Archive for small trees

St. Johns Front Yard with Rain Garden

Colorful Low Maintenance Landscape Update In St. Johns

St. Johns Portland front yard low maintenance landscape update.

New Front Garden

Clients Wish List

Terry and Connie wanted a carefree front yard with nice curb appeal. After new construction finished next door, they felt motivated to update their mess of a front yard (their words, not mine!). One main objective for the project was to fix the transportation. Wobbly pavers and stairs that were too close to the driveway caused issues each time they parked in the driveway. No one wants dents on the driver side door!

Before low maintenance landscape update in St Johns.


As for the garden, he wanted a bit of grass while she wanted none. Both wanted a plant palette that is low on maintenance and high on color.

Designers perspective

I helped the homeowners decide between lawn or no-lawn by discussing the “why”. He wanted lawn for ease of maintenance and to cut down on weeding. She wanted no lawn for the look of a colorful front garden. After collaborating and tweaking the design several times, we settled on no-lawn but with ample walking paths. This appeals to both parties because the paths are low maintenance and make it easy to reach from all sides of the bed for weeding. On top of that, I selected plants that are particularly good at suppressing weeds. More about the plants below.

New matched hardscape in this St Johns front yard update.

During – Construction by D&J Landscape Contractors

I solved several issues through fencing in this design. The front fence provides a separation between road and home. It remains inviting and interesting because of the see-through slats and low 42″ height. A matching 6′ fence hides the garbage cans and shed in the side yard.

New low front yard fence uses existing azalea in St Johns front yard update.

Low Front Yard Fence with Azalea Peeking Through

The disconnected downspout dumped directly into the yard, which caused too much water in the winter, a classic problem in Portland. The new rain  garden provides the perfect solution for excess winter water and also creates a beautiful focal point which can be seen from the front porch.

Rain garden added to fix water problems in this landscape update.

Rain Garden


We referred the project to D&J Landscape Contractors.  The low fence was installed by Rick’s.


The established Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) is a beautiful old tree and was able to stay with minimal pruning.

St Johns landscape update uses existing Vine Maple.

Look how the new landscape highlights that Vine Maple!

Other plants in good shape and able to stay were the Azalea, Rhododendron, and Fatsia.

The new tree is an Evergreen Magnolia.

Low maintenance landscape update with evergreen magnolia.

Evergreen Magnolia anchors this garden bed.

Groundcovers are very integral to the continuity of this design. The gold highlights are Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’) and Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Variegatus’). The purple contrast is Heuchera ‘Purple Petticoats’. The evergreens that ground the look are Inkberry (Ilex glabra) and Geranium (G. cantabrigiense ‘Crystal Rose’).


The new walkway is Variegated Bluestone, and the mossy boulders were brought in to give the garden a nice established feel.

Contact us

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2021 Update!

The Garden is looking beautiful as the plants grow in fat and happy.

Rain Garden filters the runoff from the roof, through a disconnected downspout and soaks into the ground. Acorus and Ilex surround the boulders.

Plants are filling in nicely: Heather, Mugo Pine and Geranium. The Magnolia anchors the bed, bermed up with boulders.

Protecting Our Portland Birch Trees from Bronze Birch Borer

Protecting Our Portland Birch Trees from Bronze Birch Borer

 NE Portland birch tree marked for removal by the City of Portland due to bronze birch borer.

Birch trees marked for removal by the City of Portland due to bronze birch borer.

Birch Trees Dying from Bronze Birch Borer

Many developers, builders and home owners picked the Himalayan White Birch (also called Jacquemontii,) for its crisply white bark and over planted them. They even planted them in parking strips with no irrigation, in full hot sun, which is not a good place for a birch. My Vancouver client’s neighborhood had over 200 mature infected trees removed. They had already lost 2 birch trees and I made tree replacement suggestions as part of their Landscape Design in a Day.

Back in the 1980’s the Himalayan White Birch was touted as the new success story because it had been hybridized to repel the Bronze Birch Borer (BBB). At that time I was a student learning about trees at a local community college. The European Weeping White Birch had been decimated by the BBB so everyone was very excited about the new Himalayan White Birch. Over the next 20 years, the bronze borer changed its preferences and became attracted to the over planted Himalayan White Birch. It makes sense from an evolution perspective; why not change to fit the food that is available?  Smart bug!!!

City of Portland has tagged this borer damaged birch tree for removal

30 years ago Himalayan White Birch was used because it repelled Bronze birch borer.

Recently I have noticed the dreaded yellow tape of death tied around birch trees in the city. I create my Landscape Design in a Day drawings on site so I am in every conceivable neighborhood.  The Bronze Birch Borer is now all over Portland and has spread south to Klamath Falls.

Today when I see my client has a birch tree, I give them the current research and it’s mostly bad news. I often include in their design a potential replacement tree for when, not if, their tree is devastated by the Birch Bronze Borer.

River Birch (Betulus Nigra) is a safe replacement tree - Bronze birch borer does not feed on this birch tree.

Heritage River Birch in winter. River Birch (Betulus Nigra) is a safe replacement tree – Bronze birch borer does not feed on this birch tree.

Protecting Your Portland Birch Tree

My research says watering your trees regularly before they are infected is a huge step toward preventing the disease. If you have a birch tree that is thriving or only has minimal borer damage, consider starting to irrigate it ASAP. Start by deep watering it every week to two weeks starting in early summer into mid to late fall.  Don’t let your tree get stressed. (Deep water is a long slow soak with your hose.) Under no circumstances should you water your tree every day – that is not helpful.  (See my watering tips blog).

Pesticide treatments

I’m also reading that more people are using a chemical treatment (which will help your tree) than they were initially. I’m not very happy about that because the treatments will harm bees. They are mostly drenches that are systemics (bad for bees) or injections done by tree services which are also systemic in nature (and so bad for bees). Apparently the timing of the treatment and how it is done can make it less lethal to bees but isn’t this backward of  saving the bees and therefore our food supply? If it were my tree, given my very strong feelings about protecting bees, I would try watering deeply and regularly and not treat the tree with pesticides. If the tree is too far gone I would have it removed, grieve and plant a new tree that is resistant to disease and insects and prefers little summer water.

Weeping Katsura tree has similar texture to Birch

Katsura tree at Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon

In short, if you love your tree, start taking care of it. The first trees that died were neglected, poorly sited and in neighborhoods chock full of white barked birch trees.

Weeping Katsura is my go to birch replacement now since borers have killed so many birches.

Weeping Katsura in one of my clients gardens in Willamette Heights.

Signs of Bronze Birch Borer

The first signs are yellowing foliage in the top of the tree. As the insect infestation continues, small branches and tips die. It moves on into the larger branches. Declining to the point of death usually takes several years. There are other signs of borer; ridges in a lightning pattern and a distinctive D shaped hole in the bark. There can be a kind of stain coming from the holes, a sort of reddish liquid which looks as bad as it sounds.

Cercidiphyllum_japonicum, Katsura tree

Katsura tree with beautiful fall color.

New Resistant Varieties-Maybe

I am hesitant to trust that new resistant white barked birch varieties will stay resistant if we over plant them as we did the Jacquemontii/Himalayan white birch.  I offer the river birch which has a brown peeling  bark and typical birch leaves.  Alternatively my favorite replacement for birch trees is the Katsura tree also called Cercidiphyllum. The Katsura has the graceful shape somewhat reminiscent of a birch tree with heart shaped leaves that flutter in the breeze.  I feel it is a safer choice since it is not related to birch at all but alas no white bark!

Selecting trees that have the best chance to become mature old trees is my way to contribute to my clients and our community. Keeping up to date on the best trees to use and keeping my selection diverse will make the best urban forest for the future.

Kym Pokorny, (now writing for OSU’s Extension Service),  says these are good replacement choices;  ‘Heritage’ river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) and ‘Whitespire Senior’ gray birch (Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire Senior,’ which has the whitest bark of the replacement tree ideas.  I suspect if we over plant these borer resistant birch trees, the borer will change its tastes to the available food so the best thing to do is plant lots of different trees.

Katsura 'Red Fox' is a smaller tree that is getting used in irrigated parking strips.

Katsura ‘Red Fox’ is a smaller tree that is getting used in irrigated parking strips.

I came across a lovely old white birch tree just the other day in the Buckman neighborhood and gave my new client, who had just purchased the home, some information on how to care for the tree. The tree seems untouched by borer and is situated where it gets some afternoon shade.  He will start to summer irrigate.  Perhaps some birch trees are unique individuals because they were grown from seed and this unique genetic combo may cause them to be unattractive to the BBB. We can only hope that some of these remaining individual trees, if irrigated, will remain to grace our landscapes and homes.  In 2010 Kym Pokorny, my favorite garden writer, warned that our graceful white bark birch trees might become a tree of the past in Portland. Boy was she right!!



Small Trees for Fall Color

What trees are small enough to mature in the typical yard space, have low water needs and have full season beauty?

Acer Circinatum "Pacific Fire" photo from Handy Nursery

Acer circinatum ‘Pacific Fire’ photo from Handy Nursery

Our Native Vine Maple is Tried and True

Select a new variety of native vine maple, Acer circinatum, like Pacific Fire with scarlet red winter twigs.  It is attractive in partial shade to dappled sun but the best effects of color, both twig and fall leaf color occur in half day sun.  It can be grown in full sun but this will probably spoil the foliage with leaf scorch.  Plant it in morning sun with dappled afternoon shade for best results.  Matures at 15′ to 20′.

Seven Sons Flower is Great for a Tough Spot

Seven Son Heptocodium photo courtesy of Treephoria

Heptacodium miconioides ‘Seven Sons’ photo courtesy of

Here’s a tree for a hell strip! Seven Sons Flower, or Heptacodium miconioides, is great for full sun and less than great soil.  You can buy it as a standard, or single trunk tree, which will fit in your parking strip nicely. Or buy the low multi-branched form (pictured) for placement in the landscape.  It flowers in late summer and holds the color of the flower into late fall so you don’t miss out on fall color either even it if isn’t the leaves that glow red; 20′ at maturity.

Use Phoenix Snake Bark Maple for Something New

Acer Conspcium Phoenix photo courtesy of Treephoria

Acer conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ photo courtesy of

Here is the newest darling tree Acer conspicuum ‘Phoenix’, or Snake Bark Maple.  It needs regular watering, less after a few years have gone by but is not drought tolerant.  Amazing twig color and the bark’s dramatic color show just gets better and better as the tree matures.  Like all maples, plant up on a mound if you have heavy clay soil.  Good drainage is the key to longevity.

Use Crape Myrtle for Four-Season Interest

Crepe Myrtle - photo taken at J Stone Garden

Crape Myrtle – Focus here is on bark color.  Photo taken at J Stone Garden

My favorite Crape Myrtle, or Lagerstromia, is ‘Tuskegee’, maturing at 15′.  These trees need to be planted in well drained soil or up on a mound.  Don’t plant this tree with an east wind exposure.  Best in full sun or 3/4 day sun.  Winter bark, wow fall color, hot red orange summer flowers, with low summer water needs. Another great variety that is easier to find is Tuscarora, or Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Tuscarora’.

Crape Myrtle in NE Portland Landscape Design

This Crape Myrtle putting on an early Fall show in a NE Portland front yard.