How to landscape under old hemlocks

thisoldbungalowAugust 15, 2011

Hello, this is my first post to this wonderful garden forum, and I would like to ask some advice on how to deal with a difficult area in the backyard of our 4,000 sq.ft. lot.

We bought this house last year and I have so far only worked on the front and side yards. The backyard is basically a wasteland. It used to be covered with concrete pavers at the center, which we already pulled out. We are planning to revamp the entire hardscaping, replacing old pressure treated wood retaining walls with dry-stacked stone walls, building new paths, beds, compost area, space for firewood, etc.

Here is a picture of the problem area:

What you see in the picture is the view of the fence from the back of our house, facing east. It's not a very nice view, and I would like to plant something along the fence to partially cover it and provide a backdrop for a small patio and a path around the center of the yard.

The problem with this is the row of about 15 very tall hemlocks directly behind the fence, along the alley.

These hemlocks are unfortunately overgrown by mature ivy pretty much up to the crowns. Yesterday we have begun to sever the vines (some of which are as thick as my arm), so that they stop choking and pulling the trees, which are already leaning in various directions (some of them are very close together).

How can I plant anything beneath them? This is a very shady area (there is also an old cherry in the center of the yard that contributes to the shade), and I assume the ground is full of roots. I test-planted a Virginia Creeper there in June (a book told me it grows in shade), and it nearly died, despite soil amendments and watering. So what will grow there? I would like to plant shrubs, they don't need to flower, just something that will live under these conditions and frame the garden in the back.

Here is my concrete question: I am thinking a solution might be to add a narrow (3 feet or so) raised bed along the fence, held in by dry stacked retaining walls, no more than 8 inches high. I read that this is a depth of new soil that will not harm tree roots. Of course they will eventually grow up and invade this bed, but by this time my shrubs would have a head start at getting established. Does this sound like a viable plan? Or will the hemlocks die if I do this? Or will nothing live in this bed either in the long run? Since our yard is slightly lower than the alley, the bases of the trees are about 1-2 feet above the area I would build up (there is a steep drop right behind the trees down to the fence). On their other side, the trees are about 4-5 feet from the concrete paving of the alley.

Thank you for any advice!


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pinusresinosa(MN Z4)

Kate, have you considered rhododendrons/azaleas?

    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 2:45PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Who owns the hemlocks? Is their screening important to you? Will your landscaping include other trees that can replace their screening function?

You may see where I am going with this. Can at least some of the hemlocks be removed? Or can you work toward being able to accommodate their removal?

Planning your treescape, from a screening, shade, and root zone standpoint, is for me a central issue in property management.


    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 3:58PM
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When you say the view is ugly, do you mean the fence? Other than the lack of landscaping, it's not bad. What's currently growing there?

If you were facing east when the photo was taken, then the space gets afternoon sun?

    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 4:27PM
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Sorry for the late response. I thought I would get an email if someone responded to my thread, but I guess I don't!

Thanks for your responses. Yes, the hemlocks are ours (unfortunately, until recently I thought they were on public land because they are behind the fence). I would love to remove them (although my husband thinks the screening is important there). Unfortunately, that would be prohibitively expensive (there are 17 total - even with a quantity discount it would still be around 10K, I would guess). We already had a large pine tree removed this year, and I don't think I can coax my husband into spending any more money on tree work...

So for now, I have to live with them. The area only gets late afternoon dappled sun, because there is also a mature cherry tree in the yard that's overshadowing everything.

I have thought of rhododendrons and azaleas. Not sure how they would do. The previous owners had some small azaleas planted back there, which don't look like they are doing too well. Otherwise, all that's growing in this area is vinca.

By ugly view I mean the bare fence. I need something to cover it and make a backdrop for the rest of the garden that I am planning...

Thank you for any suggestions you might have (short of getting rid of the trees, which I know would be preferable given their condition and with regard to my landscaping plans)!

    Bookmark   September 1, 2011 at 7:58PM
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Can you add a photo that shows more not so close up?

    Bookmark   September 2, 2011 at 9:58AM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

You could stain the fence a dark green or brown...then it will recede visually. MUCH more practical than trying to plant right up against it with the shade from those hemlocks. How deep is your backyard? Could you do a mixed shade border (including some shrubs) that would soften the fence? Dry shade plants that should work in your area include varieties of sarcococca, hellebores, illicium, agarista....actually there's a LOT that will grow in heavy shade.

Ivy (outside of a pot) is a PITA. Are you planning on eliminating the ivy on the other side of the fence?

You ARE supposed to be getting emails when you get replies. They may be ending up in your spam folder.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2011 at 10:37AM
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You might not be able to get an email notification because you don't have email listed so forum members may contact you. Not sure about it but something to check.

OFF TOPIC...based on your screen name I thought I'd mention ...if you're into bungalow rehabbing, my son is too (big time) and has a page and blog with tons of pics. I'll put a link below if you want to check it out. Especially, look at the kitchen. It's the best room.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 4, 2011 at 12:51AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Tree removal can be a DIY job. I can't see these well enough to determine whether I would undertake to remove them myself or not, but if it's $10,000 to get it done, I'd be pretty quick to buy a pole pruner and get on with it before they get any bigger :-)

Karin L

    Bookmark   September 5, 2011 at 2:58PM
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Thanks all for your responses. Staining the fence might not be a bad idea, but it won't eliminate the need for some sort of planting in front of it. The entire lot is about 4,000 square feet, so there isn't a whole lot of space to work with. A mixed shrub border is exactly what I would like.

We are generally DIYers, and there are some smaller trees on our lot that we are going to take down ourselves. But these hemlocks... I have a hard time estimating height, but they are TALL. At least 60 feet I would say. I don't want my husband climbing up there to cut them down, even though he thinks he could do it...

Two shrubs that I have read would deal with shade and drought are mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia) and mapleleaf viburnum. Does anyone have experience with those?

Thanks for the bungalow blog link - that looks interesting!

    Bookmark   September 7, 2011 at 9:26AM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

Viburnum acerifolium (mapleleaf viburnum) is a great native plant. I have them growing wild in my woods. Tough as nails, pretty, and the birds like them. They are deciduous, so you may want to mix some evergreens in..

I have no experience with mountain laurel is too warm. Take a look at the various pieris japonicas (japonicum?) out there...they handle dry shade well once established.

Honestly--your best bet is to find a local, independent nursery/garden center and ask the garden center staff for suggestions. Now is the perfect time for planting in you area. If you can manage it--do NOT go on a Saturday. They will be swamped. Call and ask what days are their slowest and tell them what you want need...and ask what time it would be most convenient to come in for some undivided attention. (This time of year they are getting their fall you don't want to show up right when the big truck full of fruit trees does!)


    Bookmark   September 7, 2011 at 4:18PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

My experience with mountain laurels is too long ago to give advice (ours were planted along the foundation, and as I remember, did well enough with only a little late-morning sun). But I hope someday to plant some here, and have read that the spent flowers need to be removed if you want flowers the following year. We didn't know that, and had flowers only every other year: a disappointment I still remember decades later.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2011 at 9:21PM
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