More Thoughts on Growing Trees

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones

Everyone agrees that choosing trees for a suburban garden is not easy. Even with the best intentions and access to detailed information from a range of experts on the internet as well as local advice, it is still possible to choose the wrong tree for your garden. Some trees grow bigger and more enthusiastically than expected, others don’t produce the anticipated flowers, or else refuse to grow at all because the chosen spot is too hot, too windy, too cold etc. etc.

Not everyone likes trees. As the 18th century English poet William Blake wrote, ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way…’ Trees are regarded by some as being messy, shedding leaves and dropping fruit (both of which could of course be used to make compost and enrich the soil), and also obscuring views and cutting out sun. People who love trees plant them for their shape and foliage, as well as for children and birds. Children need trees to climb, to hide in, to build tree houses in and to lie under on hot summer days with books to read. Trees provide safe nesting places for birds and trees with fruit and flowers attract insects, all of which provides food for birds.

When we moved to Leisure Isle over ten years ago the garden had some existing trees, but others were needed to create focal points with their attractive foliage and flowers; to create private areas screened from the road or adjacent properties; as well as to attract and encourage birds to visit the garden. We also needed fairly fast-growing trees with non-aggressive root systems.

Following the advice of local nurseries and long-term residents we planted several trees, some of which we wouldn’t plant again if we knew then what we know now. Chief among these are the Cape Ash (Ekebergia capensis) and the Wild Plum (Harpephyllum caffrum). Both of these seemed to fit our criteria by being reasonably fast growing with non-aggressive root systems and with fruit that attracts birds. What we didn’t realise was how large, wide and dense the crown of these trees would become if they were in a position they liked. Another tree which seemed perfect was the Tree fuschia (Halleria lucida), with its attractive shiny dark-green evergreen leaves, attractive yellow, orange or red tubular flowers and fleshy berries. Birds loved the tree, particularly the sunbirds who flitted in and out enjoying the nectar all day long. Unfortunately for our neighbours it has very dense growth, particularly after pruning, so was unsuitable as a boundary screening plant where winter sun was desirable.

Halleria lucida - Zimbabweflora
Halleria lucida – Zimbabweflora

Boundary screening trees are particularly difficult to get right. Where winter sun is required the choice of a deciduous tree like the Pompon tree (Dais cotinifolia) with its attractive mass of pinkish-mauve flowers appearing between November and February would be a good choice.  Another possibility is the White pear (Apodytes dimidiata), which although evergreen is a less dense tree with dainty, sweetly scented sprays of white flowers between September and April. Both have non-aggressive root systems and the red and black berries of the White pear are enjoyed by birds. Another deciduous tree is the White stinkwood (Celtis africana), which has delicate soft green spring foliage. Birds love the little berry-like fruits and disperse the seeds everywhere.  The tree grows quickly and easily under most conditions and soon provides shade in summer. However it probably grows too tall for the average garden and with its aggressive root system needs to be planted 3-5 metres away from walls and paving.

Waterberry - A Mileson
Waterberry – A Mileson

A wonderful bird and bee tree is the Waterberry (Syzigium cordatum) which could be considered for a medium-sized garden. However, be careful where you plant it as it has a fairly aggressive root system and shouldn’t be planted too close to paving, pools etc. It is fairly fast growing and reaches about 10 metres. It likes a damp sunny spot and grows well on Leisure Isle once its roots reach the underground aquifer.

This evergreen tree is attractive all year round with its blue-green foliage, sprays of fluffy white to pinkish scented flowers in spring, followed by smooth glossy deep-purple berries.  The flowers yield excellent nectar enjoyed by bees and other insects, which in turn attracts insect-eating birds like the Black-headed Oriole. Fruit-eating birds like the Knysna Turaco enjoy the berries. The berries ripen in late summer and apparently make a delicious jelly.

Waterberry - M A Hyde
Waterberry – M A Hyde

One of the hardest decisions for tree-lovers is to admit that you have made a mistake and that the tree should be cut down. To cut down a beautiful tree in its prime seems all wrong and emphasizes even more the need to make correct decisions about which trees to plant in your particular garden.