Gardening: Fast Plants: A guide for impatient gardeners: 1: Shrubs and trees

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT THIS time of the year, fairweather gardeners come out of hibernation and wake up to the fact that they need something to put in the flower beds now. Unlike dedicated plantspersons, they want to see action fast.

There are several ways of getting five feet and more of growth in a season from plants of different sorts, and there is nothing like height for making gardens look as though they have been there for ever. The most dramatic results come from using trees and shrubs which are cut down at the beginning of the season to make them produce huge leaves - a practice called stooling. Shrubs treated like this willnot grow interesting arched branches with twiggy growth at the ends as old ones do. Instead, they will produce strong, straight stems of young growth, so you end up with a bold outline in a sort of vase shape rather than a spreading bunch.

Books tell you to stool trees and shrubs in winter, but I think that is risky and would always prefer to wait until the worst weather is over. Because you are demanding a lot of the stooled plant, feeding and watering will be important for grand-scale growth. Flowers you cannot expect, but the leaves will be spectacular. Strong plants which are three or four years old will give better results than those in their infancy.

New gardens, or old ones that are looking rather flat, can be revitalised by this technique. Imagine, for example, a tired border of roses planted with a few annuals. It could look quite different against the strong leaves of a purple hazel. Choose one with about five shoots and cut these to within three inches of the base for a rapid display of strong wands with large leaves by late July. In front of these put a mixture of Cosmos, a dark purple rose, and blue love-in-the-mist. And then you have it - instant garden.

For a larger effect add buddleia 'Nanho Blue', perovskia and purple sage, with a few small things at the front. The height of the hazel at the back will make garden-centre purchases look like part of an established border. Such a strong mixture of blues and purples might pall over several summers but it would be an inexpensive way of making an impact in a single season. For a quieter colour scheme, the variegated dogwood has grey and silver-white leaves that are lacquer red in winter. Their redness depends on young growth so an annual cut suits this shrub well. It seems drastic, but it works. If gold appeals to you more than silver, then the form Cornus alba 'Spaethii' can be chosen instead.

Trees can be even more dramatic than shrubs. The garden centre should provide strong specimens of paulownias, ailanthus and catalpa, which are all good candidates for stooling because they have interesting leaves to start with. There would not be much point in stooling a beech or a birch because the leaves are too small and dull. But the maple family, poplars, large-leafed limes and, in warm places, eucalyptus might all make a good background.

You may want to hide a summer eyesore quickly - the sight of a shed or someone else's washing line - without the bother of creating a hedge. In time, a stooled tree will settle into a summer growth of 10 to 12ft if you treat it right. But unless you buy a big plant to start with you could not expect much more than 7ft in the first year.

If the garden centre has small specimens, buy two or three and plant them together in the same hole. This sort of gardening is not for the faint-hearted, but for those who like large-scale effects it is a trick worth knowing.

(Photograph omitted)