How To Landscape With Large Trees

August 15, 2021
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When you purchased your home, you were probably entranced by the big tree in it. We love trees! Studies have shown that simply gazing at a tree will lower your stress levels. No one really understands why, but the soothing effects are well known. And that gorgeous tree adds value to your home. What’s not to love? And then that all changed after it became your tree, didn’t it. You realized how hard it was to get grass to grow under it — or anything really. You winced every time you ran over a tree root with the mower.

Large trees are, by their very nature, dominating. They attract every eye, and they draw attention away from everything else. That can make landscaping kind of a challenge. I mean, what do you do with a tree, anyway?

Developing a Focal Point

Lets face it; the tree is the center of everything. The center of your lawn, the center of your landscape. So let’s work with that.

First, determine your vantage point. Are you going to be looking at the tree from a window, deck, or patio? Or is the space under the tree the only viable place for an outdoor living space? If the latter, determine how you will create an outdoor room under the tree while still maintaining the health of the tree.

A neighbor of mine built a platform underneath his oak. The platform is huge — about 12’x25′ and seats the whole clan without even extending out to the dripline. The wooden platform drains effectively, ensuring that the tree is not cut off from moisture.

A platform solves the problem of gnarly roots, but if that isn’t an issue, you can simply lay down some mulch, maybe add some slate patio stones, and be picnic-ready in a single weekend.

Planting Under Mature Trees

If you’re going to be looking at the tree more often than you’re sitting under it, you might give some thought about underplanting.

Underplanting is a largely trial and error process. Nearly every tree owner is distressed by the bare patch under the tree, but hasn’t been able to find a solution. Some trees aggressively compete for water. Others simply shade out competitors.

If shade is a problem, you can hire an arborist to perform a “crown thinning” in order to debulk the branches so that more light filters down. If competing for water is the problem, begin by mulching lightly to hold water longer in the soil and build up the nutrients. Then attempt to transplant a few vigorous plants that match the light profile.

For instance, try a few plugs of hosta and ostrich fern if it’s particularly shady. Try salvia or daylilies if it gets good light. This is where patience comes in. It may require several tries before you find an underplanting that works.

Add Interest

You can also add interest by adding a sculpture or bench under the tree. These sorts of details make an outdoor space look “finished.” And don’t forget to enjoy your tree when you’re done. It’s not just a problem to be solved, it’s a gift to be enjoyed!