Creating Foundation for Woodland Setting Behind New Home

jackson34January 29, 2006

I have just moved into a new home and I would love to create a wooded setting in our backyard. The only problem is the yard was completely bare when we moved in this past summer. We live in zone 5 (Indiana).

The yard is about 104' x 100' and is surrounded by a 6' privacy fence. It slopes towards the house and meets the slope from the house about 25' feet from the foundation. I am planning on creating a creek bed at the low point, as ground water already naturally flows down that path and it can be pretty wet around there during the rain season.

I desperately wanted to get some trees started this fall, as I knew we would need a lot of time for the yard to develop so I wanted to start ASAP. We put in three sycamore trees across the back (we are near a river and they seem to grow well in this area), I also added a red maple near the head of the creek thinking it would thrive in the wet conditions. I added a sugar maple near the house, and planted a quaking aspen grove on the North side near the fence. I know the quaking aspen will not live long, so I also put a small (12''- 18'') Burr Oak down underneath it, hoping the the Oak will be ready to take over once the Aspen run their course. I also added grass just to get some groundcover to keep weeds down and prevent erosion, but I would really like to turn most of this area into a wooded lot. The backyard is about 1/3 of an acre so I was hoping I could do something with it.

Our Great Dane took an immediate interest in the Sycamore trees

The old barn adds some character to the area. There is also some poplar coming up on the opposite side of the fence, near the barn.

Obviously, I have a lot of work to do. It seems like I am so far away from my goal that I don't really know the best way to start off. I am guessing I just need to design a path (or two), paper/mulch over some sections of grass, and get a lot more trees in there? I am not sure what type of trees would be best, so if anyone has any ideas I would love to hear them. The soil looks pretty good in most areas, there is some heavy clay near the house from the excavation.

I know in a normal setting you generally want to space trees to allow for their full growth (spread) at maturity, but if the goal is a wooded setting shouldn't they be placed much closer to each other? I think the placement is my biggest concern, I would like add some more Oaks and probably some evergreens as well, but I just do not know how to properly space them to set the foundation for a wooded setting? Also, I don't want to go overboard and try to cram too many trees into this area? I definitely want it to be wooded, but I just don't want to waste money on any trees that will be crowded out by other and not survive.

Any suggestions or ideas would be much appreciated!

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After doing some more research, I found that Indiana is part of what is classified as the Central Hardwood Forests, and within that area Indiana and North Ohio make up the "Beech-Maple Forest Region" of the CHF.

I already have a good start with Maples. As I mentioned I have a Red and a Sugar maple in the back, but I also put two Sugar Maples and one Red Maple in the front. It looks like any type of Beech specimens that I could add will take some time to grow, so I should probably add quite a few of them this spring. I will have to research and see if I can find some that are good size and could be imported, or if I will have to start off with 2'-3' starters.

I am still at a complete loss on just how many to add and how to space them for woodland growth. I am also not sure what additional plants would fit in well with this layout.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2006 at 6:46PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I should begin by saying I'm no tree or woodlands guru, but have a few rambling thoughts about what is unquestionably a delightful plan.

I would definitely try to do any pathway/patio/whatever planning in case you have any other uses planned for the yard, and even if you don't I think it would be wise to consider what a future owner might want on that property; depends of course on whether you think you'll stay a long time or not. But if you move in 10 years leaving something of a woodland behind, a new owner's first instinct might be to clear it if you've not made any provision for a seating area, for instance.

Another reason that I read your post with a little bit of cold feet is that I live at the other end of the spectrum, surrounded by mature trees that all have to come down in the next little while. Naturally when this happens there will be more trees planted, and then instead of all old trees we will have all new trees, and no shade (except what the shrubbery will mercifully provide). What you are planning here basically guarantees that in a 50+ year-from-now time frame, the whole property will be devoid of trees as they become too big for comfort/safety/maintenance, and then the lot will be bare again, made so by an owner who craves some sun. I think if I had the opportunity you have, I would stick with what you have for now, with perhaps the addition of a conifer, and stagger the time of planting as much as possible so as to stagger the age of the trees. Of course, you may be able to achieve this effect by selecting faster and slower varieties, as you have done.

As far as grass is concerned, I think you'd have to acknowledge the fact that unless you plan to be there for 25 years, the woodland is not something you will experience as much as future residents there will do; this is not an immediate gratification exercise. For the next few years at least, you have an open sunny yard no matter how many trees you cram in, and unless you plant or otherwise cover the area from which you remove grass, it will become a weedpatch nightmare (the weeds will sprout happily on mulch). I would only remove grass where you are going to plant other things - any shade/woodland gardening book will give you the overview you need of those types of plants. Except - like I said, for now your yard is sunny, and it's too soon to plant the epimediums and such. You could plant alpine plants at this point!

Seems to me that in this situation you are planning the PROCESS and not the OUTCOME, although the outcome is the driving purpose. You need a plan covering some 20 years or so in which time the yard will gradually make the transition from a sunny suburban yard to a shady suburban yard. It is nice that you've gotten an early start, and I hope you do get to see the potential you've planted become what you envision.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2006 at 11:30AM
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It's too bad builders always feel the need to bulldoze lots perfectly level. To me, the lot is crying out for some break in the flatness. If money is no expense (sorry) I'd truck in some dirt and build up the area in the rear from the left side towards the center. Not too high, perhaps build a stonewall about 18" to 24" high starting near the fence, out towards he center and arching towards the left, gradually getting shorter until it's back to the existing grade. This gives some relief from the flatness, a little drama by the sharp face of the wall, and will give the plantings on the high part a little boost, screening or softening that big two story house a bit sooner.

In any case, I'd plant a screen of fast-growing plants along that rear fence. Perhaps your neighbbors with the barn will let you dig some poplars. Then plant some quality trees in front of them.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2006 at 7:28PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

I totally agree with Karinl's post.

Its seems as if you are trying to create woodland in a hurry... and they really don't develop that way...Unless you want to spend tons of money on mature trees - I think you should think about it in stages...

You might want to concentrate on a Savannah type planting for now. Savannah plants would do okay in the sun that you have now and the future part shady area that is your goal. Find shade tolerant plants will do okay in full sun. I would concentrate on those for the first phase.

I probably would not add too many more large size trees because once those trees are mature - you will a have a good amount of shade. If you add more, you may have too much shade when they all mature... You could consider a few smaller understory type trees... serviceberry, redbud, dogwood.

As the trees mature, in the future, then you could start adding plants that do not tolerate full sun...

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 2:32PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

You also might want to consider planting a portion of the low area as a rain garden. If you do a web search about rain gardens, there is tons of information out there.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 2:35PM
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waplummer(Z5 NY)

I have differences with Karinl's post. I have a mature woodland of oaks, hickory and pines mostly upwards to and exceeding 100 years. Her 50 years for the demise of trees doesn't add up. I made a quick check on the number of trees in my back woods came to 30 or more from 6 inches to two feet in diameter with 30 or more smaller than that. That works out to an average distance of 12-15 feet between trees with some as close as four feet. This woods is upwards of 100 years old as it was lumbered sometime in the late 1800's. So it's hard to have too many trees. Her statement "as they become too big for comfort/safety/maintenance" Trees do not become too big for comfort or maintenance and safety is only an issue if they are too close to your house. You want a mix of upper story,lower story and flowering trees plus shrubs. Granted when you move the new owner may cut everything down, but that is no argument not to plant trees.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 4:33PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

I think from a "landscaping standpoint" there can be such a thing as too many trees. If she wants to do a woodland landscaping, she will be able to choose from a wider variety of understory plants and still have a woodland feel, if it does not get too shady.

Its easier to get plants established and the landscaping choices are considerably greater for part shade and dappled shade than deep shade.

I never meant to imply that she should not plant ANY trees. She has already planted a good selection of 8 trees that will be quite large when they mature. And I suggested to add more understory type trees to what she already has planted.

(maybe I misread, but walplummers post, made it sound like I was saying not to plant trees?)

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 5:55PM
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Thanks for the great feedback.

Given the long-term timelines for establishing a woodland setting, it seems like the biggest question now it how many "canopy" trees need to be established to lay the groundwork for what would make up the upper canopy in a heavily wooded layout. I guess my biggest rush is to get those trees in the ground, as I know it will take a very long time for them to mature. The ground cover and understory trees and probably not even worth considering this year? My biggest concern is that I know I would enjoy a dense wooded layout, and I could be in this home for a long time (I am young, and this home meets all my needs). I don't want to look back in 10 years and wish I had put more large trees in place to establish a full canopy. My problem now is it is just hard to gauge the spatial layout of these potentially huge trees and gauge how they will relate to each other in 10, 2o, 30 years, etc. I want to make sure I get the slow developing major trees in early. Also, to clarify, I have 8 trees total, but 3 of those are in the front yard, which is another roughly 100' by 150' space. So they should not affect the back. Right how the back is mainly the three sycamores evenly spread across the 100' backline and the two maples up closer to the house. The quaking aspen are up against the fence on one side, and I don't expect them to spread much (unless I let their root suckers run wild). I am considering adding an Oak tree near the center of the yard, as a long term canopy (very long term) tree. I can't imagine the Oak would develop near as fast as the Sycamore and Maple. Right now, across the back there is roughly 30'-40' between each Sycamore, so I am not sure if I should go ahead and add some other trees or if they will eventually form a thick canopy over that span?

Thanks again for all the input, I do appreciate it.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 7:16PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

There are different rules of thumb for oak/hardwood woodland management depending upon what your goals are... typical numbers include a target canopy density of 30 to 60%, for oaks that number would be approximately 3 to 7 mature oak trees per acre. Which perhaps seems light, but it really is a nice wooded canopy that is not too dense.

Maples have a denser, fuller canopy than oak trees and it can be difficult to get things to grow underneath of them. So if you do add more trees, I would only add maybe one or two more away from where you planted the maples.

I don't think its too early to work on ground covers and understory trees, unless you are not sure where you want them.

I might suggest a small clump of pines somewhere, not that they "naturally" belong in a indiana woodland, but they do provide great shelter/nesting sites for birds and nice screening.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 7:57PM
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ladyslppr(z6 PA)

I have tried to establish woodland gardens in several situations that weren't really woodland, and so I have a few thoughts on this:

I agree with joepyeweed that you should consider planning a savannah garden that will eventually change into more of a woodland garden as trees grow and shade deepens. For the first few years you won't have enough shade to grow true woodland plants very well, and you'll have much better results by growing plants that are naturally found in sunnier areas and woodland edges.

I don't understand why Karenl thinks that mature trees "have to come down" or why trees will live only 50 years. Many species of hardwoods can live hundreds of years, and your sycamore and oaks will still be young trees in 50 years - they'll be really large, but still young by the standards of their species. I would avoid placing trees too close to fences, buildings, or roads so that they will have space to grow, and expect to have them for many, many years. They get better with age.

I would rather have fewer, large, nicely spaced specimens than lots of closely spaced trees, so I think you CAN have too many trees. However, when you first plant them, the trees will seem too far apart if you space them based on mature size. I would plant trees in groves, with trees about 15 or 20 feet apart. This will seem too far apart when the trees are young and perhaps too close when they mature, but is a nice compromise.

I'd plant oaks instead of maples. Maples are nice trees but they have shallow roots and dense shade and therefore aren't very good trees to try to grow plants beneath. Oaks may grow slower than maples at first, but will catch up after 10 or 15 years (unless you are talking Silver Maples, which are among the fastest growing trees).

If you put some fast-growing trees in with some slower growers you can create woodland conditions sooner. Consider some black locust or honey locust. Black Locust gets a bad rap because it tends to produce suckers from the roots, but it grows really fast and prodices a light shade that allows other plants to grow well beneath. I have less experience with Honey locust, but I think it is similar and more characteristic of midwest forests than Black Locust. However, honey locust has really nasty thorns.

I think a wetland or rain garden in the lowest part of the yard is a great idea. The wet area will support different plants than drier parts of the yard, and will give you a chance to experiment with new species.

Rather than wish you had a more mature woodland, try to appreciate the opportunity to start with prairie and savannah plants and gradually transition to woodland plants. Good Luck.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2006 at 8:48PM
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waplummer(Z5 NY)

When we built 40 years ago we had the type of mature woodland you are striving for. So what did I do. I planted more trees - understory trees largely. So when I quipped it's hard to have too many trees it's taken me these 40 years to reach that point. You probably don't want too many species, but a nice selection. Oaks are great. I love white pine; the older they get the more character they have. Check what trees tolerate damp soil. Donald Wyman in his tree book, as do others I'm sure, list trees adaptable. Ironwood is one that comes to mind. Hickories are great. Pecans would do, but may not set nuts. Tulip poplar is fast growing and grows straight and tall. magnolia is another choice. I would not plant them set distances apart. As I noted earlier some may be 20 feet apart, but others are almost on top of each other. It won't look so plannted that way.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2006 at 5:05PM
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ahughes798(z5 IL)

I would avoid maples. As mentioned above, they're hard to grow stuff under. They make really dense shade, their roots tend to lay near the surface, and their fallen leaves tend to mat down and suffocate things growing underneath. Oh, and they make tons of seeds most years. They also tend to suffer from heart-rot, so if you must have maples, I wouldn't plant them near the house. Just my personal opinion.

It's a lovely blank slate you have there, go slow and have fun with it.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2006 at 8:27PM
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I've been reading this thread for a few days and one thing that strikes me is the beautiful barn near one corner. Have you thought about how long that will actually remain there? As a possible area of interest, and if you should need a small shed for storage of tools & gardening supplies, why not look into a small outbuilding that would weather to grey tones and blend in with your plans for a wooded area. This would provide an area for a path as was suggested above.

I could also envision some tall and medium-tall conifers (cryptomeria, podocarpus varieties for example) to provide some winter interest and food for birds. (Can you tell I'm getting into conifer gardening?) I think those would be a beautiful backdrop for your eventual understory plantings that could then be a mixture of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, as well as some native species such as any azaleas, camellias or others for some color and flowering. The evergreens would also provide some desired height during the first years of growth and make it not seem so bare during winter.

I second the motion about avoiding any quick-growing trees such as maples. Japanese maples are another matter though and worth your consideration.

Have fun with it, and enjoy!

    Bookmark   February 2, 2006 at 10:49AM
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Woody_Canada(~USz5 - Canada)

I agree with the comments re maples being problem trees and not adding more. Oaks are slow growing indeed but beautiful to have. I'm also a big fan of white pines - just keep them away from the house as the autumn needlecast can be a problem in your eavestroughs if the trees are too close to the house. The needles make fabulous mulch for the garden though. I have several ~50 year old (middle aged) white pines on the property and am surrounded by older ones on neighbouring properties. They're the only evergreen I know that gets more beautiful as it ages. If I had your property, I'd be busy planting understory trees and shrubs that will do OK in the sun now but start giving you more of a woodland feel quickly while the canopy trees are taking their time to get big. Trees of any sort are one thing where it's worth spending a bit more to get a bigger tree to start with, planting it well and tending it carefully, especially in the first few years when it's getting established. I also agree that the corner by the barn would be a good place to build an attractive storage shed and perhaps your compost area - sort of carrying the barn theme into your yard. Are you planning a vegetable garden back there? Make sure you leave a sunny area for it. The backyard is totally shade garden here and I love it but I do wish there was a sunny spot for a vegetable garden. My lot is smaller that yours though - you have the room for sunny areas for sitting and growing sun-lovers as well as creating your woodland. Perhaps you need to be thinking of it as a woodland glade instead of just a woodland - i.e. allocate one area for sun, enclosed by the woodland area. That might make the property have more lasting value for both your family and any future owners. Planting trees that will outlive you is an act of faith in the future and more people should be doing it so, good for you!

    Bookmark   February 5, 2006 at 11:31AM
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knottyceltic(S/W Ontario 5b)

Hi there...

I actually "have" a mature woods in my backyard but it's in bad shape. It's an old farm woodlot that was clear cut at least twice. The trees are largely maple with some black cherry and American Beech but these guys are right, unless you like a "rough" walk through your woods, the roots are often above ground and somewhat hard to work around. In my case the woods had no understory at all save for a few species of spring ephemerals. Our project has been to build the woods an understory to fill in the huge gap between the floor and the canopy 70ft. above. I consulted the local conservation authority and they told me to give it up b/c "it's almost impossible". "Understory tree species and shrubs need to grow along WITH the canopy". Being the stubborn person I am, I didn't listen to them and have found many varieties to serve my purpose. I think at last count I've introduced about 44 native species. Do some reading, research the net and find species that you like but that also will grow alongside your canopy species and then still thrive once the canopy is better established.

One understory shrub that works well in sun as well as shade is the Serviceberry. In sun the Serviceberry turns neon orange in autumn and puts on a fantastic show. In shade it grows just as well but the fall show is a little more subdued. The leaves tend to turn more golden and yellow with little splashes or hints of orange. Serviceberry has a very nice habit and doesn't mind you pruning it to produce an even more compact appearance.

Another species that does well in both sun and shade is the Witch Hazel. I have one in full sun on my front lawn and one in full shade in my wooded area. Both are doing equally well and turn the same colour in autumn.

Winterberry is a deciduous Holly that you can plant around the base of your trees now. It loses it's leaves in fall but bright red berries will remain through the winter and are a favourite with the birds. Once the canopy trees are established the winterberry will do even better in the shade. Winterberry need male and female plants to set fruit.

"Nannyberry", "Arrowood Viburnum" and "Ninebark" will also do fine in both sun and shade situations. The Nannyberry and Arrowood have deep blue/black fruits that will drive the birds wild.

American Cranberry" works nicely at the edge of your woodland design and the red/orange berries last well through the winter for the birds and look pretty against the winter snow (if you get snow that is).

Check out some of the dogwoods that do ok in sun but thrive in shade. I'm not up on them but I think Grey Dogwood might be one (don't quote me on that though). Some dogwoods like only sun while others like only shade and a few fit in the middle but almost all will do fine as a forest edge species.

A really lovely deciduous tree through all seasons is the Sweetgum. It is deciduous but has the same shape as a Christmas tree and leaves that are like a Japanese Maple. They grow quickly and the best part is the fall's spectacular and is a bit different every autumn. It can turn any colour from burgundy to scarlet red and some autumns it litterally appears on fire with colour. Nurseries often sell them pruned to look like a deciduous tree with a trunk and then the leaves at the top but their natural appearance is like a christmas tree, with branches coming out right from the bottom and forming a cyllindrical shape.

Anyway, I think you should just do what makes you happy. Look up what species will work well in sun or shade, make natural looking "thickets" and use "natural succession" as a guide where to put things.

The most fun we had with our little wooded area was planning the little pathways that wind through it. That was the very first thing we did when we moved here, was designate the pathways. From there we planned the succession not just from the middle of the wood to the outside but also from the woods, down to the paths. Right at the path edges we placed a lot of the really nice plants that we want to see all the time.

Have fun with it! :o)

Barb in southern Ontario, CANADA

    Bookmark   February 6, 2006 at 6:56PM
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Flowerkitty(Z6 or Z5 SE MI)

A pretty motif I remember seeing in rustic decoration of my childhood was a silhouette of twin pines. That is how pines used to be represented. When pines grew from seed they tended to be in clumps.

I have recently changed plans for my lot. In a few spots, I am going to clump trees. In other spots where I am babying transplanted seedlings, I am going to leave them in place and let the best tree win. I figure one tree will likely crowd out the others. If not I may cut down the losers later, or leave them as spindly specimens just like a real woods.

Trees grow slow enough that you have plenty of time to cut one down while it is still pole-sized. I just use a hand saw. And in a woodland, the stump can be left in place, or you can leave enough standing to mount a birdhouse! Nice source of poles for those craft projects.

Last fall I planted a river birch. That tree likes water, looks good in clusters and gives pretty fall color. I noticed nurseries by me were sell birch in clusters.

You are going to have a lot of fun with your planting. Best wishes

    Bookmark   February 14, 2006 at 12:22AM
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sheryl_ontario(Muncho Lake, BC z2)

Willows like water and will grow in wet areas. There are many different kinds to choose from and they grow very quickly. Some are smaller, like pussy willow and then there is the corkscrew willow tree for added interest.

Birch trees are my favorite tree. The trunks add such contrast to the greenery and the leaves are a beautiful soft yellow in the fall. They also grow quickly.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2006 at 10:10AM
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Hello fellow Hoosier, wow, you've hit a gold mine of advice. One thing I didn't read was to consider the species/color/siting of the neighboring trees and place yours accordingly to further screen any less-interesting views and frame nicer views. I think you've done this but I really couldn't tell from your wonderful photos. I am currently extending a natural tree line across a client's lot and the best advice I can think of is to let the woodlands be your guide. Note what you like about your favorite woods and emulate it. You've had a lot of good species suggestions and combined with your research I'm sure you'll have a lovely wooded lot. Do explore the various dogwood species(& don't overlook cornus mas) and the many viburnums and witch hazels, chionanthus, lindera, American bladdernut, and as many varieties as you can find of my favorite, Amelanchier(Juneberry) I look forward to your adventures. Enjoy...

    Bookmark   March 25, 2006 at 10:04AM
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One I forgot... Nyssa sylvatica ("Black Gum" or "Tupelo"), another great native tree. And, while I'm at it, consider renting a bobcat for half a day or a day and put some curve in that creekbed and contouring in that uniform incline. Do you have a good organic resource faclity in your area where you can get natural recycled cheap mulch? You'll need to help that "forest floor" develop with organic matter. Since you essentially have a savanah now, consider seeding with wildflowers and grasses to help speed up the natural progression. Check out Earthly Goods Ltd. in Albany IN for a great selection of seed blends.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2006 at 10:24AM
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Rather than concentrate on the trees (since everyone is right, they will take a long time to mature), I suggest you think about what you like in a woodland setting. A shady area to sit? Muted tones, variegated leaves, textures? I suggest you start in one spot--maybe a corner with a restful view of the old barn--and create an area with the feeling you want. How about a few lilac bushes to create a hedge/shade, with a gazebo or pergola or twig arbor overgrown with annual vines like morning glory or scarlet runner beans and a old log or stump or a pile of fieldstones...add some hostas in the ground or in containers...Let the dog run around the rest of the space.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2006 at 10:53PM
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I wonder what happened to the OP? It's always interesting to see the before and after.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2006 at 3:48PM
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I am still working on the back yard. I will post some pictures here before to long. I brought in ten yards of mulch for the back, so that helped break up the lot and hide parts of the creekbed. I am probably going to put a few mores trees in off to each side this fall, plenty of good suggestions in this thread. I am going to keep the central view open and plant trees off to the sides.

    Bookmark   August 23, 2006 at 9:28PM
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