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The art of landscaping with trees

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013, at 3:47 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 28, 2013, at 9:22 a.m.

When landscaping with trees, it helps to unify house and plants.

Shrubs and trees should be planted near the house in such a way that they balance and frame the house and soften the corners, Greg Davis, professor of landscape design at Kansas State University, said. “We try to blend the house or any built structures into the site. We can’t reproduce nature, but we try to emulate it.” Tall trees in the backyard provide a background for the house, anchoring it and breaking up the roof line.

Balancing the house does not necessarily mean using the same plants on each side. One design trick is to reverse in plants the shapes that are present in the house, Davis said. For example, if one side of the house is blocky in shape and the other side is elongated, you can use blocky-shaped plants on the elongated side and use elongated plants on the blocky side, “to pull that and bring that down into the landscape.”

It’s that matter of unifying. Another way is to follow the rule of thirds, a principle used in composing photographs. Translating it into landscaping means planting in odd numbers and choosing heights of plants that reach one-third or two-thirds up the side of the house, Davis said. “The human brain tends to separate in even-numbered things, so if you plant halfway up, you look at that and say, ‘There’s plants down here and house up there.’ But if you break it up in thirds, psychologically and visually,” the house and plants come together as a unity.

Concentrating on the size and form of plants simplifies the process of plant selection, Davis said. A good way to find plants that fit a certain shape you’re looking for is to go to botanical gardens and arboretums that label their plants, he said. That way you can see mature specimens. But you also have to go with a different eye, focusing on form rather than looking at details such as leaves and flowers, he said. If you choose plants based only on the flowers you like, for example, your yard can turn into a mini arboretum rather than a design, he said.

Some of the places in the area with labeled plants are Botanica, the Sedgwick County Extension Center grounds at 21st and Ridge Road, Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, and Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine (open for concerts and other special events; next chance is Oct. 13 for pianist Phil Aaberg; tickets $10; gates open at 3 p.m., concert is at 4).

Nurseries are another place to look. While you usually won’t see plants in their mature form, you will find the expertise to steer you in the right direction, Davis said. The county Extension Service also has lots of resources to help, he said.

He also recommends taking drives in the autumn to enjoy fall color and see what plants you enjoy that might fit into your home landscape.

In addition to beautifying, landscaping helps cut utility bills. Trees or other plants planted around the house provide a buffer so that wind doesn’t reach the house as strongly and reduces the energy exchange in the skin of the house, Davis said. A shade tree can reduce the temperature in an attic by 40 degrees, he said. Conifers that hold their leaves over the winter planted on the north and northwest side reduce wind speed and provide wind screening, he said. Shade trees planted on the west, south and southwest provide energy savings in summer.

When choosing a tree, be sure to take into consideration the mature height and width of the tree, so that you’re not planting something that will interfere with power lines or grow too close to the house, for example.

To find a tree that will thrive in your yard also consider your soil type, the amount of sun or shade the spot receives, exposure to wind and drainage.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

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