Floral Standards

Making Wee Trees Out of Shrubs and Perennials

Whether you just need an interesting plant to adorn some corner of your terrace or deck or you simply have no room for anything bigger, there is one growing trick designed to fit many situations. The idea is to make a small tree-like form out of a woody shrub or herbaceous perennial that wouldn’t normally take on that shape. There are two basic ways to achieve this result.

Perennials can be formed into standards with judicious pruning. This method is used with plants such as pelargonium, fuchsia, or Lycianthes rantonnei and, indeed, nurseries sell these common subjects as standards as well as in their more natural shrubby form. Start with a vigorous young plant and prune off any branches, keeping just the central leader. Continue growing the plant until the “trunk” has reached the desired height. Then pinch out the growing tip. This will force the plant to make branches just below that apex. With further tip pruning of the emerging branches, a dense rounded “head” will develop. It is wise to tie the young plant to a sturdy stake so that it can grow erect and have the strength to support the top growth. Another tip: Leaving the lower leaves and branches until they are nearly mature before removing them will also aid in increasing the strength and girth of the trunk.

The other method to achieve a standard for shrubs like roses and even woody vines like wisteria is for the more adventurous or experienced gardener. It involves grafting the desired top stock on a root stock that has been grown to the appropriate height and had its original head lopped off. Combining forms such as a weeping magnolia on top of an upright form can create interesting specimens not found in nature.

Standards add just one more dimension to a garden. They lift a favorite shrub literally to new heights. Depending on the plant employed, standards make great container plants or formal accents in other garden situations, too. Pair a standard fuchsia with ferns or keep a robust angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) in bounds in a pot with this training.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address then to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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