improving upon thuja

still_lynnskiMarch 30, 2010

There's a row of arborvitae marching straight along our property line. Can't do a thing about 'em, as they were planted by the neighbors, not us. Just in front of them (too close) on our side of the arborvitae, we have 2 mid-sized oak trees. They're about 18 feet apart and they parallel the row of thuja soldiers. The oaks are nothing special except in summer, but they are beloved by a great many birds, and for that we love them.

We're in a beautiful natural setting, and the thuja look so out of place! Can anyone suggest a way to enliven this military parade and make it a softer, more organic looking display?

Would you plant in front of the oaks, or along side them? Make one large mixed bad along the whole length of the thuja line, or a pair of islands planted around the oaks? Or, because 2 is also too formal, how might one organize 3 island beds when there are already 2 biggish trees? Should we bring in a few more arborvitae just to stagger the row of soldiers?

We're in western Massachusetts, the area is sunny except for the plants described here, and the property slopes down significantly to a lake. There are not (yet) any other significant plantings on this part of the property. The row in question is the right-side property line when looking towards the lake from the house. The other property line is irregular and heavily wooded.

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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I would go for the one large mixed bed option that incorporates the oak trees. A line of evergreens makes a perfect backdrop for a garden.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2010 at 9:53AM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

woodyoak has the right of it...many people LONG for a lovely, dark, evergreen backdrop. Anything bright or white will stand out... I recently saw a Magnolia 'Butterflies' in front of a stand of evergreens--breathtaking. Quit thinking of them as a row of soldiers...think of them as a living, breathing wall/backdrop.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2010 at 10:16PM
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Thanks, mjsee and woody oak. A change in perspective is just what's needed!

I'll post in the New England Forum to ask for suggestions on what might thrive in this area, given how close the oaks and thuja are to one another, and how shallow the oak roots typically run.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2010 at 9:43AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

In my experience with our red oak, it's quite garden-friendly. The south half of our woodland garden is under an oak. The oak is probably less that 40 years old though so if yours is very oald that might make a difference. I think the the arborvitae are going to be harder to garden close to than the oak. I have 'Beacon Silver' lamium near our big old arborvitae and it seems to cope reasonably well with the dry conditions there and fills in what would otherwise be bare ground. Under the oak I'd plant any shade tolerant perennials and shrubs and see what happens. Running tiarella makes a nice groundcover that knits everything together under the oak.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2010 at 10:46AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Rather than trying to plant under the cedars, a better idea is to put a maintenance path along the cedar hedge and plant the bed forward from that. That eliminates the need to try to grow something under the cedars and allows easy access to the back of the bed and the hedge - do you clip the hedge? From the forward edge of the bed the path would be invisible; you'd just see the bed displayed against the classic green 'wall'.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2010 at 1:06PM
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Thanks for these thoughts. I can start planting at the back of the oaks and make quite a deep bed going forward toward the center of the yard. But already there is barely a foot between the front edge of the cedars and the trunk of each oak tree. Hardly room for a maintenance path!

At both the top and bottom ends of my "classic green wall" (I love that!), the line is continued with burning bushes. I think that in this new re-framed way of seeing the arborvitae, I am going to ignore them and simply build a bed forward from the ceders.

Any suggestions for how I might break up the symmetry of the 2 oaks as I plan a large bed that includes those elements--and many other new elements? I have rocks, several large miscanthus we moved from our previous home, and lots of room and sunshine. Everything else will have to be bought begged or borrowed.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2010 at 1:51PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

If you're creating a large bed, it would still be a good idea to leave space at the back so that you can at least walk through there to maintain it.

I'm not sure why the idea of symmetry in the garden gets people's knickers in a knot :-) In most other situations people are quite comfortable with symmetry or even expect it and are unconmfortable if it's absent. I quite like symmetry in the garden and often find asymmetry or absent symmetry annoying - sort of like a picture hanging crooked on a wall! I'd say if you've got symmetrical elements, work with them. Perhaps you could incorporate/combine the burning bushes and the oaks by adding another burning bush - perhaps a dwarf one to keep to keep the scale in harmony with perennial elements - near the front of the bed to make a triagle where the existing burning bushes and oaks are part of the base line and the new one (or perhaps more than one) are the apex. You could add some dwarf fothergillas or small Japanese maples in the bed to pick up on the fall color of the burning bushes. Solomon's Seal grows very well under my oak and has nice fall color too - in addition to spring flowers and graceful shape througout the summer.

I'm not sure I'd put the miscanthus under the oak. I would be aiming for a woodland garden effect and grasses just don't fit that image for me.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2010 at 8:42PM
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