What to do with rockbed under massive Elm?

futiqueMay 2, 2007

Hello everyone,

I am hoping someone can offer some advice. My wife and I bought a house this past Winter, and while the landscaping was generally of very high quality, we find ourselves hating the bed of rocks that surround the 100ft+ Elm tree in our front yard.

We have an underground irrigation system, but this area only contains a soaker hose for the lilac and butterfly bush you can see to the left of the tree.

I'd love to plant some sort of groundcover, but I am new to gardening, and I have a few beginner questions:

1. Would we need to remove the rocks before planting any groundcover, or are there some varieties that can successfully grow over rocks like these?

2. Even if we could plant over these rocks, would doing so be something we'd likely regret later?

3. What would you suggest we plant from an aesthetic/functional standpoint, based on the attached pictures?

(Please forgive the mess, I was weeding.) ;)

Any advice you could lend would be much appreciated!


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linda_schreiber(z5/6 MI)

First thing to figure out is how deep are the rocks, and is there anything other than soil *under* the rocks. Some idiot may actually have put down plastic or mesh fabric under the rocks. A tree this size would survive in spite of that, and weeds would still grow in the rocks. If there is plastic or fabric there, it needs to be ripped out. If the rocks are only a 1 or 2 inches deep, and there is nothing but soil underneath, then there are ground covers that can be planted there by only thinning and shoving the rocks around a bit, and they should not be plantings you will later regret. Many options. But at least you should not have to shovel out the rocks.... If the rocks are deeper than an inch or two, it gets more difficult. Would you check this out, and let us know what's what? Then we might be able to give some further suggestions.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2007 at 8:46PM
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Hi Linda,

Thanks for your reply. Some good news, and some bad news... The rocks are only one layer deep. (about 2" or so.)

The bad news is that there is indeed a really ugly blanket underneath. (I get the sense that the previous owners dressed the place up nicely before selling, but didn't really put any thought into longevity.)

Judging from your post, it seems like I should yank this blanket out as soon as possible. It can't be good for the tree!

I don't imagine it will be a big deal to do so.

FWIW, I was looking at some of the "Stepables" brand ground cover at the local nursery, but I can't justify spending almost $5 on a plant that's literally 2"x3". (I love how Corsican Mint looks, but not THAT much. Plus, I doubt there would be enough moisture for it...)

SO- let's just assume that I will yank out the blanket, and plant within the rocks.....


    Bookmark   May 2, 2007 at 9:49PM
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linda_schreiber(z5/6 MI)

Thanks for checking on this. Yep, rip out the blanket. Too often this kind of 'gravel ground cover'has something underneath. The rocks aren't the real problem.... If the layer underneath is porous to water, you don't have to get out there at the crack of dawn and rip it out to save the tree, but it does need to go.

A couple of inches of rock should not be a problem with planting a great many kinds of groundcovers, and most other perennials. Just ripping out the fabric will loosen everything and create natural, if messy-looking, planting pockets. Just don't bother with raking the rocks out smooth again .

I may not be picturing the area correctly from the pictures, but it seems like this planting bed under and around the tree is pretty much discrete from the rest of the landscaping, surrounded by sidewalks, fences, etc. If so, then you can look at using most kinds of groundcovers that will do well in your area. The only "will we regret that we planted them" plants in that kind of physically isolated bed that can be a problem are things that self-seed easily. Those can escape easily into other areas. With most groundcovers, however, the issue is spread by runners or roots. You should be just fine.

Elms are not as bad as some to maintain groundcovers under. At least it's not a maple.... You could look at a mix of different groundcovers, and perennials, that would have different heights and characters, and just let them fight it out . Unless you want to irrigate, you do want to choose things that are not too water-hungry, but most things should be ok.

I am no expert in what to recommend in your area for interesting ground covers. Hopefully someone else will chime in....... If not, then repost a holler for ideas. But at least you will know what the planting area is like, and will have some better clues.

The Stepables line is very cool and fascinating! But they are pricey. And they are varieties developed more for real 'stepability'. If you wanted to use them *as* a path, or a seat, they are well worth it. They withstand the walking and the sitting. But as a groundcover, it's a bit much. You can get same or similar plants that are good for groundcovers for much less. Including Corsican Mint.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2007 at 9:53PM
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It looks to me like you have a number of options if you're willing to put forth some effort initially. If you are not fond of the rock now, you probably won't like it any better with a few plants planted there. So take it out. It's not that big of a space. You can always save the rock for later or another project. Like Linda said pull the blanket and if necessary, add a couple yards of soil and fill in where the two inches of rock were. Then plant a few things are dry-shade lovers (I assume that is the condition down there) and mulch over it. Remember that many communities have programs which offer free or next to free mulch made from recycle (chipped) trees. I normally just barter with the local people for my mulch so its not free but everyone gets something out of the deal. That way you can plant more as you are so inclined or your budget allows. As well any groundcover you choose willl invariably spread that being the nature of the beast. As this happpens you can make a decision regarding if you want more of that plant or not. Finally it looks as though you have at least dappled sunlight. Therefore you are not totally restricted in your plantings and might even be able to add a mini rock garden with say some Angelina or Blood Sedum and my favorite, several Hens and Chicks plants. The great thing about Hens and Chicks is that with practically no care they will reproduce and slowly fill in your space(albeit slowly). Plus they are very fun!

Email me offline if I can be of further assistance and enjoy. That space is like a blank slate just waiting to be formed into something. Cute house by the way.


    Bookmark   May 5, 2007 at 9:37AM
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Hello ...I was just reading your post and I thought maybe a good suggestion would be Ajuga ground cover. I.m not sure which zone you live in , but it;s hardy to zone3 or 4, and it spreads fairly quickly. I t has pretty blue flowers in spring and looks real net the rest of the year. check it out on the web....good luck

    Bookmark   May 11, 2007 at 8:40AM
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Thanks for all of the great feedback. I'm not entirely sure what I am going to do yet, but I'll report back once I figure it out!

    Bookmark   May 16, 2007 at 12:51PM
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I think I've found the solution!!!!

Lamium. WOOHOOO!

Here is a link that might be useful: Lamium

    Bookmark   May 17, 2007 at 1:29PM
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That looks like a spectacular tree in your yard but I can understand not liking the rock mulch. You've been given good advice about removing the rocks and blanket. When you do, you will begin to appreciate the conditions and root system of the area under the tree. Personally, I love lamium. Try different kinds. They are all easy to pull out if you don't want them and equally easy to transplant, if do you want them somewhere else.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2007 at 12:27PM
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I'm glad you are making headway in your project. As Tangerine wisely pointed out Lamium is a GREAT little plant. Very tough and lovely with the little flowers. Last year I cut it back after it bloomed and it re bloomed so that's fun.

You have not commented on whether I was correct about your future plants receiving light down there or not. Just wanted to share that in my yard the lamium could not make it in full shade. I originally had it bedded down with my hostas and that was bad. They need some light.

Have fun.


    Bookmark   May 18, 2007 at 4:49PM
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Hi Kate,

Because of the height of the tree, the area receives a good deal of morning light, and decreasing dappled/light shade during the day as the sun completes its transit.

I still haven't tackled the stone/blanket removal yet. It's a bit daunting, and I am procrastinating. Also, I've been scouring the local nurseries for Lamium, and I haven't been able to find any... as soon as I do, it will be time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.

In the meantime however, I've planted Ajuga "Bronze Beauty" along the bottom of the trellis, and I've got a False Virginia Creeper that's growing like crazy on the right.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2007 at 2:12PM
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