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Silver Birch for small garden and compressed sand patio area

Hi I was thinking of planting a silver birch tree but my flower bed is quite narrow about 20 inches wide and the 6 foot garden fence is to one side, I dont know if there is enough room! any ideas as i am a novice, how fast they grow? and if anyone has some small plants to spare i might be interested.

i also have an area at the end of my garden which doesnt get much light so i have partitioned it from the lawn and am toying with the idea of making it an patio type area. but i dont want to use paving, or wood bark or gravel. I was think of some kind of compressed sand, sharp sand or ballast as a cheapish and nice solution, you know like i could sip pastis and play boules in the evening! But again i dont know how to go about it other than laying sharp sand and using a compressor - i sont know if that would work or if it would need some sort of binder or resin or some cement mixed in - any ideas would be great. thanks

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Silver birch trees grow to different sizes depending on what variety you buy. Some stay quite small so could work for you. They don't really respond well to pruning though so may not be the best choice of tree where space is very limited! Can't help you with the sand...

I have a silver birch that I planted 30 years ago as a tiny seedling that had taken root in a grow bag.  It is now at least 40 feet and the tallest tree in the garden and still growing.  It as been kept quite slim by the things around it.  A viburnum on each side for the first seven feet and, above that, competition for air space from a spreading walnut tree of similar age.

You could think about a multi-stemmed birch as they dont grow so tall, then if you take off the top every so often it will stay at that height. The common birch Betula pendula will grow to 50 feet or more. I've planted a Betula utilis var Jacquemontii, bought as multistemmed with 12 stems but only about three developed - the strongest ones take over. I had it in a pot for about five years till I was able to do serious work on the garden, it's now been in the ground for four months and has already grown a couple of feet, so I'm going to have to keep it pruned. It's the beautiful white-bark variety so I'm prepared to do some work to have it. If it gets too big it will have to come down, but that will be a few years yet. 

The narrow bed may be tricky as the tree would start to push the fence over - can you make it wider?  You can also grow small trees in pots if you feed them - then you can move it to wherever you like.  Trees are best planted in the autumn unless pot-grown.

If you do a web search for birch trees you'll be able to see some of the varieties and their likely sizes, look on the RHS website, or a commercial one like Crocus.

If you are looking for garden ideas I recommend a visit to Capel Manor, in Enfield - its a gardening college with dozens of display gardens that give you an idea of what's possible. Most of the trees are labelled, or take pics of what you like of and then look them up later. They have a huge library but that is only open weekdays I think and may be just for their students. 

Re the sand, fine gravel would probably be better. Whatever you use, put down a layer of weed-control fabric first - it comes in rolls about 1 metre wide that you then overlap. Cheapest place to buy more than the odd bag is at one of the big warehouse garden centres in Crews Hill - up the road from Capel Manor.

Response via Twitter:

Good advice from Pamish.  I have just completed a diploma in garden design at Capel Manor so I agree a visit there would be helpful.  The best solution for narrow borders and fences, are climbers or pleached trees.  A standard tree should be no closer than 50cm to the fence and its first branches will have to clear the fence.  If you want a native tree I would recommend a sorbus (Rowan) as they have berries and will attract winter birds.  They have a light canopy and lift the garden, but you'd want a fairly large one.  

The compressed sand mix you mention is called hoggin, a great surface for paths but not recommended for seating areas simply because it will get dusty and mucky.  Your chairs may also sink into it.  I would approve of you trying it out though as an experiment as I think it would be quite feasible as a patio - as long as you wipe your feet when you go back indoors!   Once you have compacted the subsoil you lay sub-base, then hoggin, then a layer of sand.   Any edging should be concreted in to keep it in place.

I hope, Susan, that you will come to my place on 7th July (see open gardens event), then I can pick your brains about what to do next as regards design ideas!

Some good suggestions here. IRowan trees are lovely, though I had problems establishing one here and had to cut it down (shudder).

I'm a great fan of large pots, you can get huge ones, and then you could have more flexibility with where to keep your tree. Acers are perfect for this. I'm growing a witch hazel in a pot as well (the other advantage of pots is you can grow things that would not be happy in Harringay soil). Or a fruiting tree - small apple, cherry, plum etc. Of course if they are in a pot they will need more effort from you - ie watering.

Thanks for the many great ideas and suggestions. The hoggin / goldpath is what I was thinking of - there is another one called breedon. I had seen this kind of stuff before but didnt know what it was so thanks! I think hoggin is a generic name so you would need a sample first before ordering? Goldpath seems more self binding but is much  more expensive from what i can gather, might be a safer choice?

I found some more info here which may be of interest:

http://www.pavingexpert.com/gravel05.htm

Thanks for the many suggestions on trees - lots to consider!

I am reaching the conclusion that it might be better to have some one help with the design of planting etc. Does anyone do this or know anyone?

I took a trip up to Ally Pally garden centre and was bewildered by the choice. Might try Columbia Rd Sunday. I want to get to Capel manor as well.

I was also think of some bamboo though i heard this grows wildly can it be grown in a bucket to contain it like mint?, fern and a small palm! and a small herb garden, as well as flowers etc

The Tree Trust for Haringey has some wonderful people (some of whom post here I guess) - worth getting involved if you wish to grow your interest :) Haringey Tree Wardens too.

If you intend to fork out (sorry) for a Betula Pendula then you might want to give Barchams a call - they're the nursery that the Council uses for their street trees and are probably the largest in the UK, with knowledgeable people on the phone and little 'sales' pressure - they welcome visitors (nr Cambridge). When I last went it was very nice to learn about their trees with people who know their stuff.

This is the multi-stemmed Jacquemontii by the cafe at Capel Manor. 

Pic taken last May. Guessing about 15 foot high then, so see how it grows by giving it a visit.

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