Do not worry
Over the years I have listened to friends’ and customers’ various garden “concerns”, which I sometimes try to debunk. They are usually to do with some worry over plants attacking them or their property, causing irreparable damage, for which they will blame themselves forever…if only they had pulled that weed before it was too late. This seems to lead to all kinds of overthinking and anxious behaviour.
As we are embarking on the Chinese new year of the tiger, an animal symbolising bravery, I’m tackling the garden worry 101 of planting beds near houses.
This is often a concern that any plants near the house will bring moisture into the building and damage walls, foundations or drains.
Of course, this is not a subject to take lightly and there are countless reports of plants causing damage to walls and foundations, however, we are mainly talking about trees, and about large trees in particular. Having said that, as stated by the RHS: ‘most trees growing near buildings cause no damage’, there is more information on their website about the factors which can lead to a tree causing problem to a building, but overall if a building has watertight drains and sound footings, the risks should be minimal.
Many small trees won’t cause any problems at all for your house. You may not want to plant them right against your wall, unless you are growing the tree as an espalier or other trained form, which you can control over time. And large trees such as Oak or Poplar are to be avoided within 10 metres of a property. But, with careful selection and a little research many trees can be part of even the smallest garden. Look into its likely height at maturity, growth rate, soil requirements, growing conditions and whether it can be easily pruned whilst still retaining a good shape. Pruning, such as pollarding, reduce the need for big trees to produce extensive root systems, as they don’t have to sustain large canopy.
Some people also shy away from climbers such as Jasmine, Roses, Wisteria and a few other vertically minded plants, over a fear that they will attack their property. The reality is that all these climbers are pretty innocuous. They are also a very effective way of greening a wall, providing a habitat for wildlife, soaking up some of the rain, capturing some of the air pollution and softening beautifully most buildings.
But what about Ivy? English ivy (Hedera helix) is often the main protagonist in some wall and plant hell raising scenario. The issue with ivy is that it often grows into existing defects of walls (e.g. deteriorating mortar or cracks), where masonry is sound, the risk is minimal. Ivy has actually been identified as beneficial to some walls, by offering protection from the rain, filtering particulate pollution and reducing seasonal as well as night/day temperature differences reducing warming/cooling of stone and mortar , see more information about the actual research at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-28276-2. Ivy brings also biodiversity benefits, many insects visit its flowers, birds eat its berries and the dense foliage can provide a habitat for birds. And it can offer striking aesthetics too, Frank Lloyd Wright said: ‘Physicians can bury their mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines [meaning ivy].’
Of course, I would still act with caution with Ivy, because it is such a vigorous climber, so unless you know you are able keep it in check every year, it might be best to opt for another climbing plant.
People’s anxiety over planting directly in the ground and against their house often results in plants ending up in pots on patios. Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice pots and some plants are suited to grow in them, particularly if they require winter protection and have to be brought in such as tender perennials, or they like having their root constricted (e.g. Agapanthus) or you need to control carefully their growing substrate (e.g. alpine plants requiring gritty, free draining soils). The rest is anathema. Having shrubs which would naturally get big in a pot, is tantamount to torturing the poor things. Their roots becoming constricted, lacking nutrient, water…etc and sooner or later looking anaemic and dispirited. The use of pots will also mean more watering, feeding, re-potting and other faff which won’t do your eco credentials any good.
So, as we start the year, free yourself and your plants, don’t be pot bound, plant them in the ground, and do not worry.
If you enjoyed this article, share it with friends, family, colleagues...etc. I’m a social media ghost, this means I rely on others to spread the word. So, don’t be shy. Thank you.
All photos and artwork are my own.