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Towering River Birch

Have you ever planted something too close to your house, driveway, or another plant? Let’s be honest, we all have. It is one of the most common and easiest mistakes gardeners make at least once in their gardening career.

I unfortunately see this common error in judging planting distance and size over and over again. It never comes as a shock or surprise to me. I simply evaluate the situation and express my recommendation as positively as I can.

If it is perennial flowers or grasses that are planted too close, I can breathe a sigh of relief. This planting situation can be corrected because they can be easily moved anytime from late February to early April. If it’s a shrub, it depends on its size and the amount of money you are willing to invest, but many can be moved quite successfully from mid-November to the end of March. For the best success, hire a professional to do the work.

Beware of house corners
Trees are a little more difficult. When a tree gets planted too close to the house or driveway, the challenge is that, by the time we realize it, it’s generally too late. They are too big to move, making removing them our only option.

What is it with our obsession to plant something tall on the corner of our houses? At so many of the homes I see, there is plenty of room to move out into the garden and plant a tree, like a river birch, for example, where it will have enough room to grow and spread out. We must simply be preoccupied with how we think it should look the day it is planted, instead of understanding that it will grow and knowing that it is our responsibility to plant it correctly and safely.

I was at a house recently working on a design for a client’s front yard. As usual, I stood for a moment and scanned the neighboring houses for potential positives or problems that we might need to address in the design. All the houses were relatively new. Of the eight houses I could see, six of them had a river birch planted right on the corner of the house.

Basic river birch
Did you know that Betula nigra, river birch, towers 50 to 75 feet tall and spreads out 30 to 40 feet when mature? There is no possible way there is enough room for these trees to grow to maturity when they are planted within 6 feet of the walls and foundations of homes. That’s a lot of money wasted in the garden.

The river birch is indeed a beautiful tree at any age, but does look quite different when mature. In youth, they have beautiful exfoliating bark, revealing layers of colors ranging from gray to cinnamon. As they mature, the exfoliation becomes less noticeable and the bark on the trunk becomes gray and textured. The leaves are simple and gently toothed with a grassy green color in spring and summer.

This is one of the few birches we can grow successfully in our area, which has led to its high popularity. It prefers moist acidic soils: when the soil’s pH is too high, you will commonly find extreme yellowing of the leaves, especially in the heat of summer. A soil test before you plant is a great way to avoid this problem, which will plague you every year unless you can successfully acidify the soil.

River birch is also drought-sensitive, so when the soils become dry in the summer you will see a constant littering of leaves on the ground in response. Because of this drought sensitivity, we do not like to recommend planting river birch around swimming pools, garden ponds, fountains, or patio areas where the summertime leaf fall can be a big problem.

Cultivated varieties
There are only a few cultivated varieties of river birch you will find available today. The most common is ‘Heritage,’ with its glossy green foliage in summer and bright yellow fall color. Its best characteristic is that the bark begins to exfoliate much sooner than regular river birch, and underneath the exfoliating pieces of bark you will also see shades of white as well as cinnamon colors. It is indeed beautiful and superior to the straight species. ‘Dura-Heat’ is a new cultivar that is showing real promise. It also has glossy green leaves but is known to be more resistant to leaf spot and tolerant of heat, so you have less leaf shedding in July, August, and September. Speculation is that ‘Dura-Heat’ will be a smaller cultivar, but because it’s so new only time will tell. We do anticipate it getting too large for planting close to our homes. ‘Little King’ is a dwarf form that we believe may be small enough for planting on the corner of a home. It grows quite slowly and larger specimens are still hard to find.

Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t make it right: that’s what my mother used to tell us when we were growing up. I now tell my own children this and it’s good advice for gardeners as well. Just because your neighbor did it doesn’t make it right for your garden. In this new gardening year, vow to be more patient, more responsible, and do something different for a change. Break out of your mold, make responsible choices, and stay diverse in your plant selections. Then you will have a truly unique and beautiful garden that will look as beautiful in the future as it does today.

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