Training Beautiful Flowering Shrubs into Unique Ornamental Trees

There is nothing more beautiful than a flowering shrub in full bloom, except maybe a flowering shrub in full bloom that has been trained to grow as a single stem tree. Imagine having a fragrant Viburnum Tree next to your patio or outside your bedroom window, waking up to such a wonderful aroma.

Click here to see how I grow Weeping Pussy Willow from cuttings, then train them into single stem trees.

Don’t confuse what I am about to explain here with the common technique of grafting flowering shrubs on to the tall stem of some sort of rootstock. Grafting is very effective, but not so easy to do. This is much easier. Not only that, when you train the shrub to grow into a single stem tree, you can end up with some very interesting plants.

Training a flowering shrub to grow into a single stem tree is actually pretty simple. The younger the shrub you start with, the easier it is to train. I have a friend who grows thousands of Tree Hydrangeas a year, and this is how he trains them. The variety that he grows for this purpose is P.G. Hydrangea. (hydrangea paniculata grandiflora) This is the one with the huge white snowball blooms.

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He starts with rooted cuttings and lines them out in the field about 30” apart. The first year he allows them to grow untouched as multi-stem shrubs. Being a fast growing shrub, they typically produce 3 to 4 branches that grow to a height of about 3 to 4’ that first season. The following spring he goes into the field, examines each plant and selects the one stem that is the straightest, and is likely to grow straight up from the roots if tied to a stake.

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He then clips all of the other branches as close to the main stem as possible. Then he pounds a stake in the ground as close to the main stem as possible, and clips the tip off the single stem that is left. This forces the plant to set lateral buds just below where he clipped the top off, rather than continue growing straight up. These lateral buds will grow into branches that will form the head of the tree. He then ties the stem to the stake.

As it begins to grow, any buds that appear below that top group of buds are picked off to keep the single stem tree form. That’s all there is to it. You can use almost anything as a stake, and just tie the stem to the stake with a piece of cloth. I also anchor plants to stakes with a single wrap of duct tape. I find that if I only wrap the tape once, the sun will dry the glue and the tape will fall off by itself in about 12 months. ½” electrical tubing (conduit) also makes a good stake, and is just a couple of bucks for a 10 foot piece.

You can do the same thing with an older established shrub if you can find one branch that can be tied to a vertical stake. The stem is likely to be crooked and not too smooth because of the wounds from where the branches were removed, but that doesn’t mean that you can not create an interesting plant. Some of the shrubs that make beautiful and unique ornamental trees are many varieties of Viburnums, Burning Bush, Winged Burning Bush, Red and Yellow Twig Dogwoods, Weigelia, Mockorange, Rose of Sharon, and Flowering Almond.

I’m sure there are many more. My favorite shrub to train into a single stem tree is Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick. In shrub form this plant is extremely interesting with it’s twisted and contorted branches. The new growth is reminiscent of a pig’s tail. Using the same technique as described above I select a single stem, tie it to a stake, and train it to grow as a single stem tree. The effect is totally unique.

Call your local garden stores and ask them if they have a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick plant. Give it a try, I’m sure you’ll have fun as well as create some very interesting plants for your landscape.

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