Have you ever picked out that one perfect tree for your garden and then thought it looks lonely out there? I call it stuck in the one-tree rut. Sometimes Mother Nature plants trees all alone, but more often they are found growing naturally in groves or groups.
When I was living in Georgia, one of my favorite things was that, in almost every front yard and entrances to corporate office buildings, you would find small and sometimes large groves of trees. In most cases they were loblolly pines, native to the area and saved during construction, or newly planted groupings of pines.
These plantings were quite simple, nothing fancy underneath, just a nice clean bed line surrounding the group and a 2- to 3-inch layer of pine straw mulch. There were no flowers, no glamour, or rich colors. So what made these garden areas so appealing?
Preservation of mature trees was certainly a part of it. Saving trees during construction is not easy and the failure rate is typically very high. Low maintenance also makes this type of planting appealing. New plantings are installed, mulched, and watered when necessary. Weed control is generally only necessary when the plantings are young. As the planting matures and the root competition increases, the shade cast below prevents many weeds from growing.
What I found most appealing was the depth and balance these plantings brought to their structures. For a small home a group might consist of only three to five trees planted together and mulched as a group, while at a large corporate building there may be several groups with 30 to 40 trees.
Playful grove design
For most of our homes, small groups are enough. When I lived in Hardin County, one of the first plantings we installed in our front yard was a small group of Katsura trees. We chose small nursery stock, each only 3 feet tall and grown in a 2-gallon nursery container. Five trees were arranged just to the right of the center of our house and forward toward the street. This would normally be an area where you would find one tree planted all alone.
The group was mulched so that there was no grass from tree to tree within the group, being careful to not take up too much space. You want the grass to closely approach the outside of the planting and have the most mulched space within the inner canopy. At first, it just looked like an island of mulch in our front yard, but by the next year the trees had grown tremendously and you could see the natural grove begin to appear. We loved it.
When planting a group of trees to look like a natural grove, it is important to not plant them in a straight line. This is the time to be playful. Randomly place the trees within the area chosen and plant them right away before you change your mind.
Choosing trees for groves
When planting a natural grove, it is important to start out with smaller nursery stock. This allows the trees to grow together naturally as they would in the woods. The large trees commonly found in nurseries today with 1-inch or larger trunk caliper are produced in nursery rows and grown to look perfect all alone. When you put this type of material together in a group, it will bring a much more formal or intentional feel to the garden. This is also a very beautiful style of planting and it looks very appropriate in the more formal garden spaces.
The plants you choose for your natural grove also don’t have to be perfect. The trunks can be tilted slightly or have other character flaws, but no structural flaws, and they can have branches lower to the ground. Some gardeners will maintain their grove branched fully to the ground, while others will prune off all the lower branches to see under the planting. It is simply a matter of your personal preference.
Choosing the variety of plants for a grove can be the most challenging job. Choosing evergreens like pine, magnolia, or spruce brings a real Southern feel to a garden space. Planting a grove of flowering trees like dogwood, serviceberry, or crabapple brings a sweet Victorian, almost feminine, feeling to the space when they are in bloom. If you really want that natural feel to the grove, choose a combination of native trees like sassafras, silverbell, or redbud. For a real Oriental flair, choose Japanese maple, a cutleaf beech, or cutleaf alder.
Neighborly tree projects
In neighborhoods like mine, where the houses are close together, you may not feel that you have room for a small grove, but you still can. By working together with a neighbor and developing a grove between your two yards, you can do two things: bring a sense of enclosure to each yard, and elevate the sense of an abrupt change in style as you go from one garden to the next. This more than anything is the greatest advantage of a natural grove of trees in the front of any garden, no matter how large or small.
If you are stuck in the one-tree rut, it’s time to break out and plant a grove of trees. This natural buffer can soften any area where there is a lot going on, whether it is house after house on a busy city street, big corporate buildings, or just clashing garden styles.