Q: I just bought an older home and want to landscape the property in front, but it is taken over almost entirely by a large spruce. Any suggestions? — Fred Hertel, Dover, N.H.
A: For the sake of preventing a few future problems, allow me to put in a plea for more thoughtful planting of trees and careful selection of species and their location. That overbearing spruce on your property was once a pert little tree. A few decades ago someone may have found it irresistibly cute at a nursery, proceeded to plunk it down either smack in the center of the lawn or right up against the house, where, as it grew, it scratched windows, banged against walls and begged for room. Never select a tree without imagining what it will look like when it is fully grown on the site you’ve selected. Choose smaller, more compact or columnar trees to plant close to a house.
As for your spruce, don’t be tempted to remove its lower limbs — if they haven’t been already — to create open space. So much of an evergreen tree’s natural grace is lost when its lowest branches are removed. They will never grow back. What’s more, you won’t be able to grow anything decent underneath there anyway. Your choices are to remove the tree — which would give you the most freedom to change and to add to your landscape — or to plant around the tree’s perimeter. Unless the tree is a threat to the house, I’d spare the chain saw. A healthy mature tree is an asset to your property. Besides bringing color to a barren winter landscape, large evergreens help insulate the house from cold winter winds as well as hot summer sun. If you keep the tree, consider large plants for its companions — a big evergreen tree is domineering. To soften the tree’s stiff formality, try planting clumps of ornamental grasses and craggy sumacs that will turn flaming red in the fall. Luminescent yellow-flowered brooms, shrub roses and buddleias ensure a long season of color against the evergreen backdrop and lend an old-fashioned feel to the yard.