High-Maintenance Patio Trees Are Just Shrubs With Attitude
When is a tree not a tree? When it’s a man-made creation of a plant that normally grows as a shrub. Termed patio trees, horticultural experts and garden hobbyists are creating them from a wide assortment of old favorites, including azaleas, camellias, daisies, fuchsia, hibiscus, junipers, lantana, mallow and roses.
Patio trees, with their ball of colorful flowers, provide a novel form in a garden. They can serve as a focal point, provide two- or three-story color in a small garden and can accent a seating area when grown in containers or planting beds too small for shrubs.
They’re not for everyone, though, because they’re high maintenance.
“Basically, you’re asking a plant to grow in a manner not natural to it, so you must keep the shape by constant pruning,” explained Macy Lindsay, a horticulturist with Hines Nurseries in Irvine.
“The aim is to develop a plant with a round head covered with flowers. This can add more drama to a landscape than a conventional shrub of the same variety,” Lindsay said.
Consumer demand for patio trees has increased significantly in the past few years, said Jane Manson, sales administration manager for Hines, which supplies retail nurseries throughout the West.
Unlike tree roses, which are created by grafting two roses of the same variety on either side of a length of rootstock that can vary from 18 inches to five feet, patio trees are created by pruning and shaping shrubs as they grow.
“We start with young plants that have a strong leader (trunk) and keep all growth pruned off the trunk,” Lindsay said. “The top growth is formed into a lollipop-like shape and pruned tightly several times yearly. Usually it takes two to three years before the plants are grown sufficiently for public sale.”
Hines is continuing to experiment with more plants to test if they’ll grow well as patio trees. Calliandra (Pink Powder Puff) is under evaluation, as is Leptospermum (tea tree).
Free Forms are another type of shaped plant available.
These are created by allowing the plant to produce multiple arms, and removing their side growth so each spiraled arm (five or seven, depending on the variety) is topped by a round ball of vegetation. These are valued for their sculptured appearance rather than as flowering plants. Striking examples of Free Forms are eugenia, junipers, ilex (holly), and Lagustrum japonicum ‘Texanum’ (Texas wax leaf privet).
Pompons, also called poodles, have been around for a long time as a variation of topiary trees and are used mainly in formal gardens.
Plant growers are developing more plants as these two or three-balled trees. An increasing number of azaleas are emerging as pompons. Geranium growers are also encouraging geranium fanciers to transform bushy, low growing geraniums into pompons.
Although patio trees, Free Forms, poodles and the like have a place in some gardens, landscape designers don’t recommend them for every garden.
Landscape architect Katherine Rue, owner of the Rue Group in Fullerton, reports mixed results with patio trees.
“Most of the gardens I design are informal, so I don’t often include the more formal looking patio trees, but they have a place in contemporary, clean-lined gardens,” she said. “Also, they require a lot of pruning, and many people don’t want to spend that much time on a plant.”
But she did use solanum for a multilevel patio at the Fullerton garden of Paul and Cori Miller. “The small, upper level patio contains a curved wooden bench with two very small planting areas on either side. Since shrubs would have overwhelmed the bench, patio trees fit the space nicely.”
Rue underplanted the solanum with annuals, a practice she recommends to create a multilayered color effect.
If you’ve decided to add a patio tree to your garden, maintain it as you would a shrub of the same type, with the exception of pruning.
During the plant’s active growing season, fertilize once a month with an all-purpose fertilizer, either liquid or granular. Water according to dryness of soil. Plants grown in containers will dry out faster than those in the ground.
Depending on the variety, after flowering, prune hard once or twice a year to shape the flowering head.
Promote continual flowering by dead-heading (removing spent blooms) right after flowering.
Light cosmetic shaping, or tip pruning, at regular intervals during the year will help the plant retain its round shape.
“There’s nothing magical about it; it’s just a matter of maintenance to help the patio tree retain its distinctive shape,” Lindsay said.