How to prune plants

Cornus alba "Elegantissima"
Cornus alba “Elegantissima”

Pruning plants causes a lot of heart-ache amongst gardeners and a great deal is written about how it is done, often with little thought as to why it is done. It must always be remembered that all plants are either originally wild or descended from the wild  and nobody prunes plants in the wild. Before you start to prune a plant first ask yourself do you need to and if so why, what are you hoping to achieve. If in doubt, do nothing, if you do go ahead then be bold.

Reasons to prune:

  • Control size – often indicating the plant is in the wrong place.
  • Improve the flowering/fruiting – most fruit comes into this category, but many ornamental plants also respond to this.
  • Improved foliage – can apply to the shape, size, colouring or a combination of these.
  • Control disease – this can be preventative or to control a problem.

Reasons not to prune:

  • Make it look “tidy”
Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar
Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar

The basic rules.

Some things really apply to all pruning:

  1. Remove any dead or diseased branches – while trees can survive quiet happily with large amounts of dead and even rotted wood in there core; in most cases if the branch is dead or worse still diseased it need to be removed. Any shoot with  Coral Spot needs to be cut hard back as the disease will already have spread well into the living tissue below the characteristic red fruiting bodies.
  2. Remove crossing branches – these will end up rubbing against other ones, damage the bark and provide an entry point for disease. Also they crowd the centre of the plant, creating still air which favours pests and diseases.
  3. Make all cuts clearly and if back to a branching point don’t cut flush to the trunk, leave the swelling where the branch grows out of the main one.
  4. Don’t leave stubs – they look unsightly and are a entry point for disease.
  5. Bear in mind the larger the branch you cut off, the larger the wound and so the longer it will take to heal.
  6. Cut off large branches in stages.  Large branches have a tendency to break off before they are cut though and tear off the bark below the cut. Large branches can also be very difficult to remove from the plant once cut off.
  7. Cut back to an outward facing bud to encourage on open branch structure.

Wound paints.

Years ago it was the norm to treat all pruning cuts with a wound paint. This fell from favour and the accepted wisdom became that all they did was seal the diseases in nice protected environment so their use has stopped. The accepted best practice is now to avoid painting anything on pruning cuts and allow the plants natural healing processes to act.


The only tools needed are:

  • Secateurs – pick a well made pair that are comfortable in your hand and keep them clean and sharp. These will do most of you pruning.
  • Loppers – sometimes called parrot bills due to the shape of the cutter on some models. Used for branches too thick for secateurs but too thin for a saw. Looked after a good pair will last many years.
  • Pruning saws – these come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Pick one that feels comfortable and replace it when it becomes blunt. Do not try to cut too thin a branch with a saw, if you can cut it with a pair of loppers use them. If you are doing a lot of pruning the battery powered reciprocating saws with a green wood blade make very good pruning saws.
  • Pole loppers – these are loppers on a long, sometime telescopic pole, and they allow you to cut high branches from the ground. These come into there own when pruning fruit trees.
  • Chainsaws – it will be rare, if at all, that one of these will be needed as they are for cutting large amounts of thick timber. They are expensive to both buy and maintain, as well as being very dangerous pieces of equipment. If you really think you need one make sure you are familiar with there safe operation.

Hedge cutters

These are possibly the most dangerous tool in the garden. They are designed to prune hedges, just hedges, and where there is large area of formal hedging to be kept in shape they save a lot of work. That said some of the most extensive and impressive formal hedging you will see is in formal French gardens and I have never seen a powered hedge cutter used there, just hand shears. Anything else the French view as sacrilegious.  The problem is when people get into their heads that they are a pruning tool. They are not! I have sadly seen some dreadful examples of butchery as the result of a hedge cutter wheeling gardener.

Clematis "Multi Blue"
Clematis “Multi Blue”

Pruning table

As a general rule:

  • Spring and winter flowering trees and shrubs tend to flower on the previous summer’s growth so prune immediately after they finish flowering in spring.
  • Summer flowering trees and shrubs tend to flower on current summers growth so prune them in winter when the plants will not be encouraged to produce soft growth which will be susceptible to frost damage.
  • Be cautious cutting into old wood as not all plants will produce new shoots from it.
  • If you have to remove large branches bare in mind their cuts will take longer to heal.
  • If in doubt phase drastic pruning over time.

Below is a table of some common plants with details of there specific pruning needs.

Plant Frequency Timing How
Berberis - deciduous When too large or congested. Can be thinned after flowering, but best pruned in February. Thin congested branches and shorten them to a where they branch. Will generally come away from old wood.
Berberis - evergreen When too large or congested. Can be thinned after flowering, but best pruned in April. Thin congested branches and shorten them to a where they branch. Will generally come away from old wood.
Buddleja davidii Annually for best flowering. March. Cut back hard.
Clematis – large flowered hybrids which are expected to flower their main flowering before mid-June Annually. February to March when the buds are plump and green. Cut out any dead wood and shorten the remaining vines to the first pair of plump buds.
Clematis – main flowering is after mid-June Annually. February to March. Cut all the shoots to 1 metre or less above ground level.
Clematis – spring flowering Only if space is limited. Immediately after flowering. Cut out all the shoots which have flowered.
Cornus - grown for their coloured winter stems Annually, for best winter stem colour. Early spring. Cut back hard.
Cotinus When too large or congested. Early spring. Cut back to within 2 or 3 buds of old wood.
Cotinus "Royal Purple" - if grown for large foliage Every one or two years Spring Cut hard back to near ground level.
Deutzia Annually for best flowering. Immediately after flowering. Cut out some old wood lose to the ground to encourage new growth.
Escallonia Annually. After flowering in autumn. Cut back old flowering growths. Can be hard pruned at the same time if too large.
Eucalyptus gunnii – grown for its round juvenile foliage Annually Once frost have finished in early spring Cut hard back to near the ground level.
Ficus carica (fig) – fan trained Twice a year End of June and November End of June: Pinch out the growing tips of the young shoots on the frame work of branches. Tie in the resulting shoots. November: prune back half the fruited shoots to 25mm. The remining shoots should be tied in parallel to the wall, spacing them 20 to 30cm apart. Do not allow the framework to become too crowded as the young growth and fruits need plenty sunshine.
Forsythia Annually. Immediately after flowering. Cut back flowered shoots to encourage strong new growth lower down which will provide next spring’s flowers. Aim to remove about 20% of the old wood.
Garrya elliptica When it is becoming too large. Spring Cut back as necessary.
Hydrangea paniculata and H. arborescens Annually. Spring For more prolific flowering prune prune back to a healthy pair of buds 25 cm above the ground level (up to 60 cm if you wish to form a taller bush).
Hydrangea – climbing Annually. After flowering. Cut back over long shoots but try to retain the top grow as this is where most of the flowering occurs. Drastic pruning should be done over three or four years to minimise the reduction in flowering.
Hydrangea – shrubby Annually. Late winter to early spring. Cut one or two of the oldest shoots to the ground to promote new growth. Mopheads are best dead headed in spring to protect the terminal buds but Lacecaps can be dead headed immediately after flowering.
Hypericum calycinum When looking tired. Winter Can be cut down to the ground and top dressed with a general fertilizer.
Hypericum “Hidcote” When it is becoming too large. Winter Shorten outermost shoots back to sides shoots to hide cuts.
Lonicera - climbing and flowering later, on the current seasons growth When it is becoming too large. Spring. Cut back any shoots which are becoming too long.
Lonicera – climbing and flower early on the previous seasons growth Annually. Late summer immediately after flowering. Prune back by a third.
Lonicera – shrubby ones used for hedging Three times a year. Spring to autumn. Trim to maintain shape. Neglected specimens can be cut hard back to 150mm high.
Lonicera – winter flowering When too large or congested. Late spring immediately after flowering. Prune shoots flowered shoots to new growth and remove about a fifth of old wood to promote new shoots.
Mahonia When too large or congested. Once flowering is finish in spring. They flower on the ends of shoots so shorten them to bring the flowers nearer to the ground. Come away from old wood well.
Malus domestica (apple): Bush – spur bearing Annually. November to early March. Shorten last season’s shoots by one third.
Malus domestica (apple): Bush – tip bearing (e.g. 'Blenheim Orange', 'Bramley's Seedling', 'Discovery', 'Lord Lambourne', 'Worcester Pearmain') Annually. November to early March. Cut back a proportion of older fruited branches to a strong younger shoot positioned closer to the to the main trunk or higher up the branch. This will reduce congestion and prevent branches becoming too long.
Malus domestica (apple): Restricted as cordons, espaliers, etc. Annually. Mid to late August, when the bottom of the new shoots are stiff and woody. New shoots are stiff and woody along their bottom third, with dark green leaves and a cluster of leaves at the base. 1. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20 cm (8 in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20 cm (8 in) long as they usually terminate in fruit buds 2. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster 3. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely 4. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this is a persistent problem, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire.
Osmanthus When it is becoming too large. After flowering in spring Shorten outermost shoots back to sides shoots to hide cuts.
Populus × jackii 'Aurora' Annually. Late winter. Prune hard to promote new shoots with larger variegated foliage.
Potentilla When too large or congested. Spring. Cut back to tidy up, but remove avoid cutting into old wood; apart from the odd shoot to encourage new growth.
Prunus avium (Cherries: sweet) Annually. Early to mid-summer. Fruit on one year and older wood so aim for a balance between existing fruiting shoots and their replacement. Do not winter prune to reduce the risk of silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Prunus cerasus (Cherries: acid) Annually. Late summer. Fruit on previous seasons wood, so aim to balance last year’s fruiting wood with this year’s growth which will be next year’s fruiting wood. Do not winter prune to reduce the risk of silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Prunus domestica (plum) When the crown needs thinning. Spring. Cut back as necessary.
Pyrus communis (pear): Bush – spur bearing Annually. November to early March. Shorten last season’s shoots by one third.
Pyrus communis (pear): Bush – tip bearing Annually. November to early March. Cut back a proportion of older fruited branches to a strong younger shoot positioned closer to the to the main trunk or higher up the branch. This will reduce congestion and prevent branches becoming too long.
Pyrus communis (pear): Restricted as cordons, espaliers, etc. Annually. Mid July, when the bottom of the new shoots are stiff and woody. New shoots are stiff and woody along their bottom third, with dark green leaves and a cluster of leaves at the base. 1. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20 cm (8 in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20 cm (8 in) long as they usually terminate in fruit buds 2. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster 3. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely 4. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this is a persistent problem, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire.
Ribes - flowering When too large or congested. Immediately after flowering. Remove any weak shoots and prune some shoots hard down to ground level to encourage strong new growth.
Ribes - foliage Annually or biennially. Early spring. Cut hard back.
Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) - bushes Annually Winter Remove dead and low branches. Prune side shoots to one to three buds and shorten branches to one third.
Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) - cordons Twice a year Early June to mid-July and then Late Autumn or Winter Early June to mid-July: cut the side shoots back to five leaves and tie in the leader to its cane. Once it reaches the top of the cane at 1.7m cut the leader back to five leaves back from the end of last year’s growth. Late Autumn to Winter: after the leaves have fallen cut the side shoots back to one or two buds and cut the leader back by one third until it reaches the end of its cane. Once it does cut the leader back to one to three buds back from the start of last seasons growth.
Rosa: Shrub, standard, climber. Annually. February to March. Reduce by two thirds. see How to prune a rose bush.
Rubus fruticosus agg. (Blackberry) Annually. Winter. Remove the fruited canes and tie in the new ones.
Spiraea - spring flowering e.g. S. ‘Arguta’ When too large or congested. Immediately after flowering. Cut back the shoots that have flowered while retaining as much of the new growth as possible as this bares next spring’s flowers.
Spiraea - summer flowering e.g. S. ‘Anthony Waterers’ and S. ‘Goldflame’ When too large or congested. Early spring. Flower on current seasons growth so cut back to within 2 or 3 buds of the old wood.
Syringa Annually Immediately after flowering Remove old flowering wood. It may be necessary to pinch over vigorous shoots in summer and remove suckers from grafted plants.
Viburnum – grown for their berries. (e.g. davidii) When it is becoming too large. Late winter. Reduce as needed.
Viburnum – spring flowering (e.g. x burkwoodii carlesii, opulus and rhytidophyllum). When too large or congested. Late spring or August, but not so late that new growth will not time to ripen before winter. Remove weak shoots and shorten others back to a manageable size.
Viburnum: winter flowering When it is becoming too large. Spring. Reduce as needed.
Weigela hybrids Annually. Immediately after flowering. Thin crowded bushes and remove a couple of old branches to ground level to encourage new shoots.

For more information on specific plants see:

  • Clematis by Christopher Lloyd
  • The Old Shrub Roses by Graham Stuart Thomas

Cornus controversa

Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’

Best known in gardens in the form of Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ this plant has had a convoluted history. The species C. controversa Heml. was first “discovered” in cultivation. In January of 1909 an article was published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine which discussed the naming of Cornus macrophylla and the authors noted that there appeared to be confusion regarding the name. Though introduced back in 1827 it was not widely grown but it was known to be a tall and bushy plant when observed in the wild and this varied little over it wide natural range.  William Botting Hemley who had retired as Keeper of the Herbarium and Library at Kew the year before had studied this and noted that the examples in cultivation were a mixture of two species: one with opposite leaves and the other alternate.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' foliage
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ foliage

The simple fact was that the naming had got into a mess but when the original specimen that Wallich had named C. macrophylla was checked it had opposite leaves and the original description in Flora indica of 1820 described the leaves as “sub-opposite”. Next Meyer in 1845 had also described the plant in a Saint Petersburg publication but naming it C. brachypoda. All this resulted in America and continental Europe using Meyer’s name of C. brachypoda for the form of the plant with opposite leaves and C. macrophylla for the alternate leafed form while in Britain both forms were known as C. macrophylla. In an attempt to clear things up the German botanist Bernhard Koehne tried to split the species in the belief that the Himalayan form was a distinct species which he called C. corynostylis but got confused between the opposite and alternate leaf arrangements. To clear up this confusion William Hemley proposed that if the plant had its leaves arranged opposite one another on the branches it should be called C. macrophylla Wall. as has been Nathaniel Wallich’s intention and the alternate leafed form should be a separate species Cornus controversa Hemsl. meaning cornus controversial, a most appropriate name. And that is as it has remained; apart from an attempt to place several of the cornus species, this one included, in the genus Swida in the 1960’s.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' foliage close up
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ foliage close up

That would be the end of it with C. controversa Hemsl. providing us with a very garden worthy small tree with tiered branches and masses of cream flowers in May, but towards the end of the 19th century a variegated from was found and shortly before 1890 Veitch Nurseries introduced it as Cornus brachypoda ‘Variegata’. Now known as Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ this is a plant which stands out to gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Smaller growing than the original but retaining the tier arrangement of branches, the leaves are longer and narrower and tend to be asymmetrical in shape with an irregular creamy-white margin. Known by the common name The Wedding Cake Tree its hardy in the UK and was awarded an AMG by the RHS in 1993.

Its size and shape means it is best suited to a larger garden where it has room to grow and show off its tiered habit and would look particularly effective in a large border with an under planting of spring bulbs. The flowers are followed by berries and on some soils attractive autumn foliage. The plant is often produced by grafting and so care should be taken to watch out for suckers from the more vigorous rootstock which need to be removed as soon as seen.

Viscum album

Viscum album
Viscum album subsp. platyspermum on limes trees at Hampton Court Palace, London

Mistletoe has fascinated humans for millennium, many plants have superstitions attached to them but mistletoe seems to have attracted more than most. It’s not hard to understand that a clump of evergreen leaves growing out of dormant tree in midwinter would grab the imagination. The druids are said to particularly venerate mistletoe growing on an oak tree, something it rarely does, harvesting it with a golden scythe on the 6th day after a new moon. Consisting that the plant is woody and gold is an extremely soft metal I not sure how true that is and as they left no written records of themselves this could just be dramatic invention. It still plays an important part in culture with the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas but the plant is poisonous with a few berries bring on stomach ache though serious poisoning is rare.

Viscum album is wide spread across Europe and it has over the centuries been seen as a cure of a vast range of ailments right up to the present time. Diokorides (the 1st century AD Greek physician) reported that Hippocrates (in the 4th to 5th century BC) believed mistletoe could be used in the treatment of complaints the spleen and menstruation. Over the following centuries it has been recommended as a treatment for swellings, tumours, epilepsy, infertility and ulcers. In more recent times people have tried to use is to treat hypertension and cancer.

Viscum album
Viscum album (Mistletoe)

The genus Viscum L. contains about 100 spices but only V. album L. is native the UK and then mainly in the south and midlands. In naming Viscum album L.. Linnaeus took the Latin for mistletoe as the genus and album, no doubt referring to the distinct white berries, for the species name and listed it in volume 2 of his Species Plantarum. The genus Viscum L. is presently in the family Santalaceae along with 6 other genera. The common name Mistletoe comes from the old English mistel and many semi-parasitic plants around the world have the same common name. It is also known as including All-heal and Masslin in England and has many other names across Europe, Germany having a particularly large collection of names for it.

Mistletoe is notoriously difficult to establish and the species is now divided into 3 sub-species depending on the host plant it lives on.

Viscum album subsp. abietis (Wiesb.) Abrom. which grows on Abies species.

Viscum album subsp. austriacum (Wiesb.) Vollm. which grows on pine trees and very rarely on spruce.

Viscum album subsp. platyspermum Kell. (subsp. album) which grows on hard wood trees.

This goes in part towards explaining why it is so difficult to establish mistletoe as the sub-species are very specific to their chosen host but there also appears to be genetic factors as not all potential host can be infected with equal ease. For example, oak is rarely infected but even then there is a wide range of how readily a plant will be infected with a particular oak species. Therefore, where a plant has only a few mistletoe plants on it not become host to a lot and only specimens with a lot of mistletoes will host a lot.

Mistletoe is evergreen with tiny flowers that are insect pollinated and would never be noticed; the insects are attracted by the sweet smell . The male and female flowers are on separate plants with about 4 times as many female plants as male ones. The plants flower between the end of February and April  and the fruits (or berries) appear from October to May with Mid-March to mid-May being the best time to sow the seed, making sure to brake the outer coating and allowing the sticky contents to help the seed adhere to the bark of the host tree.

Mistletoe is a parasite, all be it a partial one, taking water and minerals from the host tree and this weakens the tree. Infected apples trees will yield between 7% and 56% less depending on how vigorous the rootstock is, with the plants growing on the more vigorous rootstocks affected the least. Once established the Mistletoe shoot doesn’t divide for the first 3 or 4 years then each year the shoot divides in two, ultimately reaching about 1 metre across, so giving a very rough and ready guide to its age.


Aesculus hippocastanum

Aesculus hippocastanum flower
Aesculus hippocastanum flower

The Horse Chestnut tree immediately brings to mind the quintessential English village green with its broad spreading canopy, masses of white summer flowers and autumn games of conkers. In reality this is a plant which contradicts itself at every turn. Originally coming from the Balkans Peninsula (the bit that hangs down to the right of Italy with Greece hanging on the bottom) it was unknown outside of the region until the 16th century. The first written reference to it was in a 1557 letter from Istanbul by the wonderfully named Willem Quackelbeen. A description of the plants discovery and rediscovery by Professor H. Walter Lack can be found here . Even when first introduced it was believed to be from Asia and the first botanist to claim to have found the plant growing wild in the Balkans was disbelieved. In France its common name is still Marronier d’Inde which literally translates as Chestnut of India. The English Horse Chestnut comes from the belief that it could be used to treat horses, though it is actually poisonous to them, and that it was a close relative of the edible Sweet Chestnut, though all parts of the plant are poison to humans. In fact A. hippocastanum L. is only distantly related to the Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) with taxonomists placing them in separate orders.

Aesculus hippocastanum
Aesculus hippocastanum

So as well as not been a chestnut A. hippocastanum L. does not produce nuts, the conkers loved by generations of school-children are seeds and the spiky case they are found in, the actual fruit, is a “valvate capsule”! The scientific name is little better Linnaeus chose Aesculus as the genus name but it is the Latin name for a kind of Oak which bears edible fruits and the specific name hippocastanum comes from the Greek name for the plant hippocastanon with Greek for horse ίππος is pronounced “hippos.

The rapid A. hippocastanum L. spread across western Europe following its introduction and its continued popularity are testament to its value as an ornamental tree as it is of very little commercial value; it is poisonous and the wood is little used. This is soft, not very durable and difficult to give a good finish to. In the wild it is a short lived component of mixed hardwood woodland and only in cultivation is it allowed to grow to an impressive sizes of over 30m forming a wide dense canopy of leaves.

Aesculus hippocastanum young flowers and foliage
Aesculus hippocastanum young flowers and foliage

The tree is easily grown in normal garden soils but it does need a lot of space. Since 2000 the disease bleeding canker has become a wide spread problem but it appears to progress slowly and given time trees do appear to recover from it. The main problem with the disease is that it can weaken all or part of the tree and so cause a danger in that way.

Aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum fruit

A number of cultivars are available including Aesculus hippocastanum ‘Baumannii’ which is sterile so preventing the problem of conkers. There is also a red hybrid Aesculus x carnea which you see planted but it rarely lives up to expectation and the improved cultivar  Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’ should be chosen if a red chestnut is wanted.

How to choose a tree

The first stage is deciding where the tree is going and why you want it there. This may seem obvious but unless you are clear about this from the start you are almost sure to end up disappointed. A tree will provide height and structure to your garden and with careful placement can provide privacy by blocking the view of overlooking windows or screen an unsightly building.

When choosing your tree bear in mind it will take up a significant part of the garden and is going to cast shade. Therefore think about how the sun moves around the garden and when the tree is going to block the sun and cast shade in the garden.

Once you’ve imagined how you and the tree are going to get along together in the garden it’s time to start considering the actual tree. A mature cedar is a magnificent specimen but in normal sized garden it’s never going to work; that said no tree will just grow to a particular size and just stop. Yes some will end up a lot smaller than others because of their genetics; but climate, soil and may other factors will influence how quickly they grow and how large they are after say 10 or 20 years. You also need to bear in mind that some trees have a lot longer period of interest than others (flowering cherries look lovely in flower but that may be only for a couple weeks and the rest of the year they can look rather drab). A lot of people are tempted by an evergreen tree but this will restrict your choices a lot, the shade is all year round when in winter you want all the natural light you can get, and you will still have the problem of clearing up the dead leaves as all trees lose their leaves, just evergreens do not lose them in one go at autumn.

There are many thousands of trees available and so I’ve made a list below of some suitable plants with their main attractions. That said this is a personal list and I’m sure other people would come up with other names, but I would hope there would be considerable overlap.

Lastly you cannot hope to walk into any nursery or garden centre and expect to find all of these, it would be impractical for many good reasons, but you should be able to find an example of a cultivar  which is very close to it if you are prepared to look around. It is all well and good setting your heart on a particular plant put there is no guarantee any nursery will actually have any for sale. Be prepared to be a little bit flexible.


Trees for the garden
Tree Flowers Foliage Berries Bark Ever-green Autumn Colour
Acer campestre
Acer griseum
Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’
Betula pendula
Betula pendula ‘Laciniata’
Betula utilis subsp. jacquemontii
Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’
Eucalyptus gunnii
Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’
Ilex aquifolium
Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’
Prunus ‘Amanogawa’
Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’
Prunus ‘Cheal’s Weeping’
Prunus ‘Kanzan’
Prunus pendula ‘Pendula Rubra’
Prunus serrula
Prunus x blireana
Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’
Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’
Rhus typhina
Salix babylonica f. pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’
Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’
Sorbus aucuparia
Taxus baccata


How to plant a bare root tree

The important thing to realise is that you will kill a tree before you get it in the ground or after you’ve planted it, to actually kill a tree when planting it is very difficult.




  • Tree
  • Spade
  • Outdoor clothes
  • Tree stake
  • Tree tie
  • 25 mm nail or screw
  • Planting compost
  • Hammer or screwdriver
  • Large hammer (sledge hammer or fencing mallet)
  • Secateurs
  • Tape measure
  • Saw

In Summary


  1. Start with a good quality plant of an appropriate size.
  2. Protect it, especially the roots, from drying out and frost.
  3. Clear a 600 mm radius circle for the tree to be planted in.
  4. Dig a hole easily big enough to take the roots.
  5. Mix some compost into the soil you have dug out.
  6. Place the tree in the hole and position the stake so that it fits between the tree roots and is about 50 mm (2 inches) from the tree trunk.
  7. Remove the tree and carefully hammer the stake into the ground until it is really firm.
  8. Put the tree back in the hole and refill it with the soil you dug out.
  9. Attached the tree to the stake with a tree tie at about 300 mm (1 foot) above ground level and cut off the excess tree stake
  10. Water the tree with 2 or 3 buckets full of water.
  11. Keep the ground under the tree clear of all other plants and weeds for at least the next 12 months
  12. Water the tree as needed throughout the next summer.


  1. Start with a good quality plant of an appropriate size.

Assuming you’ve decided on the tree you’re going to have in the garden the first step is going out and buying it. Here the old adage applies “you get what you pay for”; pay a cheap price and you’ll get cheap/poor plant. So go to a good nursery with knowledgeable staff who’ll help you choose a tree suitable for you and your garden. You will find the trees will be available in a range of sizes organised into bands generally 20 cm or 25 cm wide. What often confuses people is that trees are sold by high only up to about 2 to 2.5 metres high and thereafter by the girth, which is the measurement around the trunk at 1 metre above the ground and the height is ignored. Containerised trees may also, or alternatively, be priced according to the size of the container.

In practice go for something about 1.8 to 2.0 metres high. This provides a good compromise between the smaller the plant the quicker it will establish and grow away, and something which looks “tree like” in size and shape. Don’t forget you’ll need a tree stake, tie and some planting compost.


  1. Protect it, especially the roots, from drying out and frost.

For most people getting the tree home will involve putting it in the family car. Make sure any exposed roots are cover with a plastic bag to stop them drying out and lay the tree through the car, being very careful to protect the bark from rubbing and crushing especially if it ends up hanging out of the back of the boot. DO NOT put it through the sunroof, no tree is going to be in a very good condition after been subjected to a 60 mph gale! Once home it’s quite possible you don’t have time to plant the tree straight away, not to worry, just put it out of the sun, safe from frost and with the roots protected from drying out. If there is no danger of frost it will be fine in overnight in a shady corner with its roots in the plastic bag. If there is a danger of frost put it in a frost-free shed or garage for the night; but nowhere to warm, you what it to stay dormant.


  1. Clear a 600 mm radius circle for the tree to be planted in.

As soon as you can you what to get the tree planted. Chose you place carefully Planting circleconsidering how the tree is going to grow over the coming years. There needs to be plenty of space for it not just now but in many years to come when it will be a lot bigger. Consider what is under the ground as well. Make sure you are not planting it on top of an old tree stump or buried concrete or hard-core pad. Check you a clear of drains, power, gas, and telephone or any other services; as well as being away from any foundations.

Once you are happy with the place; clear a 600 mm radius (2 feet) circle around where the tree is going to be planted to create a 1.2 metre (4 feet) diameter circle of bare ground. It is very surprising how much a tree will suffer if it has to compete with any other plants especially a lawn.


  1. Dig a hole easily big enough to take the roots.

Dig a nice big hole the tree’s roots will comfortably fit into without them touching the sides Planting pitof the hole. You may find it easier to put the soil you dig out onto a piece of old board or plastic. Take the tree roots out of their bag and check them for any damage. Any broken pieces cut off cleanly with a pair of secateurs and place the tree in the planting hole checking its deep enough so that the tree will be at the same depth as it was in the nursery.


  1. Mix some compost into the soil you have dug out.

Nearly every soil is improved by having some compost/organic matter added to it, REALLY any soil other than a peat one will be improved if you can mix some compost into it. The type of compost isn’t nearly as important and any of the bagged composts in garden centres and the like, as well as any well rotted garden compost or manure will be just as good. Mix sufficient in to make the soil break into crumbs easily and if it is very heavy some course grit, say about 3 mm in size will do, will help as well.


  1. Place the tree in the hole and position the stake so that it fits between the tree roots and is about 50 mm (2 inches) from the tree trunk.

Take the tree out of it packaging and place it in the hole you have dug. Now take your tree stake and position it between the tree roots and next to the tree’s trunk, BUT leaving enough space of the tree tie to fit between the tree and the stake. Tree ties vary but they all have a way of cushioning between the tree and the stake, generally a collar the tree tie passes through or some thread through themselves.


  1. Remove the tree and carefully hammer the stake into the ground until it is really firm.

Put the tree to one side, double check there is nothing buried below and drive the tree Tree stake in planting pitstake into the ground. Start the stake off by making a hole for the point so it stands upright, don’t be tempted to hold the post as someone tries to hammer it! Drive the post in, regularly checking its vertical, until the post is really firm. There are a number of ways to do this:

A post driver, this is a heavy metal cylinder with one end blanked off and handle on each side. They are used by placing them over the post (the difficult part as they are heavy) and lifting them up and slamming them down on the post.

A fencing mallet, these are either similar to a sledge hammer and are either wood or metal. It can be difficult to hit the post square with one and you will need to stand on something to be at the correct height so care has to be taken!

A sledge hammer, most people have one of these and the same applies to these as a fencing mallet but they have a greater tendency to split the sake.


  1. Put the tree back in the hole and refill it with the soil you dug out.

Place the tree back in the hole next to the tree and start back fill the hole. Shake the tree as you go to get the soil in among the roots and firm it well with your heel. The tree absorbs water and nutrients from the soil in contact with its roots so you want to end up with as much of the roots in direct contact with the soil as possible.


  1. Attached the tree to the stake with a tree tie at about 300 mm (1 foot) above ground level and cut off the excess tree stake

Once the soil is filled back up to the original level attach the tree to the stake with a tree Finished bare rooted treetie. Most tree ties consist of a length of plastic belt with a buckle at one end and a collar the tie passes through. Thread the belt through the collar, around the tree about 300 mm (1 foot) above the ground level[1] and back through the collar. Attach the end of the belt through the buckle and arrange it so the buckle is against stake and secure it there with a screw[2] through it into the stake to stop it sliding down. Once the tree tie is fitted saw the stake about 50 mm (2 inches) above the tree tie.


  1. Water the tree with 2 or 3 buckets full of water.

To finish water the tree well, the tree is unlikely to be taking up much water at this stage but it helps to further settle the soil in around the tree roots.


  1. Keep the ground under the tree clear of all other plants and weeds for at least the next 12 months.

As said above plants around the base of a new tree are a source of serious completion for water and nutrients so it is Important to keep the area originally cleared free of other plants until the tree is well established. Far more plants die as a result of being overwhelmed by completing weeds and plants than anything else.


  1. Water the tree as needed throughout the next summer.

The act of transplanting a tree results in it losing a lot of its root, particularly the very fine roots which actually take up the water and nutrients. Therefore it is important to keep watering the tree if there is any danger it might be getting short of water. When you do make sure your give it plenty of water, say 2 or 3 buckets full, or all you are doing is wetting the surface and none will get down to the roots.


[1] There is a surprising amount of disagreement over the height at which a tree should be staked but personally I feel staking low down is preferable as the only purpose of the stake should normally be to compensate for the factor that a transplanted tree’s root cannot at this stage anchor the tree and the swaying of the tree will encourage good trunk development. Many people would stake the tree higher up the trunk and if you would rather then please feel free to do so.

[2] In the past this was done with a short nail but as you hammer the nail in it tends to spring about so I now feel the wide spread use of battery drill drivers makes it much easier to use a small screw for the purpose.


Castanea sativa

Castanea sativa
Castanea sativa

The Sweet (or Spanish) Chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) is probably most know for its edible nuts, traditionally eaten around Christmas time, but in fact it makes a very fine large tree. Clothed in thick glossy leaves, tolerant of a wide range of soil types and relatively free of disease it has been extensively planted through the British Isles. Its quick growth and large size limits its use in all but the largest gardens when grown as a tree, but its success as a coppiced tree would allow the more ornamental forms to be more wildly grown. At present these are not widely grown but Castanea saliva ‘Albomarginata’ is a very attractive form with creamy white edged leaves and C. ‘ Aspleniifolia’ is a vary rare form with the serrated edges of the leaves drawn out into fine filaments.

Castanea sativa 'Albomarginata' foliage
Castanea sativa ‘Albomarginata’ foliage

It is believed that the tree was introduced by the Romans who ate the nuts but in practice the tree fails to provide a crop of edible nuts in all but the warmest parts of the UK. Globally though about 500,000 tonnes of chestnuts are produced annually, about half in the Far East. In France the best nuts are sold as marron and in Italy marron may refer to a cultivar of C. sativa which yields fewer high quality nuts. Though Castanea is only represented by C. sativa in cultivation in the UK the genus is quiet large and widely distributed with several hybrids and cultivars being actively studied because of its economic importance. Of lesser importance is the timber of Castanea due to its tendency to warp and split but its durability in contact with water has long been known and has made it a preferred wood for stakes.

Castanea sativa foliage and youing fruits
Castanea sativa foliage and youing fruits

Its scientific name dates from the 8th edition of Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary published in 1768 when he updated it to bring it into line with the Linnaeus system of plant names. He did though take the sweet chestnut back out of the beech genus, that Linnaeus had merged it into, arguing that the male catkins of Castanea are long and those of beech are globular. Castanea is Latin for chestnut while sativa comes from the Latin for cultivated. It is claimed that castanea itself comes from the Greek κάστανα meaning chestnut and a large number of Greek words where borrowed by Latin.

Castanea sativa bark
Castanea sativa bark


Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus

Hillers Manual of Trees and Shrubs

Excursion flora of the British Isles by Clapham et al

Inventory of Chestnut Research, Germplasm And References, FAO [accessed 30th January 2013] [accessed 30th January 2013]

The Royal Horticultural Society Horticultural Database’, available at [accessed 30th January 2013]

Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn

Tropicos, botanical information system at the Missouri Botanical Garden – [accessed 30th January 2013]

Taxus baccata

Yew hedge at Warwick
Yew hedge at Warwick

The Yew tree is an easily recognisable plant of gardens and the countryside, being one of the few native British plants to be widely grown as an ornamental plant. It is a very adaptable plant growing in most situations with the exception of water logged ground and it responds very well to cutting. This, with its dense evergreen foliage has made a very popular material for hedging and topiary. It is also said it is slow growth is an advantage as it reduces the amount of cutting needed but it is not nearly as slow as is sometimes made out. Young plants can make 20 to 30 cm of growth a year; only slowing with age, as we all do!

Taxus baccata foliage
Taxus baccata foliage

Many selections have been made of Yew including fastigiated and variegated ones but it is still at its most impressive as a green hedge where it does an excellent job of defining spaces and providing a foil to the more colourful occupants of the garden. If planting it as a hedge make sure to prepare the site well, necessary with any hedge, and make sure the soil drains freely; even if this means installing drainage. Its dense evergreen foliage forms a very long lived hedge even in the shade and it has been said a yew hedge has a longer working life than a brick wall. The other advantage over a brick wall is its adaptability; creating a new opening in a wall is difficult and will always show up while with a yew hedge a saw and hedge clippers is all that is needed. Once the new opening is made the plants will soon break away as it happily forms new shoots from the old wood and so heal the wound made.

Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'
Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’

It is remarkably good at growing away from old wood, I’ve seen yew trees cut down to ground level and shoot away from the stump. Hawthorn is the only other plant I know with such a strong regenerative ability. This is a very un-conifer like characteristic, but yews are not very conifer like though there appears know doubt that it should be classed as one.

Though now the yews are seen mainly as garden plants; it has been an important plant to humans for a long time. The Yew combines great long levity with a valuable wood which was prized was making bows, the most valuable weapon for most of human history. The ancient Greeks called the yew τόξο (or toxo) and the Romans called the yew taxus. As with any plant with such an important and long history with humanity a lot of superstitions have grown up around it, and this can be seen in its importance to druids and its presence in church yards. The Fortingall Yew at over 2000 years old is believed to be the oldest tree in Britian and grows in the churchyard of the village Fortingall in Perthshire.

Taxus baccata 'Elegantissima'
Taxus baccata ‘Elegantissima’

In 1753 Linnaeus named the Yew Taxus baccata L. in the second volume of “Species plantarum” the Taxus from the Latin for yew and the baccata from the Latin for berry after the distinctive red fleshy arils which enclose the black seed and look like berries.  It is only this red fleshy fruit-like part of the yew which is not poisonous as all other parts of the plants can kill humans if sufficient is eaten. Yew exists as separate male and female plants and so these colourful arils are only found on the female plants. The species Taxus baccata can be found as both male and female plants its cultivars will be only one sex and this should be considered when choosing one.

The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin

William Keble Martin was an amateur botanist in the must noble tradition of amateurs. That is to say he was not employed as one but was every bit as skilled and dedicated as any “professional” botanists. He was formally trained as a botanist but instead of following this path chose to be ordained and spent his entire working life working as a parish priest.

Throughout his life though he maintained his keen interest in botany and over a period of over sixty years studied and drew over 1400 native British plants in exquisite detail. It was not until he was 88 years old was this collection first published. These days the work of botanical illustrators is over looked, having been pushed aside by the ease, speed and ultimately cost of photography. The draw back of this is that a photograph can only ever be one example of a plant on a particular occasion, but plants are far more viable than this. The blunt tool of the camera can never isolate and capture the spirit or soul of a plant in the way a skilled artist can. Therefore the simple skilled illustrations in this book gives the reader a far clearer understanding of what a plant actually looks like than a “modern” glossy book ever can. I don’t know what lead Rev. Martin t to paint all these plants but I very much doubt anyone will try to repeat his work partly because he has already done it and partly because as he working away, colour photography was evolving from a laboratory experiment into mainstream use.

What he left us was though a remarkable tool for identifying British plants. Some of the names have moved on but still the modern alternative can readily be found by cross referencing with new publications. Sadly this book is no longer in print but can be found ridiculously cheap on the second-hand book market. . In a perfect world a publisher would take these illustrations and re-publisher them with up-to-date names but I don’t imagine the economics of the book world would make this a practical proposition.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba L .in leaf is probably the easiest tree to recognise, it’s leafs are so unique. Its heart shaped leaves resemble an enlarged version those of the maidenhair fern (Adianthum sp.) and so the common name the Maidenhair tree. The tree is quite narrow in habit, slowly growing to be a large tree. Hardy and unfussy regarding soil or location it tolerates industrial locations and can be grown all over the U.K. If this were not enough, come autumn, the foliage turns a glorious gold making it an excellent specimen or avenue tree. If you chose to plant one you should bear in mind it is both slow growing and very long lived. Kew’s oldest specimen is over 250 years old and there are reports examples in oriental temple gardens 3,500 years old! So you will be planting something not only be able to out live you, but also your civilisation.

The maidenhair tree can be readily propagated from seed but this normally has to be imported as general only the male form is growing in the UK. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants (dioecious). This is because the “fruit*” emits a vial smell when it starts to breakdown, said to resemble the smell of vomit. In contrast the seeds are edible and said to resemble pine nuts in flavour.

Ginkgo biloba foliage
Ginkgo biloba foliage

Ginkgo biloba was first introduced to the west in the early 1700s, possibly about 1727, and was named Salisburia adiantifolia by James Edward Smith (1759- 1828), who was a founder and the first president of the Linnean Society, and Salisburia biloba by Johann Centurius von Hoffmansegg (1766 – 1849), a German botanist and Count. In 1771 Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) described both the genus Ginkgo and the species Ginkgo biloba in his “Mantissa plantarum altera generum editionis VI & specierum editionis II” and so the name was settled.

What has caused botanists far more problems was placing the genus Ginkgo in the over all system of plant names. The fossil records show it was part of a large group of plants in the Jurassic period but only this one species remains resulting in the rather erroneous description of living fossils as there is no evidence that any of the fossils are of the actual specie Ginkgo biloba.  Its seeds lack an ovary wall and it has flowers so it is often placed in the class Gymnospermae along with the conifers and in garden books it is usual listed as a conifer but it has little in common with any other extant plants let alone conifers. This has lead to a various attempt to place it in a suitable group. It has been suggested that it is closest relative is the Cycads while others place it in with the Horsetails. What is clear is that botanists still have a long way to go in unravelling the evolution of plants.


* Being a gymnosperm the plant cannot by definition have fruit in the strict botanical sense.