Big Trees in Small Spaces

Dealing with massive trees is a two-edged sword when it comes to creating an attractive garden bed.

Huge trees like this 100-year-old Burr Oak in my side yard certainly give you something to build a garden bed around.  They also created some sticky issues of scale and balance that I have yet to fully resolve.

How do you balance the enormous visual weight of this tree in a narrow side yard?photoNot easily, I’ve discovered.

At first, I tried to step down from the Oak. Using mid-sized, shade tolerant shrubs seemed like a no brainer. And rhododendrons with their shiny leaves were a good counter to the rough dark gray bark of the Burr Oak. It was an okay idea, but the other issue here is the narrow width I have to work with. The rhododendrons got leggy fast, which just accentuated the awkwardness of the bed and I took all of them out, except this one right beneath the

A more successful attempt I made was to combine the large-leafed hosta, “Sum & Substance” with ground covers like an acid lime dead nettle, and some silvery ghost ferns. This works because the hosta echoes the massive scale of the tree but the color ties it closely to the dead nettles and ferns and draws the eye smoothly to the ground.                                                                                                                       photo I picked up on the silver in the Lamium and planted Lungworts like “Milky Way,”                                                                                     photoand”Excalibur”—a ghostly plant that really lights up the shade garden.   
The acid green and silver color scheme turned out to be so flexible and attractive that I added the golden Japanese Forest Grass(which in shadier locations is acid green) in repeated patches to create a sense of rhythm.


I’ve also tried, with mixed results, to bring the scale of this tree down by hanging wind chimes and adding sculptural elements. (See first photo in this post.)  I just hung the chimes from the bark, which has amazing fissure and depths to it.photoI respect this tree’s history and the sense of presence it brings to our property. I’m still working on showcasing it properly. It’s a slow process, and I’m always careful to protect the feeder roots when I plant.

Next up for me is bulb planting season. I’ve envisioned a sea of bluebells beneath this old guy, so I can hardly wait until spring to see how that works out!

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