Container gardening is very popular today, but it’s not new. People have been growing container plants for centuries, and there are favorites found in every culture.
One very popular “style” of growing container plants is using a shrubby or bush plant to create a “standard” tree.
To do this, you train a plant that has a natural shrub-like growth habit to grow as a small tree.
This technique is less intensive than creating a bonsai, but it has some of the same effects.
It allows you to enjoy a variety of plants in smaller, more contained settings, and it adds an element of art to your indoor, balcony and patio gardening.
In this article, we will explore the history of standard plants and provide advice on choosing and nurturing your standard creations. Read on to learn more.
Who Started The “Standard Tree” Tradition?
Unsurprisingly, this method of controlling and training ornamental plants began in Japan and China.
Because it is not as complex as keeping Bonsai, once “discovered” by western horticulturists, the practice quickly spread to France and England.
The small, symmetrical container trees became very popular as decorations for patios, terraces, foyers, and greenhouses.
Strictly ornamental trees and small fruit-bearing trees, such as dwarf orange trees, were popular choices.
Initially, keeping a standard tree was considered something of a status symbol. Only wealthy people kept these “exotic plants.”
However, it didn’t take long for everyday gardeners to pick up the technique and create their own attractive standard plants to adorn their entryways and outdoor seating areas.
Which Plants Do Best As Standards?
Many types of plants will do well when trained as small trees. Here are five of the most popular choices:
Fuchsia is easy to grow and very luxuriant. You can start it as a cutting. Remember to take your cutting from one of the upright varieties as you will be training it to stand up straight.
Once you have a small, established fuchsia plant, begin training it using a stake. Your goal is to establish in strong, straight, upright stem.
To do this, you must prune and pinch back shoots and upstarts diligently throughout the first year. Keep only the topknot of growth which you wish to encourage.
When your plant has reached its desired height (during the second year) trim back the topknot and keep it trimmed to encourage more bushy growth.
Chrysanthemum frutescens (Marguerite) is a small shrub. Treat it as you would a fuchsia.
You should top the tree out toward the end of summer by trimming and pinching back the topknot to encourage bushy growth.
In the coming spring you will see a dense ball of green foliage, which will soon be adorned with white flowers.
All sorts of roses do well as standards, but you must start with wild stock and then graft on the type of rose you want to display at the top.
You can begin your wild rose bush (Rosa canina is a good choice) in the ground for the first year. Choose the most promising stem and stake it to train it to grow straight and strong. Trim back all the competition.
Allow the rose to grow for a year, keeping all extraneous shoots trimmed back. At the end of the first year, the chosen stem should be about a half inch thick.
When this is the case, you can graft your chosen rose onto your wild base at the end of the summer.
To do this, graft one bud of the rose you want to grow under the bark of the wild rose at the height of approximately three feet. Bind it in place using a rubber band.
If you are keeping your rose tree outdoors, you must protect the graft during the winter months in colder climates.
To do this, before the weather becomes too cold, dig a hole and a trench on one side of the plant.
You should remove the roots on that side and lay the plant down in the trench.
Cover it with leaves, a layer of soil and some peat moss to protect it from the cold.
When springtime comes, and all danger of frost has passed, uncover your tree and stand it back up. Trim back all wild rose shoots and stake the plant securely to continue training it to grow straight.
The rose bud you grafted onto the stem should begin to grow as the spring weather warms up. This grafted rose will make up the top of your rose tree, so care for it by pinching it back to encourage bushy growth.
With good, consistent care, you should see blooms in the first year. When winter approaches, take steps to winterize your plant to protect the graft just as you did the first year.
Dwarf Korean Lilac
Dwarf Korean Lilac plant can also be grafted to a standard and grown in very much the same way as a rose standard.
In small tree form, this plant makes an excellent patio feature or garden accent.
To grow a standard coffee tree, you must start with an established plant from a nursery. Look for a small plant that is no more than eight inches high. Pay close attention to the shape and growth habits of the plant. Remember that you need a strong, central stem to attain your goal of a taller, upright tree.
Coffee plants like very bright, indirect light. They do not like the blazing sun. Begin by setting your plant in a comfortable setting with plenty of nourishing (not punishing) light. Pinch off lower leaves and shoots and groom the plant regularly and diligently to discourage unwanted side growth.
Be sure to catch the emerging shoots while they are still young and tender. If you have to cut back thicker stems, the injuries will leave scars on the trunk of your tree.
Continue pinching and trimming back unwanted growth for a couple of years. Staking is not necessary with coffee plants. The strong, central stem should grow straight and tall naturally. At the end of two years, your mini-coffee tree will have shiny, attractive leaves and pretty coffee berries.
Other Good Choices For Standard Growing
- Red Hawthorn
- Dwarf Orange
- Butterfly bush
You can try this technique a with any type of shrubby plant. In this video, the presenter trains a lantana plant, which he says will live happily for several years as an attractive little tree.
How Do You Over-winter Container Standards?
One nice thing about this technique is that it allows you to enjoy non-hardy plants as attractive trees in your outdoor seating areas through the spring and summer and then continue to enjoy them indoors through the winter months.
Be sure to prepare your indoor garden area in advance so that you can quickly and efficiently move your tender plants indoors and get them settled before the first frost. For most plants, the main objective is to prevent freezing.
Your hardier plants may do well on a sun porch or in a bright room that is not excessively heated through the winter. They need plenty of light, sparse watering and no fertilizing through the winter months. This type of care will allow them to rest before spring arrives.
Naturally, if your plants are more tropical in nature you may want to keep them as houseplants in a heated environment with more intensive care during the winter months.
It’s a good idea to give your plants a good pruning before bringing them indoors for the winter. This helps them fit in better and look better while indoors. It also facilitates healthy growth when spring approaches.
As the days lengthen and weather warms up, begin watering your plants a little more and give them a feeding of water-soluble fertilizer that is appropriate for each plant.
When the weather is reliably warm, begin transitioning your plants outdoors. If they are on a sun porch with windows that can open, just open up and let some fresh air in on warmer days.
Once all danger of frost has passed, move them out to a shaded, sheltered area at first and then transition them to brighter more exposed areas if desired.
What Growing Container Type Is Best?
Finding the right container is a very important element of your success. You want a container that will provide proper support and anchoring for your plant as well as good aesthetic value.
Consider the ultimate size and weight of your plant and select a container with a diameter that will coincide with the “drip-line” of the tree. This should ensure that it provides a good, stable base that will prevent toppling.
As far as looks go, your pot should not be prettier than your plant. Choose a style that will bring out the best in the plant with colors that coordinate rather than competing.
Standard Plants Bring Easy Elegance To Your Outdoor Setting
Mastering the technique of creating standards is a great way to establish an elegant and interesting garden, even if you have very limited space.
Container gardeners with only a small porch or balcony can enjoy interesting, beautiful plants of all sorts with this artistic technique.
This provides many of the aesthetic elements of growing bonsai without the arduous, decades-long effort.