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“Creating A Landscape Berm” by Dorian Winslow

Category: How-To Projects

Early last Spring I woke up one morning and decided that what my yard needed was a berm.  Most berms, or mounds, are designed for privacy to block an unwanted view of the street or a neighbor’s backyard. By creating a little hill and planting it with trees and other vegetation you can create a very attractive and effective screen. Fences are often used for this purpose too, but a berm is a more natural-looking solution. 

Berm in Mid-Summer

In my case I was trying to create visual interest in a part of my yard that was dominated by two spruce trees that have been struggling to become established since I planted them 3 years ago. In addition, the trees sit in a low area of our yard and lots of weeds and even poisin ivy had started to take over. Rather than clear out the bad, I decided to bury it under a nice big pile of wood chips.

First truckload of wood chips and future berm

First I called my local supplier of mulch and top soil and asked them if they would deliver a truckload of woodchips, which they did. They were able to drop it right on the spot where I needed it. After grabbing my landscaper’s rake and putting on my favorite pair of leather garden gloves, I spread it evenly across the area (what a workout!) and realized I needed another truckload. After that was delivered I had enough chips to create a 2′ high berm over an area of approximately 20′ X 30′.  I piled them in front of the trees and left the ground around the trunks undisturbed. Since the ground was low in that spot some of the chips just helped level the ground.

After spreading 2 truckloads of wood chips

A more sensible approach is to use top soil because it is more stable than wood chips. The problem with a pile of wood chips is they are full of air and they will settle and sink, lowering the height of your berm. But wood chips are much easier to move around and I wanted to try different shapes to see what would look best from a few different vantage points. Next Spring I will probably have more wood chips (or top soil) delivered and shore up my berm again.

Berm garden from the side with early plantings

Once I had the shape in place I started planting a few shrubs and perennials. I selected 2 flowering weigela and a red chokeberry shrub to plant in front of my two spruces. As they get larger I will probably transplant them to another location, but this year they were the perfect screen to hide the thinnish lower branches of my spruces, while not blocking the sun which spruces need. In front of the shrubs I planted catmint nepata and basket of gold (aurinia) with its silvery leaves and bright yellow blossoms; and baptisia carolina which did not bloom this year. We have some lovely large rocks that form a gentle slope along one side of the berm and I uncovered them and swept them off with my little bonsai broom so they would become a focal point of the berm also.

Large boulders rise along one edge of the berm
I also placed smaller rocks here and there for accents and created a rock garden where I planted a couple of smaller annuals such as dianthus.
Rocks in our garden provide slope and natural interest

I left several hosta and ferns along the lower, shadier side of the mound. Left undisturbed, they thrived. 

Since I did use wood chips, after digging a hole in the wood chips I had to fill the hole with top soil before dropping the plant in. Wood chips are acidic and would not have been a hospitable place for tiny roots.  I may have to put in more top soil next spring to replenish what probably drained out this year.
Although our berm is not as high as some (you can build up the earth  higher if you want) we were happy with our berm solution because it accomplished the objective of creating visual interest in front of the two struggling spruces (which thrived in the dry heat we had this summer in our region), and burying some of the unwanted wild weeds that were taking over that low section of our yard.
And since I own a garden glove company, I am always looking for projects that will give my gloves a workout. This was a good one!

Hosta and Ferns were left on the low shady side of the berm
Berm in context of yard in midsummer

4 thoughts on ““Creating A Landscape Berm” by Dorian Winslow

  1. Beautiful berm, beautiful photos!

    I was excited to read your blog entry because I did a similar thing in my garden outside Boston five years ago. Most people thought I was nuts, but I filled in a shady drop-off with the wood chips from three trees that had to come down. I planted rhodos, mountain laurels, azaleas, yews and a variety of woodland perennials. Like you, I made big planting holes and filled them in with brought-in soil. I thought it would be a while before I had to do more than water, but it turns out that every year I have to add a lot of manure to counteract the nitrogen-stealing that the rotting wood chips actively engage in, shovel a couple of yards of soil onto the areas between shrubs and add mulch (more wood chips!) since the shrubs’ roots get exposed quickly when the surrounding soil sinks. The good news is that the sinking is almost over and the dirt is great! Now the perennials I added have a bit of rich forest to live in instead of a wood pile and are beginning to spread. So it looks like it takes about five years to transition from chip heap to soil. Other benefits to this method: the surrounding large trees don’t seem to suffer from having airy chips dumped on their roots the way they would from dense soil, and the shrubs avoided competition with tree roots as they were establishing themselves.

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