Large trees are a significant feature in any landscape. Each tree is unique, and they add a great deal of natural aesthetic appeal to our landscapes. But, they do so much more than that.
Trees shade our earth, help prevent erosion and clean our air, soil, and water. Trees and landscaping go hand in hand. Plant a tree today in your landscape.
Shrubs, flowers, and groundcovers are nice, but somehow, a landscape doesn’t look complete without trees.
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What Are Common Problems for Trees and Landscaping?
Although large trees provide cool, shady areas and beautify the scenery, they can cause a few minor problems for the area below.
Since these big, mature trees shade the ground, absorb water and take in nutrients, it can be challenging for some plants to grow below them. Often, it’s the dense shade that these large trees provide that causes the most problems for plants below.
I have worked in yards where the homeowner adds topsoil and re-plants grass under a large tree for many years in a row in an attempt to keep his lawn alive below the tree. It’s not the tree’s fault that your grass won’t grow there. It’s just doing what trees do. You need to stop fighting mother nature and treat this area differently.
No matter which mix of grass seed you buy, grass just doesn’t grow well in the shade.
You can paint a beautiful scene with your trees and plants with a little know-how. Your tree doesn’t have to be alone in your landscape!
Some Big Tree Solutions
Some clever tips for landscaping around trees are: adding mulch (there’s a proper way to do this!), incorporating bold color using flowers, mixing up the plants underneath, and putting in pretty garden accents. By doing simple things such as these, you can do so much to “dress up” trees for your landscape. We’ll elaborate on each tip in the following section.
But there are some things to keep in mind and avoid when landscaping around trees. Aside from advice, we’ve included some common mistakes people make when landscaping with trees and how to steer clear of them.
Grow Plants Under the Trees
When planting under trees, you need to choose plants suitable for the light conditions. Knowing the different types of trees and the varying amount of shade they provide is important for choosing plants to add to the surrounding area.
Trees such as maple, dogwood, magnolia, and flowering cherry allow for dappled sunlight to reach the plants underneath, making them ideal for plant growth. You can easily grow a shade garden when you have these beautiful trees! Plants like Pachysandra, Periwinkle, Ivy (watch out that this one doesn’t climb too far up the tree and cause trouble), and Coral Bells should all do fine under these trees.
Most evergreens have a high density of leaves and branches, which means sunlight won’t reach the area below them as much. Almost no sunlight reaches the tree trunks. Ferns, Dead Nettle, and hostas are all shade-loving plants that will grow well under evergreens. You can typically plant right up to the trunk, but be aware that they probably won’t get much rainfall down there, so you may need to water them now and then to get them started.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with some sun-loving plants around evergreens; just make sure to plant them near the drip line on the Southside.
When working beneath large trees, be aware of the roots.
Removing some turf and loosening up the ground a bit with a digging fork is okay as long as you are careful, but using a mechanical tiller, edger, or sod cutter is certainly not advised. You can do a lot of root damage if you are not careful.
The last thing you want is a big dead tree in your yard!
To amend the soil under your large landscape tree, you can certainly add a bit of light topsoil or compost, just don’t pile it thick. Tree roots need oxygen, and piling the ground too high below them can cause problems. Not to mention that soil piled around the trunk will promote rot. The damage won’t be immediately apparent, but over the course of a year or so, you will notice the decline in the health of your tree. Instead, keep the soil level near the base of the tree.
Plant Annual Flowers Around Your Trees
Creating annual flower beds around your trees is an effective way to add color to your landscaping. It can add quite a flair if you use colors and patterns to highlight your new beds.
Before planting flowers around your trees, you should manually remove the grass and prep the soil, just like suggested above.
Some folks like to set an edge or boundary around their bed. You can cut a natural edge (carefully, by hand, of course), use rocks, or even brick.
Depending on the setting, it is likely pretty shady, so pay attention to the annuals you choose. You want annuals that thrive in partial shade or even in full shade. Some examples are Impatiens, Hellebores, Bletilla (ground orchid), and Torenia. These flowers are stunning and don’t require much upkeep!
With an annual flower bed beneath your large trees, you will be able to change the look of your yard every year to suit your fancy.
Add Mulch Around the Trees
Many people like to mow the lawn right up to their trees’ trunks. They plant grass right up to them and then spin that zero-turn mower around the trunk once a week for the rest of the short and damaged life of that tree. The root zone gets compacted, and the trunk gets scarred.
You may not realize it, but any scar you create in the trunk of a tree makes it harder for that tree to thrive. Also, the root zone on a large tree is very wide.
A Good Rule of Thumb
A good rule of thumb is to assume that a tree’s roots extend out at least as far as its furthest branches reach. Where the branches end is called the drip line.
The area where the water will drip when it rains.
Whether or not you create a planting bed beneath your trees, you will want to consider mulching them. Considering your trees’ huge water requirement, it will benefit the tree and other plants below it to have a two to three-inch layer of mulch. This will help retain moisture in the soil, resulting in less watering. It will also keep that mower off the roots and away from the trunk.
Never Pile Mulch at the Trunk
When mulching below a tree, never pile the mulch around the trunk.
Mulch piled at the trunk promotes rot and provides a lovely home for rodents to spend the winter and chew on your tree trunk. Instead, lay the mulch nice and thick from the drip line to within about six inches of the trunk and then taper it down to nothing as you approach the trunk.
I have seen many people use heavy plastic sheeting under the mulch around their trees. This is never a good idea as it will prevent water from getting to the tree roots and make life miserable for your trees. I wouldn’t even suggest weed barrier. While it will allow the water to pass, the barrier may eventually end up wrapped up in tree roots, making it hard on the tree and almost impossible to remove.
Add Garden Accents and Decor
What else can you put around the base of a tree aside from plants?
You have plenty of choices for garden accents and decor, such as beautiful boulders, small statues, garden benches, fountains, flowerpots, a small chair to rest on in the shade, a fairy garden, or toad house, or maybe even a rope swing!
Plants are pretty high maintenance with their need for watering, trimming, and fertilizing. If you want alternatives to plants, you can always use strategically arranged, decorative rocks. Aside from being low-maintenance, rocks are an excellent choice for trees with roots that come above the surface. A well-placed rock or three can help protect the roots that come up out of the ground beneath the tree. Set your decorative boulders to protect the roots first and then garden or mulch around them.
Trees and a Hanging Chair
The shade from a tree can provide quite a relaxing, quiet spot. You can use the space under the tree by placing a wooden bench, stone bench, or hammock.
A hanging swing can accentuate your tree’s big, strong branches while providing a place to sit at the same time. It’s not only a nice place to read a book or relax on a windy day, but it can also serve as decor in your yard! Especially when you add plants, grass, or flowers around that special place.
Be aware that hanging too much weight on a small or dead branch can certainly cause it to break and fall from the tree. Not only would this give you a sore bottom when you swing hits the ground, but it may also give you a sore head when the branch lands on your head.
Make it Safe
Make sure to choose a big, heavy branch that doesn’t flex much under your body weight. Also, look for a branch that will get you away from the trunk so that you aren’t swinging into it.
If you will hang a swing, make sure to use a sturdy rope or chain, and please protect the tree branch. Rope, wire, chain, or cable will all cut into the bark of a tree. If you don’t protect the bark, you will eventually have a dead branch. The goal is to protect the bark without holding moisture against it. The larger the protector is, the less force per square inch you will be applying to the bark. Most people choose to use rubber hosing of some sort. Even with protection, the rope may still do damage, so be sure to check them often and maybe move them a bit so that the bark does not get damaged.
The ideal trees for hanging chairs and swings are hardwood trees. Oak, hickory, and cherry are some of the best sturdy trees that can support your swings and chairs.
Build Your Deck or Patio Around a Big Tree
Building anything around or under a tree is not ideal for the structure or the tree. I have seen many people try to save trees when building their house. They ask contractors to watch out for the trees, but equipment drives over roots and compacts the soil, materials get stacked beneath the tree, etc. Any time that you stack on build in or disturb the ground above tree roots, you risk irreparably damaging the tree. Most of these trees will eventually die unless an area at least as wide as the drip line is cordoned off and nothing is put there, no soil is added, and the surrounding grades aren’t changed significantly, leading to extremes in moisture.
Having said all of that, If you only have limited space and you need a patio or deck, and you would like to save the tree that currently resides in that space, maybe you can build around it. If you have another choice, take it. But, if the choice is to cut down the tree or build around it, it might be worth giving it a shot.
Given a choice, I’m sure the tree would vote that we try to build around it. I’m sure that a tree would also prefer that a deck be built around it rather than a patio. Either way, always plan for the tree’s future growth and give it room. I would also recommend that you plan out your deck or patio so that if the tree does not survive, you can easily cover the space so that you aren’t stuck with a blank hole in the middle of your deck or patio.
A deck would be preferable. A Careful crew can place footings and complete deck construction while minimizing any impact on the tree. On the other hand, a solid-surface patio might be much more disturbing to the tree as it would involve prepping a base over the roots and then placing the patio material that will inevitably damage and restrict water flow to the roots.
Add Landscape Lighting
Don’t forget about those trees at night! You didn’t spend all that time beautifying your trees and landscape just for them to disappear once the sunsets.
A few well-placed up lights below a tree can really highlight its features and the yard at night.
Or, a few well-placed downlights up in the crown of a mature tree can give the illusion of a soft moonlight glow coming through the branches. Landscape lights are worthy of a whole new discussion, but they help with safety in the evening and accentuate your trees and landscape.
A Note on Planting Trees
So far, we have assumed that you have trees in your yard. But what if you don’t have any, or don’t have enough. What can you do about that? Well, quite a bit.
If you are thinking about planting some trees in your yard, you’ll first need to do some research and find trees that are well suited for your plant zone and well suited for the area in which you want to put them. Pay attention to sunlight and water requirements and the final size of the tree when fully grown. You will want to make sure that you plant it in an area where it will be happy and have plenty of room to grow.
You have many choices for where to get the tree or trees. I’m going to start with the most economical choice and move up to the most expensive.
DIY Tree Transplant
Okay, I know, any tree that you plant will be transplanted, unless, of course, you plant a seed. This is an option, but you need to be a really patient sort of person to grow trees from seed. So, we will go right to transplant. It is certainly possible for you to transplant your own tree. Trees would rather be transplanted while they are dormant, so late fall is probably the best, and mid-spring, when they are pushing new growth, is the worst time of year.
Maybe you have a neighbor or a parent who has a few saplings growing where they don’t want them, and perhaps they’d let you dig them up and move them to your property. Transplanting is relatively straightforward and easy; it will just take a bit of work.
Digging it Out
You will want to prepare the hole for the tree ahead of time so that the tree doesn’t sit out of the ground for any longer than necessary. Dig out a wide, round dish-shaped hole in the approximate size you think you will need.
As you dig, pile the ground around the perimeter of the hole. This will make it easy to backfill the tree when planting, and the excess soil will act as a soil ring to retain water for the first year or so.
Next, go dig out the tree. Trees with shallow fibrous root systems like the Arbor Vitae are much easier to transplant than trees with deep root systems like an Oak, so choose wisely. When digging out your tree, your objective is to damage as few roots as possible and to get it back into the ground quickly.
Pick Your Day
It would be best if it were not a blazing hot and sunny day. Overcast, moist, foggy days are great for tree transplanting. While it is important to damage as few roots as possible, you will be damaging roots; there is no way around it. Ideally, the tree is small enough that you can get the majority of the root system and the soil surrounding them dug out in one neat and tidy ball.
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but that is not likely to happen. I’ve been in the industry since 1987, and I’ll tell you that more often than not, you retain some of the soil, you cut more roots than you plan to, but the tree still lives. It is rare to get just the right type of soil and just the right tree to get it just right.
Add to that the fact that if you are still reading this, it is likely your first time, and your goal should not be perfection but simply to keep the tree alive.
Get it Planted
On that note, pick a tree that is small enough to handle. You will need to be able to lift it and transport it. Once you begin, don’t stop until it I back in the ground, fully planted and watered. I guarantee that you won’t get it perfect, so just make it quick. The more time the tree spends out of the ground, the more likely it is to die.
Dig quickly, wrap it in wet towels or blankets, transport it and get it into the ground, standing upright, backfilled, and water the heck out of it. You want to make sure that it is planted to approximately the same depth as it was where you dug it out. Don’t bury it really deep. Then check on it every day and water accordingly. You just cut a bunch of roots, so water it deeply for several weeks.
Alternatives to DIY Transplant
The above description is the cheapest route.
The following are all options that get more costly as we go. The steps are slightly different, but many of the concepts are the same. Don’t mess around and disturb roots, do it on a cool day, plant it at the same height, and water it well applies to all of the alternatives below.
Buy a Tree and Plant It Yourself
Go to your local garden center and buy a tree.
This is relatively cheap and is more likely to be successful than digging one out yourself, since presumably, either the plant was grown in the pot you purchased it in, or it was balled-and-burlapped by professionals who know what they are doing. Many garden centers even warranty their trees to live for one year.
When buying a tree, keep in mind your site restrictions and physical restrictions. Once again, you will be taking this home and planting it. Choose one that you or you and your helper can lift.
Hire a Landscaper to Plant a Tree for You.
You can certainly hire a landscaper to plant a tree for you. The landscaper should be willing and able to come to your house, give you some suggestions and bring in a lovely, properly planted tree with a warranty. This will cost you a bit more, but it should be nice and easy.
Using a professional landscape company will likely open up many options for you regarding the tree’s size and species. The bigger you go, the more costly it gets, but having a huge, expensive tree in your yard can be instant gratification and can make a surprising difference to the look and feel of your yard. It all depends on how thick your pocketbook is.
How to Maintain Your Trees
Trees take a long time to grow and will live for generations! Please make sure that you take care of these precious trees. Although they are hardy, magnificent living creatures, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep an eye on their health.
Here are some of the things that you can do to help your trees:
When newly planted, water frequently, but once they are established, they really shouldn’t need your help. Unless, of course, the tree isn’t suited for your planting zone, in which case it will require a bunch of help.
Walk around your yard every once in a while and look at the trees. Are the colors looking gray and drab? Are the leaves wilting or curling? If so, the tree needs water. Please give it a good soak. Tree roots are deep, so a long slow soak is always better than a quick blast of water.
Once again, if the tree is native to your area and your soils are decent, it shouldn’t need much. Your best bet will be to spread a really thin layer of aged and organic compost over the roots in the spring if the tree is relatively newly transplanted. Mulch them nicely, let their leaves fall below them and leave them there, and the tree should do just fine.
In most cases, less is better than more. Once again, most trees don’t need our help. If you notice branches rubbing on each other or dead branches, then you can cut them off using a clean and sharp pruning saw or shears.
Otherwise, just leave them alone.
If you have ornamentals that you need to keep in a particular shape, then prune them when they are dormant and do it yearly so that they don’t get a chance to get out of shape.
Trees can be the gems in your landscape. They can set the stage for all other landscaping, and they can be where the important life events happen. They provide a more welcoming, natural atmosphere, cool down the place, and provide shade. It’s always worth our while to care for and plant more trees.
We hope our guide gave you helpful tips on working with trees in your landscape.