels was to always see a tree growing at its best, in maturity, before making that all important decision. Perhaps a crab apple then…

21 thoughts on “The only way to choose a tree

  1. We have a number of witch hazels in the garden. The oldest is over 30 years old and has a spread greater than its height. It flowers wonderfully at Christmas and well into the new year and is one of our favourite trees. Good pruning from the moment you plant the tree will allow it to grow in a shape which allows you to plant underneath so that, in effect, it takes up very little space. It will reward you a second time in autumn with the wonderful colour. Well worth reconsidering.

    A nice small space tree we grow is Sorbus ‘Autumn Spire’, and upright rowan.

    Great hedges, by the way!

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    • Oh Paddy it’s so hard to decide! Perhaps I should try a witch hazel after all. Sorbus Autumn Spire has lovely foliage and autumn colour, it seems very upright in habit. Thanks for the tip. Do you think it’s a bit late for tree planting now? I can wait till autumn.

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      • Trees are generally supplied in pots so can be planted when suits you – you will need to keep watered for the next two seasons.

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  2. So a difficult decision … everything depends on what you expect from a tree. Flowering time and inflorescence, leaf shape and color of the leaves in summer and autumn, etc. I hope you make a good choice. Visiting gardens certainly offers ideas. I also thought that wooden bench was a real eye-catcher. Greetings and have a nice day.

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  3. It is a decision that needs time, isn’t it? I have finally planted a witch hazel after deliberating for about three years, changing the spot I wanted to plant it in at the last minute! 😉 Crab apple sounds like a good idea though too. Or an ornamental cherry perhaps? I hope I can visit at least one garden this year for some new inspiration.

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    • Which witch hazel did you plant Cathy? Paddy says I can prune it to the shape I want so am now back to wondering if I’ll get one after all! They are somehow very seductive. Our neighbours opposite have a beautiful ornamental cherry so I kind of borrow that as we see it from our house 😉

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      • I finally decided on ‘Diane’. Cathy at Rambling in the Garden has so many lovely ones and that helped me make my decision. 😃 And it was also a matter of what was available by mail order here! Sadly it had practically gone over by the time it arrived, but I am pleased with it as it has a nice shape and I will be brutal and try and keep that shape by pruning too. I will have to show it at some stage, but the garden is still so grey and not at all photogenic at the moment!

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      • Ah yes Diane is lovely, they had her at the Arboretum too. You’ll have the leaves to look forward to next, then the lovely autumn colour. Do join in with Six on Saturday soon, you’ll notice that most people are just taking close-ups of crocuses and daffodils for now, as the gardens are probably not looking their best!

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  4. Even for a town garden there are plenty of choices making the decision is part of the pleasure! The pandemic has kept us on the island for a year and I’ve really missed a trip to one of Scotland’s great gardens for a little tree worship.

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    • Yes but it’s also painful because I can only realistically have one more tree! We are lucky that gardens are open here and we are allowed to travel within Belgium – but not outside it. I imagine that Scotland has some wonderful gardens and trees!

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  5. Other possibilities are Amelanchier lamarchii and Prunus serrula which has beautiful bark. I also love the birch family but you may have plenty of those in the nearby forest.

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    • Amelanchier is a beautiful tree, I agree, not so common here but if I can find a variety that is relatively small I would definitely be tempted. I like the fact that it produces berries that the birds would enjoy. Hawthorn is also a great choice, you are right. Thanks for these great suggestions.

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