Dealing with the magnolia—and a private, grassless front yard
When we think of the southeastern U.S., the tree that usually comes to mind is the southern magnolia. When I was a child, my picture with Mom and Dad was published in the Milwaukee Journal as we posed with a magnolia bloom that Dad had brought back from a trip to North Carolina. This was a rare sight for the people in Wisconsin. We moved back south soon after. Mom wasn’t meant to be in Wisconsin–she’s a Southern Lady.
We all seem to enjoy looking at stately magnolia trees, but a lot of people who have them in their yards complain about the constant debris and the fact that nothing much will grow under or around them. My friend Ray Atkins (The Front Porch Prophet, Sorrow Wood) wrote an article about his magnolia problems called “The Tree of Doom.” Ray remarked that John the Plant Man might know how to solve the problem. I couldn’t get it off my mind until I realized that my friend Ginger had, indeed, solved the magnolia problem. Ray’s article is here:
And here’s how the lady solved the problem
You see, Ginger decided years ago that she perhaps wasn’t going to be able to grow a nice lawn under the magnolias planted on each side of her front walk, and a true Southern Lady must have a magnolia. Instead of growing a nice lawn, she decided to grow a nice jungle. Ginger started by bending the limbs of the trees down to the ground and placing bricks on them. The limbs obediently took root.
Years went by and more limbs were rooted while the trees got into the project and sent aerial roots down to help grow even more magnolias. It seemed that the magnolias, even though confined to a relatively small city lot, enjoyed the freedom to spread out and express themselves in a totally natural art form. Ginger found that Aspidistra (cast iron plant) would grow rather well as an accent plant and the magnolia accepted this and respected the aspidistra’s territory.
Now, instead of having to worry about a lawn of problematic grass, the homeowner is able to relax and enjoy the benefits of one of the best “privacy plantings” that I have ever seen. The magnolia jungle also adds a certain feeling of peace to the walk down the flagstone entrance to the front of the house. The walk is dark, green, shady, and cool with a true “light at the end of the tunnel. It is compelling.
A beautiful flagstone sitting area has been installed between the ‘jungle’ and the house. A small accent fountain waits for the pump to be turned on after its winter rest. It is a wonderful place for the lady and her friends to ‘wine down’ as she puts it.
A few years ago, Ginger decided to take out a row of hollies in front of the house and asked me to install a “different sort of garden with an oriental flair.” So we built a dry river bed, raised the beds, and planted a meditation garden with a mixture of isolated, shaped shrubbery, ground covers, and flowers.
A mature flowering cherry adds beauty, provides light in the winter and shade in the summer, adding a massive accent that ties in the magnolia forest and the patio garden. It is just coming into bloom.
Ginger says that once a year one may sit in the garden as the petals fall like snow. Dekie and I are invited this year.
For an accent, we installed three large rocks on the hillside leading from the drive to the patio. A visit to the “rock farm” ended up with a rock that formed a natural chair. Dekie sat down to read the morning paper as I roamed around with the camera.
Across from the rocks, a rhododendron pokes out from the magnolia jungle promising a nice show in a couple of weeks.
Roaming around toward the back of the house, I found this rather interesting camellia flower
And talk about privacy for a pool! The back side of the pool is grown up in bamboo which is usually a worse problem than magnolias, but it is confined here with the pool deck. A thinning is required once or twice a year but it is a good choice, overall.
I think that the lesson I learned in this remarkable garden is that sometimes we must give up on our obsessions with plant grooming and just allow the plants to grow free. Sometimes we should lessen our control and allow nature to show us its own art form.
As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?
John the plant man has helped Ray Atkins. How can he help you?
Go ahead, leave a comment–then share this with your friends.
8 thoughts on “Dealing with magnolias-and a grass free front yard”
ITS ALMOST AS IF JOHN IS BAITING ME WITH AN ARTICLE ABOUT MAGNOLIAS..AFTER I LIVE ON MAGNOLIA ST..AND “THE” MAGNOLIA FROM THE STREET NAME IS JUST ACROSS THE STREET..ITS AN IMPRESSIVE OL GIRL 60= FEET TALL AND TAKING UP HALF THE LOT ..AND WHEN SHE BLOOMS WILL HAVE HUNDREDS OF BLOOMS.. WHEN I FIRST MOVED HERE IT WAS WINTER AND I WAITED PATIENTLY FOR THE TREE TO BLOOM..I WANTED TO DO A WATERCOLOR WITH MY OWN BLOOM IN HAND..SO I KEPT WATCHING EVERY DAY AND PICKED OUT A GOOD BUD WITHIN REACH..AND AS SOON AS IT STARTED OPENING I CUT IT OFF AND HOME I WENT TO GET IT SKETCHED..NEXT MORNING EARLY I WAS OUT WATERING PLANTS AND JO-ANN MY CROSS THE STREET NEIGHBOR WAS WORKING TOO..(WE OFTEN CHATTED ACROSS THE STREET) BILL…SHE SAID SOMEONE HAS STOLEN MY MAGNOLIA BLOOM…I CANT BELIEVE IT!…..DAMN I THOUGHT SHE HAS A HUNDRED BLOOMS AND SHE MISSES THE ONE I GOT….SO I LIED AND FESSED UP AT THE SAME TIME….I TOOK THE BLOOM SO I COULD PAINT YOU A WATERCOLOR..OH.. HOW SWEET ..SHE SAID..I ACTUALLY WAS PAINTING FOR MYSELF AND IT WAS TURNING OUT SUPER…BUT I NEEDED TO GIVE IT SO I DID..THE LORD HAS FUNNY WAYS SOMETIMES OF LETTING US KNOW THAT HE IS WATCHING…IT TURNED OUT WELL..THE PAINTING WAS FRAMED AND BECAME THE CENTERPIECE OF HER LIVING AREA ..PROUDLY SHOWN TO ALL VISITORS AS A GIFT FROM HER ARTIST NEIGHBOR…ONE QUESTION FOR JOHN….THE OLD FOLKS DOWN HERE BELIEVE THE MAGNOLIA TREE POISONS THE GROUND UNDER IT SO THE ROOTS CAN BREATHE.. WATCHA THINK OLD FRIEND?
Does the magnolia “poison” the ground or does it just use up all the water before anything else can get in?
Why John, any little boy with a fishing pole can tell you, the best thing to grow under a Magnolia is night crawlers. All you have to do is let those leaves pile up for a while and you will have the best worm farm ever! My little boy discovered that when we first came to Rome and moved to our house on West First Street, next to Ms. Hackett, where the library is now. My Magnolia is still there and so are my Camellias.
John followed a little later. Yes, I (and Dan)will take credit for bringing him to Rome. I thought he was special then and I still thinks so now.
My other memorable Magnolia experience took place in Washington, DC where I lived on Capitol Hill about two blocks fro the Capitol for several years. On summer evenings I would sit on the ballustrade surrounding the West Patio of the Capitol with Magnolias planted below. It felt like I was sitting in the tree tops of those magnificent old trees, the view down in to the blooms and the fragrance were intoxicating. Many evenings I would be all alone in front of MY Capitol and utterly proud to be an American.
Then came 9/11, concrete barricades and guards denying me access. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
You’re right – I did cry when I saw that picture. We were pretty cute, weren’t we? Your dad knew that nothing would make me happier that a magnolia bloom! And you were adorable.
I always wanted a magnolia tree in my yard but somehow never had the right yard for it. However, every Christmas I have stolen or begged for magnolia leaves for my mantel. And I love the red seed pods that follow the flowers.
This is a beautiful article, depicting an unusual way of dealing with this classic tree. You and Ginger are quite a team.
I enjoyed this article, John. I have always wanted a magnolia and decided several years ago that I would plant one in our “front” yard, which is really at the entrance to our driveway which is almost a half mile long. That way, I could allow the magnolia to grow to its full size and not worry about “ruining” the yard at the house by having a magnolia that would overtake the grass. So I had one planted and hoped I would live long enough to enjoy the tree in all its splendor. Alas, in its second year, when it was still a youngun the rutting bucks decided the trunk was just the right size for rubbing and removed all the leaves at the bottom of the tree. Now, I can tell you that I can not abide magnolias that are limbed up. I know sometimes people find it necessary to do that but it is really annoying to me.
So, I didn’t enjoy my magnolia any more and asked my plant man to dig it up and plant another one. He suggested that we leave it there and plant another one in front of it and I could enjoy the free flowing magnolia and disguise the stunted one. So I made sure to place some (ugly) fencing of hog wire all around the trees before the next fall to thwart the deer. But a rutting buck is a determined fellow and he tore into the fence and rubbed the bottoms of both trees. So I am left with limbed up magnolias which look weird to me. They are still fairly young trees and I fenced them off for several autumns, although I no longer have to do that.
Thank you for the suggestion of planting aspidistra beneath magnolias. I have actually been looking around for a couple of places to add this plant to my “real” yard at the house but never thought of planting it beneath my stripped off magnolias. I believe that is the solution to help disguise the deer damage. I am so thankful I read your article! You always have the best suggestions, John.
If you will allow me another comment, John, regarding magnolias. I have some dear friends who live in one of the older stately neighborhoods here. In front of their home are two beautiful magnolias which have been allowed to grow freely. It is very hard to actually see their house. I have never told them this but many years ago I was in a gardening class and the teacher was talking about allowing room for a tree at the size it will become when grown. She said people should be careful or they could end up like those homes on “blank” street which look like the magnolia trees devoured the house. I never see them that way. I think they are lovely.
These same friends had a huge magnolia in their back yard which had been limbed up and they complained all the time about not having grass and the roots pushing up the patio beneath. When they finally decided to take the tree down all their neighbors complained because they enjoyed seeing the tree. But the neighbors could only see the beautiful top of the tree, not the damage on the ground.
One time before I had a magnolia of my own I asked my friend if I could take some leaves from her trees for my Christmas mantle decorations. I was up under the trees happily clipping away when the mail carrier approached from the street and walked under the trees to the front door. He was probably the only person who ever approached the house from that way instead of the driveway. He didn’t see me and I didn’t hear him and when we met we both had quite a fright! You really can hide well under those wonderful trees. While I was under the trees I had the feeling of being a girl again and playing under the trees in secret “forts” and such.
How can anyone not love a magnolia?
sorry, but I was not looking for a story, just a answer to my problem. thk.
Sorry about that, Gary, but if you will tell me what your problem is, I’m sure that I can help you. I’ve been in the business for forty years.