Garden changes can result in challenges

I think I’ve finally figured out why I enjoy my gardens so much.

It doesn’t have anything to do with getting my hands dirty or growing pretty flowers and tasty vegetables. It isn’t because I am fascinated by new varieties of plants available each season and it definitely isn’t because I enjoy pulling weeds or clearing patches of sod for a new garden.

It is because I hate routine. In the more than 40 years that we’ve lived where we live, I can’t begin to count how many different gardens have been planted in different locations around the property. Some gardens have never changed locations, but have simply morphed into new designs and colors. Other gardens have reverted back to lawn because they didn’t work for whatever reason. And in reverse, patches of lawn have been turned into new gardens.

One particular garden in my yard was once a colorful collection of some of my favorite plants, but over time has transformed into an area of frustration. This spot is beneath a large maple tree.

When the husband and I first moved onto our property, we dug two maple seedlings from his old homestead and planted them on either side of what was then our property line. While the property lines have expanded over the years, the trees still stand guard over our back yard. It is obvious now the seedlings weren’t the same species of maple, but we were too young to know the difference or to even care at the time.

One of the trees is beautifully rounded at the top and the branches spread out to form a large dome. In the fall, its leaves turn a lovely bronze-red and when they fall, they carpet nearly directly underneath the drip line.

The other maple is not quite as attractive. Its shape is more straight up with branches that have no particular growth pattern. In spring this tree sends out thousands of seed pods that fill our gutters and germinate in our vegetable and other gardens. If we aren’t diligent, the offspring from this tree would be everywhere. In fall, the leaves turn yellow-brown and are the first to fall, seeming to land in all directions.

The advantage of the less attractive tree is because its branches are so hit and miss, lots of light is able to filter through and the grass remains green and lush beneath it all the way to the trunk. But the other maple, the better looking of the two, lets no light through and as a result, even on the brightest of days, it is dark and bare under there.

This wasn’t always the case. In years past, the attractive tree was immature enough to allow plenty of light through its branches. If I think about it, I can name several species of plants that once grew beneath this tree. There were three tall yucca plants, passed to me by my aunt from her garden. They bloomed ivory bell-shaped flowers on tall spikes every June. In the 1980s, my first herb garden was planted here. It consisted of four brick raised beds, each planted with herbs for different uses. It was under this tree that I discovered and identified coltsfoot, pokeweed and mullein, all weeds that can be classified as herbs, and that likely migrated here from the field next door.

I have attempted several times to put more plants in that dark, bare spot under the tree, including Lily of the Valley, Painted Lady fern, astible, pulmonaria and other shade loving plants. Nothing has lasted more than one season. I suspect the tree, with its roots matting just under the soil, had swallowed up all the water and nutrients those other plants needed.

So far the only things surviving are several varieties of hosta planted an adequate distance from the tree’s trunk, but still beneath the safety of its shade.

What’s next?

Since I refuse to give up, the next step in my plan is to try geranium macrorrhizum, commonly called big-root geranium. I’ll put these on the outer edges of the drip line and encourage it to tred toward the base of the tree. Barrenwort, an epimedium also known as bishop’s hat, is said to prefer shade, particularly dry shade. And although I have grown Helleborus in other parts of the garden with success, I haven’t tried them under this tree.

It just might work this time.