Planting Shrubs And Trees – My Life Between Two Countries

By Teo Spengler | October 20, 2020

I am an unabashed tree lover who prefers the company of an oak, redwood or beech to that of many people. Given the chance, I will happily spend time planting shrubs and trees wherever I hang my hat. Splitting my life between two countries has made this an exercise in contrasts – the United States vs. France. Countryside versus big-city landscape. Frost-free San Francisco, cold-winter Basque Country. My choices of trees and shrubs reflect the differences.

Tree and Shrub Landscaping Plants for France

My house in France came with some 10 acres of land, but don’t go imagining a manicured estate. The house is cottage size and the property is on the side of a mountain, sloping down steeply to the river below. It had been used to pasture sheep, so when I moved there, the land contained only a few trees, all mature oaks that marked the property line.

I loved the weathered old oaks but wanted more trees, a forest or almost. I set the goal of planting 50 trees or shrubs a year for five years and accomplished this target and more. This was the part of my life that I learned to value of native trees and bushes. Without exception, the native trees I planted grew faster and better than exotic selections.

The trees and shrubs had to be tough enough to tolerate frost, hail and occasional snow in winters as well as year-round south winds. These are powerful winds that once blew my heavy-duty wheelbarrow from the front yard to the bottom of the hill. I looked for cold hardy plants with impressive root systems.

My favorite of the tree species I planted in France were oak, beech, sweetgum (liquidambar) and birch. All are native to the French Basque Country except sweetgum, but they had roots in the area since fossils of liquidambar trees were found there. As for shrubs, I planted firethorn (pyracantha) with its fearsome thorns as a defensive hedge around the land to keep out the wild ponies. I also planted cotoneaster, blackberries, holly, and hawthorn (aubepine) to provide berries for the birds and other wildlife.

Planting Shrubs and Trees in San Francisco

I live in the “outer lands” of San Francisco, the large area near the Pacific that was built on sand dunes. Dig in the backyard and you’d think you were on the beach. That ensures good drainage for trees and shrubs but limits the selection. Big, thirsty trees won’t do well and, besides, one spreading oak would take up the entire yard. I have a relatively big backyard for San Francisco, but compared to my acres in France, it’s a postage stamp.

To combat these challenges, I have planted small fruit trees, some in the soil, most in large containers. Containers are my go-to since installing a tree or shrub in the soil requires digging out a huge hole, removing the sand and bringing in good soil. I have one pear tree in the ground and Meyer lemon, an apple and a persimmon in containers.

My shrub choices for my city garden are largely native ornamentals. I love ceanothus, aka California lilac. I also have manzanita, silver lupine, sages of many types for the hummingbirds, huckleberry and Pacific rhododendron.

Common Denominators

There are a few common denominators, plants that I grow in both ends of the earth. But no trees and not many shrubs.

One shrub that I grow in both France and San Francisco is big leaf hydrangea, an easy-care beauty that tolerates the foibles of both climates. It is also very easy to propagate from cuttings. Another is geraniums. These are amazingly tough and adaptable plants that I have in garden beds in California but in containers in France to allow me to move them inside for the winter.

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