General Discussion:

Old Yard = New Soil?

Messages posted to thread:

James22-Apr-02 04:14 PM EST 3   
Susan22-Apr-02 04:54 PM EST 6a   
James22-Apr-02 05:06 PM EST 3   
Susan22-Apr-02 09:16 PM EST 6a   

Subject: Old Yard = New Soil?
From: James
Zone: 3
Date: 22-Apr-02 04:14 PM EST

Hello, I have been reading these forums and have found them extremely helpful. So I am hoping some of the experienced gardeners out there can help me. Last year my wife and I bought a house in Calgary that was built in 1950. It has 6 beautiful mature trees in the backyard. (2 40 ft pines, 2 crabapples, a birch and some sort of maple.)Our yard is bordered by 10 - 50 ft pines in the neighbors yard. (Southside) This has lead us to try and create a shade garden. I have wanted to recondition the soil but have come up against some obstacles; The soil has about 4 inches of top soil over very compacted clay. Everywhere I try to turn the soil I come up against tree roots as thick as arm.

My Questions is: How can I recondition the soil while not injurying the trees or their roots.

Subject: RE: Old Yard = New Soil?
From: Susan
Zone: 6a
Date: 22-Apr-02 04:54 PM EST

Forget digging!

My experience here in southern Ontario is obviously going to be a bit different from yours re climate and what will grow but we have a 1962 bungalow in a yard shared with mature White Pines (is that the kind you have? - they're magnificent trees and I love them!) and the soil is dreadful clay. We moved here in the fall of 1999 and I've spent the last two years creating a 'woodland garden' under the pines. The first summer it was pretty sparse; filled in a lot last year and is looking good so far this spring and I expect it'll just get better and better... In 2000, the soil was rock hard by late summer and dry as a bone. That fall we mulched leaves and dumped about 4-6" of them everywhere under the trees and let the pine needles stay when they fell in October. In spring 2001, I laid about 300' of soaker hoses, winding them back and forth through the garden area, keeping them close to roots of shrubs and perennials. Any new perennials and shrubs were planted near the hoses. By late summer last year, all the mulched leaves and pine needles had virtually disappeared. In 2000 there were hardly any worms in the soil; last year there were worms everywhere we dug!

If you've got 4 inches of good soil, add 2" of good, light compost if you have any, chop leaves this fall and add them on top. Most woodland plants are adapted to living in the shallow leaf duff soil under trees and don't really require more than a few inches of good soil.

I have more than 70 different types of plants growing in my dry woodland garden under the pines. A lot of them wouldn't grow in your zone, but if you need ideas, I can check hardiness ratings and give you a listing of which ones would grow for you...

We've done no digging; the soil is improving naturally and plants are thriving...

Subject: RE: Old Yard = New Soil?
From: James
Zone: 3
Date: 22-Apr-02 05:06 PM EST

Susan, Thanks for the advice, I think that given the altenative, (digging,) I am inclined to try your method.

70 different types of plants! Wow! As for your very generous offer, I would love to have a list of what you think might work in our garden. Thanks again, James

Subject: RE: Old Yard = New Soil?
From: Susan
Zone: 6a
Date: 22-Apr-02 09:16 PM EST

The soaker hoses are an important part of the garden. Some things likely wouldn't survive unless they were near the hose so they get adequate water in the summer drought.

To give you a bettter picture of the garden - my lot is 75' wide; slightly off center at the back fence is a garden shed; the north side of the yard is dry and the south side is quite damp as 4 properties slope down to that corner and all rain drians to that area. The 'woodland' garden extends all across the back (75') and averages about 20-25' deep.

Here's the list of things that I grow under my pines on the drier side (if you have damp shade, I can provide a different list....) that I think you might be able to grow in your zone:

SHRUBS: [The biggest mistake I made in 2000 was not planting enough shrubs. I planted some but not enough and it looked odd to have just the tall trees and lower perennials. You need shrubs for balance. In 2001 I added lots more shrubs and I'll be adding more this year too... Many of my shrubs though are not hardy for you.]

- Rhododendrons and azaleas - the varieties I grow wouldn't be hardy for you but I know there are ones you can grow. Under pines is a great environment for them. They'll do best in a raised bed with a soaker hose along the back. I made a bank along the back fence (wire mesh fence; 3 layers of 2x6 on end to create a 16-18" 'wall') by layering chopped oak leaves, pine needles, triple mix and coarse peat, watered well and planted into that. Mulch with fallen pine needles each fall (and oak leaves if you have any.) They need a reasonable degree of light to blossom well so where you put them will depend on how much light gets in under your trees.

- False Spirea (Sorbaria sorbarifolia) - shrub with white summer flowers and ferny foliage; suckers freely so you need to control it's size by pruning out unwanted suckers.

- Wild blueberries. I also have highbush ones but I don't think they're hardy for you. The blueberries grow in a reasonably sunny spot on the edge of the trees.

- Honeywood Saskatoonberry

- 'Autumn Magic' Chokeberry (Aronia metanocarpa) - turns bright red in the fall. Both it and the serviceberry have nice spring flowers and berries for the birds.

- American Elder - against the shed in part sun. Is a bit weedy; suckers freely - I cut it down to about 30" each spring and it grows to about 6' by fall! Nice white flowers in summer and purple-black fruit in the fall that the birds go nuts over...

- Dwarf Burningbush (Euonymus alata 'compacta') does quite well in semi-shade on the edge and provides brilliant fall color.


- 'Beacon Silver' Lamium - this is a fast spreader so you have to rip bits of it out from time to time but it thrives in deep, dark, dry shade in the worst soil you can give it and its variegated leves light up the darkness unbelieveably.

- Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) - also a groundcover but more pesty in spreading as it seeds itself freely but is realtively easy to rip out and also grows in lousy conditios. Has white flowers in late spring.

- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)a well-behaved native groundcover. No noticable flowers, just nice leaves.

- Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) - also a native grouncover with beautiful white flowersin spring and brilliant red berries in late summer.

- Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera NOT Phlox subulata which needs sun!)

Cranesbill (Geranium species) - there is a huge number of varieties and types of these. I like bright blues and magentas. Some can be invasive so you need to read descriptions carefully when you buy... If you pick the right varieties, you can get quite an extended bloom time.

- Jacob's Ladder - blue flowers, ferny foliage

- Brunnera macrophylla (sometimes called perennial forget-me-nots.) It has blue forget-me-not flowers (Mine is blooming now...) and leaves which start small in spring and just keep getting bigger all summer until it looks a bit like a hosta.

- Spiderwort (Tradscantia) - some can be a bit invasive but I've never had a problem with them.

- Astilbe - these need water so plant in a loop of hose to make sure they get enough.

- Snakeroot/Bugbanes (Cimiccifuga ramosa; Cimicifuga simplex) - great for late summer flowers.

- Liliy-of-the-valley - plant only where you can confine it or where you don't care if it takes over, otherwise leave it out!

- Phlox divaricata - woodland phlox - very delicate-looking phlox for under trees.

- Violets/violas - I have many different types/varieties/colors e.g Viola cornuta, Viola cullata aka Viola obliqua, Viola tricolor - they seed freely so rip out any unwanted ones in spring.

- Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) - seeds freely so you need to rip out unwanted ones each spring.

- Hostas of course! I like 'blue' ones or ones with white margins on the leaves.

- Rogersia aesculfolis - I like large leafed plants and this is one of those!

- Pulmonaria - the spotted leaves look nice, providing interest after the flowers have faded.

- Columbine - both wild types and cultivated varieties.

- Sedum spectabile 'Brilliant' - I want to try the white types I've seen advertised this year. Late summer color is hard to find for shady conditions so this is a good one.

- Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) has leathery dark green glossy leaves and is well behaved.


Most of the smaller bulbs that naturalize well will do well under the trees. I grow Scilla, snowdrops, Anemones, mini-daffodils and narcissus and some of the species tulips.

It's too bad hellebores aren't hardy enough. They are marvelous plants for dry shade. My Christmas Rose types started blooming March 19th this year and still have some flowers and the foliage is evergreen too. Japanese anemones are great late-summer bloomers and I have lots of them. Hardy cyclamens are a beautiful plant that does well in my garden but are nowhere near hardy for you!

I may be a bit off on zones on a few of these but hopefully most would survive for you.... You've probably already thought of many of these plants. I'm sure other people can suggest more and/or correct my hardiness guesses!

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