Getting high in a small garden

by Ciaran Burke

Lonicera nitida “bagessen’s Gold’

I love trees, and the feeling of being surrounded by plants with their cooling foliage is one that stirs something deep within. A gentle stirring, that emulsifies thoughts and emotions into a delicious sweet custard, of serenity and calm.

In a small garden, or in our case, a 20square meter piece of hardcore gravel led farm yard, the possibility of planting out arboreal retreat does not exist. One great gardener paraphrased from another; even the smallest garden should have an arboretum! So drawing in the wisdom of others when we started potting our plot, some trees were included. A couple of trees in large pots and dappled shade and leafy embrace.

To add the extra height to our collection that surrounds our IKEA wooden slab decks, we have trained a number of shrubs as standards. This involves removing the side shoots from the main stem that is initially trained to grow straight on a bamboo cane. When the main unbranded stem has reached the desired height a head of 4 – 6 branches is allowed to develop and the leading shoot pruned.

The result is a clear stem and a crown of branches, a shrub that looks like a tree!


One of the first was a Gooseberry seedling, from seeds collected in my mother in-law’s garden in Finland, it produces the sweetest fruits, we have named it ‘Pirkko’

Lonicera nitida ‘Bagessen’s Gold’ with its bad hair day growth habit is left more or less unpruned, to impose a tidy haircut onto this free spirited shrub would be a crime. It stands sturdy and proud with a dense carpet of wild strawberries at its base.


Gooseberry ‘Pirkko’

The red stems of dogwood, Cornus alba are a common sight along motorways and in large landscape planting schemes. Although willow trees are often trained as standards and managed by pollarding, I have never seen C. alba used in such a manner. Not until I trained one myself, now I can enjoy the red shoots in winter and the white blossoms in May.


Cornus alba flowering

Then came Aaronia melanocarpa, inspired by a planting in a Finnish nursery where I was impressed by the drooping clusters of large edible black fruits in Autumn. The foliage will turn to hot orange and red before falling and the dainty clusters of white flowers are a joy in May.


Aronia melanocarpa

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diable D’Or’ is a deciduous shrub that has dark foliage tinged with soft Amber tones in new growth. Trained as a standard it add depth and height to our plant composition.


Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Daible D’Or’

The latest additions are Fuchsia magellanica and Forsythia suspends. Fuchsia magellanica, is the hardy fuchsia seen in Irish hedgerows. Standard Fuchsias for sale in garden centers are usually the tender cultivars with bigger cloudier blooms than F. magellanica. I think that the simplicity of the species sits better with our collection and should survive cold Kildare winters.


Forsythia suspensa is a handy shrub with a lax growth habit of drooping stems that are covered in pale yellow flowers in Spring before the leaves emerge. I thought that it would make a fine weeping tree if given the standard training treatment. It had been growing in a poky theme tunnel over the last few years and is now sturdy enough to be planted out, the crown of weeping stems is starting to thicken.


Forsythia suspensa

In a more confined space standard trained shrubs give the height and structure that a tree lends to a bigger garden. Around the base there is opportunity to plant herbaceous plants or bedding. I love the process involved in taking a young plant and training it. Plans are to try Piptanthus nepalensis and my standard Chaenomeles is coming on well. Standards are the perfect way to get high in a small garden.



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