Pleached trees are a great way of adding privacy to a small or overlooked garden. They have a modern clean shape which blends well with newer contemporary houses and also heritage properties. Available in a variety of beautiful specimens there's a type for most tastes. However, gardeners can be put off as to how to plant them as they do require unusual staking. Don't let that put you off, here's your one-stop guide!

As a garden designer, who specialises in awkward and overlooked gardens, I use pleached trees a lot in my designs. This is not because I’m lazy with my tree choice, but because they really do offer a host of benefits to a small garden. Whether it’s politely blocking out nosey neighbours, adding some contemporary drama or making the most of the space underneath them, pleached trees can bring the wow factor to any garden.

However, they are a bit of a diva when it comes to planting and staking. I think this is where most people get put of pleached trees and topiary. If you don’t take your time to prepare them correctly your design concept will fall short. Badly supported or incorrectly planted trees means you could be left with wonky donkey leaning trees. Don’t be put off though, a small amount of time in the preparation of your pleached tree planting will ensure years of beautiful symmetrical planting.

What are pleached trees?

A pleached tree is achieved by training a tree to a specific, usually rectangular or square, shape. Think of a cartoon or lego square tree! The tree is allowed to grow on a main stem or trunk, with any lateral (side shoots) branches being removed before it reaches its ultimate height. Then the laterals are allowed to grow out. The branches and subsequent laterals are tied onto a stable framework. Any branches that grow outside of this or contrary to the shape are pruned out before they turn woody. Keeping a really neat shape or habit. After a couple of years, you end up with a beautifully formal shape a bit like a screen on a stem.

Pleached trees come in a number of species and there’s plenty of variety to choose from. The most common varieties are:

  • Oleaster (Elaeagnus x ebbingei) -like the ones in this guide
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulus)
  • Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
  • Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
  • Red Robin (Photinia x fraseri)
  • Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

How to plant pleached trees.

Pleached trees are planted in the same fashion as any container grown plant, it’s the staking that differs significantly. First things first though!

  • Dig a hole that’s 1.5 times the size of the original pot.
  • Loosen the soil in the base and around the sides of the hole that’s been dug
  • Remove any debris from the hole.
  • Carefully remove the pleached tree from the pot  – sometimes they are braced and stapled into the pot which needs removing first, this can sometimes be really delicate work!
  • Position the tree in the hole then stand back
  • Make adjustments with adding/removing soil until the tree is level and true – sometimes its easier to have a friend help with the viewpoint when you adjust it.
  • Backfill with the same soil – there is no need to add fertiliser or compost as this will just stunt initial root growth which is needed for the tree to anchor itself over the next few years
  • Ensure they are really well compressed, heel towards the trunk pushing away from the tree. If you fail to backfill and compress properly, the tree will undoubtedly suffer from settlement.

How to support pleached trees

It is now necessary to make a frame for the pleached trees to ensure that they don’t move or migrate over time. This happens particularly in exposed sites or as the soil may settle if air pockets of soil give way. This is usually if not completely backfilled.

By creating a frame you can ensure that the trees stay true to their clean lines.

The best method I have found over the years is to use a mix of fence post stakes and pressure treated timber batons. I try and design my frame to be of minimal visual impact and try and mirror the positions of the tree trunks so it doesn’t distract from the beauty of the trees. Though obviously, it depends on the site, whether stakes can be placed where you want them etc! So don’t beat yourself up if it’s not perfectly symmetrical. The key here is to make sure the support is solid and can hold the trees in their desired position.

Hammer in some suitable tree stakes, here I’m using 2.4m stakes. You want to make sure they are in deep enough so they don’t wobble or move easily. There is no need to concrete them in or anything more drastic. A simple lump hammer should do the trick. I am using 5, given there are 5 pleached trees to support.

Using a piece of pressure treated timber you need to then brace the stakes horizontally. You will need a spirit level, pencil, drill and suitable screws (such as decking screws). You want the brace to be just below the bottom of the frame for neatness. This brace holds the stakes together as one unit. Meaning that they completely support the trees giving you a really stable level frame.

Drill two pilot holes for two screws and then attach the first end of the brace. Then using the spirit level mark off on the other posts the top of the brace. Drill pilot holes and screw each one in as you have the first. By the end, you will have a horizontal (hence the spirit level) brace across the back of your pleached trees.

Tying pleached trees to the supports

Now here it the most important tip with any tree supports. You need to use rubber or flexible tree ties. If you use string, wire or those cable ties you had laying around the garage, you’re going to damage the tree. Potentially killing it over time.

If you look at quality pleached trees the branches and supports will have been tied in with rubber strips. This allows movement, flexibility and growth without cutting into the tree. The tie cuts into the tree it can cause irreparable damage to the water and food transport system, the lifeblood of the tree. Causing it to basically die of thirst!

Now that the melodrama warning is out of the way; why are rubber tree ties so good? Well, rubber tree ties are great as they allow you to tie the tree leaving enough flexibility for it to move slightly. You never want a tree to be entirely fixed, any severe wind will certainly then damage it. Rubber tree ties also allow you adjust them over time, usually to loosen them as the tree grows.

There are two parts to a rubber tree tie. The first is the solid loop that goes around the stake or support. Then the other length, the one with the slots in. This slotted length goes around the trunk of the tree and the arrowhead fits back through the slots. You want it tight enough to hold it in place but not so its strangled. Think as you would if you were tying a formal suit tie.

Aftercare of pleached trees

Once you have tied and supported the pleached trees you need to give them a really good watering. Ensuring that over the next few weeks you give them a good soaking at least twice a week, more frequently if the weather is warm and dry. This will help establish them in the ground. Keep checking the trees for any initial movement and tweak the ties if necessary.

With most pleached trees you’re required to prune them twice a year, usually early spring and then late autumn when they are dormant. As a rule of thumb, I tend to trim off any shoots that grow past the frame or tie them into the frame to cover any gaps that maybe there. It’s really quite simple! If you need help with pruning I have a really speedy guide below to help.

So there you have it, a comprehensive guide to planting and supporting pleached trees. Please comment below if you have any questions or on my Youtube channel for more help. I’d also love to see pictures where you have used pleached trees in your own gardening!

Happy Gardening.