For The Love of a Canopy

Freddie Mercury once sang ‘Open your eyes. Look up to the skies and see.’ An old art teacher of mine also banged on about looking up and not just straight ahead (although not as melodically as Freddie). He was right, however, and I’ve been looking up ever since.

The botanical world is ruled by the canopy. The Shelter king is the mighty tree. Their pure majesty, beauty and protective canopy makes them the cream of the crop for me.

The density and type of a tree canopy determines the lifecycle in and under it. From towering timber to forest floor, botanical shelter is a delicate balance – they’re all looking after one another. There’s also the humanly constructed canopy to consider: shelter belts, green walls, green ceilings and green roofs to enclose us and our livestock.

Nothing sends a shiver down my spine as the aggressive whine of a chainsaw and the resulting nude horizon. Give me a gauzy, tree-filtered view any day rather than a full frontal! There’s nothing as sad as having to cut down a sick tree and the resulting loss of shelter to all the fragile lives depending on it.

Leafed or nude, indigenous or exotic, flowering or fruity, I’m nutty about trees. They house exquisitely crafted bird’s nests, epiphytic feeders, tree-houses, gazillions of insects and dastardly possums. They provide food for plants and animals alike. I love a lone tree in a paddock. I love a whole bunch of them – nature’s bushland, forest and jungle, and the human constructs of arboretums, orchards and plantations.

Some very established trees sealed the deal for me when I chose my current home. The garden of my small semi-detached house is home to an established Platanus × acerifolia (London plane tree), the ubiquitous hedge of Cupressocyparis leylandii (‘Leightons Green’ cypress) and a borrowed giant, a heritage protected Eucalyptus microcorys (turpentine). There is a tree view from every window and door and my upstairs study feels like a treehouse. However, after moving in, I could see that many years of neglect had taken their toll.

My new pets badly needed some grooming, shaping, and pruning to rid them of their deadwood and tangled branches. Their canopies needed lifting too, to let the light in.

So, I started at the front. The dank and dark courtyard was enclosed by hedged Leighton’s Green cypress. Whilst they did a superb job of muffling traffic noise, they were visually oppressive and light restricting. For the lower foliage, every day was a bad hair day and they needed smartening up.
To inject some light, I removed a metre and a half of the lower branches and created an aerial hedge. I then placed mirrors on every wall, creating a disorienting Escher effect and added some shiny Viburnum and the much maligned ‘petrol station plant’ – brilliant lime Duranta repens ‘Sheena’s Gold’ to further bounce the light around.

Arborists have deftly edited both my neighbour’s tree and my old plane tree. And to continue the story, I planted two more small trees – Michelia × alba (White Champaca), so there’s life after my plane tree gives up the ghost.

Trees can suit the smallest of spaces; if your garden can only afford one plant, let it be a tree. Their branching and leaf shapes, bark patterns and dramatic shadows add sculptural beauty to any space. Their shade provides a cooler microclimate and a delicious canopy for outdoor meals. And don’t forget sense of scale! A larger plant choice can make a space feel so much more generous whilst diminishing the mass of a building.

If canopy can’t be – then borrow one! Neighbours’ trees can be designed into your garden too with clever complimentary plant selections.

Don’t forget the mighty tree’s inclusion in your garden, however small. Like any urbane pet they need to be wisely chosen for their suitability and need to be feed, watered, groomed and pruned. Like any pet they bring years of joy. Recently I was ever so glad when disembarking at Barcelona airport’s transit lounge, the first thing I saw was a tree. How fantastic! The lounge was designed around a huge outdoor courtyard oasis of trees – a joyful respite from a celestial desert. Genius!