Please help me with the bane of my landscape

zaphod42December 4, 2011

Hello. I've got an area that has been my gardening bane for the last five years. When we moved in the only thing growing in this space was the Autumn Joy Sedum. I added the pachysandra and hostas and various other plants that were moved from other locations or gifted from other gardeners. Nothing really thrives. The pachysandra and hostas are doing okay on one side, but have died off on the more shaded side and it looks like all the plants have creeped over to the east side. I'm a fairly high maintenance gardener in the other parts of my garden, but my current way to deal with this space has been to pretend it isn't there. I'm looking for a few varieties to just fill in and ignore...maybe something that spreads and fills in...shrubs even. Next spring I plan to dig up what is still alive and relocate and just redo the whole thing with 3-5 different plant varieties. Area is on the Northwest corner of the yard. Gets part-sun by the sedum and full shade on the west side under the evergreen. I would be super grateful for any suggestions on how to work with this problem area. Thank you!

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Mike Larkin

What is the purpose of the spruce that is limbed up about 3 feet? Do you need a screen? If not, consider cutting it down and grind up the roots, ( then plant something lower.) It is hiding the front of the house. It is also rather close to both of the trees,- eventaully it will be too big for the spot. WHen it was young it was more attractive, but because the lower branches are removed and the trunk is now exposed it does not look like a plant that should be in the front yard. If you do not need a screen, why not open up the front yard so people can see you hosue from the street.
It is tough to grow plants in dry shade. Competing with roots from both trees is challenging. A ground cover will work best. Mulch is just fine around the roots of trees. The tree roots take the moisture and nutrients and make it tough to start new plants, Unless you water continuously. Concentrate on the plants near the foundation of the house, and near the front door. That is where you want people to look.

Here is a link that might be useful: My blog

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 5:32PM
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"Mulch is just fine around the roots of trees,Concentrate on the plants near the foundation of the house, and near the front door"

this guy is not going to be one of my friends and that's for sure.

zaphod: I think you are attempting the impossible.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 6:37PM
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Azalea tolerate shadow.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 6:55PM
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Talking of the impossible up pops ideashare with yet another name.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 7:24PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I don't know how Plantman knows the tree hides your house, but especially if that is a third tree over close to the driveway, you are trying to grow two landscapes in one space. One is the trees, and the other is a bed that cannot survive under trees. Dry shade is brutal to garden in for a variety of reasons, and I don't see a landscaping reason to do it here. If you love the trees, the bed does little for the overall view, as far as I can tell.

So I would suggest you decide which you want in this spot. If you want the trees, just eliminate the bed; grow grass in as far as you can and let the trees self-mulch the rest. If you want a bed, remove some trees. Plants will never look good in this setting as it now is, even if you get them to grow.

If you want a bed, put it far away from the trees; it will be much nicer anyway.

Karin L

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 8:04PM
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The third tree and driveway are not ours, but part of the neighbor's yard. I've already expanded, added and filled in multiple beds in the front yard. All the new areas are open to the road and passing viewers. I've been cursing this spot for the last five years along the way and its that last little bit that needs finishing. I am not totally against taking out the evergreen, though it might be a tough sell to my spouse. Is it really only a choice between taking out the tree or just giving up on planting anything there at all? Feels a bit like two extremes.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 8:52PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Shade under trees is just no fun.

How much do you water this bed? The trees will always compete -- but if you don't water the plants in that bed much, you might try watering them more often and see if that helps.

Or you can try other plants. I've had good luck with foamflower (tiarella) and heuchera (coral bells) under large trees. They have interesting and varied foliage, but the flowers are brief and (the foamflower varieties I have) not showy. However, they survive under my two 40' cherry trees and shaded on the south by the neighbor's Leyland Cypress hedge without being watered after the first summer. And that's something that certainly wasn't true of the grass that tried to grow there. If you can't find them locally, Bluestone Perennials will mail-order multiple varieties of healthy foamflowers, and IIRC they have heucheras also.

I love plain old violets, and am blessed with a pasture full of varied colors (mostly viola sororia, common blue violet). When I gave up trying to grow lawn under the same aforementioned cherry trees, I transplanted violets to start off the bed. Lots and lots of violets. After the first year, they're never watered except by rain -- and all too often we go three or four weeks without any rain. When it gets that dry, the violets droop until I think they've died -- then put out new leaves once they get some rain. You might sneer at plain old violets. And you might dislike their self-seeding (there will be violets in the lawn). But they fill the space -- and with a little rain, they fill it enthusiastically.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 9:40PM
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Missingtheobvious - Thanks for the suggestions. When it comes to watering - it depends on my love for what I've got going. I baby the roses and cottage plants. I think I have a bit of gardening OCD. For this problem area I've adopted the philosophy of 'if I ignore it - it will go away (or die).' I can water more should the need arise. I had considered violets in another location, but had decided against because or their wandering habit. I have a bit of a nostalgic attachment to them and this might be a good place to try them out. Do they wander or do they WANDER? I also have had good luck with coral bells in shady locations. I've got three different varieties in my gardens already and thriving in shady locations. I do not have any foamflower and will take a look at it as well. Thanks!

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 11:31PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

zaphod42, my violets definitely WANDER. In the 4 1/2 years since I planted them under the cherry trees, their seeds have washed down into a natural dry creekbed that parallels the cherries, and from there into the backyard, where they've established a new colony in an area of rather thin grass where there used to be a silver maple.

I don't use broadleaf weedkiller on the grass, so I don't know if that would keep violets out of your lawn, but theoretically it should kill them.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 11:54PM
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Ah, but that's the beauty of violets and johnny jump-ups. You never know where they're going to pop up in the spring.
Sadly though, they do rather disappear in the summer. At least the foliage of the foamflower persists.

Assuming that you like the size and shape of the current bed, and the way it differentiates your trees from those in the neighbour's yard,
I see three ways to address this area so that it remains distinct and low-maintenance -

1) Leave it cleanly edged and simply mulched.
2) Remove the existing patchwork of plants and create a "carpet" under the trees by introducing a monoculture
of your choice of a low-growing groundcover. I'm kind of partial to siberian forget-me-not but there's lots of choices really.
3) Avoid flowering plants altogether and go with a variety of variegated or red twig dogwoods,
interspersed with some big boulders or rocks, to create more of a woodland feel.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 2:52AM
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My mother had a big spruce that had to be taken down recently - the plant that filled the ground underneath it was ostrich fern, with some solomon's seal in the mix. Other plants she tried were lamium, alchemilla, and creeping cotoneaster, I think the last one was somewhat successful. She does water her plants generously!

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 4:32AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

When we first moved to this property, there was a big, old spruce on the front lawn. I tried for three years to garden under it before I finally gave up an had it taken down. I replaced it with a large perennial bed with ornamental small trees, shrubs and vines. I'm very glad I did - it's much nicer-looking now and there's no pointless, frustrating stuggle to get something to grow in impossible conditions....

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 10:17AM
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So, theoretically, if I got rid of the spruce, what shrubs/trees would you throw in there as foundation? I'd need a small evergreen maybe. Adrienne's dogwood idea wouldn't be bad either. Thoughts?

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 11:30AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Yes, the spruce either needs to be branching down to the ground and making a much more attractive feature - too late for that now - or removed to get the best effect. Shrubs and perennials, with evergreen shrubs being most prevalent around the trunk of the other tree, would be the way to go now. Think of the shrubs forming a setting for the perennials, the bed being a stage upon which the perennials are the feature, the shrubs the backdrop, with your point of view from the house being the audience. The flowers should be mostly front and center, where the lawn curves into the bed, the shrubs to the ends and back (the side away from the house). Deciduous shrubs directly behind and around the flowers, evergreen shrubs mostly on the ends. The evergreen shrubs provide structure, the deciduous ones a transition between the weight of the evergreen ones and the lack of weight of the non-woody perennials.

Hostas combine well with day lilies.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 12:01PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Bboy, that's so poetic! :-)

I gardened for nearly 15 years under a huge cypress that was actually on my neighbour's lot before I got the neighbour to cut down the tree. My problem was not just dry and shade and root competition and a smothering drizzle of tree debris, but also that the area was the perfect weevil habitat. Anything I grew that didn't succumb to anemia or drought or get buried got eaten to bits.

And plants do absolutely migrate or lean to where they want to be.

With respect to what would happen if you took down your spruce, I think you would still have some challenging growing conditions due to the the two remaining trees. Tree roots don't recognize property lines. For that reason, and because I can't see the property as a whole, I can't say for sure that a bed there is the right thing. It may well be. And if you are a keen plantsperson, you'll just find stuff you like at the nursery regardless of what anyone here recommends! And of that stuff, watch what does well with little help on your part, and do more of it. Ferns may do brilliantly, once established.

Except Ostrich ferns - they WANDER, and aren't as innocuous as violets.

If you keep the spruce, I think you could do a mix of hellebores and ferns. Hellebores are actually incredibly tough. A ground cover shrub to consider for shade is microbiota - does OK in shade and one plant could eventually cover the whole bed, pruned to shape! And having limbed the spruce up as far as it is, you might take it up even further unless you need the canopy low to block sightlines. Then the stuff under there would get sun, though all the other problems would continue. Other shade plants to consider would be Asarum, Epimedium (needs a haircut every year though), and groundcover rhodo/azaleas.

Karin L

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 2:39PM
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BBoy - just wondering do you oppose any limbing of spruces or just this type of spruce limbing in which they become umbrella trees?

There are options for dry shade - even with root competition, but a full lush look under a limbed up spruce? not sure its going to happen without a lot of patience, watering and care. It could happen, but it would take some work.

We have a row of spruces between our driveway/front yard and the road. I have a lovely ground cover of variegated bishop's weed, daylily and hosta under them...but granted its bishops weed. beautiful, but invasive.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 6:57PM
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I think there arise situations where perfection is at best difficult (or costly) and compromise is called for. The spruce is ALREADY there so. I see no reason to behave as if state law requires its foliage to sweep the ground. The low foliage blocks the view and is an impediment to growing plants below. Treating it like any other tree and limbing it up will solve two problems. Both trees should be limbed up sufficiently for view, and to get light below.

Regarding the bed, "landscaping" it will be much more successful than "gardening." One single, tough, low, attractive species would do the job. While I normally avoid var. bishop's weed due to its invasive nature, there are some places where it is the perfect problem-solving plant and works well. It would work here because it is contained on all sides by mowing. But other plants would work, too. Variegated is a plus because it "brightens" a shady area. Whatever you do, you must baby it in the beginning until it takes hold. (I bathed, fed and changed his diaper once per week. I don't know why the baby was so sickly then died!)

    Bookmark   December 6, 2011 at 10:56AM
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Mike Larkin

First photo - you can see front of the house.
Three large tree planted too close to each other, and too close to the drive. I am guessing, but I bet if you stand on the street, you can't see the front left side of the house.
There are lots of plants that tolerate dry shade. Money better spent on mulch, remove one of the too close trees - Spruce would be first choice, and then expand the planting around the house. Conifers look better when the branches are allowed to touch the ground,

Shade under trees is just no fun - Agree

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   December 6, 2011 at 9:35PM
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