Since You Asked: Birch tree is a yard hog

I have a white birch tree in my front yard. I have had great difficulty getting anything to grow under it. Have you any ideas why that happens and what I could do to correct the problem? Thanks.

— Terry W., Medford

The simplest solution, Terry, is to chop that puppy down; then you can plant whatever you want and make yourself a birchbark canoe or tepee. But we assume you'd like to keep that gorgeous Betula papyrifera (also known as paper birch for the papery white bark that peels off).

So you want more than dandelions, eh? Assuming the ground there gets enough sun exposure and the soil isn't hard as concrete, the problem most likely is your birch's roots. Because they're so close to the surface (a trait of birch trees), they tend to hog all the space, water and nutrients for themselves. Sounds like some people we know. So, whatever you plant there is essentially starved out.

You can't add a layer of topsoil without potentially suffocating your tree. If you try to cut the roots you may mortally wound it — if you're lucky, the tree will survive and the roots will come back thicker still, strangling your new plantings.

Have you tried bulbs? They might be your best and easiest answer. The planting hole is pretty small, the bulbs are pretty hardy and easily replaced.

Your only other solution is to find a spot relatively free of roots (to avoid harming your tree and make your digging less strenuous) and dig a hole big enough for a pot that will block out the tree's roots. One of those plastic pots you get with medium-sized plants at the nursery will work great — just make sure it has drainage holes.

Dig the hole deep enough — this will take some work — so the pot's top is level with the surrounding soil. Fill with soil and your planting (use annuals or bulbs for best results). If it's a shrub, you'll have to trim the foliage and roots every couple of years to avoid it becoming rootbound. Replace the soil periodically as well.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to

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