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!

Tree Stories 3 – Willow

Willow curtain

Willow curtain

The third ‘tree story’, willow, is now available for reading on its own page.

Willow is a tree I have written about here before, when it was just coming into leaf in Spring. Now in October its much denser leafy canopies are an opaque curtain, shielding all from view. I find myself aware of entering a willow’s space more than any other type of tree; having a physical transition is part of this, and the light being filtered also helps, but I often feel like I am ‘between the worlds’ when under a willow.

Damaged willow

Damaged willow

Willow’s nature is watery; it lives by water and adapts its growth depending on how firm it finds the banks, changing from tree to shrub. Pollarding extends its life and prevents large branches being damaged by winter floods.

Individual trees can be short-lived, but because willow propagates itself vegetatively they can also be very old. This makes willow quite different to silver birch, which does not live to any great age. Willow’s water nature can also be seen in the shape of the leaves, like water drips or icicles, and in the case of crack willow, brittle as frozen water. However the serrated edges of most willow leaves indicate that fire is also present; the core wood has a reddish orange colouring, and the willow’s great medicinal contribution, salicylic acid found in the bark and used to make aspirin, is used for fever and inflammation.

Willow with hole

Willow with hole

It is known as the witches tree because it is so connected with the moon, willow is said to greatly aid intuition and psychic abilities. I would love to explore these aspects further. However it is not a tree that grows much in Derbyshire, for it belongs in quite different countryside. Nor does it grow along most of the rivers I used to paddle, preferring flatter, calmer conditions. The few mature (unpollarded!) trees I see regularly are in Derby town centre. There is one in particular that fascinates me, growing behind the Silk Mill Museum, because it has a hole through its trunk (pictured left). There is another near St Mary’s Bridge (below) that has a particularly lovely towering shape. Both grow on firm ground.
Willow tree

Willow tree

Sally is an alternative name for willow, coming from either the same root as the Gaelic Saille or the Old English Sallow depending on which source you prefer, which is why I choose this name for the character in the story. Willow itself seemed to supply the rest of the story and made it thoroughly enjoyable to write.


Frequently I read a book, or a magazine article, or even a post on someone else’s blog, telling the story of some amazing contact or conversation with spirit. There are even people who communicate with spirit as easily as they do with you and me, or at least that is the impression I get. Lorna Byrne with angels, Mia Dolan with her spirit guide, Sandra Ingerman with her spirit animals, Tanis Helliwell with her leprechaun, Verena Stael von Holstein with nature spirits, Rudolf Steiner with just about all of these… I could go on! I used to wish I could do the same, thinking how it must be wonderful to have such a deep connection. No matter that I too have had some amazing experiences, although mainly whilst in a meditative state, and may well have more in the future!

However whilst reading ‘Nature Spirits of the Trees’ this week and briefly wishing I could have the same sort of conversations myself, I was reminded of a realisation I had a couple of years ago when listening to a flute solo played superbly. I wish I could play like that, I thought. And then a millisecond later I realised, actually I don’t need to play like that, she’s playing like that! I sat back and enjoyed the moment with the freedom of sixty bars rest or whatever it was, just listening. Then in the next concert, playing second horn because of being six months pregnant and losing my upper register, I was suddenly aware of the whole orchestra and my contribution within it. How each player mattered individually, yet we were all part of this great organised structure, coming together to perform something we couldn’t do alone.

I am convinced that we are all connected as humans, and none of us needs to repeat what someone else has already done, unless we really want to. It is more important for us each to find our own special thing we can do. So I am grateful to Verena Stael von Holstein and Wolfgang Weirauch for taking the time to have the conversations and then writing them down for the rest of us to read; I now do not need to ask the trees the same questions. Instead, I can ask new ones based on a greater level of understanding than before I read their book, questions that are more relevant to me and my path which is different to theirs.

Ammer Veil Falls

This week it is the willow I have been most in communication with, enjoying the veil of fresh green growth, and the way that when underneath on a sunny day, it almost vanishes letting the sun reach the plants underneath. It has a very similar quality to veil falls on the Ammer in South Germany, in a completely unexpected way. (Pictured above; I’m assuming most people reading this already know what a willow looks like!)

Willow is a water tree, the weeping willow exceptionally so, through its shape, its branches, its leaves, and its choice of habitat. Standing underneath its canopy in a light shower will not keep you dry, like so many other broad-leaved trees will. Willow may rejuvenate from a branch plunged into the soil, so a tree may be very old and wise even though the wood we see may be young. This makes it relatively easy to communicate with; I have found in general that the older the tree the stronger its voice is. Willow’s soul quality is described in the book as ‘overcoming’; it teaches us how to be flexible and yet strong at the same time, as well as more direct help in the form of salicylic acid. Later in the year the leaves will form a thicker curtain, shading the undergrowth from the strong summer sun and providing a cool place to sit. However, such is its affinity with water that mud is a likely companion!