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Consider the Trees – and Groundcovers

Cornus "Kousa"

Cornus “Kousa”

I was talking to a young woman and her two very young daughters, 6 and 9, about the new house they were preparing to move into. This house is set on a nearly two acre lot. She said the developer was responsible for putting in some minimal landscaping around the front of the house, but she would have the fun of choosing everything else.

She and her girls were looking forward to the trees they might plant. She likes flowering trees, the 6 year old wanted a weeping willow so she could hide under it, and the 9 year old was still thinking. I was happy that she was thinking about trees, trees that would make a statement as her garden took form, and trees that would grow up with her daughters. I’m not sure what plans the papa might have. Our conversation ended, but I got to thinking about all the opportunities people face when they move into a house on a nearly naked lot.

This house is located at the end of a long driveway. I immediately imagined a line of Kousa dogwood trees running the length of that drive. Kousa dogwoods are covered with large (three to five inches) white four-petaled flowers in late spring, May into June. In the fall the foliage turns a deep red or scarlet, and it produces tiny fruits that birds enjoy. They are hardy and happy in full sun with no serious pest or disease problems, about as trouble free a plant as you can find.

At a possible mature height of 30 feet Kousas are still considered small trees. Anyone planting in a line needs to consider the spread of the tree at maturity; one of the hardest tasks any gardener faces is allowing for future growth. Kousas should be planted about 30 feet apart in full sun. Massing plants, trees or flowers have a powerful effect. Even while they are young and small, the number of trees will give a real presence.

A number of years ago an acquaintance asked me for a suggestion for his driveway. In that case I suggested crabapples which bloom in shades of pink to almost purple. Whether or not you are interested in making crabapple jelly, the spring pollinators and autumn birds will thank you for planting crabapples.

Robinson is a fast growing crab with deep pink flowers that mature to white; the tiny fruits are a dark red. It will reach a height and spread of about 20 feet. It also has excellent disease resistance.

Prairiefire will be about 20 tall and wide at maturity. It has reddish foliage and bright pink flowers. The tree has very good disease resistance and the fruits are deep red. All crabapples prefer full sun.

Redbud  Cercis canadensis

Redbud Cercis canadensis

Redbud, Cercis canadensis, is more common in our area than it was even ten years ago. The bright pink/lavender flowers that bloom before it leafs out are eye catching and just lovely. Redbuds will mature at about 20-30 feet tall with an equal spread. Most of the redbuds I have seen are closer to 20 feet. They will thrive in full sun or part shade. They need moist, moderately fertile soil that is well drained, but it is a carefree tree.

All the trees I have mentioned tolerate acid soil, which is what most of us have, but it is good to have your soil tested to see just how acid it is and whether or not liming it might be a good idea. Do not assume.

If you are going to plant a line of trees, I think planting them in a bed that can be underplanted with a groundcovers should be considered. Trees should be planted so that the debilitating mulch volcano is forbidden.  Groundcovers will keep lawnmowers and trimmers away from the tree eliminating bark damage.

One groundcover that has been overused is pachysandra. This is understandable because it is attractive and a good spreader. However, the pachysandra I usually see is Japanese pachysandra and can be invasive. There is a native Allegheny pachysandra whose foliage is not as shiny or evergreen but it is attractive and produces white flowers in the fall. It prefers some shade.

I have used several ground covers in my garden over the years. Lady’s mantle with its round ruffled foliage is a good spreader and noted for its lacy green flowers and the way it collects raindrops.

Tiarella or foamflower is rhizomatous and crawls along the ground but in the spring it sends up foamy racemes of flowers in white or pink, no more than 10 inches high. If you like tiarella but wish it were a bit more substantial you can try heucherella, a hybrid of tiarella and heuchera. The plant and the flowers will be larger and there will be a much larger choice of colors in both the foliage and the flowers. Tiarella and heucherella like some shade, but I have had good luck in full sun as well, if there is sufficient moisture or watering.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium sulphureum

I love epimediums which are a solution to dry shade, but they have done well in my Heath garden with lots of sun and a moist soil. Here in Greenfield my epimediums get more shade, but dryer soil – especially this year.

No matter how trees are arranged in your garden, surrounding them with appropriate groundcovers is a beautiful way of protecting the tree trunks and adding texture and flowers.

Between the Rows    September 3, 2016

3 comments to Consider the Trees – and Groundcovers

  • Helen Opie

    What is the debilitating mulch volcano? Sounds horrific!

  • As they say, the best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. I have a Crimson King maple (came with the house), a serviceberry, a tulip, and three redbuds, plus some fruit trees. I added this year: Triumph elm, pagoda dogwood, and Winter King hawthorn. On the wish list are some flowering crab, including Prairiefire, and chokeberry (as the current one succumbed). And that is about all the room I have!

  • Pat

    Helen – I left out the photo which would explain all – but I’ve added it now. I’m sure you will recognize such misguided protection.
    Bitten – How fortunate you are to be able to have such diversity. I’d love to have a Prairiefire too. We are grateful for the old and enormous sycamore out in front of our house, as well as the Lilac tree and yes, it is a syringa with beautiful flowers and fragrance. We planted two arborvitae in the back garden as well as the river birch and a pagoda dogwood. One more river birch to come. Maybe, maybe one more tree. We do have some very large shrubs. I’m not sure whether our dappled willow counts as a tree or shrub.

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