Ancient Trees Add Character To Gardens

by Dick Handscombe

Especially in country areas, ancient olives, holm oaks, carob and fig trees with thick gnarled trunks and thick spreading branches are an eye-catching feature of many Spanish gardens and for lucky gardeners, some have grown in the same place for a millennium of more.

These days they are more likely to be veteran trees purchased at a garden centre or direct from a local farmer, but the prices have been going up, especially for ancient olive trees. These have come into international demand and many Spanish trees are now gracing parks and gardens in France, Italy and the Middle East.

Old trees by nature have wide spreading branches which create deep shade, an area in which little will grow except in a periphery bed under the drip line from the most far reaching branches. The best idea is therefore to terrace the area under the tree.

There are three main options:

  • Rock chippings over plastic.
  • Slab crazy paving.
  • Terracotta tiles.

In practice we prefer the first option.

There are downsides of mature trees, in that they do drop dead flowers, fruit and leaves especially after a storm. Hard surfaces can become stained even if swept up daily. A chipping surface can be easily brushed with a hard yard broom or raked with a deep pronged lawn rake, or even vacuumed. As chippings roll over any staining disappears.

The shady area underneath is normally large enough for a table for summer eating and siestas and poultry houses and runs and the thickest branches are often strong enough to support a hammock, sky chair or swing. Each is very welcome except when:

  • Carobs are in flower and attract thousands of bees, but this is in the springtime rather than summer.
  • The fruit ripens on fig trees and attracts wasps. This is usually during mid to late August for about a month – not so convenient especially when over ripe figs fall on your head!
  • Acorns fall off holm oaks in the autumn.
  • Olives fall off, but again this is late autumn/winter beyond the time for eating in the cool shade.

Planting Mature Trees
If you are buying a very large specimen from a garden centre they will normally arrange to deliver and plant it as it will require a digger to make the hole and a crane to lift it in, but if you are buying a more manageable tree here are some helpful tips:

  1. Measure the diameter and height of the root ball of the tree you have purchased.
  2. Dig or have a hole dug just slightly larger than the tree you are planting.
  3. Fill the hole with water and leave to drain totally. This may take several hours.
  4. Lift the tree into the hole carefully. You may need some help depending on the size and level so that the trunk is vertical.
  5. Fill in the gap with loose soil, watering in and firming with the end of a pole until solid and ensuring that the tree remains vertical.
  6. Depending on the size of the tree, the situation and the soil conditions, you made need to fix four to eight solid stays around the tree to prevent the tree from leaning in high winds or heavy rains. Leave the stays in place until the root structure has spread sufficiently to act as guy ropes as well as searching for water and food.

Ongoing Care

  • Except for newly transplanted trees, watering and feeding long established trees will not normally be necessary.
  • Trim to shape each winter with long pruners or a pruning saw.
  • Cut out any diseased branches and dead side shoots to create a clean area overhead for eating/resting under the tree and to reduce the risk of falling branches.
  • If the tree does eventually start to rot or show signs of boring beetle damage, have the tree felled before it becomes a serious hazard to persons passing by or under.
  • If you want to create a wide-spreading tree, weight the lower branches and cut out the top.
  • Above all keep the tree as long as you can to protect Spain's ecological heritage.

Brightening up the Shade

  • Possibilities include:
  • Pots of succulents and bulbs.
  • Hanging pots from branches with flowering trailing plants that thrive in the shade.
  • A display of coloured gourds, but dry them in the sun first as they may rot.
  • Bird boxes hung in the upper branches and coconuts on the lower branches to attract bird life.

© Dick Handscombe