Charles Quest-Riston: Why everyone needs to plant an arboretum

Trees don’t need to be weeded, pruned, sprayed and fussed about. The only catch is that they take a while to grow — so don't wait any longer.

Everyone should plant an arboretum. It doesn’t have to be a big one, but you should do it all the same. Start by planting a tree. Just one. Then plant some more. Different ones. After a while, you will discover that your single tree has turned into a copse, a woodland, an arboretum — a fascinating, personal collection of trees. Your very own terrestrial biome.

Trees are by far the most rewarding of garden plants. Easy maintenance is written into their very being. They are top-of-the-canopy plants. Some of them even exude chemicals that inhibit the development of rival plants. That makes them apex predators. The technical term is allelopathic. Walnut trees are a good example, but so are the tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, and the Canadian sugar maple, Acer saccharum: they keep their competitiveness by killing off their rivals. Rather like the mafia, you may suppose, although most trees and shrubs are not so murderous and tag along happily with everything else in the garden. Which means you can plant pretty woodland plants and bulbs underneath them — cyclamen, anemones, violets, pulmonarias and their like.

You plant your first tree and watch it grow. Once it has a contented, established look — when it is clear that it is growing away happily — you can forget about its needs. You may want to lop off a branch or two from time to time, but trees don’t need to be weeded, pruned, sprayed and fussed about. How very different are the cultural needs of all those boring herbaceous plants that have been so fashionable for far too long. And trees have an awe-inspiring majesty that lesser plants lack. There are few pleasures greater than looking up at a 50ft magnolia in full flower and saying to yourself (or to your awestruck visitors) ‘and to think that I planted it myself, 20 years ago, when it was 2ft high’.

“What should you plant? Anything that takes your fancy and suits the position you have in mind for it”

Making an arboretum is a long-term commitment. Clough Williams-Ellis, the architectural genius who founded Portmeirion in west Wales, said that everyone should start to make a garden when absurdly young and live to be absurdly old.

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Many of us do not have quite that opportunity, but it is never too late to start planting trees and the urge to do so becomes more pressing as one ages. I have long since given up planting for my own excitement, but for the pleasure that they will one day give my grandchildren. And I remember when the great Wiltshire plantsman Egbert Barnes, whose garden at Seagry was laid out by Percy Cane, decided to plant an arboretum to celebrate his 70th birthday. He lived a full 20 years to enjoy it before being shunted into a nursing home, where he quickly took control of the gardens.

What should you plant? Anything that takes your fancy and suits the position you have in mind for it. Many of us develop a passion for a particular genus or type of tree and try to assemble as many different species and cultivars as possible. We end up with 200 different oaks or maples and people come to gawp at them and learn about them and ask our advice because the collection brings undeserved fame and renown. Or you can plant trees that are as different from each other as possible. Conifers and broadleaved, evergreens and deciduous, plus ordinary trees with fastigiate and weeping forms. There’s no end to the choice and enormous fun to be had in grouping them for artistic effect. If all your trees are different, then your arboretum is by definition an essay in biodiversity.

Take Michael Heseltine as your model. He bought his estate at Thenford, Northamptonshire, in 1976, when he was 43. The garden that he has been planting ever since is widely considered the best modern arboretum in England. Back in March, he reached the age of 90. He had founded Haymarket, a major publishing company, when he was 31. He was our deputy prime minister under John Major and then ennobled in 2001. What did he consider his greatest achievement? His reply — no hesitation — was his arboretum, which will survive long after his other successes are forgotten.

Copy him and never stop planting. When I was young, there was a great, but elderly gardener in Kent called Capt Collingwood Ingram. Everyone knew him as ‘Cherry’ Ingram because, in the 1920s, he had imported dozens of Japanese cherry trees into England for the first time. When he was 98, he had to go into hospital and did not have time to plant some recently acquired trees before his operation, so he gave them away to a trusty horticultural neighbour. ‘But,’ he added, ‘if I come out of hospital alive and well, I want them back.’ He lived to the age of 100 — proof, if proof were needed, that planting an arboretum will keep you forever youthful.

Charles Quest-Ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses. But he also loves a nice tree.

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