When good plants go bad

I have always loved the pristine white bark of the Himalayan white birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) and it was an obvious choice to anchor the far end of our island bed  where it was highly visible from many vantage points.

When a colleague offered me two more I created a small grove of these, dreaming of how stunning they would look in years to come. I was concerned about the birch borer but kept my fingers crossed and hoped for the best. What I hadn't considered were birds.

After just 7 years the trees were in decline and it was taking some creative angles to be able to photograph this area without revealing the damage.

The trees thrived for a while but then I began to notice small holes in the trunks. These quickly expanded and girdled the entire trunk; 1/4" diameter holes spaced every inch or so and covering sections  12inches -20 inches high – on every trunk of the three multi-trunked trees. These holes then began to weep sap and it was quickly clear that the trees were in decline. At first I thought the culprit must be the large pileated woodpecker which we see from time to time. In fact the diminutive sapsucker was the vandal. (This article shows you the typical damage).

There was no cure for such extensive damage and it was clear that the situation was rapidly deteriorating so we made the decision to replace the trees. Easier said than done!

After 11 years they had quite the root system that took several hours of excavating, cutting then finally a hefty chain attached to the back of the truck. (Let's just say the grass may take a while to recover….)

We spent a very wet and muddy day yesterday planting two multi-trunked river birch (Betula nigra 'Heritage') in their place.

Newly planted, the area looks rather bare but we know they will grow quickly

Some of the other plants transplanted into this area include three Cobalt-n-Gold hypericum ,  a low growing, mounding shrub with silvery-green leaves and small yellow flowers followed by fiery fall color that should show up nicely against the variegated hedgehog holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’).

We have a cluster of Heritage river birch nearby and they have thrived, the beautiful peeling bark a true four season highlight, while the dappled light under the canopy is similar to the white birch – perfect for the bench.

The river birch in the distance were planted in 8 years ago yet were a similar size as these new trees at the time

They look so small after enjoying  taller trees for many years but in our moist soil we know these will grow quickly and also that younger trees establish more easily than large specimens.

River birch are a great choice for moisture retentive soils. This area used to have standing water most winters

Change is rarely easy, but sometimes you have to admit defeat and just get on with it.

What are you changing in your gardens this spring?

Subscribe to Receive Blog Posts

Gardening inspiration delivered right to your inbox from Le Jardinet


  1. Mary B Perez on March 16, 2021 at 9:52 am

    Hi Karen, a graphic example that gardening isn't just about planting pretty flowers. It's getting down in the muck and pulling out roots, sometimes with the assistance of a chain and truck (Andy is a Saint). I love to change out plants and try something different, or move one to a new location. My husband refers to our yard as Mary's movable garden. Have fallen in love with leucadendrons in the ground and in planters, and something else has to go to make space. In a town garden, need to edit, to keep it from looking looking like one of those yards with nursery pots lining the driveway.

    • Megan Smith on March 16, 2021 at 11:56 am

      Hi Karen,

      I think the river birch is a delightful alternative!

      We removed five trees from our urban yard about two months ago. Much to our chagrin the stump grinder didn't go deep enough so we had to use an auger drill and sawzall with a wood pruning blade to remove the rest of the root system. It was a huge job and we couldn't use a truck because of the logistics but WE DID IT!

      The trees we removed were two Cornus kousas, one with pink flowers (Satomi)and one with white. We also removed a Stewartia pseudocamillia and a large red leaf Corylus. Lastly, out came a Acer aconitifolium that had worn out it's welcome. All lovely trees in their own right but they had grown too dang big for my little yard and I was ready for a change and more color.
      Replacing them will be a Cercis 'Merlot' a smaller, more compact and upright version of Forest Pansy, an Acer shirasawanum 'Jordan', a Cornus kousa 'Goldstar' and perhaps a Styrax 'Moonlight.' Other contenders for the last two spots are Cercis 'Golden Falls' and Cotinus 'Old Fashioned'. I already have Sorbus amer. 'Dwarf Crown' in the yard which I adore. It's all about the foliage for me to satiate my color cravings!

      I'll have to check out the hypericum. I like the fact that it has exfoliating bark in the winter…very cool!

      Happy Gardening!
      Megan Smith

      • Karen Chapman on March 16, 2021 at 4:56 pm

        Your new selections are lovely Megan – and that Old Fashioned Cotinus is a favorite of mine 🙂 It's important to mediate the high contrast between gold and dark foliage – blue tones are perfect

    • Karen Chapman on March 16, 2021 at 4:55 pm

      Lovely to hear from you Mary – and it made me smile to read that you haven't changed much moving plants around! Yes I love Leucadendron too – wish we could grow them here.

  2. Craig on March 16, 2021 at 11:21 am

    We planted arborvitae for some privacy and after years, they have grown quite tall. Of course the deer stop by for the buffet so this year I will plant some shrubs they do not like much in front of them to both deter deer from getting close to the arborvitae and to hide the damaged areas. What started out as a single red twig dogwood, has become 30 after cuttings were taken, and I will soon add 26 more. I think the red twigs against the evergreen will look sharp in the winter.

    • Karen Chapman on March 16, 2021 at 4:59 pm

      Hi Craig, I'm afraid the deer will make short work of those red twig dogwoods. Not sure what your lighting, soil or space is, but consider a dwarf variegated Pieris eg Little Heath for partial shade or maybe one of the pretty weigela with colorful leaves if you have more sun? Spirea would also work