When designing gardens, a good place to begin is with selecting the trees. Trees provide many functions, such as: shade, screening, wind breaks, and focal points. First determine where you want trees for shade, privacy, and shelter from the wind. Then, decide if you want any trees to use as focal points.
When selecting a tree for shade, consider if you want it to provide shade all year round (evergreen) or to allow for the winter sun to come through (deciduous).
Evergreen trees (ones that do not lose all their leaves during the winter) provide many benefits. Evergreen trees provide consistent shade, privacy, wind breaking, and focal points throughout the year. They provide an evergreen backdrop for flower borders and focal points. And they don’t cause as much maintenance during the fall months because they don’t dump their leaves all at once.
Deciduous trees (ones that lose their leaves during the winter) also have many benefits. By losing their leaves in the winter, the tree allows sunlight to warm a house and grounds during the cold months. Most deciduous trees have leaves that will display a beautiful fall color before dropping the leaves. And deciduous trees will allow for early spring bulbs to receive direct sun before the tree leaves begin to emerge again.
Also consider the tree’s habit and size at maturity.
Keep in mind that trees provide different levels of shade. Some trees (such as a Silver Birch) have a light canopy and will allow filtered sunlight to come through while other trees (such as a Norway Maple) have a dense canopy and will provide solid shade underneath.
Screening with Trees
To provide a screen for privacy or for blocking an ugly view, plant a group of trees together. You’ll want evergreen trees so that you’ll have continual screening.
An interesting way to use trees for screening is to use pleached trees. Pleached trees have bare tree trunks, but their canopy of branches and leaves are clipped like hedges. In The Complete Planting Design Course, Hilary Thomas writes that they “are like a hedge on legs.” To make a pleached hedge, plant trees with enough room to let their roots grow and thrive, and let the trees grow to about 6 feet–or however high you need the trees to be. Then, cut off the leader branch. Train the branches to grow sideways with wires and plant ties.
Wind Breaks and Shelter from Trees
Too much wind can cause plant damage, water evaporation, and soil erosion. Trees can help reduce wind damage and provide a sheltered garden space. You can find more information about using trees as windbreaks at FunctionalGardens.com.
Trees as Focal Points
After you have selected trees for structure and function, consider using some trees for focal points.
When considering a tree for a focal point, understand its form and texture. Also consider how it will look with the other plantings in the garden.
If you have a small garden and are choosing one tree as a focal point, be sure that it looks interesting for multiple seasons. An ideal focal point tree for a small garden has spring flowers, summer foliage, fall color, and interesting branches in the winter (Japanese Maple is a nice choice).
Other tips for focal point trees:
- Plant a tree with fall color in a flower bed with blue, purple, and gold fall flowers.
- Plant a tree with interesting winter branches and bark with early blooming spring bulbs.
- Place garden artwork near the base of a tree to call more attention to it.
After you have decided on the types and locations of trees in your yard, you’ll know the function and sunlight situation in order to continue designing your garden with shrubs and flowers.
by Shannon Mendez