Tunnel vision: Fabulous floral arches to delight the senses

Garden designer Anthony Noel extols the virtues of floral arches that delight the senses.

Luxurious tunnels of flowers take you into a different world, for this form of gardening is always a talking point and brings French chic to the most unremarkable space. If the tunnel is placed at the start of the garden, like the foyer in a cinema or theatre, it encourages you to focus on what is ahead and forget about life outside.

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Tunnels are frequently less challenging to create than you might imagine and it is hard to beat laburnum (though beware of its toxicity), wisteria, apple or pear, all of which are especially inviting in the changeable weather and light of a British spring.

Ideally, the way through a tunnel needs to be at least 6ft wide, so that two people can stroll together, with another foot either side for the trees themselves – totalling 8ft. These are minimum dimensions for comfort; clearly, a large garden may accommodate a much broader tunnel comfortably.

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Floral tunnels look superb along a boundary wall or near a hedge, but a wide, open kitchen garden provides classic opportunities for shady walks and fruitfulness. At West Dean in West Sussex, for example, tunnels of pear trees span the paths between the vegetable beds in a most charming manner.

floral arches

Tunnels of pear trees create an intimate path around the vegetable beds at West Dean Gardens in West Sussex. Credit: Andrea Jones/Garden Exposures Photo Library

To make a setting, generous underplanting is desirable: lilac-coloured alliums and red tulips famously enhance the laburnums and wisterias at Barnsley House near Cirencester, whereas at Haseley Court, near Oxford, I very much admired perennial wallflowers in lilac and cream, joined by Welsh poppies.

In the case of apple and pear tunnels, underplantings of primulas and different daffodils can be planted to coincide with the blossom. When choosing daffodils, I favour white-flowered Thalia, but Pipit, Oxford Gold and Minnow would all work well. For early summer, a frothy row of Alchemilla mollis is hard to beat – with various Nicotiana and silver Helichrysum nearby to lead the season on. Add Cyclamen hederifolium and autumn crocus for late summer, when your trees are fruiting.

When planning such a feature, ask yourself: will there be good views, either side, from within the tunnel? Or do you need to focus on the end of the vista? Where does it lead? Is it terminated by a step up or down, a bench, a summer house, sundial or even a large, open space?

The openness of the latter will be enhanced if approached by an enclosed area. I once used this idea in a wide passage beside the house, opening onto the garden proper. The overhead branches gave privacy and masked the neighbours. It’s all about playing with scale.

If you have a really large garden, you might create a curved vista, like the famous laburnum tunnel at Bodnant in Wales. Remember, even the shallowest curve is exaggerated once on the ground.

The ideal framework to support your plants will be of iron, with the centre of the arch being a minimum of 8ft above the ground. Often, it’s best to commission a local blacksmith, bearing in mind that galvanised angle iron is both strong and rustproof. Paint the frame in black or darkest grey, in order to contrast with pale branches in winter.

What is your path surface to be? Grass, though beautiful, needs light and air and is high maintenance. Gravel or hoggin is good as it is non-slip and gives visual sparkle. At Barnsley House, the path is cobbled and bordered with old paving, a time-honoured country-house look that is also hard-wearing.

floral arches

The 180ft-long laburnum arch at Bodnant Garden in Conwy, north Wales, was created in 1882 and is at its best in May and June. Credit: gardenpics/Alamy

In 2015, the laburnums at Barnsley were 50 years old and past their best, so they were removed and a new tunnel was planted. It will be established by 2020. Without doubt, Rosemary Verey, the garden’s creator, would have approved. Five years doesn’t seem too long to wait for such a feature to develop its allure.

Once the laburnums have finished flowering, something for summer-into-autumn might be persuaded to take over the show: a late-flowering clematis would fit the bill, or the annual cup-and-saucer flower, Cobaea scandens, scrambling through the branches. But don’t be tempted to try this in the first few years – give your host trees time to get established.

Fruiting tunnels are delightful when they bloom in the spring and have the bonus of being laden with luscious fruit in August and September. For apples on a dwarfing rootstock (M26), I would set the trees at 3ft distances apart; for those on moderately sized (MM106) rootstocks, I would place them at 5ft intervals. Quince A, a semi-vigorous rootstock for pears, is fine for both close and wider spacings of, say, 3ft to 5ft between each tree.

With apples and pears, almost all varieties work, but you need to acquire young, cordon-trained trees, all of which are roughly the same size and they should not be tip bearers – the trees should fruit all along the branches. Plant with a couple of shovelfuls of John Innes No. 3 compost, avoiding manure.

Laburnum, wisteria, apple and pear have few demands soil-wise and everyone likes easy-going plants. Have a go. Your sumptuous, stylish, floral tunnel will be the envy of your friends.

Where to see great floral tunnels

Laburnum tunnels:

Barnsley House (Gloucestershire)
Bodnant Garden (north Wales)
Haseley Court (Oxfordshire)
Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (Surrey)

Wisteria tunnels:

Waterperry Gardens (Oxfordshire)
Hampton Court Castle (Herefordshire)
Kawachi Fujien Wisteria Garden (Kitakyushu, Japan)
Bardini Gardens (Florence, Italy)

Fruit tree tunnels:

Heale House (Wiltshire)
Highgrove (Gloucestershire)
West Dean (West Sussex)