Too Many Trees for One Front Yard?

I’m a huge fan of trees in a garden. And any new house can certainly benefit from planting with an eye to the future. That’s why a recently-installed landscape at a new house in my neighborhood caught my eye, and caused me to contemplate the question of how many trees might be . . . too many. First, some background. I live in an area that most people would consider fairly traditional in terms of architecture – mostly brick Colonial houses (like mine) with, more recently, tear-downs that “eat the lot” even if they are attractive Arts-and-Crafts style (large) bungalows. About five years ago (I think), an extremely modern house went up on a large, deep lot. It was really different. I’m sorry I don’t have any photos of the house before the front yard’s plantings went it, but suffice it to say it was the talk of the neighborhood. In any event, the house was finally completed after some starts and stops, but the front yard was simply over-seeded and left alone for a very long time. My designer’s curiosity was peaked – what would happen in front of this black/gray stone fronted house that looked unlike anything else around it? The front yard was terraced, but for a long time decorated only with weeds. Then, very late in the fall last year, trees and shrubs started arriving. They were left lying around on the ground for so long I feared they wouldn’t survive until they were planted. But before Christmas, they went in. So here is the front yard in its winter glory.

modern landscape, minimalist architecture, modern architecture

The new house with brand-new landscape in winter.

The landscape design is simple and striking: trees, only a few shrubs (a line of yews at the top of the second terraced level, where the driveway meets the house’s facade, and some inkberry hollies near the street on the lower left side of the lot), and liriope for groundcover. There are seven Betula nigra (river birches) and three maples – all planted on a front yard that is about 80 feet wide.
modern architecture, modern gardens, Betula nigra, river birches

The view from the street after the trees leafed out. The inkberry hollies aren’t visible, but the rest of the plantings are.

Even though the site faces north, it gets a moderate amount of afternoon sun. The river birches are beautiful, with exfoliating bark, and will grow relatively quickly if they get enough water. (I don’t think the garden is irrigated). I don’t know which variety of maples were planted. My concern is that these are both tree species that can get huge, and quickly. The birches can’t be more than about 10-11′ on center, and the two maples on the left side of the lot, near the property line, are even closer together. Right now the effect is balanced, but five years down the road, I think, the canopies of these trees will be fighting with each other; river birches can reach 25-35′ wide, and maples even larger. I’ve had my own experience with planting trees too closely together, as my Okame cherry post demonstrates. So I wonder what the landscape designer/architect was thinking when he or she designed this space. I’d be interested in my reader’s reactions.

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15 Comments on “Too Many Trees for One Front Yard?”

  1. Liz Reed Says:

    I balance expected growth time against my clients level of patience, which often means overplanting by any textbook definition of spacing. With small shrubs and most perennials, (the ones that can be moved easily), I might also have a strategy for where and how things might get moved down the road.

    However, in my opinion, this is not a judicious overplanting. It’s misguided, and going to cost time and money down a pretty short road.

    They may be trying to create a screen quickly.
    Actually, it looks like the space could accomodate almost all the trees if they used more of the foreground, but then I like creating density by layering not-so- dense plantings.

    I like the house. Lets redesign the landscape!

  2. Do you suppose that their plan is to remove some of the trees in a few years? We have done that in certain cases – i.e. over planted on purpose to create a screen or density rather quickly, and then moved to thin the planting before the overcrowding begins to cause deformities and stunted growth. That might be one interpretation…otherwise they are too crowded! Also, even if the crowding issue were solved, a stand of river birches smack in front of the house does not produce the kind of fang shui that I would look for in an entrance. It’s going to be rather foreboding. Since they just built the house, presumably they like it. So why do they want to hide it?

  3. Alex Says:

    Fascinating! I have nothing to add, but appreciate the updates from 20815 and environs… 🙂

  4. John Says:

    Mellisa, My guess is that they’ve overdone it. That grove of birches looks really nice right now. And I’ve seen that effect done nicely on estates. But with time one sees problems for this planting. My 30 year-old self could not even contemplate what 35 years of tree growth would do around our house. And we now spend a lot of time on limbing up and tree removal. As you note, those trees can get really big. I can’t help but notice the power lines in the front of the picture. Your posting comes as I read the headlines about 1.2 million people without power in Washington today. A lot of these power outages are caused by trees that have vastly outgrown their environment and lose major limbs or topple in storms. I have sympathy with the power company that has to deal with final results of outsized trees in residential neighborhoods.

  5. Laurrie Says:

    If they are creating a woodland garden effect, it can be striking. And yes, the large trees will cram together, but that’s how a forest grows, with the canopies all blending together. With limbing up, a forest grove can be shady, welcoming, and provide a screen.

    So I think I like what they are doing, especially with the minimal underplanting (the inkberries are perfect woodland accents) …. assuming they have accounted for those electrical wires (far enough away?), and assuming they do some pruning of lower limbs so you can walk through the tightly packed grove as it fills in.

    I’ll want to see how effective this is in 25 years … be sure to post!

    • Brandon Says:

      Walk through a forest and take note of how close trees grow in relation to each other. Trees will grow as close as a few feet. Yes, they compete with one another for light and they focus their growth upward, not outward. Before you skewer the designer for not thinking about the eventual spread of the trees, could it be that he/she envisioned a tall canopy starting well above eye level leaving the gorgeous peeling bark below as foreground to the house? I’m just projecting here- I don’t actually know the reasons why it was done. Just because it is different and challenges the norms of how the majority of people choose to plant their yards, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t careful thought put into it.

      On the other hand, maybe I am giving the designer too much credit and they were drawing their plan at the wrong scale!

      • I certainly assume the designer thought about this design quite carefully. It’s just that I have personally learned about the consequences of planting trees too close together (and again, this is a small residential lot, not a forest). So whoever the designer was may well have had your idea in mind.

        This post was put up a year ago and while the trees have grown, they haven’t grown a lot, probably because of the northern exposure and relative shadiness of the site. One seems to be failing (perhaps just bad stock). In four or five years I will be curious to see how they are faring.

  6. Alex Says:

    I think the river birches will remain attractive for a longer period of time(10 years, perhaps) than the maples. With hope, most reputable landscape installation firms install plantings according to a planting plan, so its important to know the plant material and balance that knowledge with the goal of the planting design.

  7. Marge Says:

    Hello! I enjoy your blog, although I haven’t commented before. This post brings up an issue I’ve been wondering about, and maybe you could give me your perspective on it. Basically, is it okay to take photos of other people’s homes and put them on the web without their permission? It sounds like these folks are not your clients, but just neighbors, right? I hate the thought of a blogger I don’t know taking photos of my house and in-progress garden and putting them out there for professional critique. What are the rules about this kind of thing? I don’t mean this antagonistically — I am just very much ignorant about the issue, so any enlightenment you can offer would be appreciated.

    • The property involved is in my neighborhood – I don’t know the neighbors. The two times I took photographs, no one was home or I would have knocked and asked, as a courtesy. But it is perfectly legal to photograph the front of the house from a public space (i.e., the street). I sympathize with your concern about critiquing the space, but it’s in public view (ditto the architecture of the house) since it’s the front yard. And I can find much to like about the design – it’s an attempt to balance the scale of the house with a large number of trees. I just think that down the line, some of the trees may need to be removed (as some of the other designers commenting have observed) or the effect will be overwhelming.

      Do other readers have thoughts on this issue? (Posting photographs of landscapes visible from the street).

  8. I’ll go off in another direction and say that I wish the groundcover was more varied. However, the owners may have a phase 2 or even 3 in mind for the next several years. It does look like they plan on removing a few of the trees eventually.

    (Or could it be that they are thinking of selling soon and just want quick, neat curb appeal?)

    It’s a smaller species, but the Olbrich Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, created a beautiful area with closely planted multi-trunked paper birches here (see last photo):

    Thanks for initiating these interesting discussions.

    • Melissa Says:

      The house was just completed a couple of years ago, and then the front yard sat unadorned except for roughly seeded grass for another year at least. So I doubt they are planning to sell soon.

      I think the concept behind the design is stark simplicity, to be consistent with the starkness of the architecture of the house (hard to appreciate from the photos, admittedly). The light color of the bark helps contrast with the very dark stone on the house.

      Groundcover options might have included some Hakone grass (variegated or green) but they’re more expensive than liriope.

  9. Dee Maranhao Says:

    When we purchased our 1/33 acres with home in Utah, we concentrated on the trees first. Both horticulturists, trees were our first love. We kept some of the native pinyon and juniper, but brought over 50 saplings with us, grown in our backyard in CA. We planted gingkos, long lived and deeply rooting trees. Silver Maple, Chinese pistache, Hackberry, and Western Redbud followed. Some of these trees will grow huge-over a long period of time. I can see the aim of the designers in your sample, but a horticulturists creed remains, Right Plant for the Right Place. If a grove look is desired, then look at groves in the outback regions of the area and use what is native to the region. I think the maples wlll be huge, and planting them closer together to achieve an effect could be better achieved by using trees that naturally grow that way.Cottonwoods, aspen and more columnar trees grow enmasse, because they all reach for the sun even when growing closely together. The architecture of the home looks very Frank Lloyd Wright to me. Are they trying to block out a view from their windows that span the house? Again, the same trees, given spacing to accomodate their mature growth, would achieve the same affect. I don’t know much about design theory, so I only design with plant needs in mind. I dont like to see overplanting with the plan to just eliminate what doesn’t work. I am of the firm belief in planning for the future when planting trees.

    • Melissa Says:

      I agree with you on the concept of planting with the ultimate size of the trees in mind. The only time I encounter resistance to this rule – from clients – is when they want screening right away, and usually evergreens are involved. Even then I try to pick the narrowest variety I can (fastigiate hornbeams, narrow types of arborvitae, etc.)

  10. Mia Kulper Says:

    Having just learned more than I ever wanted to know about sewer laterals and roots, I shudder at the placement of River Birch in the front yard where I assume the water lines and sewer lines likely run. Perhaps all the sewer lines have been redone in PVC but even then……

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