Growing Small ‘Trees’

Here is a gardening challenge that most people don’t face – how to grow small ‘trees’ for planting alongside a model railway.

The scale of the railway is 1:22.5, known to railway-minded people as Gauge 3 in the UK. (In real terms, around half inch to the foot.) So a tree would ideally be between 1 and 3 feet high. And preferably not too wide, or too fast growing, or it will be in the way of the trains. Other railway gardens use small plants, like alpines in a rocky landscape, but given this section of the garden is in shade for more than half of the day, and is fairly damp clay soil, and we don’t really want to feature the brick wall behind too strongly, trees seem like a better option!

I have one abiding problem, however. How to grow a tree that will keep growing and healthy, and not get too big too quickly. Some model gardens use crab apples on dwarfing rootstocks to great success, others use dwarfing conifers. Neither will grow well here. I have a couple of Japanese maples, now ten years old, one of which is growing very well and is almost too big, the other is rather less happy. There is a Euonymus alatus (Spindle) which can be pruned and seems to be doing well. A small magnolia was removed after such a devastating insect infestation that it never recovered, and a small Rowan, Sorbus reducta, failed to grow roots in the sticky clay. And then there is my willow.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ is supposed to take ten years to get to 3′ around, sometimes longer. It should never get larger than 5′. No one told my willow that! I prune it most years to try and keep it within bounds, yet this year I see it is rather a lot taller than the wall…

Salix hastata 'Wehrhahnii' growing very enthusiastically thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpet its feet.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ growing very enthusiastically, thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpets its feet.


While in the process of redesigning the garden generally, I have given this somewhat frustrating area quite a bit of thought. Even to the point of considering removing the willow and the maples and starting again with smaller, more prunable plants such as box and spring bulbs – until I realised the cause of its excessive growth. There is a soakaway nearby and so the willow is actually doing a sterling job of removing all the excess water, allowing other nearby plants to thrive instead of drown. So when it finishes flowering, I shall try a new pruning regime similar to a blackcurrant of removing a third of the branches to the base each spring, and see if over three years it can be stabilised to a more manageable size. Of course, I now realise that what would be really happy in that spot would be bog garden plants – but I haven’t come up with any that will grow at an appropriate scale yet!

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Bottle Gardening

Trying to grow vegetables on a windswept Derbyshire hillside always feels a bit hit and miss – most plants do very well once they establish themselves and get growing as the soil is good and rich and is rarely too dry – but vegetables being mainly annuals can be somewhat tricky to get to this stage. Setbacks in their growth tend to have rather negative consequences on their cropping!

I have tried waiting to plant things later, but sometimes the growing season then feels too short. Or else I miss the ‘window’ for planting and they never get in the ground. I also have trouble sowing seed indoors due to lack of windowsills and lack of light – I grow lots of things from seed each year, but slower growing flowers or seeds sown in late April or May do better than compact, fast growing, leafy plants sown in winter. So this year I am trying a new, more determined approach: buy in some healthy looking, British grown, brassica plants and lettuces that are at the right stage for planting out, and then give them as much protection as I can. My bottle collection, built up over a few years and normally reserved for sweetcorn, has come out of store early.

Bottle Garden

Bottle Garden

Of course, a windy day immediately followed planting and several bottles flew off. I tried simply putting them back – which lasted all of a few minutes until the wind picked up again. My solution was to make use of my sticky, heavy clay soil – water everything, pile soil around each bottle, water again and effectively ‘glue’ the bottles into place. It has worked before, and I hope will this time! For those wishing to copy this method, water well before attempting to remove the bottles as the first time I tried this a plant came out with the bottle, but minus its roots…