Here’s a story. Although somewhat specific to Northern California, I suspect that the plot elements, i.e. a need for privacy, a particular climate, and a forced shift in perspective revealing new choices, might be common to house-owners and gardeners everywhere.
See that neighboring house? It used to be 1-storey, hidden by their hedge. But they remodeled, as people will in the Land-Of-Ever-Soaring-Real-Estate-Prices. Then they cut down the plantings so as to have more lawn. I’ve been grumbling about it ever since.
Because I could now see their windows, and they could by inference see me cavorting round my back yard, I let a volunteering Coast Live Oak grow tall, as a screen. It did a good job. At first. But as it grew taller, I found myself the none-too-happy owner of a nicely framed view of someone else’s bedroom and a “Heritage Tree” that prevented anything I’d previously planted from growing in its shade.
Goodbye small magnolia, take a hike shrub rose.
I vowed to cut down the oak and plant something else. Something nicer. Something greener and tidier. But “Heritage Tree” in my community means applying to the city for permission to remove, or even prune more than 25%. It’s a good thing too. Given that enforced pause, that moment to settle myself and my annoyance, I stayed my hand. Good choice, but some problems in implementation.
On the one hand, the oak is happy, tall, and beautifully shaped. It also loves dry summers, and we’re in a deep drought. On the other hand, it’s a very demanding piece of vegetation. You can’t water underneath during the summer, you can’t dig around the roots, you can’t plant anything that doesn’t tolerate shade and an acid soil. Oh, and you have to welcome prickly oak leaves on the ground or you’ll lose your mind. So. What to do?
- Acknowledge your semi-arid climate
- Find yourself a knowledgeable resource
- Look up some California natives that do well in the actual ecosystem
Enter Las Pilitas Nursery. An incredible online resource for California native gardening. Really fun tongue-in-cheek plant writing too. I imagine you have a similar nursery for your region, somewhere that specializes in prairie grasses, or swamp-happy trees, or desert wildflowers that bloom once a century.
Here’s what I’m thinking. First, screen out the neighbors with a coffeeberry. It can grow up to 10 feet. Let’s hope.
Then plant a low-growing manzanita variety as ground cover. I don’t want color beyond green, fall-reddening foliage, the occasional dark berry, and pale tinges of pink flowers.
Finally, to rescue the magnolia from its oak-induced suffering, move it to the already-watered-regularly Woodland part of the yard. It may not survive the transplant, but it’s surely not going to make it through the Age Of The Oak. Replace with a Flowering Current. Ribes Indecorum indeed. Deciduous, but it’ll be under a tall and shrubby plum tree, and I think I’ll enjoy the branches emerging come winter.
Gardening presents all sorts of challenges. But the hardest part for me is envisioning a design. I’m sure there are tools, but I can’t find them. So I’m improvising.
Using Photoshop Elements in a rankly amateurish fashion, I pasted some images from the Las Pilitas site over my photo at top. Go coffeeberry go. I will have to be very careful in the planting, as this will be situated “under the dripline,” as I am learning to say. I’ll to have some conversations with Las Pilitas to see if this will work.
The surprise? Constraints, as often in creative endeavors, reveal new beauties. Hiding a bedraggled fence reveals the beauty of a stark little landscape. In this picture, the pattern of the fallen oak leaves on bare ground become part of the design. Sort of like negative space on a page layout. Intentional and enjoyed.
Besides, if I keep the oak, I keep this view. Do you all like to look up under the canopies of trees? I read somewhere that the random geometries of nature soothe our souls and I believe it.
It looks like a good plan from the rescued tree’s perspective too, looking back at the house. Listen to your plants, says the oak, we may know what we are doing.
And to Robin Williams’ family, we are so sorry for your loss.