Have you ever seen a plant or a tree and immediately resolved that you MUST have it in your garden? In your life?! Well that’s totally how I felt when I spotted this specimen on Robin’s Stonecrop Nursery stand at the salvage fair last weekend.
Pleached. A pleached tree, that’s what it is. I’d seen them before in photos of elegantly designed gardens but had never really looked at one up close, or knew what they were called. Full time landscapers might giggle but I don’t mind being honest, cause I actually love learning new stuff. Even half grown it’s truly a thing of beauty. I have no idea who the man gazing at it is, but he obviously thinks so too.
Robin explained to me that he has sold tonnes of them already in 2019, more than any other style of tree or plant. Every few years something becomes popular, there are trends for plants just as there are trends for interiors, though plants & trees have much more longevity. His customers have been increasingly asking for them over the past three to four years and now the stock they’ve been cultivating is coming to sellable maturity, like the one above. Chelsea Flower Show can probably take the credit as apparently a few years ago there was a flurry of pleached trees shown and that sparked interest in reviving this very traditional art. It takes time for one or two landscapers to incorporate them into extravagant gardens, which are photographed & publicised, and more people start asking for them, and more get grown. And so on.
So what’s a pleached tree and why would we want one….. or more pertinently, several?
Pleaching is an old arboreal technique of creating, effectively, a “hedge on stilts”. The trees used are usually limes (Tilia), particularly Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’, Tilia x europaea ‘Pallida’ or Photinia Red Robin, but Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is also popular as it can retain brown leaf cover over winter, ensuring privacy most of the year round. If year round screening is essential then the evergreen Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) is often chosen.
The trees chosen have dead straight trunks and are trained across bamboo frames to have a flat plane which grows out and (sometimes) up. Like this:
Over time, new growth is trained and trimmed to weave and thicken through the frame, until they’re ready to be planted out. The ones above look fairly substantial don’t they, and indeed when taken to their architectural extreme, pleached trees can form great avenues of architectural splendour. I’d feel the need to get ribboned in to a Queen Anne frock before skipping down this walkway…
Creating a large scale pleached tree avenue is a magnificent investment of time and money and is not, clearly, for your average plot. This spectacular Arley Hall Avenue of Pleached Limes forms part of magnificent Gardens lovingly tended and created over the last 250 years by successive generations of the same family. But as with any stately garden display, there are ideas to be, ahem, pinched.
As well as creating avenues with massive trees, pleaching is also perfect for elegant yet contemporary screening. I love how landscapers Randle Siddeley describe one of their stunning examples as “a grouping of sentry-like Carpinus”.
Where tall walls of privacy are needed, but brick or timber would be overbearing and much too stark, you can easily see that pleached trees are the ideal solution. Imagine the garden above without the trees. It’d be rather an overpowering wooden screen, with no softness at all.
Having the elevated greenery is practical for screening but also allows for sumptuous planting opportunities at ground level. The bed below looks quite new and we can see the pleached trees just starting to thicken out and fill the gaps. Different heights add such interest don’t they?
In surroundings such as Arley Hall, this style can look very traditional, but if a super contemporary look is your heart’s desire, try setting the lush greenery of pleached trees against deep dark backdrops.
These images above make me want to immediately paint every wall in my garden Paean Black, I’m such a sucker for a dark backdrop.
Our gardens don’t need to be huge to incorporate this beautiful look either. In small spaces they add impact and height, but can sit flat to a wall. Be prepared for regular maintenance though, pruning in winters to manage and train the tree’s shoots to where you want them to grow and then in summers once established to maintain the shape. I know this example is around a pool (Australia!) but the trees could just as easily be framing a small courtyard garden.
Below is an unusual example of how the style is used on the Wentworth Estate. Instead of using flat vertical forms, the Plane trees are trained almost as greenery umbrellas. Too cool.
Reading up a little more about how to achieve this in my own garden I also came across this image from Dromoland Castle in Ireland. Usually bamboo frames hold pleached branches vertically, but in this instance a metal frame and a lot of hard work has resulted in the most spectacular covered pathway. Magical.
Fruit trees are usually espaliered (individual branches grown along lines of timber or twine) but I’ve seen some examples of pleached fruit trees which are giving me ideas for here at home. We’ve a rather whippy apple tree over in the one final corner in the Moregeous garden which needs sorting out and I’m incredibly tempted to try to pleach it. Partly for the screening aspect, but also because it just looks so bloomin’ wonderful.
Back to thinking about design and hands up, who forgot to include for lighting in their garden? Everyone does, honestly, and it’s such a mistake to omit this critical part of exterior design. Just take a look at how lighting can enhance pleached schemes, it almost makes you want to plant these type of trees just so you can shine a spotlight on them!
Can you tell I’m a bit obsessed? I’m definitely a lot in love with this method. I might not be using a laser line on mine, as they do for the Versailles gardens below, but I’m going to give it a go on a muckiest smaller scale.
Some good tips: Google local plant nurseries to you who specialise in established trees and expect to pay around £180 for one the size of the very first image, and more for larger examples. Plant in winter and not too close together, remember trees grow and spread out! Pleached trees also need pruning so accessibility is important. Prune unwanted shoots out at one bud from the base and pinch out shoots to encourage bushiness. Tie in and train the shoots you wish to develop. Once the branch system is formed to the extent you want, regularly prune and trim back unwanted shoots.
Are you inspired to design into a garden plan this very established method of garden design which seems to be having a new lease of life?
Or have you tried this method already? Was it a success? Do you have any good advice?! Let me know 🙂