It's all in the anticipation when it comes to deciduous ornamentals, says Justin Newcombe.
The "low maintenance" garden has ruled for the past 20 years, and fair enough too. But the result has often been a kind of prosaic greenscape with little seasonal variation.
Because of our recent penchant for everything evergreen, it's easy to forget the elegance and theatre of some deciduous trees. Deciduous trees evolve through the seasons, giving us the drama and colour of a budding spring, the fresh, soft, often translucent foliage of early summer and some remarkably fiery shows in autumn. The depths of winter offer up bare branches and a kind of cold hibernating decay which I suspect may have made many deciduous trees unpopular.
But during winter, deciduous ornamentals offer something a hazy evergreen monotony can't and that's anticipation. During winter deciduous trees look so forlorn and bare. I find myself looking for any signs of new growth, sometimes even snapping a small branch or two just to satisfy my curiosity that the tree is in fact living. By the end of July I'm craving the first signs of a budding blossom or any intimation this wet winter will soon warm into the eagerly awaited spring.
When the day finally does arrive and the pink, white or "exuberant other" blossom explodes into a kind of suspended pyrotechnic display of colour, it seems a cause for a little internal fist pump every time you go outside. Blossom is also a magnet for birds and insects, adding to the impression that life in your garden has just exploded out of nowhere.
For blossom trees I just can't go past cherries, but there are hundreds of options. To get the best results the most important thing is to plant a tree which will grow well in the area you wish to plant it. So make sure your trees are the right scale and temperament for their environment. Things settle down a bit in summer and an evergreen tree can disappear back into the rest of the garden. It is worth remembering that deciduous trees can make particularly good boundary trees especially on a northern or sunny boundary. During winter the bare branches let in the precious light of a low sun but in summer a full canopy provides welcome shade and privacy.
Some of my favourite deciduous trees, like the Japanese maple, are at their best as the foliage deteriorates into the autumn. Many trees put on golden or red shows of colour and especially in a colder, crisper climate away from the coast, autumn can be spectacular. Of course leaf fall means mess and this is usually another reason gardeners sometimes avoid deciduous trees. But there are plenty of evergreen trees that drop as much foliage as deciduous ones, they just do it intermittently through the year instead of all at once.
From a design perspective it's not necessary to have a whole garden of deciduous trees either. One or two in a predominantly evergreen garden is enough to give a little signpost into each season. The best time to plant deciduous trees is through autumn and into early winter - now, in other words. Trees should be planted in free-draining soils and should be well staked and mulched. Lastly, don't grow lawn up to the trunk. The root systems of most popular ornamentals are shallow and will not enjoy competing with lawn.