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Going Ornamental


Published: 06/25/2012

by Richard Rix

As building lots around the city grow smaller, and as homes themselves become larger, a squeeze is taking

place on horticultural land. As a result, it is becoming harder to find space to plant such majestic trees as

the oak, beech and maple. This makes ornamental trees a more attractive proposition, and there

is certainly no shortage of them to choose from. There is no clear-cut definition of what constitutes

ornamental except to say that the specimen will reach a moderate size and not get out of control. For this reason,

some trees that are considered ornamental, such as certain varieties of crabapple, may well overwhelm the city garden, while others, such as the gingko or tulip tree, are so slow growing, they may be considered as ornamental specimens for many,

many years. Perhaps the most popular of the ornamental trees is the Japanese maple, since it is graceful, colourful

and pest-resistant. If there is a quibble about it, it is over-planting, especially in some newer, upscale Toronto

neighbourhoods, where its red leaves now seem to dominate pathways, patios and entranceways

all summer long. I suspect it is because the nursery trade likes to provide instant results for its clients. Perhaps

they should learn the virtue of cultivating patience as well as plants. Nevertheless, there is one particularly

fine Japanese maple that stays an unassuming, though attractive, green for most of the summer, then ends its season with

a blaze of crimson glory. The specimen is Osakazuki and it has been around for at least 150 years.

In her excellent book Maples (Firefly Books, 2004), Rosemary Barrett says of Osakazuki, “I would be very unhappy

without this treasure.” Her words are justifiable, though one should be aware that the tree might not be reliably hardy in

exposed locations. A sheltered nook without overhang and a half-day of sun best suit Osakazuki, which can grow to

five metres tall. For an ornamental conifer, it is hard to trump the dwarf Alberta spruce – or two, since they look really good in pairs. They are slow growing to about 2.5 metres tall and seldom need pruning.

Just don’t let them dry out, acidify the soil around them once a year, and you will enjoy a tree that works well

as a specimen or for breaking up that monotonous long flowerbed without causing too much shade.

If you hanker for a compact evergreen that tolerates some drought, then you might like to

try mugho pine, which can be pinched and pruned to any lowprofile shape you desire. They do need

good drainage and their roots are shallow, so mulching is highly recommended. Talking of drought conditions, there is

one ornamental tree that is woefully underused yet tolerates a dry summer remarkably well – the weeping acacia.

Located properly, you can build an entire small garden around it. It does have a tendency to bolt but is easily controlled

since it is so slow growing. It works in all soils, and the blush of its emerging leaves offers a true sign that spring has arrived.

The weeping mulberry is another tried and true favourite, whether daintily pruned or left to grow gnarly. The

berries are enjoyed by youngsters and birds, especially robins, who will noisily object to your intrusion into their domain. Although the mulberry creates a dense shade directly underneath, its roots are not particularly troublesome and you can easily grow hostas and even early-season bulbs in its vicinity, since it leafs out rather late. While we began with a caution

as to crabapple, we must make some exceptions, especially for the weeping variety ‘Red Jade’, which looks great in

a container too. It won’t grow much taller than four metres and its fruit, after gorgeous spring flowers, hangs around like

bunches of cherries. ‘Royalty’ is another good choice, especially if you desire a deep colour accent in both leaf and blossom.

‘Mary Potter’ produces profuse blossoms, though do make allowance for it to spread wider than it grows tall.

There are also two rewarding ornamentals that we more readily associate with their shrub versions: Japanese Tree

Lilac and Paniculata Hydrangea. Both trees need full sun for best results. If you prune Japanese Tree Lilac to a

single leader, then rigorously control the growth of side branches for the first few years, you can obtain a pleasing narrow

shape in which to enjoy the beautiful white blossoms in late spring. Once spent, however, the blossoms should be removed,

or they will look untidy and impair the development of next year’s blossoms. The tree may grow taller than you

expect – up to eight metres in fact – and can suffer in appearance if pruned for size. Paniculata Hydrangea is now commonly

known as ‘Pee-Gee’, though that title should be reserved for the ‘Paniculata Grandiflora’ (initials P.G.)

variety. It is not strictly speaking a tree but is trained as such by appropriate pruning early on in its life.

Pee-Gee Hydrangea has huge panicles of creamy white flowers in August, fading to pink during fall. They bloom

on the current year’s growth and should be cut back hard in spring so as to form strong stems for the enormous, heavy

flower heads. If space is truly at a premium, there is a dwarf form too.  


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