How to make landscape design flexible w/poss future construction

niabassettMarch 9, 2011

I live in Austin, TX. I am a first time homebuyer and have waited 3 years to really begin thinking about the outside of my house. This past weekend, a surprise truck sale was announced with special California varieties of plants (plants you can't normally buy here) and I jumped on it. Now I'm concerned, mainly about 2 trees I bought (a Yucca and a Grevillea 'Long John'). Here's why:

- My husband and I have brainstormed on the possibilities of our yard space going towards everything from a home addition to a studio in back to a carport on side/back to a privacy wall in front. We have never formulated any solid plans for our outside space. And we don't have the money to do any of this right now. Minimum we're talking 2-3 years down the road for one of these projects.

- The dirt at my house is clay and I know the best way to provide a fertile environment is to bring in more dirt. In the front, we would like to eventually building a retaining wall to level off our yard and keep our "good dirt" (only compost for now) from eroding with every rainfall. I imagine at this time we might actually consider buying dirt to level off the area.

QUESTION: How do I plan my landscape design (again, especially worried about the two trees because I don't want to transplant them in a few years - they are already large now) and keep it flexible enough for any of the structures listed above without just reverting to "safe" planting, meaning just keeping it boring and only planting the trees around the perimeter of my backyard? How do you keep it flexible?

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Flexibility with a planted landscape with respect to possible future construction is going to mean flexibility with the plant choices (and any possible hardscaping that might be present) - either you are able to sacrifice the existing plants when the construction occurs or you are able to transplant them to a better location. It's hard to get around it - the plants will either be in the way or not and if in the way, they will need to be moved. If very desirable plants and ones that you do not wish to disturb after planting, make sure they will be located well away from any possible future construction activity.

Or you design the new construction around them, allowing for proper protection during the construction process. This is something that is pretty common in any sort of new construction when there is a tree or other plantings that the builder/developer/homeowner wishes to retain. There are various websites that will show you how to protect these plants during the construction process, as root damage and soil compaction is often a concern and can lead to the demise of the tree in question if not addressed properly.

btw, the grevillea is only a shrub, growing to 8-10 feet at maturity. And may be only borderline hardy in your area, not tolerating temperatures much below freezing for extended periods. And it is possible the yucca will not grow to a huge size, either - many species are small to medium sized shrub/perennials although others can get to tree-sized proportions in suitably warm and arid climates and after an extended period of time. Both should still be quite transplantable after only 2-3 years.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2011 at 9:54AM
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So it may sound odd, but it is news to me that people construct around the landscaping. But now that you mention it, I have heard of people designing around some magnificent old tree or something similar. It makes sense that either construction or landscaping has to take priority.

I forgot to mention in the post that last winter a friend gave me an orange tree (I haven't planted it because I didn't know where to put it) and just a few days ago my husband discovered a fig tree (it's small right now) growing in our backyard. So these are two other trees we'll have to figure out. But good to hear that the yucca and the grevillea will still be small enough to transplant in 2-3 years. I am just giddy about both of them. I'd like to stick them in the ground and feel confident about the decision.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2011 at 11:24PM
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For sure, you now have to decide which is your priority--the landscaping or your future constructions. Naturally, you'd want plants that are easy and safe to transplant around the area where you plan to construct in the future. Or perhaps you'd like to consider a stonescape or stone path that can be easily relocated when construction starts.

Here is a link that might be useful: houston landscaping

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 5:11AM
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Not sure I'm following this. Was there perhaps some thought here that Austin gardeners are such stick-in-the-muds that plants popular in California aren't normally marketed here? Actually, many of them are now nursing their wounds from having been overly adventurous. Check some of the blogs.

Various cultivars of Yucca are readily available in your local nurseries. Your Grevillia is hardy to only 20 degrees. The fig will freeze to the ground every winter, and come back as a sprawling, multi-trunk plant. As for the orange, why do you suppose you see so few of them, notwithstanding the fact that Texas is a major citrus producing state?

There must be some areas on your property that will accommodate shade and screening trees/plants no matter what improvements you decide on later.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 7:18AM
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If it is a fruiting fig (Ficus carica), it should be perfectly hardy in your area - fig trees are quite common in my zone (8 - same as yours) and we don't get anywhere near the type of summer heat you do, so your chances of good fruit production are much better. But the orange is another matter. I'd consider growing this guy in a container and moving into a protected area for winter.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 11:08AM
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The fig in the yard next to mine in North San Antonio has frozen back on several occasions, and has more than a dozen trunks branching widely from the ground. It's about 10 ft. tall and 12 wide. It does produce a lot of fruit, if that is the objective.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 1:51PM
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I don't know what the background is on the California varieties in Austin. I know that I bought my house a few years ago, and from what I've seen, CA plants aren't readily available at local nurseries. I don't know why. If I had to guess, I would have said that it was because some of the main retail sellers have since gone out of business or moved, but I really don't know. Maybe I'm just not going to the right nurseries. Anyway, I am just getting into plants now and this is the first I've heard of locals being overly adventurous with them. I'll have to look on the forum to dig deeper into this issue. Thanks for mentioning it.

The orange tree is still in a container. Should I leave it in there? I figured that eventually this might stifle it so much that it wouldn't do well, which is why I thought I needed to put it in the ground. Is this not true?

After this discussion, now I'm also kind of afraid of the fig tree. It's small right now. It just appeared on its own one day in a random spot in my backyard. I was excited (because I love trees that produce fruit that I can use and I love figs) but hearing that whitecap's fig tree has frozen back several times and is producing crazy amounts of trunks sounds like a problem. Is this something I shouldn't keep?

Back to the point of this discussion - My main original question was, if I don't know (construction-wise) what will happen with my little property, do I really have any choice on where to put the trees that will grow lots of strong roots and possibly be hard to transplant in a few years? It seems like the more I ask people the more they say:
1) No question; plant on the perimeter. In fact, I've even had one person question why would I plant anywhere but the perimeter?
2) In 2-3 you are not going to have a problem transplanting your trees, but don't wait too long after that point to decide where they should really go.

Thanks again for all the help. I'm such a beginner and information that is obvious to most of the forum people is most likely new to me.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 6:02PM
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Just to get yourself oriented, you might start with Lazy Shady Gardener (I can't post links.) On the right sidebar, you will see links to other Central Texas (mostly Austin) bloggers. Pam at Digging has an extensive list of other bloggers on her Blogroll. Most of the Austinites experienced severe damage from the recent freezes. These blogs are photo-heavy, and you can here learn a lot about what you can and can't do here. You can also get a feel for mistakes to avoid. I think the worst mistake is to start collecting plants that appeal to you, before first getting a fix on the overall impression you want your efforts to make. For myself, shade, privacy, lots of greenery and a few splashes of color, with plants that require minimal attention, is the goal.

You can also pick up leads in these blogs to specialty nurseries in your area. There are a lot of them.

You haven't said what kind of soil you have. Have you tried digging down a couple of feet or so? If you're not blessed, it will be a little topsoil on top of clay and rock. Not the ideal medium for digging up and relocating plants. You might also productively devote a little time to driving around and taking note of what you see.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 7:24PM
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I can't believe Austin winters could get significantly colder than they do here in WA. Zone 8 is zone 8 and is based on average winter minimum temperatures, period. Fig trees do not die back to the ground here although they can suffer some winter dieback of exterior stems and branches in a good snappy winter. The older, more established the tree, the less it suffers any winter damage. Most sources list them hardy to zone 7 at least and there is at least one variety that can be grown in Chicago, although that one does act like a dieback perennial in that area.

Even if it does dieback from cold, it just grows into a multi-trunked shrubby form, not unlike a good many other shrubs. A very manageable - and tasty - garden addition.

Oranges and other citrus are often grown in containers where they are not fully hardy. They will typically flower and set fruit under these conditions just like they would in the ground but size and productivity will be limited. And container-grown plants DO need some specialized attention. But if there are concerns about a fig not thriving in your climate, then forget about planting the orange in the ground!

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 9:02PM
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I have no idea what variety my neighbor's fig might be. Probably something he picked up at BigBox. It does not make an attractive shrub. I suppose this is largely academic, since the original poster's tree is in the ground. Oranges, without winter protection, are definitely out. I think there was significant damage to the citrus groves in the Rio Grande Valley this year.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 10:48PM
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Making further inquiry into this fig business, it seems that the Celeste, hardy to 10 degrees, is the preferred variety for Central Texas. It is said, however, that the plant must be fully dormant to withstand temperatures this low. If it is caught by a hard freeze while putting out growth, it will die back. My neighbor's fig did not die back this year, despite an unusually severe winter. Our worst freezing spell, however, came only in February, after several light freezes. The timing is crucial, which suggests to me the possibility of differences between Central Texas 8 and PNW 8.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2011 at 7:49AM
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That's funny. I just bought a fig tree for a good friend, and after studying what was available, I bought a Celeste because it said it was the most cold-hardy fig, which I figured was good for Central Texas. In this regard it seemed pretty low-maintenance . . . Anyway, I don't know what kind of fig tree I have. It just appeared one day. And the orange tree is a Satsuma and it's still in the pot. I was thinking that I needed to move it to the ground in order to be the healthiest it could, but now I'm starting to think that keeping it as a container plant may not be bad.

I have really bad soil here. It is very rocky and lacking in nitrogen. In fact, I'd never plant something in the ground without additional help. I don't know if this is normal in most places, but from what I hear, this is similar to most of Austin.

Thanks, whitecap, for the link to the Lazy Shady Gardener. Looks like a good blog to surf through.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2011 at 6:51PM
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Yes, you have typical Austin soil. Among "progressive" gardeners (the ones sporting Keep Austin Weird bumper stickers on their SUV's), plants that appear to have been plucked from the desert are all the rage (resource conservation, global warming and all that.) Quite a few, however, have managed to create a lush, tropical look even with the awful soil and restrictions on watering. Go Away, I'm Gardening! is also a helpful resource.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2011 at 11:40PM
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