front garden before Robert and Jennifer

Barbara's Garden

Barbara owned the house before we did. She seemed to favor succulents, large shrubs, and trees. This first image was on the real estate flyer for the house.

On the left is a 30 year old Cedar of Lebanon with ice plant below; right front, a small oak tree and festuca grass with lava rocks and dirt, and right back, there is a cottonwood tree with dogwoods behind it and some shrubs (I forget what they were, and I cannot tell from the picture) with more lava rocks and dirt. Hidden under the cedar are some aloe plants.


front of our house 2 years after we moved in.]

Jennifer and Robert's Garden

The most important change was our skirting the tree. Robert and I have a preference for open views. The cedar tree was blocking our view from our living room to the street. In addition, taking off the lower branches of the tree decreased the amount of shade not only under that tree but also in the nearby areas. We did not remove any upper branches. The tree is very important in that it helps to keep our house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. I am not willing to give that up and remove the tree.

After skirting the tree, we put in irrigation. Robert brought in a couple of yards of topsoil and compost and rototilled that in to the soil under the tree. The cedar tree does not seem to have suffered for having its top layer of roots damaged. It is healthy and growing at a rather alarming rate.

The next step is the plant selection. The cedar tree complicates the issue in that it provides quite a bit of shade, and I wanted a garden that looked like a cottage garden. Cottage gardens are traditionally sun gardens. In addition, the tree sucks up alot of the moisture in the soil, and it drops a 2 inch (5 cm) layer of needles every year. Those conditions and my requirement of riotous color made plant selection very important. They had to be plants that like hot, dry shade and acid conditions. Most plants prefer a slightly acid soil, so that was less of a problem than I feared. And because of our skirting the tree, I was able to ignore that shade restriction around the edge of the garden. Soon, I will have a plant list, but along with cyclamen, fushias, and ferns, I have roses and bearded iris growing under that tree. I was willing to experiment and try plants, like the bearded iris, that books said were not suited for that environment.

Finally, I pick up needles every week. Clean-up is just as important as the previous steps because even the most appropriate plant cannot survive under a suffocating layer of needles. It is hard work, and it is a lot of work. I do not clean up the entire garden every week.


It is possible to have a glorious garden under a tree that produces dense shade, takes up the moisture in the soil, and drops a lot of stuff, but it is a big commitment. You will probably have to do the following:

  1. Let the sun in by skirting or thinning the tree.
  2. Provide additional water.
  3. Amend your soil.
  4. Choose the appropriate plants.
  5. Stay on top of the clean-up.

Plants that have done well under the cedar tree.

[e-mail:Jen] Jennifer
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This page was last modified Wednesday, 19-Dec-2012 12:00:14 PST