June 22, 2012

A Garden Under The Maple Tree

The large garden that runs along the back line of my property has always been a challenge.  It is right at the edge of the unmowed meadow, so I have the multiple problems of weedy invaders, lack of a backdrop, and an ongoing identity crisis (is this garden bed an extension of the wild space?  A sharp demarcation between yard and meadow?  A transition area?  A mess?)


I made it more difficult by building this garden around and under a red maple.  It was easy at first --- the maple was small and I filled the area with shrubs and perennials and bulbs.  A doublefile viburnum anchors the left (west) end of the garden and a dwarf globe blue spruce holds the east end on the right.  A lot of stuff went in between and around the tree, including a large river birch behind it on the right.

But five years later I can't work with the maple's roots, and as it grows the garden gets shadier and darker and more impossible for the plants underneath, most of which were sun lovers when I started.  Why were these problems not obvious to me when I planted this area?  A mixed border under a massive maple tree?

I'm working on it.  I removed most of the daylilies, and took out the real sun lovers.  I have cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) in there now, and turtlehead (Chelone) where the garden has the most moisture to the right.  Camass lilies do okay in that wet spot, in spring's bright sunlight before the maple leafs out.

In the densest drier shade directly under the maple I have a nice stand of barrenwort (Epimedium) going.

I'm making progress on getting the right plants in there.

But I still haven't solved the identity issue or determined how this garden should mark the end of the yard or the beginning of the meadow.

I'm finding small plants look dwarfed by the meadow and too clumpy.  Large plants with small leaves (a spirea is in there, and winterberry hollies) look messy with the weeds behind them.  Flowery things look way too fussy and out of place.

Strong, bold foliage might work with the chaos of the meadow and the size of the maple, but I haven't figured out which ones.  I think I need only a few big leaved shrubs, not the jumble of mixed plantings that I started with.

Somehow I thought that grasses would help, but this didn't work out at all.

I wove a short curving line of 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis acutiflora) between the maple and the right edge of the garden.  They were supposed to hide the decaying foliage of the camassias, which you can see flopped in front of the grasses.  That didn't work out very well.

They are lovely narrow grasses, full of motion, beautiful when they bloom and just a bit of sun catches the tips of their feathery plumes.  But they were not supposed to be this tall.

Every garden and gas station planting and mall parking lot has 'Karl Foerster' grasses, usually in forlorn single clumps, but the noticeable feature is how modest and tidy and neat they are.  They are low, small plants, especially compared to some of the really large ornamental grasses.

Mine are not.  They are big and tall in this garden under the maple tree.  They add a thin greenery that doesn't help things.  They are completely hiding the turtlehead and other plants behind them.  And it is probably too shady for them.

The grasses need to come out and I have to figure out a few bold shapes that could go in there --- plants that won't be too big to compete with the maple's roots and shade, but that add more foliage oomph than the thin grasses and muddle of mixed green plants there now.

A do over is in order.  Any ideas for a garden under a maple tree?

 

29 comments:

  1. I would definitely vote for strong bold foliage plants as opposed to flowering plants. Unfortunately I'm not able to offer any valuable advice about specific plants from the other side of the world. I really love that blue Spruce you've got planted there. It looks fabulous.

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    1. Bernie, thanks! You are validating what I think I already know. More bold shapes!

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  2. I agree tha large leaf plants would break up the smaller leafed groupings, but the grasses when going strong make a large mass that reads as one element. The grasses don't work as well under the maple, but they provide nice texture though.

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    1. Donna, that's an interesting concept about the grasses forming one element. I need to think about where to use that texture element when I get them out from under the maple.

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    1. Lee, I could easily have petasites in this garden, as they grow wild and rambunctiously in the meadow just feet away. I just can't warm up to them... and that explains a lot about why I have no bold foliage plants. I don't like big leaved monsters or tropical effects, yet I know I need to push my comfort zone to get something with more weight here. This is going to be a difficult do over for me.

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  4. Good luck on the plant search. What about vining plants to root in place but cover the tree roots. My in laws sat some pots around theirs with colorful flowers. That way they aren't competing with the roots or burying the roots.

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    1. Gardener on Sherlock, that's a good idea. I did try a halfhearted attempt at putting pots around the base of the maple last year, but I really need to get some of the crowded plants out of there first, before containers can have the impact I want. It certainly can be a problem solver for an area under a big maple!

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  5. Hmm.... I see what you mean. This is a tough one. I have a lot of dry shade in my Chicago area garden..and have had luck with st. john's wort (the shrub, I think I have 'Ames"), varigated falopia, Mohican viburnum, red twig dogwood and common witch hazel. They all can have a somewhat "wild" look. Also love persecaria polymorpha for a transitional area...but not under the maple
    good luck, I can't wait to hear what you do with it!

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    1. I did have a beautiful St. Johnswort under the maple (Sunburst I think) and its big yellow blooms, billowy shape, and blue gray foliage were strong enough to have some visual weight there. But it was root-eaten by voles and died. I love the other plants you have! I grow witch hazel, redtwig dogwood and viburnums in other gardens, so some of those might be candidates for a move. ... hmmm.

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  6. The first thing that comes to mind is one of the bigger leaved, blue foliage hostas. But then I think you probably have deer and under the maple you might not have enough root space. But they would echo the color of the blue spruce, which is lovely. Depending on your moisture levels, Ligularia are bold and shade loving, and then there's Kirengeshoma, which I'm very fond of. Bold (but not too bold) and the flowers are quite demure and appealing. Oak leaf hydrangea? Hackonechloa?

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    1. Ellen, great suggestions. I like the idea of echoing the blue from the globe spruce on the other side, and as I told anonymous above, I had a gray-blue shrubby St. Johnswort that did exactly that over by the doublefile viburnum. The voles took it out two winters ago, though. I can't do hostas, the deer raze them as you surmised. But ligularia.... mmmm. I have seen it and it can be striking without being too big-leaf scary for my timid tastes. I'm intrigued by that, and hope it can compete with the maple roots.... need to do some research on it. Fun!

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  7. In your last picture, that blue spruce really pops. If this is a garden normally viewed from a distance, I would try to go for large colored foliage plants used as punctuation points just like the spruce. Maybe a Hosta 'Sum and Substance' under the maple for a splash of yellow and a swath of Heucheras for some purple? Either a Cotinus 'Royal Purple' or 'Golden Spirit' would make a nice foliage statement from a distance in a sunnier spot.

    I have a fairly large pot set out in one of my borders-viewed usually from a distance. Initially I tried to pack it with a variety of many plants but the textures and details got lost. Now I use maybe five contrasting bold foliage plants and am much happier with the effect.

    Gardening can be so much about trial and error but there is so much satisfaction when you finally get it right.

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    1. Sue, I have no chartreuse or gold foliage anywhere, so the 'Golden Spirit' smokebush interests me, if it could take some shade. This is a garden viewed flat on from a little distance, so lighter colored things, like the globe spruce, do make things pop. Thanks for some great ideas. Like your large pot with too many things, I have too many textures and details in this garden!

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    2. I missed the deer response above so I guess Hostas are out :(. If you're looking for a good Ligularia, I highly recommend Britt Marie Crawford-especially if you have the moisture. One plant would create a large purple mass. Three would pop from a distance.

      All of my Cotinus grow happily in part sun. I love that you can coppice them every year if necessary to control size. Golden Spirit has been a strong grower for me-very eye catching.

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  8. Two plants immediately come to mind that might fit what you're looking for, and they also happen to be two of my favorite plants for planting and massing under mature tree canopies...Oakleaf Hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia) and River Oats (chasmanthium latifolium). The oakleaf Hydrangea has big bold leaves, awesome fall color, and big white blossoms that last a long time and can be seen from a distance. The River oats has the bluish foliage and multi season interest. They both seem to tolerate shade and root competition well. I do have to spray my hydrangeas with Deer Out, but it's worth it. Good luck with your decision!

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    1. Julie, others are suggesting oakleaf hydrangea too. I have a dwarf one I could move, but I think it's the large shape and big leaves of the normal sized one that this space needs. There is an oakleaf hydrangea called Little Honey that has bright gold foliage, and that might be good. (I do have to spray all my hydrangeas against the deer.) Thanks for the suggestions! The river oats have long intrigued me when I see them on others' blogs.

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  9. I'm reading this post and responses with interest Laurrie as I have a few wild areas that merge with garden areas. I haven't gotten to figuring out how to deal with them yet so this is really interesting. It seems the blue spruce is really popping for people so maybe larger plants are in order. Keep the area to just trees and shrubs or large perennials. (Joe Pye Weed and Meadowsweet come to mind as perennials that are big enough to make a statement) Or as Donna suggests the grasses merged together to form one large mass.

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    1. Marguerite, I agree about the need to keep this area just trees and large shrubs, and maybe some large perennials, but all the small stuff has to go. You've got the same issues on your property, so everyone's suggestions should help us both!

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  10. The blue spruce is fabulous! The fact that a garden never stops evolving keeps us gardeners coming back for more! It can be quite challenging but so satisfying when our creative juices start flowing and we finally get it right! There are a lot of good suggestions from the above commenters. Good luck!

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    1. Deborah, I do feel energized about fixing this big garden and I know I will be happy when I "get it right"!

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  11. Welcome to my garden! I've been fighting the same problem for years. The entire back spine of my garden was sunny when I moved in 9 years ago and is now full of dry shade. I agree that keeping this area full of shrubs is a better bet than perennials, which can be moved to fill out a new bed or an existing one. But if you do want to fill in with a few perennials, I'm growing sea oats in miserable dry shade and they're really thriving, as are variegated Solomon's Seal (polygonatum). Heart leaf asters (aster divarcatus) can be planted to fill in the very front since they're low. Think of this as an opportunity to buy more shrubs!! Woo-hoo! 'Cool Splash' diervilla would look great back there. :o)

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    1. Tammy, you are the second to suggest sea oats, and I am really intrigued with trying them out. You've done so much work to redesign your problem gardens, and they have turned out so well, that I am inspired to think I can make mine over too.

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    2. http://www.myohiolandscape.com/shade-plants.cfm

      I've copied a website above that has a great list of plants that do well in the shade, including various depths of shade. It even lists shrubs and trees. :o) It's been a reference point for me many times. I've heard incredible things about 5 leaf aralia, one of the shrubs listed.

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    3. Thanks! I love researching as much as I love actually digging and planting, so this is great.

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  12. What about Acanthus? I have it under trees in rooty ground and it's fine there. Big bold leaves but not tropical looking at all, more classical.

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    1. Lyn, Wow, acanthus is a dramatic plant and the tall spikes would get some height in there without it being a competing tree. I like your assessment that it is "classical" looking. A definite possibility.

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  13. It's too early in the morning for me to think a coherent thought, Laurrie, but what I really noticed in the long shot was the blue spruce--that really stands out. I think any kind of woodland plants would look good here; someone suggested Soloman's Seal for one, and I think that would look good as a transition into the wild.

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    1. Rose, several commenters have remarked on the punch of the blue spruce in this garden. I hardly ever notice it, although I like it there. These comments give me a new way of actually looking at my garden, and that is a huge help in the redesign : )

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