Trees and Self Sufficiency

I think most would agree that the self sufficiency scene is incomplete without the inclusion of a tree or, if space permits, a number of trees. Perhaps the most noble of all nature’s creations, trees add stature and grace to the garden as well as remarkable interest and variation of both colour and form in foliage and flower and often berry. Furthermore, trees are indispensable to frame and balance the garden; to provide permanent and satisfying focal points of interest; to cast shade where required and often, at the same time, to perform some necessary screening function.

In a truly sustainable self sufficiency set up, adhering to the natural vegetation cover is of paramount importance. In most of Europe and North America, forests were the default natural environment. With care and planning, we can restore that balance and actually produce more food in the long term than we otherwise could through slash and burn, and deforestation. Here I will first deal with the aesthetic nature of trees and then in further posts, elaborate on how to incorporate them into your small holding or even allotments and gardens.


A number of notable garden trees give two seasons of spectacular effect. Spring flower is often followed by a grand display of berry or autumn tint; others are noted for their unique winter bark as well as for autumn colour of leaf. Striking effects can be produced in the garden by the use of trees with brightly coloured foliage, a feature often retained throughout the growing season. Leaves may be red, purple, grey, yellow and there are many examples of attractive variegation; such colours effectively contrasting with the many shades of green of the other trees and shrubs.

A considerable variety of shape, form and size is to be found among trees suitable for planting even in the smallest of gardens. They may be of narrow, upright growth (columnar or fastigiate), and therefore ideal for confined areas even near buildings; or their shape may be pyramidal, broadly pyramidal, ball headed, mushroom headed, wide spreading, upright spreading or weeping.

With the great range of small or medium-sized trees available today, I feel it is a mistake to plant forest trees, ultimately of large size, in small gardens. While recognizing the noble stature of oak, beech, lime or ash, I consider such trees are best suited to parkland or more spacious circumstances and should be used where there is room for them to grow unrestricted to their full height and spread.

self sufficiency trees

However, owners of small new gardens often inherit large forest trees. Although such trees are valued for their undoubted beauty and for the exclusive air of grandure and maturity they add to the scene, they can be rather a mixed blessing. Their large canopies cast deep shade and darken windows and it is usually difficult, if not impossible, to grow other trees, shrubs and plants satisfactorily under the overhanging branches and in competition with the hungry feeding roots of such large trees which invariably invade the entire area of a small garden. This situation usually has to be accepted and a compromise reached by lopping branches or thinning the head of the tree — work which in these days should be carried out only by a skilled tree surgeon or reliable tree surgery company. However, I feel that the lesson to be drawn from this state of affairs is the advisability of planting, wherever possible, only small trees (ultimate height 12 to 30 ft.) or, at the most, medium-sized trees (ultimate height 30 to 50 ft.) in small gardens and particularly near buildings.

trees and self sufficiency

It is worth a study of the ultimate height, spread and shape of the trees you choose and to bear this knowledge carefully in mind when considering their sites. Where there is room for a number of garden trees, sensible spacing, again with due regard for mature growth, is equally vital. It is better to remove every other tree in later years where initial spacing has been too close rather than to indulge in heavy pruning or lopping thus ruining the natural form and beauty of the individual tree. Most garden trees — Japanese cherries (prunus), ornamental crabs (malus), mountain ashes and whitebeams (sorbus) and thorns (crataegus) — allowing for mature growth, should be initially spaced at least 18 to 25 ft. apart — some varieties considerably more — unless it is proposed to remove every other tree after six or eight years. However, it is becoming the custom today to treat the small garden as one might a room, refurnishing it after eight or ten years — a task often carried out anyway if the property changes hands.

I appreciate also that closely planted trees may perform a necessary screening function. Nevertheless, it is important that thinning is attended to before such trees ruin or suppress one another. It is better to plant cypresses (Lawson’s or Leyland) or Thuja plicata (western red cedar) or one of their forms or tall-growing evergreen cotoneasters as a screen perhaps along the appropriate boundary of your garden. Your deciduous garden trees are best sited as lawn specimens with their heads well clear of other plantings and where their beauty and form can be enjoyed to the full.

Thuja plicata western red cedar

Soils vary widely from district to district: some people are blessed with a good, rich loam; others have the doubtful blessing of heavy clay; some have to contend with a poor thin soil overlying chalk, gravel or rock, while others must garden in very acid, peaty and often boggy conditions. With a few exceptions most garden trees will grow reasonably well on most of these soils although their ultimate sizes may vary according to the poverty of the ground. Some leading nurserymen give details of anticipated ultimate growths in their catalogues and in the alphabetical list which follows this introduction, I shall be describing a wide range of trees for small gardens and giving details of their size and shape under average conditions.

I think it will be helpful to detail here the various forms of tree usually available from nurserymen.

A bush form tree may branch into a number of stems a little above ground level; such trees are useful for their multi-stemmed bark effects.

A feathered tree is a young specimen, usually 4 to 6 ft. high, without a formed head of branches. Lateral growths may still be retained from near the ground upwards. A standard or half standard may be formed from a feathered specimen by correctly stopping the leading shoot and pruning or thinning the lateral branches formed as a result to form a head; ultimately lateral twigs are removed flush to the stem below the head to form the standard or half standard. Alternatively, a feathered tree may be allowed to develop naturally if a specimen is required ‘furnished to the ground’ whereupon most side branches are retained.

A half standard usually has a 3 ½ to 4 1/2- ft. and a standard tree a 5 to 6-ft. Clear stem before branching commences; varying somewhat according to species; the overall height of a standard may be between 7 and 10 ft.

In recent years, primarily to counter vandalism to trees planted in public places, an extra heavy standard has appeared. This form may be 12 to 15 ft. with a 7 to 9-ft. Clear stem and a good head of branches. Trees of this size are also useful in providing more immediate effects in gardens and particularly where screening is required.

Although confined advisedly to a restricted variety of trees which transplant easily, finally there is the semi-mature or instant tree which should be especially prepared for lifting by the vendor in order to ensure an adequate ball of fibrous roots. A crane or specialized lifting gear may be necessary to lift and transport such trees which may vary in height from 15 to 35 ft. or more and weigh one or two tons. The value of semi-mature trees for immediate effects in gardens (or elsewhere) is considerable but I stress that such specimens must be adequately prepared and competently lifted, handled and replanted to be successful. Before ordering ensure there is adequate access to the proposed site for both tree and handling gear.

Nurserymen lift and despatch deciduous trees in open weather between the end of October and about mid-March. Occasionally, dry conditions in early autumn may delay commencement of lifting. Evergreens may be moved from early October until about mid-April. Where available, pot or container-grown specimens may be planted at any time.

Here are some suggestions to help you to decide how to choose trees for your garden. Except for the holly, which is an evergreen, and the cotoneaster, a semi-evergreen, the first group are all deciduous. The height and spread of each tree after 20 years is given. The problem with most trees is that they lose their leaves in autumn and leave the garden with little in the way of interest over the dull winter period. The answer is to plant a few conifers or dwarf conifers.


Almond (ornamental)

Attraction: Pink flowers in spring.

Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: 6 m by 3m (20 ft by 10 ft)

Recommended species: Prunus dulcis (syn: Amygdalus) Ash (Golden ash and Weeping ash)

Attraction: Beautiful foliage and pleasing shape. Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: Golden ash, 5 m by 3 m (17 ft by 10 ft); Weeping ash, 3.6 m by 6m (12 ft by 20 ft) Recommended species: Fraxinus excelsior ‘Aurea’ and Fraxinus excelsior ‘Pendula’.

Birch (Silver birch and Weeping birch)

Attraction: Silvery white bark and pendulous branches.

Soil: Any, including poor, light soil.

Si/.e after 20 years: Silver birch, 7.5 m by 3 m (25 ft by 10 ft); Weeping birch, 3.6 m by 3 m (12 ft by 10 ft).

Recommended species: Betulapendula (Silver birch) and Betulapendula ‘Youngii’ (Young’s weeping birch).

Catalpa (Indian bean tree)

Attraction: White, yellow and purple flowers are followed by brown seed pods. The leaves are large, yellow and heart-shaped.

Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: 4.5 m by 3 in (15 ft by 10 ft).

Recommended species: Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’.

(1) Many trees are planted in grassed areas. So the first task is to remove a circle of turf a metre (yard) wide. This job can be done neatly by inserting a short stake in the centre of the intended circle with a piece of string attached to a second stick. The circumference of the circle can then be marked out.

(2) Skim away the turf from the marked out area with a spade and place it to one side. Next remove all of the soil from the hole to at least one spit and place in a garden barrow (or on a piece of thick plastic on the lawn). Then, using a fork, break up the subsoil thoroughly.

Cherry (ornamental)

Crab apple

Attraction: Blossom in spring, and autumn (depending on species).

Soil: Any, provided it is fairly well drained.

Size after 20 years: Varies considerably according to the species.

Recommended species:

Primus ‘Pandora’ 4.5 m by 4.5 m (15 ft by 15 ft), pink flowers.

Prunus sargentii, 3.6 m by 4.5 m (12 ft by 15 ft), pink flowers.

Primus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’, 4.5 m by 4.5 m (15 ft by 15 ft), pink flower in autumn and winter.


Attraction: Semi-evergreen leaves and branches laden with red berries in autumn.

Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: 4.5 m by 3.6 m (15 ft by 12 ft).

Recommended species: Cotoneaster hybridus ‘Pendulus’.

Attraction: Flowers, followed in some species by fruit suitable for making jelly.

Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: Varies considerably according to the species.

Recommended species:

Mainsfloribunda (Japanese Crab) 4.5 in by 3.6 m (15 ft by 12 ft), pink blossom followed by red fruit.

Malus ‘John Downie’, 6 m by 4.5 m (20 ft by 15 ft), white blossom followed by red and yellow fruit suitable for jelly.

Malus ‘Red Jade’, 3.6 m by 3.6 m (12 ft by 12 ft), pink flowers followed by red fruit.

False acacia

Attraction: Elegant foliage.

Soil: Any. Including poor thin soils.

Size after 20 years: 6 m by 3.6 m (20 ft by 12 ft).

Recommended species: Robiniapseudoaeacia Frisia’. The yellow leaves turn copper before falling in autumn.


Attraction: Superb blossom, followed by orange red berries.

Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: 4.5 ra by 3.6 m (15 ft by 12 ft) Recommended species: Crataegus carrierci.


Attraction: Glossy evergreen leaves and scarlet berries. Soil: Any, provided well drained. Size after 20 years: 6 m by 3.6 in (20 ft by 12 ft). Recommended species: Ilex aquifolium ‘J.C. Van Tol\ Most hollies are either male or female; this one is self-fertile.

Honey locust

Attraction: Bright yellow leaves and twisted seed pods in autumn.

Soil: Any, tolerates drought.

Size after 20 years: 5.4 m by 2.4 m (18 ft by 8 ft). Recommended species: Gleditschia tricanthos ‘Sunburst’.

Japanese cherry

Attraction: Beautiful blossom in spring. Soil: Any, provided it is fairly well drained. Size after 20 years: Varies considerably according to the species.

Recommended species:

Promts ‘Amanogawa’, 4.5 m by 1.2 m (15 ft by 4 ft), shell pink blossom. Ideal tree for a small garden or confined spaces.

Prunus ‘Kanzan’, 4.5 m by 4.5 m (15 ft by 15 ft), double rich pink flowers.

Prunus ‘Pink Perfection’. 3.6 m by 4.5 m (12 ft by 15 ft), rosy pink flowers.

Prunus ‘Shirofugen*, 4.5 m by 4.5 m (15 ft by 15 ft), pink flowers.

Primus ‘Tai Haku\ 6 m by 6 m (20 ft by 20 ft), snow-white blossom in large pendulous clusters.

Judas tree

Attraction: Clusters of rosy-purple flowers in late spring followed by purple-tinted seed pods in mid summer. Soil: Good, well drained soil. Size after 20 years: 4.5 m by 3 m (15 ft by 10 ft). Recommended species: Cercis siliquastrum.

Laburnum (Golden Rain)

Attraction: Long racemes of golden-yellow flowers in late spring.

Soil: Ordinary, provided well drained.

Size after 20 years: 4.5 m by 3.6 m (15 ft by 12 ft).

Recommended species: Laburnum wateri ‘Vossii’.

Fewer seed pods are produced than with other laburnums. All laburnum seed is very poisonous.


Attraction: Beautiful foliage and in some species colourful bark.

Soil: Ordinary and well drained. Japanese species need lime-free soil.

Size after 20 years: Varies considerably according to the species.

Recommended species:

Acergrosseri(Snake bark maple), 4.5 m by 4.5 m (15 ft by 15 ft).

Acergriseum (Paper bark maple), 3.6 m by 3.6 m (12 ft by 12 ft).

Acer Japonicum ‘Aureum’, 1.5 m by 1.5 m (5 ft by 5 ft), slow-growing with soft yellow leaves which turn crimson in fall.

Acer negundo ‘Auratum’, 6 m by 4.5 m (20 ft by 15 ft).

Acerpalmatum ‘Atropurpureum” (Purple Japanese

M aple), 3.6 m by 3 m (12 ft by 10 ft).

Acerplatanoides ‘Royal Red’ (Norway maple), 7.5mby4.5m(25ftby 15 ft).

Acer rubrum ‘Zlesengeri’ (Canadian red maple), 7.5         m by 5.4 m (25 ft by 18 ft).

Colours best in autumn on a lime-free soil.

Acer saccharinum (Silver maple), 7.5 m by 4.5 m (25 ft by 15 ft).

Mountain ash (Rowan)

Recommended species: Primus cerasiferu ‘Nigra’.

Attraction: Leaf tints in autumn and abundance of berries.

Soil: Ordinary and well drained. Best results on acid soils.

Size after 20 years: 4.5 m by 3.6 in (15 ft by 12 ft).

Recommended species:

Sorbus aucuparia “Carpet of Gold’, golden yellow berries.

Sorbus aucuparia “Sheerwater Seedling’, orange red fruit.

Sorhits ‘Joseph Rock’, amber berries and leaves which turn to purple, burnt orange and copper.

Snowy mespilus (Shadbush)

Attraction: White flowers in mid spring when the half-opened leaves are tinged pink. Crimson fruit opens in early summer, and in autumn the foliage turns red and yellow.

Soil: Moist loam.

Size after 20 years: 6 m by 4.5 m (20 ft by 15 ft).

Recommended species: Amelanchier canadensis.

Willow (American weeping willow)

Plum (ornamental)

Attraction: Deep purple leaves and pink flowers which open on the leafless branches in early spring.

Soil: Any.

Size after 20 years: 4.5 m by 4.5 m(15 ft by 15 ft).

Attraction: Graceful umbrella of cascading branches. Soil: Moist loam.

Size after 20 years: 3.6 m by 4.5 m (12 ft by 15 ft). Recommended species: Salixpurpurea ‘Pendula’. This is the only weeping willow for average gardens. Golden forms all become much too large.

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