How to select trees for your garden and landscape design?
I don’t have very many memories of climbing trees in my childhood.
The exception remains of my uncle’s house, Pili Kothi, a bright yellow colonial bungalow in Sagar. Of course, it had a garden. Not just an inviting front porch with blooming roses, dahlias, and sunflowers, an ornamental wrought iron swing flanked by terracotta horses that stood up to my waist, and a pretty sculpture of a lady, but a fruit tree lined driveway at the entrance and a lavish kitchen garden at the back which I do not recall as vividly- because I spent most of my afternoons in the summer ‘inspecting’ the tree-lined driveway for fruits and bugs of interesting colours.
The driveway had lemon trees of medium height, the leaves of which I would fondly press between my fingers, never getting enough of the citrusy aroma. There were also Chikoo trees with dusty leaves. I did not like the sight of ants sucking on its whitish fruit sap. But I enjoyed collecting the little stony fruit-buds that had fallen onto the ground, to play hopscotch with them later. And there was my favourite fruit tree- the Jamun tree, with its leafy canopy.
Parchu bhaiya, the helper who spent hours cleaning the leaves off the driveway, would warn us to remove our shoes before entering the house, lest the crushed jamuns beneath our soles should leave bright purple stains on the marble porch.
Plant selection is an organised process that examines the following factors: function, aesthetics, site adaptability and management. While personal preference and looking good certainly justify a selection, the value of a plant may be a lot more than just aesthetic appeal.
Function guides the selection of a plant type- a tree, shrub, or perennial for a specific space. The aesthetic qualities of plants are as diverse as the species there are to choose from. Typical plant characteristics that contribute to its aesthetic include the overall habit or shape of the plant, its structure, determined by its foliage, canopy and trunk in the case of a tree or a shrub, and colour and texture from flowers, fruits, leaves and the bark.
The general criteria for the selection of plants for a garden or landscape apply even more so to the selection of trees, as they are one of the most crucial elements in any landscape that lend the space a warm familiarity, even as the seasons change through the year.
Trees help put a house and its surrounding into proper scale. They should be planted where they will enhance the overall appearance of a house’s setting as well as provide shade in summer and protection from cold draughts in winter.
Trees can also serve an architectural function by accentuating or obscuring the architectural features of a house or building. Framing a desirable view with trees can emphasize its features or downplay an unwanted view. Trees can also serve a rather important role in shaping ‘outdoor rooms’ in a landscape and help divide a large parcel of land to create small pockets of spaces-each with its own ‘mood.’ Their form provides the structural framework, and their foliage, flowers and branches provide a decorative appeal that can create an ambience.
Trees can be broadly classified as shade trees, those with a large canopy; evergreen trees, that usually have dense foliage and a conical shape; and ornamental or accent trees which could be small, delicate species with intricate foliage, unusual texture or interesting form. A variety of small to medium-sized trees may even be used as accent plants to create focal points in desired areas of a garden.
The selection of a tree could even depend on a combination of visual characteristics, including foliage and flower colour, fruit, bark, fragrance, and texture. Fruit trees may be used as accent plants, but remember that they can be messy and require regular spraying for insect and disease control. Trees and shrubs pair well together to create texture and dimension in a landscape. Sometimes shrubs are even planted around a tree as mulch. While designing your landscape, think about the colour and form the trees and shrubs will grow into once they mature.
Diversity can be the key when it comes to planting. Selecting a variety of species and practicing inter-planting with indigenous species can reduce the chance of pests and disease. It is well known that native species tend to do better in terms of life longevity and health. While planting several representatives of different types just for the sake of plant health may seem like a compromise, it will provide both a measure of insect and disease resistance and design unity in your outdoor space.
Another consideration would be to incorporate existing or mature trees of your lot as well as the new or young ones into your design. This will help retain the character of your house lot and the region. Consider planting species that are compatible with one another, including shade-loving species that will thrive under the shade of a tree.
It is good practice to plant individual shade trees 30-40 feet apart. Or, for a more natural, forest-like landscape, the tree spacing can vary from 5-50 feet. Irregular tree placement creates an informal setting. To obtain the best shade patterns and to avoid damage to the foundation, plant trees 15-25 feet from the house. In urban areas, check with municipal departments, forest departments, and the existing bye-laws before planting trees in the front yard, next to or on the street and sidewalks.
In addition to creating a calming setting for your outdoor space, trees will add value to your property, reduce dependence on mechanical modes of cooling, remove pollutants from the air and even cut stormwater runoff. As the old Chinese proverb goes: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.
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About the Writer
Reva Saksena is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She has experience working at SiteLens Cultural Research Division of India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha. She is the winner of the "2021 Berkeley Prize Essay Competition.”
About the Editor
Srishti Mehta is the author of From the Land of Mist and Snow: Haikus from Antarctica. She is a creative writer, editor and publisher. She is the Editor-in-Chief at Zeyka. She is a graduate of the St. Xavier College, Ahmedabad, and the H.R. College of Commerce and Economics, University of Mumbai (MU). She has been the India Ambassador of the International Antarctica Expedition (2018) with 2041 Foundation. She has diverse volunteer experience in natural field studies, explorations, and journalism with numerous organisations including the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai.
About the Illustrator
Shruti Bhagwat is an undergraduate architecture student at the Sir J.J. School of Architecture. Shruti has a keen eye for art, design and detail and a passion for books and movies. As the head of public relations for her college, she has organised and hosted multiple events for the institute’s talk series- ‘Manan.’ She was a finalist of Spacematrix’s Designathon 2020.