Sunday, March 30, 2014

An idea occurs. Uh-Oh: Hard work and thinner wallet ahead....

Yes, I vowed to myself (and to my dubious husband) that I would not start any more new garden areas this year. I still need to work on several that are only a year or two old (the Rainbow Border, the North Border, and the Front Border, as well as the Addition Borders), plus I also need to start planting around the garden shed and the gazebo, which are still mostly blank slates. I already have a lot of work cut out for me this year.

But then I got a great idea! :-)

One of my concerns about my overall garden is that the garden areas are too spread out around my five-acre property. In discussing this, my good husband and I agreed that any future garden development should occur closer to the house. And looking around, I notice that there is quite a bit of undeveloped space to the west and north of my house (this didn't really just occur to me, but I never thought about it in any detail before, mostly because there is currently too much shade to the north and northwest of the house, from two large deciduous ash trees.

A drawing of the current layout of my yard near the house.
The two trees north of the house are both ash trees and
may eventually succumb to EAB

So I start thinking about the two trees north of the house: they are both ash trees, and everyone around here knows that the Emerald Ash Borer is eventually coming to destroy our ash trees. It could be 10-20 years until this happens, or it could be only a few years.

A red cloud crawls across the Midwest -- I live in east-central
Iowa, which is looking pretty red. EAB has been detected in
at least four Iowa counties already. (USDA Forest Service)

Perhaps if I removed one or both of those trees, there would be enough light and space to plant some small flowering trees and shrubs in both the north and west yards. Those areas are protected from the wind by the north and west windbreaks and would be ideal for dogwoods, eastern redbuds and other trees that can be killed by winter winds in Zone 5.

The two ash trees. The one closer to the house is smaller, perhaps
because there was a tree house built around it for about ten years,
until we removed it two years ago.

Of course, I feel bad about removing large mature trees, but here are some justifications:

  1. EAB may get them eventually. If I want to plant things in the yard, it's better to remove the ash trees before there are garden beds in the area. Also, I want to plant flowering trees, which take some time to mature -- perhaps ten years or longer. Why wait to plant those until after the ash borer comes?
  2. The ash trees are on the north side of the house, so they don't provide any shade for the house. We had three silver maples to the west of the house when we moved here, but when we built our library addition onto the west side of the house, we had to remove two of them. The house is much hotter in summer now, and I think I am going to plant a red oak to the southwest of the addition this year to eventually replace that shade.
  3. Every time we have a storm, the ash trees drop a bunch of sticks all over the yard. I have to pick up sticks before mowing most times, which is annoying work.
  4. The trees shade the west yard in the morning, and that area also receives midday shade from the remaining silver maple and late afternoon shade from the west windbreak. This makes the area too shady to plant many trees and shrubs in.
I think I have about decided to remove only Ash Tree #2, the one closest to the house, for now. It seems to be smaller and weaker than the other one, perhaps because of the tree house built around it for ten years. This will allow more light into the area and free up space for planting, and would let the remaining tree get more light, which might keep it healthier for longer. #2 also seems too close to the house now that it's mature.

But I don't want to make more mixed borders with perennials, annuals, shrubs and bulbs in these undeveloped areas; that kind of border is pretty labor-intensive and I have several already that still need work (see first paragraph). What I increasingly find myself wanting to plant are flowering trees and shrubs, and more spring-flowering bulbs.

But what style of garden? My other garden areas tend to be somewhat formal, although they are slowly becoming less formal as I garden longer.

I've started admiring curvaceous island beds and I think they might be most appropriate for flowering trees, shrubs and bulbs. I have a garden video about the Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, and that might be what started to sell me on the idea of curvy island beds, which I never thought very highly of before.

The Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, Canada.
(Flickr - Jeffrey Beall)

Curved island beds seem almost Victorian in style -- 19th-century gardeners loved to display their specimen trees in such beds -- as well as somewhat Japanese too. I was blown away by the spring flowering in the Missouri Botanical Garden's Japanese Garden the first time I visited it, and return to see it every spring -- and I've been wondering how I can include some of that glorious flowering in my own garden. I planted five Kwanzan flowering cherry trees in the west yard two years ago, but in a symmetrical layout. Now I wonder if they might look better in island beds surrounded by flowering shrubs, flowering trees in other colors and spring bulbs.

The MOBOT Japanese Garden in glorious spring.

I could have four island beds in the west and north yards, holding my existing cherry trees, one or two dogwoods and eastern redbuds and perhaps a magnolia or two. Then I could plant numerous flowering shrubs such as tree peonies (and perhaps deciduous peonies too), azaleas, flowering quince, deutzia, kerria japonica, wedding spirea, lilacs and many others -- there are even a few camellias that are marginally hardy here that I could try. The possibility for shrubs is endless. I could even include a few dwarf conifers for winter interest. In a few years I could fill in with spring bulbs, and maybe some lilies for summer flowers.

A possible layout of four island beds, after the ash tree closest to the
house is removed. A new shade tree planted in front of the house.
The west side the house is 24 feet wide (North-to-South), for scale.

The remaining ash tree would still provide enough shade in Island Bed #3 for trees, shrubs and bulbs that like shade, and the sunnier west beds would receive mostly full sun. Island Beds #2 and #3 might eventually at least partially hide the children's jungle gym and trampoline (not the most attractive items from a gardening perspective).

As far as work and cost, all I would need to do this year (after having the tree cut down and the stump ground out) would be:

  1. outline the beds
  2. have my husband spray the grass and after a few days come in with his tractor to plow up the ground (which is very compacted)
  3. add soil amendments such as leaf compost, and peat moss for areas for acid-loving plants, and dig those amendments in, breaking up large clumps of earth
  4. plant the trees and any slower-growing shrubs that I find locally at reasonable prices
  5. mulch (perhaps with leaf compost)

I wouldn't have to do anything else this year and could wait for future years to fill in with more shrubs and a selection of spring bulbs and lilies.

Look at all this space barely being used. I think a few island beds
might make this area more beautiful, and not just an empty yard to mow.

I know I vowed I wouldn't make any new garden areas this year (my poor husband is still somewhat shell-shocked by my rapid about-face). But if I want to grow flowering trees and shrubs, they can be slow-growing and I should plant them ASAP (no time like the present...).

And trees and shrubs are relatively low-maintenance plants; annual work should be fairly limited, just occasional weeding and annual/biannual replacement of mulch/compost. Perhaps some pruning, as trees and shrubs become mature, and some raking of leaves in spring (the ones that don't blow away as they usually do on our windy hill). No annual cutting back of perennial foliage (except lily stems), no staking and no dividing needed.

Maybe I should think about it for a few weeks. Any thoughts? Thanks!


  1. Good luck, Beth! Just try not to have more than you can comfortably take care want gardening to remain a joy, and not a burden.

  2. Thanks, Beth! Yes, that's always the concern (did you read Larry's latest post?) That's why I want to plant mainly trees, shrubs and bulbs in this part of the yard, so that there's much less cutting back, staking, dividing, etc. These seem like large beds, but trees and shrubs can get fairly big, and I'd like to be able to plant a selection of them. So many plants! But unfortunately limited energy and time. Thanks for reading my ideas. :-)