Need ideas for sloping, shady backyard that won't harm tree

mchembreeJuly 21, 2013

Our backíyard is nice in many ways, but has a few probílems that are stumpíing me. The grass and back fence area meaísures apíprox. 45' wide by 35' deep. The shade is much apípreíciíated, but we'd like to inístall some plantíings at, or beílow, the big elm tree's drip line to add a litítle visíual iníteríest. But the fairly steep slope, the shade cast by the trees, the heavy clay soil in our yard, and the tree roots loícated at and just beílow the soil suríface are causíing me fits. Would it help to inístall a low reítainíing wall at the drip line so that we could level out and amend the clay soil there for some limíited plantíing? Or is that a teríriíble idea beícause of the tree root disíturíbance this would reíquire? Thanks for any ideas or sugígesítions.

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yardvaark

You're essentially saying how you're going to solve your problem, but that your solution causes other problems. It might be that your solution of planting "at the drip line" is not how you should be solving the original problem of "adding visual interest." That your photo is sideways doesn't help people appreciate it, but also, it shows and explains little of your yard. Why don't you back way the heck up and show us that whole side/end of the yard? The picture should show some of the house so we can see its relationship to the yard. Please "right" any pictures before you post them.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 9:44AM
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mchembree

Mmmm -- not sure what you mean about the picture being sideways -- it appears "right side up" when I view the post / thread. This picture shows the very end of our flagstone/gravel area at the bottom edge, and the thick elm tree trunk near in the middle-to-top edge right edge; there's a slim concrete sidewalk leading up the slope towards the back fence/tree trunk shown at the right edge of the photo. I can post more photos, but hesitate to do so if they are somehow upside down.

It's hard to show a good view of the entire yard because of the overhanging tree branches and leaves, which cut off the views up the slope.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 10:16AM
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yardvaark

The picture displays for me sideways. The flagstone runs along the picture's right, vertical edge. Since I'm on a laptop, I can turn the computer sideways, but it's awkward. It might be a "first" that it displays different ways for different people.

We can see that the yard's height is shrouded in tree foliage. It is primarily WIDTH--how that side of the yard relates to the house and how far it goes left--that needs to be seen. Not trying to see the ENTIRE back yard, but just the whole side you are aiming the camera at. I'm thinking I want to see at least 30' more to the left, and 6' more to the right of what can be seen now.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 1:26PM
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lyfia

It's sideways for me too.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 3:01PM
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PKponder TX(7b)

The OP is uploading the picture from an Apple device, pictures are often posted sideways or upside down.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 4:38PM
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mchembree

I'm sorry -- the photo is oriented correctly for me (on computer, iPhone and iPad). Any suggestions about how to correct the orientation for you/others would be appreciated.

Anyway, here's a picture taken from the wood deck just outside the back doors. Hopefully it will show more of what you wanted to see. I'll post another showing the opposite perspective, taken from under the back tree and looking down slope at the deck and house. (I'm afraid they will be sideways for you too, however ...):

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 4:40PM
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mchembree

Here's the down-slope view, taken from under the elm tree and looking down to the deck and house. And again -- I'm open to any and all ideas and helpful information. Thanks very much.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 4:47PM
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yardvaark

PK, thanks for the explanation of why the sideways display.

mchem, It's a much better picture for comprehending the space.

I don't "get" the objective of wanting to plant at the drip line of the tree (with things of any size)... as if the goal is to make the yard seem half as large as it really is. I can understand wanting the low hanging tree branches to screen on the back side of the tree for privacy, but I don't understand the desire to have them hanging low to block the view into the remainder of your own yard... and making things so dark and dreary back there that anything but mushrooms would have a hard time growing. It seems like it would be better to accept, welcome and cultivate the space rather than so nearly blocking it off. If you had shade groundcover growing in the area below the tree it would continue with the serene look and eliminate the roughshod look around tree. Don't know where you are and what will grow there, but under trees like this, I'd be looking for a vining or creeping groundcover that would spread on its own after being installed in scattered, carved-out pockets. A retaining wall and soil amendments would be a more complicated, expensive way of dealing with it.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 10:20PM
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mchembree

I guess my previous posts weren't clear enough. I'm not wedded to the idea of planting at the drip line or in any other particular place. I'm also not purposely allowing the low hanging branches to block the view into the yard -- that's just how they happen to be growing at the moment (the trees were all trimmed last year, and that's how they are now). Also, just to be clear, there are two trees shown in these photos -- the elm and another large tree growing in a large planter within the wooden deck's perimeters. Yes they block views somewhat, but they also provide much needed shade and cooling in the summer and fall.

Really, I'm just asking anyone interested and willing to help if they have any constructive ideas for how we could make better use of the areas under the tree, possibly -- but not necessarily -- in the area near the drip line. The limiting factors are the slope, the clay soil, the tree roots and the desire to respect the tree's health needs. I'd like to be able to use plantings to lighten, brighten, and improve that area's appearance and tie it into the overall yard design. A ground cover might be our only option, but I guess I'm hoping for something a little more interesting. We are in Los Angeles, so the soil is clay and the climate is temperate-warm-hot and generally dry. Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2013 at 11:02PM
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yardvaark

What you are terming "limiting factors" are not really obstacles for many plants, especially tough landscape plants. Maybe someone in the vicinity can give you suggestions for specific examples. You imply that a groundcover will not be sufficiently interesting and that, I think, is where we differ. I'd be looking for something with a light colored or variegated leaf if such is available. For covering the fore part of the area (up to the drip line) I'd keep the plants low (6"). But at the back portion near fence, or around the tree trunks in a circular bed, you could use something taller (up to 36") without obstructing the view. I'm in Florida and in a similar situation here, a person might use sword fern (Nephrolepsis) for the taller plants. (They seem to be indestructible.) For the lower plant Asiatic Jasmine might be used. I mention them only for examples of form and size. You'd need to find comparables that grow in your area.

"I'm also not purposely allowing the low hanging branches to block the view into the yard -- that's just how they happen to be growing at the moment (the trees were all trimmed last year, and that's how they are now)." Then the manager of the trees is making a mistake. If they are trimmed so timidly that within a short time (less than one year) they are drooping below head height, the trimming is not aggressive enough. By observing how much they are encroaching into moving-about-and-viewing space, below, it would give an idea of how much more they need to be trimmed back when they are cut. The argument that these low hanging branches make the difference between having shade or not, cannot be born out by example. If removed, there is still a tremendous amount of "ceiling" directly above them. Low hanging branches might add a negligible bit more shade from the early or late day sun, but that would be hard pressed to justify their encroachment all day long into the view or the pedestrian space.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 9:31AM
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mchembree

Thank you -- your comments and suggestions are much appreciated. I like your ideas for planting around and under the tree. But I guess I'm still wondering how to accomplish such things, given that the tree roots are so extensive and close to the surface. I was told that adding soil, planting, or digging much at all in this area could endanger the tree by changing the amount of water available to it.

I see what you're saying about the low branches. Perhaps we should have the elm branches cut a bit higher (right now they are about 8' - 10' off the ground). However, that won't actually do a lot to increase the light under there, because trees in neighboring yards are also casting shadows there.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 9:47AM
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mchembree

Also -- I meant to thank you for going to the trouble of photoshopping and posting your photos -- very kind of you. I guess I also should've mentioned pd that I've had zero success in digging limited holes for individual plants under the tree. I've tried hostas, clivias, Japanese anemones, and others, but the combination of my "limitations" have doomed them all to failure.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 9:54AM
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yardvaark

There are some trees that have such a tight network of surface roots at the vicinity of the trunk that the only hope of planting below them is to start a distance away (where a teaspoon can be inserted) and by using vining or creeping plants that will spread over the root network. Sometimes, it's only possible to get cuttings into such tight spaces. If I were to use the example of the sword ferns as we grow here, it would be possible to install only the crown of the plant (no roots or tops) keep it watered and it would survive, spread and prosper. (Many plants will grow in the crack of a sidewalk and the space between surface roots is usually much greater than that.) Your trouble in the past in getting anything to grow could be either lack of maintenance after installing (forgetting to water on time ... even killing the plant just once is enough to prevent it from coming back again to life) or in selecting a plant that is not tough enough. But where on Earth where there's a spec of soil is a place where plants won't grow at all? Such places are few and far between. You might look around the neighborhood and see what other people are growing in their deep shade areas that might fill the bill for you. Try to emulate nature here instead of seeking to achieve some horticultural ideal like fluffing up and reshaping the soil.

Tree branches that are 8 - 10' off the ground seem acceptable (though not cathedral-like.) Branches that are less than 8' off the ground are too low. Where in a house would you want a ceiling to be less than 8'? Nowhere! The bottom of a tree is just an outdoor ceiling. In general, things that are outdoors need to be larger and more spacious than their indoor counterparts.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 11:35AM
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mchembree

That's helpful. Maybe my past failures could be erased if I tried your "planting in a sidewalk crack" approach. In the past, maintenance and watering were well taken care of. My prior plant choices in this area were based on what i see neighbors growing in the same exposures and in shade. And I am not wholly plant illiterate; I can grow many things quite well. But this area just fights me. So I posted here, hoping for as many suggestions as possible, and some inspiration. I don't feel overly inspired yet ;-), so any additional ideas would be most appreciated. Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 11:58AM
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yardvaark

One additional thought, if things you installed previously were well taken care of, it might be that you are trying to install a fully garden ready potted plant instead of a miniscule snip of a crown (that barely needs care.) Sometimes the tortoise wins the race. I suggest that you experiment a little more to find what will succeed before committing to a slew of potted plants.

In the past, I have purchased Gerbera daisies to find them determined to die regardless of my love and care for them. After exceeding normal frustration, my solution is to remove their tops entirely -- scalp all leaves and flowers to the ground -- and from that point, not even look at them. After this treatment, they come back happy and seem to require no care at all, including supplemental water.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 12:20PM
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mchembree

Really? That's so counter-intuitive! I was indeed trying to plant from well-established 6" pots. The tree roots are very extensive. Above the soil surface, to about 10' out from the trunk, they are very apparent and look like a lacy webbing, with roots about 1" wide criss-crossing each other and creating very limited tiny patches of dirt between them. The roots start burrowing under the soil surface about 10' out from the trunk, but they are just as extensive just an inch or two below the surface. Very very frustrating. Plus the clay soil makes it inhospitable there and hard to keep watered for new plantings; I do my level best, trying to keep mini-moats around the plantings to catch a bit of water and let it soak in instead of rolling off down the slope, but the roots are in the way everywhere. Sigh. I'd really like to find a way to get clivias started under there, but not sure how to "scalp" them or otherwise install them as you're suggesting. Mmmm.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 1:11PM
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emmarene

Ajuga would grow there. You plant plugs of it. It is invasive for some people but I control mine by giving it no summer water.I am in Northern California. It blooms once in spring but I really value it for its flat leaves.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 3:50PM
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yardvaark

With Clivias, the smallest package would be seed. I don't know how difficult it is to sprout or how your conditions would treat it.

Ajuga sounds like a great possibility.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 6:31PM
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mchembree

Thanks to you both! Emmarene, I'm not sure that even ajuga would work here. My reading tells me that ajuga wants light shade (mine is Derp and heavy), moist conditions (mine are dry), and good drainage to avoid crown rot (I've got heavy clay soil). I'll keep reading about it though.
I'll also look into the possibility of germinating some Clovis seedlings and planting them out when they're ready, but I fear that will be a more delicate task than my area can handle. I'm going to check into it though!

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 8:49PM
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trovesoftrilliums(5)

I'd consider building a couple low rock edged raised beds. Even just about 4-6 inches deep, perhaps 3ft by 5 ft in two or three different locations about 10ft out from the tree trunks. Add in top soil and plant in there. You could try a few ferns, hostas, etc.
I would not dig down to put in a retaining wall as that would sever many roots. Eventually a roots will work up into the raised bed areas but it might provide a bit of time for some plsnts to get established.

Ajuga is pretty resilient. I have it growing in dense clay with no problems. Also have some in deep shade, although lighter soil, and it does fine there too.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 10:56PM
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mchembree

Thank you. I've considered the low raised bed option, but got scared off after reading that doing that could / would reduce the tree's ability to capture water by effectively smothering the roots under the raised beds. That's one of the reasons I posted here -- to learn other people's opinions about such an approach. Thanks so much.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2013 at 11:56PM
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DoolingLandscape

Building a retaining wall is a sensible idea. Don't worry about the tree roots being constrained. They'll find their way.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2013 at 6:52AM
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trovesoftrilliums(5)

Here is a picture of our sloped shady back yard. The wood was piled up in the yard when we moved here. I'd rather have a nice rock edging but for now the tree trunk sections work. I raked a slight depression in the ground and set the wood directly on the soil then filled in with topsoil.

I apologize if picture isn't upright. Seems to happen often when I use my phone for photos.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2013 at 12:57AM
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mchembree

Troves, that looks very nice. Maybe something like that could work for us. Did you add topsoil on top of existing tree roots? If so, have the trees done okay? Dooling, thanks for weighing in on the retaining wall option. Thanks very much.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2013 at 1:36AM
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trovesoftrilliums(5)

I put about 8 bags of topsoil down there, 5 inches deep at the most, directly on the existing soil/roots. I had dug a few areas kind of testing out the soil to seed if I wanted to plant directly in the existing soil but decided to to raise it up a bit. For me, ferns, pulmonarias and hellebores do quite well there plus Tiarella and spring ephemerals like bleeding heart and Virginia blue bell. Astilbes dry out way too much. The surrounding trees are all doing fine. I have mostly ash trees there.

I think if you do not cover a significant area beneath the tree or do not sever the roots in a large circle around the tree, the tree will adapt. Normally that tree would hAve years of leaf litter accumulating above the roots--it looks as though you remove the leaves. I would not plan on putting down 5 inches of soil across the entire drip area of the tree though.

I think either a curved section of raised bed in front of that edger you have or a couple of individual beds would work fine there and give you spaces to add a bit of variety to your back yard.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2013 at 11:56AM
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thejardiner

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This post was edited by thejardiner on Sat, Aug 3, 13 at 11:50

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 6:39PM
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thejardiner

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This post was edited by thejardiner on Sat, Aug 3, 13 at 11:49

    Bookmark   July 29, 2013 at 6:53PM
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