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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Six Steps to Creating Grassless Tree Lawns and Shade Gardens

A reader submitted the following inquiry:-

I am dying to transform my Williamsville NY tree lawn into something more than grass! I am thinking wildflowers but also need to keep in mind that I can’t have anything in the lawn that would obstruct vision when entering exiting the drive. I'd like to start this soon - any helpful ideas, suggestions!!!

Here is my reply:-

Step One. Decide upon a desired appearance of the completed tree lawn when grass has been removed and plants have been installed. If this proves to be a challenge, close your eyes and dig deep inside yourself to imagine the finished project. It’s easier than you might think. That idealized image will influence the choices you make as the project progresses.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a tree lawn and woodland. The tree lawn may be a studied, deliberate composition while the woodland has a more spontaneous, naturally surprising feel about it.

The most inspiring advice for planting a beautiful spreading, woodland is found at the garden blog Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. This site is a beautifully illustrated treasure of suitable information.

In addition to the overall visual impression or mood that one wants the garden to convey, consider a garden’s personality. The choices are "wild and messy", "neat and trim" and "casual”.

Wild and messy refers to a combination of wildflowers, self-seeding woodland perennials, and other plants whose forms tend to be untidy.

Neat and trim implies a composition of tame and mound-like plants that respect a predetermined linear planting design. Such disciplined plants increase in size at a conservative rate.

A casual garden uses the same mound-like tame plants that are found in neat and trim but in an unstructured, informal collage-type arrangement. This style of planting may be achieved with a deliberately abstract placement of plants or by distributing them randomly and haphazardly throughout the garden.

Step Two. Select a procedure for effectively removing grass. That process will be influenced by one’s acceptance or disapproval of herbicides, [a very controversial topic, with valid arguments pro and con] and by local environmental by-laws that govern the use of such products.

When evaluating a grass removal procedure, one must consider the amount of time available for the task, the amount of physical energy one can muster, and one’s comfort with mechanical, chemical, and organic methods. In her book Beautiful No Mow Lawns, Evelyn J. Hadden identifies 5 different ways to remove grass from an existing lawn. It’s a must read.

Step Three. Inspect the density of the soil. Have the trees reached a maturity that makes the soil so dense with roots that it is difficult to dig there?

If the soil is root-bound, there are two options: One may use a roto-tiller to chop up the tree roots that grow close to the surface. While this method is effective, it can risk compromising the health of the trees. Some mature trees might be unaffected by surface roto-tilling, while others may be damaged. [It is wise to consult an arborist for advice on this subject]. Or, one can build raised beds about two feet high, above the root-bound soil, to create a happy growing place with minimal damage to the trees.

Soil amendments that are needed - and those that are always beneficial, like compost - should be considered at this point.

Step Four. Research the garden’s USDA hardiness Zone; that detail is important when selecting plants.

Step Five. Determine if the tree lawn creates part shade or full shade and if its soil is dry, moist, or normal. Dry means that neither natural rainfall nor irrigation hits the lawn. Moist implies a garden that is damp more than it is dry.

The information gathered will help determine what is or isn’t plantable around the trees. When researching suitable plants, or when perusing an online garden catalogue, look for adjectives in the product descriptions that match the garden’s growing conditions.

[It is at this point that one also starts paying attention to the mature height of suitable plants. My reader specifically requested plants that do not block her line of vision when entering or exiting the driveway.]

Step Six. Evaluate the role of aggressively spreading plants and ground cover perennials that sometimes grow for "miles". Is the area encompassing the tree lawn ample enough to accommodate such plants?

A garden is not a naturally occuring place. It is created by humans from a figment of imagination and, as such, it remains forever a work in progress. These six steps are only the beginning. There will always be something new to consider, to add, or to remove.

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Reader Comments (2)

I was unfamiliar with the term "tree lawn" so looked it up and now am puzzled. The standard definition says it is the space between the sidewalk and street and that it belongs to the municipality. I never see homeowners do anything but mow. All other work is done by the village. Are we allowed to change anything, or is this something where we've got to conform to local guidelines?

October 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDiane C

In some residential communities, this part of the property does not belong to the municipality and the home owner is responsible for its upkeep. Therefore, there is some leeway about what can be planted there. In the city of Buffalo, for example, regardless of who is responsible for this area, landscaping it with eye-catching plants - by the homeowners - has become high art.

October 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterAllan

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