"Good standards"

Standard plants have a lot to offer in the garden.
Sunday, 16 September 2012     

Standardised cumquats in the garden of Kerrie Babian in Sydney

Last week I visited a garden that used standardised plants most effectively to add rhythmic formal structure to its design. Training plants to a single trunk and clipping the foliage into a rounded or domed shape is a good way to give height in a garden without taking up too much space at ground level, especially in narrow areas. The area around the trunk can often be planted up with low-growing specimens. A standardised plant is often a good alternative to an overly heavy shrub blocking out light to surrounding areas of the garden and limiting other plantings. A row of standard plants can be used to divide sections of the garden, and single specimens can provide a strong form to contrast with more billowing plantings below it. Small standardised specimens are ideal for creating a touch of formality in courtyards and on balconies, or on either side of a front door or a seat.

The best plants to use are bushy types with fairly compact foliage - some examples suitable for Sydney gardens include Japanese box (Buxus microphylla var. japonica), cumquats, lilly pilly (Syzygium species), bay tree (Laurus nobilis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and Murraya paniculata. Some flowering plants are also suitable, providing a lovely spectacle when in bloom: Camellia varieties, Gardenia florida, Rhaphiolepis indica, Heliotropium arborescens and Fuchsia cultivars. Some trees can also be trained as standards, such as the ornamental cherry, maples and the mop-top Robinia 'Umbraculifera'. These are usually grafted.

I have found that standardising a plant can be a way of controlling shrubs that otherwise can grow in a rather unruly fashion, taking up too much space and looking untidy. I have a specimen of Solanum rantonnetii trained (by a friend) to a single trunk and it is a much better-behaved plant grown this way than allowed to grow as an unfettered shrub (though does require a fair amount of clipping!). Similarly, I have contained Buddleja 'Spring Promise' to grow as a standard: it now takes up a lot less space at ground level, allowing other plants to grow nearby.

I once saw a wonderful specimen of Abutilon megapotamicum grown as a weeping standard - a good way of taming this rather lax and rambling shrub. Weeping standards can provide a gorgeous feature, but they usually need a strong circular sustain of some kind to bear the weight of the top growth. Some plants grown in this way are actually climbers - such as Wisteria cultivars, climbing roses, honeysuckles (Lonicera species), Bouganvillea cultivars and Stephanotis floribunda.

Standardised plants can be expensive to buy, but you can train your own shrubs or climbers if you have the patience. It is best to start with a plant that has a nice straight tall stem. Give the stem support with a strong stake. Strong lateral shoots along this stem should be removed, but weaker laterals should be just shortened in the early stages of the development of the plant, so that their foliage can help the plant manufacture food to build the strong central stem. Once the central stem has reached the desired height, allow three more sets of leaf buds to develop then pinch out the growing tip. This allows growth of shoots from the lateral buds below to form the main framework of the head of the standard plant. These laterals can be regularly tip-pruned - and then shortened by half after the first growing season. Once established, prune it to shape regularly. At this stage, any shoots that develop on the trunk can be removed.

Standardised plants grown in the garden need the usual fertilising and watering as other shrubs; those grown in pots need extra care to make sure they remain looking at their best.

 Reader Comments

1/8  Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 17 September 2012

After reading your blog I took an early morning walk in the garden. The first camera moment was my Weeping Cherry, "Snow Fountain". It was at its best, buzzing with bees - a perfect weeping standard. This variety is more compact and smaller than other standard cherries and you"re right, I"ve planted under it with little bulbs and perennials. It"s lovely in autumn when the leaves colour and the shape is interesting in winter. Thankyou for the prompt to get me out early. I treasure every spring. It sounds a gorgeous sight, Peta. Deirdre

2/8  Nan - USA Monday, 17 September 2012

I spent my day starting my fall clean up and planting my fall crops. I enjoy your blog tremendously, I live in the US in Pennsylvania so my seasons are opposite. This winter I will have to live vicariously through your summer gardening. Though I enjoy my winter garden, cold frame and hoop house, nothing beats the bounty of summer. Thanks for your kind feedback, Nan. Enjoy your autumn garden - in fact, autumn is my favourite time of year in my Sydney garden! Deirdre

3/8  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 17 September 2012

My "Snow Fountain" cherry, although a narrower grower, still manages to cover a fair bit of space by trailing over the ground, so I have to prune to keep it in check, as with my weeping black mulberry. My favourite weeping standards are my swamp cyprus, a magnificent thing with very tactile folliage (I never get sick of running my fingers through it when in leaf), and my weeping tupelo, which is still only a very small plant but I look forward to enjoying the sight of it as it grows! Love "em! They all sound great, Richard. Deirdre

4/8  Ken - 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 17 September 2012

Well done Kerrie! Ken - Anne William Dr Thanks, Ken - it is a great garden. Deirdre

5/8  Pam - 3216 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 17 September 2012

Great blog, Deirdre. Luma apiculata is worth considering too - lovely small leaved foliage and a fast grower with a beautiful cinnamon coloured bark and tiny flower. I have one which is a work in progress - it started as overly enthusiastic pruning exercise and now resembles a version of cloud pruning. Its not anything to boast about yet but as I grew it from a cutting I am sort of emotionally attached to its progress. That sounds great - I always wanted to grow Luma but not sure how well it would do in Sydney. I think your climate suits it better. Deirdre

6/8  Julie - 4510 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Thanks for this informative post. I have just had a lightbulb moment about my duranta that has always been abundant, and received some brutal cutbacks every year from me, but I never thought of shaping it to how I want it. Am thinking forming it into mushroom shape so it shades some poolside cordylines from noon summer heat. I have done likewise with a Lagerstroemia indica ( crepe myrtle) and it"s a cute umbrella shape, with flowering appearing over the sight line of nearby shorter shrubs. That sounds great, Julie. Duranta can be a bit of a challenge to keep under control as a shrub so the standardising would work well. Deirdre

7/8  Jennifer - 3796 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Tuesday, 18 September 2012

I would dearly love to have seen that standard abuliton megapotamicum, bet it was lovely. I have been lax and let my standard lilly pilly go a bit berzerk, but it has survived a harsh pruning and I vow to keep it neat from now. My garden is is informal but I find the odd formal touch of a nicely groomed standard helps keep everything in perspective. Great to read your blog, I have only ever purchased standards, but may now be inspired to try and create my own. Thanks, Jennifer. I agree that formal shapes can help hold a garden together and they form a nice contrast to more informal areas. Deirdre

8/8  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Saturday, 24 November 2012

love standard plants - they seem to give majesty to the garden. I am currently trying to standardise a white hydrangea and a small begonia cane, b. albo-picta. I have seen, in a book, a standard begonia and it looked fantastic, so I thought I would try my luck.

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