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!

Garden Thoughts

I have been weeding the garden over the past couple of weeks, with winter pruning finished and everything bursting into growth, and it has proved very enjoyable, especially now that M is able to entertain herself running about and picking daisies while I work. It has also been very helpful for crystallising some of my thoughts on developing the garden.

I have mentioned before that I have some big plans for the garden, and would like to work closer with nature spirits. I have started to draw up scale plans for the changes I want to make – so that I can see which plants will be kept in current positions and which will need moving or propagating. It will hopefully save me from planting things in annoying places this year! However I have not yet made any direct contact with nature spirits, and even opportunities to try are not presenting themselves to me. This is unusual, so temporarily left me puzzled and a bit frustrated. But weeding has proved wonderful for gaining insights, and this is what I have learned.

1. I need to develop my own intent for the garden, and to carry it through.
This is particularly important for me as when I was ill, then pregnant, then with a baby, I basically asked nature to look after the garden for me. If I am to develop the garden as I want it to be, then I need to focus my will and intention – not defer it to anyone else. Nature can only then work to bring it into growth.

I am reminded of how Nature itself defines a garden, as told to Machaelle Small Wright. (Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered.)

“A garden is any environment that is initiated by humans, given its purpose, definition and direction by humans, and maintained with the help of humans. For nature to consider something to be a garden, we must see humans actively involved in all three of these areas. … Nature does not consider the cultivation of a plot of land as the criteria for a garden. Nature considers a garden to exist wherever humans define, initiate and interact with form to create a specialised environment.”

If I do not supply the definition, direction and purpose, then I cannot interact effectively with nature and nature would not define my small plot of land as a garden. Strangely this definition does not require plants to be present…

2. Letting wild corners into the garden is good.
Creating habitats and going as far as I can to actively include wildlife in the garden gives me a commitment to nature. However, I have been having a dilemma over providing a properly ‘wild’ area into which I do not enter. At the risk of writing a very long blog post this week, there are two quotes which have made it clear how important it is to have a wild area.

From ‘The Gentleman and the Faun – Encounters with Pan and the Elemental Kingdom’ by Robert Oglivie Crombie, known as Roc. Chapter 13 – The Wild Garden by Peter Caddy

“Roc’s work with the nature spirits also pointed out to us the importance of the wild garden. In Britain, where there is a tradition of fine gardens, almost invariably an area of each is left wild. There is also a folk custom among farmers of leaving a bit of land, where humans are forbidden to go, as the domain of the fairies and elves.
“One Sunday afternoon, Roc had accompanied a group of us on a visit to a local walled garden at Kincorth. At one end of the landscaped area ran a stream with a wooden bridge across it. On the other side was a wild place, cool and dense in contrast to the neat and colourful beds on our side. Roc, obeying an impulse, wandered off across the bridge and into the foliage. Later he told us that beyond a certain point in the area he had suddenly felt like an intruder.
“There Pan appeared beside him and told him that this part of the garden was for his subjects alone and was to be so respected. He said that in any garden, no matter the size, where the full cooperation of the nature spirits is desired, a part should be left where, as far as possible, man does not enter. The nature spirits use this place as a focal point for their activity, a centre from which to work.
“Pan also told him that at Findhorn we did not have enough respect for our wild garden. Indeed, we had developed the habit of crossing this area when we went to the beach for a swim, and right in the middle of it Dennis had set up his tent. You can imagine how quickly he removed both himself and his gear on hearing this message! Thereafter, we made sure to enter this area as seldom as possible.”

From ‘Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered’ by Machaelle Small Wright. p122-3 – What’s This Crap About Fairies?

“I had read that at Findhorn there was an area set aside specifically for the use of nature spirits. It was a place where humans didn’t enter and it was left wild. I felt that I should do the same at Perelandra. So I picked a spot on the edge of the woods next to the garden and roped it off as a gesture, designating that this area was now to be exclusively for nature spirits. After roping it, I stood in the middle of the area and invited the nature spirits to come to this special place that I called the “Elemental Annex.” Immediately, a great rush of energy streamed in and I heard, “Finally! Now we can get down to business!” Feeling very much out of place, I gingerly stepped out of the area. The Elemental Annex was now the base of operations for the Perelandra nature spirits.”

My own garden is not large, the back part being around the size of a tennis court or a standard swimming pool, and the front very much smaller. There are hedges down both sides which need cutting regularly, and there simply are no areas where I do not go. But there is a cow field behind us, which has a corner behind my garden that is rarely touched, as well as other wild areas close by. I am hoping that these will suffice at least initially. And meanwhile, the plans I am making are putting wildlife as a much higher priority than it has been in the past.

3. Nature values active love rather than a hug.
Sending plants love won’t get them watered in a drought. My side of any partnership with nature is to do the work – and having not done so over the past few years, I apparently have a bit of ground to make up to prove that I am committed to the garden.

I have been left wondering how much of the proof of my commitment is to nature, since nature can surely read our intentions better than we can ourselves, and how much it is to change my own mindset and make sure I am committed to the job!

4. I can ask for help once I have established what it is I want.
I look forward to this stage! I will admit to being surprised and disappointed to have to make all the decisions myself, as I fully expected nature to tell me where particular plants would be happiest, and how they would like to be grown together, as other writers have reported. But clearly I am not at this stage in my own development yet – and I am also a reasonably capable gardener with many years of experience (seventeen in this garden alone) so I need a little faith and belief in myself! I also need to remember point 1, that I set the intention and definition for the garden. I appear to have some way to go to really develop this in myself.

*

I said at the start that weeding had formed part of the insight and led to the rest following on – my intent was strong enough to remove a weed, without doubts, without wondering if I should or if it was balancing something else or otherwise needed in some way. I didn’t want it growing, and that was sufficient. No guilt needed. I also found it easier to get on with the job if my energies were not being split into worrying whether I was doing the right thing in removing particular types of weeds. (Some are obvious thugs, others have good qualities but have got out of hand.)

So here are my intentions for the redeveloped garden:
Front – all the herbs I want to eat, enough fruit to supply our basic needs with surplus for friends, and enough vegetables to always have something we can pick for dinner.
Back – fun, exciting, peaceful, beautiful, and full of wildlife. A space we all want to spend time in, just being, sitting, relaxing and enjoying ourselves. A place where nature and natural cycles can be honoured. It looks likely that most of the grass will go, in order to make a pond and ‘stream’ garden and of course the whole thing will have to be designed around the garden railway the rest of my family want…