Combining plants in a garden is a mixture of art and science. The colours, textures and shapes need to work together (the ‘art’ part of the pairing) but the plant choices must grow together harmoniously (the ‘science’ bit).
To get you started we’ve selected five small garden trees and looked at underplanting options for either an informal or formal look.
To match a tree with a low-growing groundcover or shrub to grow under or around it, consider growing conditions such as how dry the soil is, the amount of shade and sun (which may vary seasonally for a deciduous tree) along with seasonal changes.
Make a checklist to ensure that your design choice matches the growing criteria.
To select a plant that accentuates and works with a feature tree, consider foliage colour and texture, flowering colour and season and tree shape. Also make your planting partnerships work with the style of your garden such as informal or formal.
Tip: Don’t build up soil around the root or trunk of a tree and when digging, don’t disturb roots. If it’s too difficult to plant under an established tree, place a group of containers under the tree.
Lagerstroemia indica Indian Summer series or other cultivar
Crepe myrtles flower from early summer to autumn, have autumn leaf colour and are bare in winter. To complement this tree we’ve selected two evergreen options that grow in light shade. To make the most of the planting space beneath the tree, prune to remove low growth and reveal a strong central trunk.
Informal look: Chinese fringe bush (Loropetalum ‘Plum Gorgeous’) or other purple-leaf variety. Selected for its deep burgundy leaf colour.
Formal look: Japanese box (Buxus sempervirens). Selected for evergreen foliage. Shaping into box balls creates year-round interest.
Peak flowering is through summer and early autumn but these trees are bare in winter when they drop their large, leathery dark-green leaves. The flowers bring fragrance and a tropical feel to gardens. As well as the white flowering form, these trees bloom in pink, red and sunset tones. Consider them as very large succulents.
Informal look: Bromeliads and succulents. Build on the tropical feel with coloured bromeliads and leafy succulents that tolerate summer shade, winter sun and dry conditions. When the tree is bare in winter, the bromeliads and succulents provide a colourful feature.
Formal look: Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides). Clip for a neat groundcover.
Prunus ceracifera ‘Nigra’
This graceful small tree produces its deep, rich, burgundy leaves as the delicate pink blossoms finish in spring. The dark leaf colour provides a foil for leafy green shrubs or clumps of bulbs.
Informal look: Snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum). Plant clumps for a pre- to early-spring flower display. Add white nerines to extend the display into autumn.
Formal look: Silverbush (Convolvulus cneorum). Mass plant for a sea of silver foliage and white flowers to contrast with the purple leaves of the tree.
Corymbia ‘Summer Red’
This small, evergreen, native red-flowering gum tree has clusters of large red flowers in later summer.
Informal look: Poa ‘Kingsdale’. Mass plant this grass, which has fine arching blue leaves, to create a waterfall effect. Alternatives include kangaroo paw, lomandra or dianella for a grassy look, or clumps of native daisy and compact grevilleas for cottagey flowers.
Formal look: Westringa ‘Grey Box’ or other compact variety. Clip dwarf westringia into balls or cubes to create a formal look. Alternative shrub for clipping is Correa alba or use the naturally compact Callistemon ‘Great Balls of Fire’ which has red new growth.
Olea europaea var. europaea
Olive trees are evergreen trees with grey-green leaves with green or black fruit in autumn and early winter. They grow well with other Mediterranean or dry climate plants.
Informal look: Red geraniums. Grow them in terracotta pots or old olive oil tins for a complete Mediterranean look. Alternatively grow herbs, leaf vegetables and dwarf or patio tomatoes.
Formal look: Dwarf Italian lavender (Lavandula stoechas Bee Series, ‘Avonview’ or ‘Princess’).