John Hoyland: The tree planting blunder that kicked off my long line of gardening mistakes

When it comes to trees, says John Hoyland, the more the merrier — but only within reason.

The current encouragement for gardeners to plant more trees is not new. Fifty years ago, a government campaign exhorted us to ‘Plant a Tree in ’73’, which, as an enthusiastic teenager, I duly did. I even followed the subsequent advice to ‘Plant One More in ’74’. What became of the two silver birches planted in a small garden in suburban Doncaster I do not know, but I imagine that they were felled long ago, having proved to be unsuitably large for the garden.

Those trees may well have been the first of my long line of gardening mistakes. Liquidambars planted 25ft apart in my current garden are now looking, two decades on, cramped and sad, unable to reach their full majesty. When they were planted as saplings, the space between them seemed impossibly large, but should have been twice the distance. I am sure that the current enthusiasm for tree planting will result in lots of similar blunders.

The push to increase tree planting is important, essential even, to maintaining the health and beauty of our parks, estates and woodlands, particularly in areas that have been badly affected by ash dieback. However, in gardens, we need to proceed with caution. It is only too easy to rush into overplanting with inappropriate species that will spoil the garden, blocking out light and sucking up nutrients, then ultimately producing disfigured trees. Taking a slow, thoughtful approach might result in fewer trees being planted, but it means that they will mature to magnificent specimens, rather than cramped shadows of what they should be.

“I can now introduce beautiful trees without having to wait years to appreciate them”

My own planting is currently focusing on multi-stem trees. During my youthful tree-planting period, this style of tree was not widely appreciated and few were being produced. Because they never grow as tall as single-stem trees, they were seen by some as tortured, novelty plants, poor relations of the real thing. It was landscape architects, in the main, who spearheaded the use of multi-stem trees, attracted by the fact they provide more foliage, branches, fruit and flowers in the space that a single-stem tree would take up. The attractive qualities of a particular tree are increased and magnified. The peeling cinnamon-coloured bark on the trunk of the paperbark maple, Acer griseum, for example, is spectacular. When there are multiple trunks in the same space, the effect is breathtaking.

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Tree nurseries grow most of their trees to a standard specification, with 6ft of clear stem, resulting in uniform trees. Every multi-stem tree is different and this lack of uniformity produces a looser, more relaxed feel, which, in my garden, is exactly the atmosphere I want. The open structure of multi-stem specimens allows me to see through to other parts of the garden, whereas a row of upright, single trunks tends to create a visual barrier.

Multi-stem trees are produced by coppicing. This is a traditional way of managing woodlands, originally used to produce lots of wood for firewood, fencing or as building material. The trunk of the tree is cut close to the ground, which encourages several new shoots to grow. Although these develop into separate trunks, they are all part of the same plant and will share the same characteristics and speed of growth.

Sometimes, in an attempt to produce multi-stem trees more quickly, nurseries plant three or four saplings into the same pot. This results in an unbalanced shape when one of the saplings inevitably becomes dominant. To be sure of getting a high-quality, correctly grown tree, buy from one of the several nurseries that now specialise in multi-stem trees.

Of course, these trees cannot compare with the grandeur of a mature single-trunk tree. An old London plane, an imposing avenue of hornbeams and the magnificence of beech trees will continue to move me. But I am happy that, in the garden, I can now introduce beautiful trees without having to wait years to appreciate them or worry about them becoming too big. This year, I will have to thank an ailing cherry tree for the joy it has brought me for 20 or so years, and fell it. In its place will be a multi-stemmed Prunus serrula, with peeling bark and polished trunks I will be able to appreciate straightaway. For those of us who have more gardening behind us than ahead of us, that has enormous appeal.

John Hoyland is gardens advisor at Glyndebourne, East Sussex