Root and branch inquiry: When choosing trees, it pays to know which variety works where

Anna Pavord visits an inspirational nursery in Wiltshire.

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One of the most expensive items in the Landford Trees catalogue is a cedar of Lebanon (£80 plus VAT). But not many of us are ever going to be looking for the money for one of these magnificent specimens. They need so much room. Even Lawrence Johnston, who made the famous garden at Hidcote, got it wrong, putting a cedar in front of the house on a lawn that was far too small for it.

The nursery's biggest collection is of trees that are far easier to manage – crab apples – and they've a fine orchard of them planted out in front of the office. The great thing about crab apples is that they pay top rent in a garden: excellent blossom in spring and in most seasons good crops of brightly-coloured fruit. They are also tolerant little trees. They'll grow on chalk but are equally forgiving of clay. Landford have 120 crab apples in their collection. But how do you choose?

I have a prejudice against purple foliage in crabs (and cherries), so that would eliminate 'Profusion'. I'm also much keener on white blossom than deep sugar-pink, so that would lead me towards the excellent 'Evereste' (white blossom and masses of orange-red fruit), Malus transitoria from northwest China, or Malus hupehensis.

Then there's the fruit to consider: yellow, orange, red, big, small. I have less strong feelings about this, but fruit that is too large looks out of proportion on a small tree and the dark, dull reds don't sing out in the way that the glistening red fruits of a variety such as 'Indian Magic' do. There's also the question of how well the fruit hangs on the tree. 'Golden Hornet' used to be hyped everywhere, but in our old garden, I found it a great disappointment. When the yellow fruit had ripened, it then rotted on the tree and refused to drop. It ended up f looking hideous. If you want yellow fruit, 'Yellow Siberian' is a much better bet, says Ed Stanger, who manages the Landford nursery.

So there's a lot to think about. And Stanger is very happy to help you do the thinking. The nursery is spread out over 35 acres and 98 per cent of the trees are field grown. This means that nearly all of their selling has to happen between November and March, as the trees cannot be lifted before leaf fall or after growth has begun in spring.

There are disadvantages for a nurserymen in this traditional way of growing trees, but great advantages for the customer. Field-grown trees have superb root systems, unconstrained by the confines of a pot. The roots are used to fighting their way through proper soil. In the compost that typically fills a pot, they won't have had to work very hard, so when they meet the real thing, they are disinclined to venture out into it. The roots try to circle back into the easy stuff, so the tree, when planted out, has difficulty anchoring itself. It's more prone to wind blow and more likely to run out of food and drink.

The Landford trees are all produced on the nursery. You get the full story there: the growing of the rootstocks, the budding of the rootstocks, one-year-old trees, two-year-old trees, the undercutting of the roots in year three, and where necessary, the training. For the past 15 years or so, the nursery has been producing superb pleached trees, which they send out with five sets of branches, all trained out, parallel, on bamboo canes. By the time they are ready to sell, these trees will have been on the nursery for seven years.

We're used to seeing pleached lime and pleached hornbeam, but here, you can get pleached hollies (the female variety 'Chestnut Leaf'), pleached crab apples (either 'Evereste' or Malus transitoria which has amber-coloured fruits) and pleached whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia). The trees are superbly grown; the first pair of branches breaks at 6ft. Most of the pleached stock brought in from Europe bears its first pair of branches at 8ft. In a huge garden, that scale might be right but in a smaller space, 6ft is friendlier.

Though they specialise in deciduous ornamental trees, wandering through the neat rows of nursery stock lined out in fields around the nursery brings you up against an astonishing range of beauties: acers and alders, birch and box, larch and liquidamber, pine and poplar, willows and yews. It was a heartening experience. Nothing states one's faith in the future so clearly as planting a tree.E

Christopher Pilkington, the owner of Landford Trees, picks the five best trees for a small garden

Crataegus persimilis 'Prunifolia' "The glossy dark green summer leaf takes on wonderful hues of red and orange as autumn comes in, attractive red fruit last well into winter." A handsome round-headed tree, slow growing, height and spread eventually about 8m.

Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade' "Another autumn winner, scarlet leaves combine well with striking rosy-pink fruit which open to reveal their orange seed." Broadly conical growth with slightly drooping branches. Height about 3m.

Malus transitoria "A mass of soft pink buds open to white star-shaped flowers. Autumn sees the delicate leaf colouring well in conjunction with the masses of small yellow crab apples." An elegant little tree; will become as broad as it is tall. Height (slowly) to 8m.

Prunus 'Shirotae' "Scented white blossom hangs among the soft green of the new leaf which colours beautifully in October." A spreading tree, generally wider than it is high. Eventually reaches 6m tall.

Sorbus americana "With its upright habit, good autumn tints and large bunches of bright red fruit which are a magnet for birds, this rowan is a worthy contender." Similar to our native rowan, but shorter, up to 10m.

All these trees are listed in the Landford Trees catalogue and are sent out at a similar size (with a trunk 8-10cm in girth). Most trees of this size cost £35 plus VAT. The cherry listed above is sent out at 6-8cm girth and costs £29.70 plus VAT. The eunonymus (spindle) is £44.10 plus VAT. Catalogues are available free from Landford Trees, Landford Lodge, Landford, Salisbury, Wilts SP5 2EH, 01794 390808, Open Monday-Friday (8am-5pm)