Trees and shrubs are an essential part of any landscape. Landscape designers call them the “skeleton” of the garden. They provide the backbone, the structure, to be filled in with other plants. It makes sense to plan where those elements will go before you do anything else. It’s also most efficient to plant them first … or so I’m told.
I tend not to exercise that kind of forethought in the garden. I find plants I like and then look for a place to put them. When I find more new plants, I have to move the old plants to make a new arrangement. My plants move so often they should be on wheels.
When we bought the lot next door and began landscaping, I vowed, for once, to actually start with the trees and shrubs and proceed in an orderly manner. Although, until now, I’d never put any of these principles in practice, I have been collecting information about planting trees and shrubs for decades. Here are some of the concepts I reviewed:
Select woody plants that offer special ornamental features such as spring or fall flowers, colorful berries, great fall color, beautiful or textural bark, an architectural form or evergreen foliage. Part of the job of woody plants is to offer interest before or after the flowers have put on their show.
Keep in mind the mature size of the plant. That’s hard to do. When you put a 3-foot-tall tree in the ground, it’s hard to image the day it will dwarf your house, but that can happen. It’s tempting to plant those shrubs in the 1-gallon pots close together so they have more mass, but what happens when they’re each 5 feet wide and 8 feet tall?
Remember that trees take up a lot of room underground, too. The root system of a mature tree can easily spread as wide as the tree’s canopy. That’s important to keep in mind when planting near your house, the sidewalk or your driveway.
I obsessed over my plant selections. There were so many enticing options. I placed stakes around the yard to represent the plants and used twine and garden hoses to outline the circumference each would reach at maturity. I couldn’t believe how much room I’d have to allow so that 25 years from now the trees didn’t encroach on the house or the driveway. And then I fudged — just a bit — because maybe the trees wouldn’t really get THAT big, and I probably won’t be alive to know it anyway.
When all was said and done, my much-anticipated woody plants looked more like bunions than a backbone. So, I resorted to doing what I always do. I divided perennials and started moving plants around. They, I hope, will fill in and provide some interest until that glorious day when my mature woody plants will provide a multi-season display of flowers, fruit, fall foliage and winter interest. When that day comes, gentle readers, it will be blitz.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.