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Nothing standard about a standard

There has been an explosion in the development and marketing of shrubs and trees grown as standards in the last several years. A standard is simply a shrub or tree grown on a single stem and not allowed to get more than a couple of metres high. Usually the top part is grafted to a stem of a suitably hardy variety. There is a fair amount of maintenance involved in making the shrub or tree conform to this unnatural growth habit, as judicious pruning and training are required.

Usually a gardener will purchase a standard that has already been shaped and trained to form. The task then will be to keep the plant growing in that particular shape — usually a single trunk — although many standards are now appearing on the market with plaited trunks, that is, with several trunks braided together to form one larger trunk.

Often the top of the standard is clipped into a ball shape unless the intent is to have a weeping standard, in which case the branches are trained to cascade down from the top graft. Usually weeping forms are created from shrubs and trees which already have a weeping growth habit, but some training may be required.

Generally, plants that are used to create standards have very attractive foliage and many also produce blooms. Examples are lilac, cherry, hibiscus and roses. All of these shrubs and trees have attractive foliage, which can stand alone as an accent but they also produce beautiful blooms, which make the appearance of the standard spectacular when it is flowering. The plants chosen must also be able to tolerate extensive pruning and clipping because to maintain the standards’ shape, they will have to be clipped repeatedly during the growing season.

Although some standards are winter hardy, such as Miss Kim and dwarf Korean lilac, also the weeping, globe, and pygmy caraganas, as well as some cherry and willow, others are not cold tolerant and will have to be wintered indoors. Hibiscus comes to mind, and rose standards rarely can survive our winters outdoors. A hibiscus standard will need to be wintered in a sunroom or solarium where it will continue to grow. A rose standard can be encouraged into dormancy and be wintered in a cool, dark place like a heated garage where the winter temperature is kept just above the freezing point.

Some ordinary plants also can be trained into standards, such as a geranium. It too would have to be wintered indoors. Any plant that will grow on a single stem or trunk and form a ball-shaped clump of foliage atop the stem can be used.

What is the attraction of a standard? How can it be used in the landscape? Generally, a standard is used as a focal point, and to appreciate the unique form and beauty it must have plenty of space around it — not jammed into a mixed border among a myriad of other plants. I have seen a standard used effectively to anchor a flower bed by being placed at one end, and it fits well in a xeriscape that is mulched with rock or gravel. I have even seen a weeping caragana standard used in a foundation planting — but again, with plenty of space around it.

A standard is not inexpensive or low maintenance, but well worth the cost and effort if you want to add something quite unique to your landscape.

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