Radical Ruminations

Poised on the brink of another spring — and retirement! — I’m considering the options for renovating my garden. As I’ve lamented in a number of posts, the back garden is dominated by two mature Norway maples and a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus). The entire space (about 30 x 50 feet) has been infiltrated with a solid mat of maple roots, which makes it difficult to grow any but the toughest plants, especially in soil that is mostly sand, and in a summer-dry climate.


The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!


The Tree of Heaven. The huge red maple on the right is on a neighbour's property.

The Tree of Heaven. The huge red maple on the right is on a neighbour’s property.

More than once, I have decided to have the trees removed — all three of them. That would open up the sky above the garden and get rid of the roots (eventually). I could grow plants well that barely perform now — peonies, roses, delphiniums, irises! The water lilies in the pond would actually bloom!

Then I think about the disruption. A vigorous climbing rose (white flowers with a pink tinge, very double, in May and June) has slung itself over the lowest limbs of one of the maples. It would have either to be cut down or provided with some other support. Men with size 12 feet would tromp all over the place and there would be all that wood to deal with.

Climbing rose in maple

Climbing rose in maple

Then there’s the expense. Tree removal is not cheap, and I am about to swap money for time.

So I come around to leaving the trees alone and working on the plantings that share space with them. Here, I have a few options:

  1. Remake the Beds. This means digging up the plants I value and stashing them somewhere while I dig out the surface roots and amend the soil with compost and other goodies. Then replant, adding new plants suitable for dry shade. Advantage: the plants will grow quite well for a while. Disadvantages: Back-breaking labour, and the effect would be temporary; in a few years the tree roots will re-grow.
  2. Adjust the Beds. Identify attractive (to me) plants that actually thrive under the present conditions. Get rid of all the sad sacks and weedy specimens and add more of these superstars — mainly hellebores and ferns with spring-blooming bulbs. Fussier things (delphiniums and lilies) could be grown in pots and parachuted in for blobs of colour in season.
  3. Keep the Status Quo. The trouble is, in gardens, there’s no such thing as status quo. Succession kicks in, some plants die, others prosper and in a few years it’s all rose campion, purple toadflax and feverfew jostling around the original hellebores. And yet, even a mess like that can look amazingly good in the slanting light of a summer evening, as long as the bed is defined by edging and trimming.

In the short term, i.e., the next year or two, I think I’ll go with a combination of options 1 and 2. The first thing will be to make the 18-inch tall wooden dog fence along the front of this area taller (by adding 3-foot pickets at 8 to 10-inch intervals) and installing a gate between the two sections of fence. That will make it possible to remove the goofy wire fence around the edge of the circular lawn. Aesthetics apart, that fence makes working in those beds way too hard.

Dog fences.

Dog fences.

The next step will be to identify the plants that do well here already, both “quality” and “weedy” types. Undesirables and struggling specimens will be removed and selected areas dug over and replanted. (Of course all these labours will be performed by me, but somehow I can’t quite bring myself to say “I will remove, dig, replant, etc.”)

I keep reminding myself I will have ten extra hours most days of the week in which to accomplish this stuff. One way or another, the place will look like this again. Or better.

The Back Garden, May 2010


  1. Always a tricky one in the dry shade of trees because you’re often working against nature. With problems like this I tend to look at the wild and see what grows in these conditions, and apart from oak forests, there’s usually very little. (Be grateful those trees aren’t yew!)

    With a project like this, and there’s obviously potential as the last photo demonstrates, if it were my garden I’d look to Japanese and Chinese gardens for ideas. They often forfeit flower colour for form and texture. They’re not gardens for plantspeople who like the procession of blossom through the seasons, but they have an appeal of their own.

    Anyway, gardens are a private taste, so I’ll wait to see what ideas you eventually introduce. On the suject of tree felling, it is expensive, and when you consider the felled timber is worth a fortune you understand why people who can ask to retain the tree after it’s come down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We would definitely keep the usable wood. We did with another tree that was taken out more than 10 years ago because it was between our house and a neighbour’s, just a few feet from both of them. Once the awkward dog fences have been removed, I think I have a good shot at making some improvements even with the trees left in place. No doubt I’ll be writing blog posts as I work through this project.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. At least, you’re thinking it through and coming up with options. I love trees, and yours are beautiful, but the shade can be a challenge. I always go for the shade gardening magazines. They have all kinds of interesting ideas. One of the things we did was have our trees limbs thinned to let more light through. Not nearly as expensive and it made a big difference. Good luck to you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Moss is great! And ferns. Walking through one of our west coast forests, with moss-covered maples and green curtains of cedars, I sometimes think — this is perfect, no need to do any gardening at all. But my 50 x 120 foot lot — that’s a different story.

          Liked by 1 person

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