Which way is REALLY right -- preparing new shrub/tree border

lorib_in_pa(z6 PA)July 5, 2011

My family and I are planning a shrub and tree border down most of the side of our small town property. The purposes are to screen a neighboring eyesore property and for our own enjoyment of a lovely space. The length of the proposed bed is 84 feet and the depth varies from about 10 to 24 feet, but the average is about 15 feet deep.

My background: I have been a perennial and vegetable gardener for several years, but this is my first real experience with shrubs and trees, so I am doing lots of reading and thinking and looking. It's been plenty of fun, because I'm at that great graph paper stage where everything fits perfectly, everything is thrilled with its environment, and never is heard a discouraging word... I�m a planner rather than a spontaneous planter.

Now, reality. I realize that I have no idea how best to "make" the bed. With my perennial beds, I have very successfully used the lasagna method, or at least my version of it. My veggie beds are raised. Our regular soil is clay with a good amount of shale in it. The area has been in grass for many years (more than the eighteen years we have been here).

We hope to live here for many more years. It is important for us to give the plants we add the healthiest start we can so they will thrive and we won�t have made a lot of frustration for ourselves. Our other garden projects have been such a pleasure, excepting one horrible experience with bindweed, and we�d like to continue the trend. We�re on a modest budget. And, we�d like to prepare the bed now for fall planting.

I�ve been reading threads on this forum about sheet composting, trench composting, double digging, and other ideas for preparing beds. There seems to be some controversy about the best way to proceed. I had pictured us removing the sod, using a big rototiller to break up the clay, picking out rocks, and tilling in mushroom soil and whatever other organic matter we can get our hands on, which makes me tired just to type, but there you go.

My husband thought we would hire a man we know to come in with his smallish backhoe and break up the soil with it from the alley that runs parallel to the other side of the bed (+ he could easily take out an old lilac and some spreading juniper we expect to dispose of). He has a small dump truck and could pick up shredded compost from a free source a couple of miles away, dump it in the bed and work it around with the BH. He could mix in a couple of truckloads of mushroom soil, too.

Our friend who has the mulch and has an ag background as well thinks we should just till the sod right in and then top with several inches of this free compost. That sounds so much easier, but I know easier often is not better.

What say ye?

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

My first thought is a concern with digging deeply, whichever way you chooose to prepare the bed. You said this is a town property. I assume you've checked where all underground untilities are?

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 4:11PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
lorib_in_pa(z6 PA)

No problems with underground or overhead lines -- I'm the mayor, so I have to know these things. :) Also, we have no setback rules for this alley, which is nice because the site is fairly narrow for what we wish to do. I want to stagger the plants as much as possible to avoid a strict straight row of soldier shrubs marching down that long alley.

I'm determined to plant with proper spacing for everything so they will mature into a nice screen. Everything doesn't have to be obscured totally, but we definitely want somewhere else for our eyes to rest. That brings up another question, but perhaps I should start a new thread for it.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 6:00PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Not sure this is really a topic for 'landscape design' but since soil issues are one of the areas I tend to focus on, I'm happy to share my experience.

Practices in gardening change with the times and with ongoing research. The accepted current horticultural convention for planting woody plants - trees and shrubs - is to avoid amending unless absolutely necessary. These types of plants establish faster and produce better, healthier growth if planted in the indigenous (native) soil. There are various reasons for this but suffice it to say that when in doubt, don't amend :-) And just for ease of gardening, low maintenance and long term success, selecting plants that will do well and thrive under your current conditions is always the best choice.

Of course there can be exceptions. Very sandy soils DO benefit from having organic matter added as they tend to be rather infertile and OM will help with that as well as assist with moisture retention. And if you MUST amend, do so over the largest possible area, never an individual planting hole. For clay or heavy soils, you can break up the soil as much as you like but better to backfill with what you removed rather than amend a small area. Instead, plant high in a wide but shallow depression and use any desired amendments to mound up to the top of the rootball.

In general, avoid amending the soil (rather, use the amendments as a mulch or topdressing), plant high in a shallow but quite wide planting hole and backfill only with whatever was removed.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 8:59PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
karinl(BC Z8)

My preference is that people stick to one thread for discussing their projects as things overlap, there are cross-references and repetition, and it facilitates reading/following with less clicking, but others may feel differently.

On bed prep, I've never done a project on that scale, but I've planted plenty of trees and shrubs and have never done any soil prep - come to think of it there was lawn here when I got here, it must have just died from me looking at it!

What I am very good at, however, is taking the hardest and most complicated way of doing everything. Your way sounds just like something I would do, except I could stretch it out over years, so it would look a total mess forever - no time to weed the part that's done, so busy still finishing the bed :-)

So my advice if you actually want to get it done is: big project, big equipment. Get the guy with the backhoe and do the manure and compost in full loads. Honestly, as long as it's dirt and they get sun and water, trees and shrubs aren't fussy.


    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 9:01PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Gardengal, thank you for the info re soil amendment. You are right -- this probably was not the right forum, but my head is so swimming with questions and ideas as I work on this plan that I guess it all feels like design topics to me, because I can not design what to plant without figuring out about the soil. Thanks for understanding.

Your advice makes sense, but I sure never thought about it before. Look below for a follow-up question re mixing in perennials that might require a different tactic and tell me what you think.

Karinl, your comment, "What I am very good at, however, is taking the hardest and most complicated way of doing everything," cracked me up. Separated at birth!

More info about the space:
--It runs east and west and is on the north side of our two-storey house/property. The west half of it is in part to full shade and the east half is mainly in full sun.
--Main purpose: to screen unsightly neighbor property; secondary purpose: our enjoyment of the space/chance to grow woodies
--Currently, we use this space as an outdoor eating area and have two picnic tables and a good sized firepit (no hardscape) located there, but according to my current design, the border would eventually turn that side of the house basically into a wide walking path. Then the dining area could be relocated to the back yard as these plants mature and add shade to that area.
--The plants we select for the space are to be unpruned except for the odd need.
--Our house is an early 1900s American foursquare with a deep front porch and sits nearly on top of the sidewalk. I have a three foot strip of ground in front of it planted up with various perennials. The side of the house opposite from the proposed new shrub/tree border has a mature basswood tree and a fifteen year-old paulonia tree that is as big or bigger than the basswood. The understory planting for these is an old and thriving stand of old-fashioned white-flowered hydrangeas.

Trees/Shrubs List as it stands now, with much assistance from a couple of Michael Dirr's books:
In sun:
--6 Thuja plicata x standishii Giant arborvitae 'Green Giant' or 'Spring Grove', groups of three in two different sections
--1 Betula nigra River birch 'Heritage'; specimen brought out to front of border in front of three arborvitae grouping; this group is the short arm of the el at the east end of the border
Then there is a space just past the corner of the el for access to the alley and garden service area on the other side. Now we're on the long stretch of the el that runs west along the far north side of our property paralleling a side alley with the messy neighbor property just across the alley. So next:
--2 Itea virginica Vir. Sweetspire 'Henry's Garnet' in front of three arborvitae grouping also with
--1 Acer griseum Paperbark maple; specimen in front of same arborvitae as sweetspire grouping
--1 Hamamelis x intermedia Witchhazel 'Jelena' or 'Arnold's Promise' fronted with the next three shrubs:
--1 Hydrangea quercifolia Oakleaf hydrangea 'Snow Queen' and
--1 Abies lasicarpa var. arizonica Dwarf Rocky Mt. Fir 'Compacta' and
--1 Fothergilla large or dwarf -- don't know
--1 existing mature pyramidal female holly; cultivar unknown
Now we're getting into the heavier shade. The next two items would be currently fronted by our dining/firepit area if we leave those in place for the time being:
--1 Acer japonicum Fernleaf fullmoon maple 'Aconitifolium'
-- 1 Aesculus parviflora Bottlebrush buckeye
Last, centered in the space at the west end of this north side of our house, is a mature Kwanzan cherry tree.

Follow-up questions/wonderings:
--Two ideas which may be able to intersect in my plan:

  1. I am determined to plant all these trees and shrubs with correct spacing for them to reach maturity without overcrowding. It always makes me sad to see properties with shrub borders crammed with big plants trying to survive. I realize that means we will not really have a screen for the neighbors� mess for some time, but I think even just giving our eyes something else to rest on will be helpful.
    2. I have been spending some time thinking about the wisdom of planning borders that can age with me. I am in my mid-forties and fairly healthy, but I have rheumatoid arthritis and already need to garden at a somewhat measured pace.. Someday, if God allows, I will get to the point that a walk through my gardens and a rest on a bench may be about all I can manage. I would like that to be as happy a time as possible and not feel frustrated at all that needs to be done that I can�t easily hire out.

So, I am curious to know what forum members think about the idea of planting perennials between the woodies with a view to having them to enjoy and work with and help keep the border from looking too forlorn in its first decade or so and then planning to remove or adjust them as the trees and shrubs get toward mature size. That would also give me more gardening responsibilities now but less to do later. Will perennials retard the development of the woodies? What sort of perennials to plant? I do not want a LOT of extra gardening chores beyond what I have now with a good-sized perennial bed on the other side of the house and my vegetable garden. I would be happy to do some spring clean-up/cutting back, but I do not wish to have deadheading chores throughout the growing season. Would I be nuts to use naturalizing spreaders like bigroot cranesbill, foamflower, false solomon's seal, and calamint? Dare I consider gooseneck loosestrife in there somewhere?

Please feel free to comment especially on:
1. soil amendment/bed prep
2. the woodies plant list: Is there something you are thinking, "Aw, it would be a shame if she didn�t use ____________"? Or, "She is nuts to think about including ______________."
3. The long-term-but-ultimately-temporary perennials idea
4. perennials choices

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 12:08PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Oops, it is three sweetspires, not two

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 12:12PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I deal with the sort of issues that you are planning ahead for so have a reasonable sesnso of what you mean. You shouldn't have too much of a problem mixing perennial and woodies, particularly in the shadier area. If you don't want deadheading, I'd suggest leaving out the bigroot cranesbill. I just ripped all of mine out that bordered the path in front of the white pines in my backyard. The cranesbill kept spreading out and narrowing the path, plus they looked messy/needed too much deadheading after they bloomed. I replaced them with 'Ghost' and 'Branford Beauty' ferns. Branford Beauty is a new one for me but I have several Ghost ferns already and love them - particularly since they don't need any clean-up at all. I just let them die down in the fall and the new growth comes up in the spring without needing the old stuff cleared away. The old growth just becomes part of the natural 'compost'.

Why false Solomon's Seal rather that Solomon's Seal? SS is another favorite of mine - looks particularly good with hostas of all sorts.

Foamflower also gets a big vote of approval from me:-)

All the good easy-care fillers are the shade-lovers. All my sun fillers require more attention re deadheading and/or cutting back. I have just resigned myself to the sunnier are being more work!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 1:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I think you are looking for a mix of approaches.

So, yes/no, I think you do NOT dig up a huge broad stretch of property and prepare/amend 18" deep to accomodate the largest items and then have to mulch all that lovely amended weed-magnet soil.

With the no-amend approach you basically lay out your trees and shrubs and make individual holes for each. You think ahead on your design layout and choose several areas that will be the locations of some additional small beds for perennials--do this at the time you fix the spots for the larger items and you will see where to avoid the current roots rather than making a deep bed over tree roots later. Of course over time there will be root and nutrient competition and so some of these will lanquish as others grow and that is what ultimately you are aiming for.

I had a similar question some time ago about "temporary plantings" if you can find it. Given your zone you may be interested in some annual fillers as well--some grow very tall in the season and provide nice blockage. Also think preferentially about more shallow-rooted items, for temporary, though maybe there's nothing that a big bottle of Roundup can't handle. Some shrubs and perennials are more tough to remove, is the point. Another temporary filler is strategically placed tuteur planted with vines, or also large containers, so that a 3 foot shrub becomes 5 feet, and so on.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 2:12PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

woodyoak, thanks for your comments. I said false ss simply because that was one of the possibilities on my list, along with ss. I have never grown either because most of my current perennial beds are in full sun. So you'd rec ss over fss? Other shady or sunny fillers you esteem?

frankie, I think I HAVE to go ahead and break up the soil for the whole space all at once if I'm going to put in perennials, particularly if we are going to hire someone to do it with his baby backhoe. Since we have free mulch at our disposal, I plan to top-dress everything generously with it for weed prevention. Also, I wish to use weed-suppressing, spreading perennials to avoid much open space. I can reduce them as the woodies grow. I think the trick must be to choose fillers that aren't TOO agressive for the shrubs/trees, or do I not need to worry about that?

I'd still like to hear comments on the woodies I am thinking of using. I wish I could include a copy of my plans on paper, but I have no idea how to do that. I'm better with plants than computers.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 6:45AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Lori - I've only tried one false SS and it sort of faded away... I like SS because the flowers are pretty in spring, the plant itself has a wonderful arching shape all summer, and the leaves turn a lovely yellow in fall. So it has 3 season interest and it goes well with just about everything.

I don't have many comments on the woodies... For me, oakleaf hydrangeas rarely flower. We're at the margin of hardiness here for 'old wood' blooming hydrangeas so I largely stick to the ones that bloom on new wood. My favorite is 'White Moth' which has large showy flowers and a relatively long bloom season. Its flowers don't change color in the fall like some hydrangeas do but that's OK with me. 'Little Lamb' is a nice one if you want a white one that fades to pink.

I only grow the dwarf fothergillas because that's what fits best in the spaces I have for them. I like their fall color and would try the bigger ones if I had space for them.

I just planted a Full Moon Japanese maple this spring. I've put a 'Sum and Substance' hosta, some golden Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'), and a 'Key Lime Pie' heuchera nearby to make a golden-green area. They are all planted to the side of a path I'm aiming to make a golden path by lining it with the golden Forest Grass. It's looking good so far....

Some of my shady fillers/groundcovers might not suit your purposes. Since my shade garden has a canopy of tall trees, I use some larger plants and also use ground covers that can handle dry shade. Some of them would be considered too aggressive if you wanted a more controlled look than my 'wild' garden. The north side of the shade garden has white corydalis as a groundcover. It seeds itself around (and is gradually appearing is a lot of places in the garden!) It is relatively easy to remove if it goes somewhere where you don't want it. I don't mind it spreading because it doesn't choke out other things, it has pretty, ferny foliage, and it is almost evergreen - it's greening up as the snow goes and then blooms non-stop from April to November. Since green and white are the main colors in my shade garden, it provide a white background that nicely sets off the other plants in the garden.

Bugbanes of various sorts are great additions to the shady garden. I particularly like 'White Pearl' which, in my garden, blooms in late October and early November. It's nice to have some fresh flowers at a time when raking fallen leaves is the main garden activity! :-)

Ferns of various sorts are good to have - 'Ghost' is a must-have. This is an area where hostas, ferns, heuchera and SS make a particularly nice combination. Most of my shade garden is like that - large-ish plants growing densely together to shade the ground to deter weeds.

I also consider Rodgersia aesculifolia a must-have in the shade garden. I ignore the 'moist soil' supposed requirement. They do just fine for me in normal to dry soil - in fact them have the biggest leaves for me in the dryest, darkest locations where they are planted! :-)

I haven't updated my garden maintenance manual for this year's changes (will do that this coming winter...) but if you scan the stuff at the link below, you can find some information about the plants I use and how I manage and maintain the garden.

Here is a link that might be useful: garden manual

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 10:00AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
abrodie(z6 ON)

We have planted a shrub/tree border in our new garden this year. We did a lasagna type because we have a strict no dig rule in our family. Newspaper, cardboard from moving boxes, some leaves (not many because we just moved) and then 9 yards of soil/compost mix. The shrubs and trees are all in and include weeping pine, corkscrew hazel, pyramid cedar, several types of Endless Summer hydrangea, rosy glow barberry, climbing hydrangea, euonymus, Graham Thomas roses, threadleaf false cypress, spreading yews, mugo, pieris japonica, some grasses, Japanese ferns, hostas ... It was great at first because there was so much rain but now it's hot and hasn't rained for a month or so, so I am watering a lot. Decided not to do much perennial thinking or doing this year, have my hands full with looking after watering all the new plantings, and still have a second yard of mulch to spread around. I couldn't resist Shasta daisies but it remains to be seen how smart that was when I plant them in this heat.

Our thought behind this was to put in some really hard work now while we are well able, and have a garden that will require less back breaking toil as the years go on and we don't want to put in this kind of work.

I applaud your discipline on spacing and thinking of mature sizes. It's a little difficult at first and looks pretty sparse, but I tell myself it will pay off in the long run. I wish I had thought of this kind of gardening years ago, it has a real grace and tranquillity that my first gardens lacked (but I did like their joyous sense of chaos).


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 11:19AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
botann(z8 SEof Seattle)

abrodie, where did the strict no dig rule in your family come from? Any valid reasons? What have you got against a shovel? I consider shovel work good for the soil and soul.

By digging and loosening the soil you have more room for moist soil where the roots can penetrate, lessening the need for additional water. It also has the advantage of breaking up the interface between the native soil and your lasagna method, improving the capillary action between the two soils.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 11:34AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

An inspirational photo of spazzycat_1's awesome 2-layer shrub and tree border that screens their neighbor's property:

Unfortunately, both threads from this forum that gave details have long since disappeared into the ether.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 12:29PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
abrodie(z6 ON)

Hi Mike, I don't have anything against shovelling, and shovelled quite a lot putting in all the trees and shrubs this year. In fact it's good that I minimized the digging because I had a sciatica attack for the first time in my life with even that limited digging. I now have terrific upper body strength!

Everyone's got different things that turn their crank, and I just have other things I prefer to spend my energy on than removing sod eg topdressing with compost, mulching (and moving those 9 yards or so of dirt!), shocking my anaerobic compost back into life (I am a compost nerd), starting plants from seed, etc. The topdressing every year (usually twice) with lots of compost seems to get rid of the interface in 2 or 3 years (it's lasagna on sandy soil) but once I did experience the problem you describe. This year the bottom of the root ball is in the sandy soil, the top in my new stuff.

I garden organically and only water in a new plant's first year in my garden. It seems to work out.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 2:37PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
botann(z8 SEof Seattle)

Oh! Sandy soil. Then the interface problem is not near as important.
I'm a compost nerd too. A tree trimmer parks his chip truck and chipper on my property at the end of the day. I have all the woodchips I need. I consider my garden, all ten acres of it, a compost pile, even the paths.

I haven't removed sod in years. I just bury it and about six months later till it in, plant, and add wood chips as a mulch. Then add groundcovers. Topdress when needed after that.

Too bad about your back. That can change everything.
I have injured my back twice. The worst time was hanging up the telephone! Long story. Took about a month to get back to normal.

Here is a link that might be useful: My garden

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 10:13PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
karinl(BC Z8)

Not that I don't respect WoodyOak's right to differ, but I absolutely despise Solomon's Seal in open ground because of its tendency to wander. That is a function of how limited my space it; perhaps if I had a huge forest where it could wander at will, I would love it. But I think I'm just too much of a control freak to let it roam. Everything that grows like that is in a pot for me.


    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 12:52AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Karin - interesting... mine don't wander very much at all. The oldest stuff has advanced maybe 6" at most from where they started about 8 years ago. They form a dense colony with age but are not a big spreader at all. I suspect most of the difference between your experience and mine is due to climate and growing conditions. Most of my SS are in fairly dense shade and/or in dryish conditions - they get no supplemental water during our usually dry, hot summers. What conditions were yours in?

    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 10:14AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
abrodie(z6 ON)

Mike, exquisite space you have created! I look forward to sharing my own humble efforts when it doesn't look like a collection of sticks in a year or two.


    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 12:58PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
karinl(BC Z8)

Woody, I've seen in grow in more spaces than mine; most notably in my mom's garden where it has filled an entire bed maybe 12 feet x3 feet. She does have good soil. She likes plants that do this; I hate 'em! She also grows the Chinese lantern plant, Physalis, which has covered an extraordinary distance.


    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 2:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Karin - my point was really that I'm guessing your (and your mother's...) plants get more moisture due to the climate out there than mine do and probably grow in better soil, and have milder milder winters. The dry soil with root competition from big trees and shrubs plus our hot, dry summers and colder winters probably help keep mine in check.

One patch of my SS used to grow behind a log that marked the end of the woodland bed and begining of the lawn on the south side. About 4 years ago I moved the log about two feet to widen the woodland bed a bit. I expected the SS to advance forward to once again arch over the log. It hasn't moved at all - you can still see the straight line of SS two feet behind the log. I've had to plant other things to fill in the space I expected the SS to cover.

I'm not sure whether the OP's conditions are closer to yours or closer to mine...

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 2:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I only found one plant in your list that I'd be cautious about: Aesculus Parviflora - it spreads by suckers and can give you more work if you try to control its spread. Such a beauty though, I wish I had the space for it...

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 12:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

The reason(s) amending of soils in small areas is counterproductive do not vary with the type of soil. Sandy, silty or clay-like, it makes no difference. You do not want to install plants in pockets, strips or zones of one soil texture surrounded by soil of a different texture, as this sets them up for likely problems with how water moves into and out of the soil around their roots.

In the case of plants to be left in place for many years (or indefinitely) without lifting and re-planting there is no point in incorporating organic soil texture modification materials (bark, compost, peat...) even if the bed is large enough to minimize or eliminate water movement problems for most of the plants - once the amendments decompose the effects they produce will be lost.

Inorganic amendments like perlite and sand do not decompose but enormous amounts of these have to be added to change a heavy soil into a light one. And if too much is added then a droughty and infertile (leaching) situation may be produced, that may be more limiting than a heavy clay-like soil.

The most straightforward approach is to choose plants adapted to the existing soil type and plant these in wide, shallow holes dug out of that, loosening it over a wide area beforehand and mulching well afterward. The most satisfactory mulch for woody plants appears to be clean wood chips. If arborist wood chips available nearby tend to have bramble stem sections or other undesirable material mixed in then play chips from a local dealer may be the best bet. Ones we obtain here as cedar play chips are very nice but have become quite pricey, as far as it goes.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 2:04PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
the bane of my existence - what to plant in driveway ribbon???
I live in a historic district... the board has to approve...
Issue with Retainer Wall, fixable or redo?
Hi, first time posting here. I'm looking for advice...
John Turner
Raised Garden Bed Construction Help
Hello Everyone! What wonderful help! I've built about...
Garden Chickee
Need help design patio & location of tree
The backyard of my future home (yet to be completed)...
Late Sound
Need help with landscaping my front hillside
I need some help with landscaping my front hillside....
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™