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October 2014


Shade trees are the soft flesh, if you will, on a city’s skeleton of buildings and concrete. Shade trees bring life to hard spaces and make a home for people in the cities in even the most unlikely places. Amidst urban heat, hard surfaces, and harsh glare, shade trees are an immediate relief – an oasis. I’ve thought a lot about this since one of Harrisonburg’s very best restaurants closed its doors. The Blue Nile created home for many people, in part because of its shade trees.

In 2008 we planted trees to shade the Blue Nile’s outdoor patio. The owners of the Blue Nile, the Arefaine family, had a vision for their space. They wanted to filter the hot glare of the setting sun and provide a welcoming canopy for their guests to dine under. We were honored to be asked to help them with this plan. With a patio elevated six feet above the ground, only a small planting strip squeezed up against the patio’s edge, and shallow soil with a “bedrock” of gravel just 15 inches below the soil’s surface, it was clear the options were limited. We chose the Zelkova for its disease and insect resistance, its ability to grow fast, its tolerance for urban conditions and its vase-shaped growth habit to rise above the patio and shelter outdoor diners.

The young trees just after planting.
6 years later, the trees have filled out beautifully creating a lush retreat. 

Sitting on the Blue Nile patio this last year under the shelter of these rustling boughs has been one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had in the company of city trees. With the pull of an oasis in a concrete desert, I was drawn down to this lush space to do office work on my laptop. I could focus better there when I needed to get out of our home office. It was a perfect mix: our dear and generous Blue Nile family, these trees, the sky, filtered light and the sound of leaves moving with the breezes. I was calmed and this quickly became my home away from home.

I am deeply saddened that the Blue Nile closed its doors. And yet, I imagine the experience many had finding home under the shelter of these trees will inspire greener, softer, cooler, healthier spaces in our city. We need more trees in our city to work, to sleep, and to play under. Trees under which to feel the passage of time as the seasons change. We need these trees to be native whever possible as our native insects, birds, and critters need native trees for food and shelter. Life gravitates toward trees and restores and developes in their presence. Trees sustaining power cannot be overstated.

I am grateful I will always have the Arefaine family’s vision to learn from. In a lasting way the Blue Nile taught me what it means to find home within the shelter of trees. Thank you to the Arefaines and all who are making space for trees.


Karl Shank


There are a few more good weeks to plant trees and shrubs (and some perennials) before colder weather settles in, so we’re offering you a review of our planting method.  Our method can save you time and money.

The key is smaller plants. We use vigorous younger plants (One & two-gallon containers for trees & shrubs and 4.5” plugs & quarts for perennials & grasses) because they cost less, and especially in the case of trees and shrubs, they acclimate more quickly and grow faster than larger plants. We usually use 4.5”x2” plugs for perennials and grasses because they are deep enough to reach below drying soils during a drought and usually catch up to a quart or gallon container a year later.

The first step in this cost-saving planting method is not actually planting, but mulching. It is much faster and easier to install smaller plants through the mulch than trying to mulch around these younger plants. Below you’ll see the installation steps we go through to plant effectively through about 2.5” of mulch.

This planting method is simple and has worked very well for us for many years by making our clients’ budgets go a lot further while achieving high quality, successful, low-maintenance landscapes. If you have any questions about any of this please feel free to CONTACT US and we will be glad to see how we can help.



In most landscapes after dealing with weeds, turf, and any compaction, and after adding a thin layer of compost to the soil’s surface (no more than 1”) we add about 2.5” of mulch. As mentioned above, because we use smaller, young plants we find it is much easier to mulch first and plant second. We find about 2.5” of mulch works nicely to suppress weeds and keep from needing to add mulch again too soon. We don’t love the idea of using mulch, but find it is a necessity to avoid high-maintenance landscapes that require too much weeding. You might be able to limit the amount of mulch you use if you design your gardens so that plants shade out and out-compete weeds by planting small plugs more densely.

Once you’ve laid out your plants, clear the mulch where you’ll dig. An area roughly twice the size of the plant's container should be cleared. You can do this with a small trowel or a Hori-Hori, (this Japanese digging tool’s name translates to “dig-dig”) which we use for fast digging and transplanting. The Hori-Hori is our favorite gardening tool and you can find these at for about 20 dollars. Pull the cleared mulch towards you to create a little mulch berm between yourself and the planting hole. This berm will catch soil from scattering across clean mulch. Firm the berm and surrounding edges of mulch with your hands to keep soil and mulch from mixing.

Next, open the soil by using a small digging tool or a larger digging tool if the ground is harder to dig (like a D-grip digging shovel). Loosen the soil but don’t fertilize as your layer of compost applied before spreading mulch will work well to provide most native plants with enough nutrition as long as you have chosen an appropriate plant for your micro-climate.

Next, set aside about the same amount of soil as the plant’s container holds making sure to keep the soil separated from the mulch. You can do this by either placing the extra soil in another container or in the cleared area between the planting hole and the mulch berm. Managing the extra soil in this way will keep the soil from mixing into the mulch. This is one of the main points to consider when planting after mulching.
While holding the container over your planting hole in order to contain any potting soil from falling onto your mulch, gently remove the plant from its container. Ideally, your young plant will have nicely developed roots that are not root bound. Untangle roots as necessary with your fingers, a Hori-Hori, or garden knife. Place the plant in the hole so that the top of plant’s root ball sits slightly above the level of the surrounding undisturbed soil. With larger plants, like a one or two-gallon tree or shrub, be sure the plant is resting on firm (not compacted) soils so it will not slump after planting. Backfill with the extra soil.

When spreading the mulch back over the plant, first use any dirty mulch as a base layer and then the rest of the clean mulch from your berm. Cover the root ball but be sure to keep mulch from coming into contact with the stem/trunk to avoid rotting the crown/trunk. Pat the surrounding mulch down so that it is even with the rest of the mulch bed.

Water your plant deeply. We always water our plants in their containers before planting to assure that the root balls are completely drenched, but it is important to water again after planting to drench surrounding soils and all the soils to further settle around the roots. Wait for spring’s welcome surprises!


We recycle our containers in our own nursery and disinfect them for reuse. We are accepting certain kinds and quantities of containers that work with our system. Contact us at for further details.

Happy planting!
Dan Warren & Karl Shank
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