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When Fall’s in the Air
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When Fall’s in the Air



As fall looms before us, it’s timely to consider a question that should be a factor in every design we prepare: To drop or not to drop?

This question is a good one to ask before you start planning and has to do with how much natural debris your clients will be willing to fish out of their watershapes once you’re gone. In other words, while it’s always important to decide what style of plants to put around your watershapes, it’s also important to think about types – that is, evergreen vs. deciduous.

I’m sure most (if not all) of you are aware of the general distinction, but here’s a short explanation: The Sunset Western Garden Guide defines an evergreen as a plant that “never loses all its leaves at one time.” By contrast, it defines deciduous as “any plant that loses all of its leaves at one time each year, usually in fall.” (Of course, just to confuse the issue, there are some plants that are considered partly deciduous, which means they lose some of their leaves one time each year. These plants are not quite as common.)

Does all this matter to a watershaper? Absolutely! When designing a watershape and the landscaping that will surround it, you need to consider whether the plant is going to shed its leaves (or any other form of debris) and if any of that stuff is going to fall into the water. Aside from the obvious concern about leaves clogging a filter, you need to consider whether tree droppings will affect your watershape in other ways: Will they, for example, stain the bottom – or poison the water, killing fish or other wildlife?


Whether we like it or not, every year nature completes a cycle. For the deciduous plant, it’s all about leaves that begin their life in the spring, hang around during the summer and then die off in the fall, leaving (pardon the pun) a blanket on the ground as a reminder of their sudden lives.

And we’re talking about more than leaves: These same plants may produce fruit, seeds and/or other objects that will end up dropping onto (or into) whatever is beneath them.

If the space below these plants is water, it’s as though they’re letting you know exactly what they think of your watershape. They’ll drop on down, stain the walls and bottom, change the pH of the water or do any of a number of things that will cause you to ask, Why did I ever plant that there?

Remember, we’re dealing with nature here. It won’t alter its habits to conform to our needs. Instead, we need to adapt to its sublime sense of order.

This doesn’t mean you can’t put a deciduous plant of any sort in a yard with a watershape. It simply means, when planning the watershape, that if you want a deciduous tree such as a Weeping Willow, you need either to make room to accommodate it away from the watershape – or your clients have to be willing to put up with the leaf, fruit or flower drop.


I couldn’t possibly list all the dos and don’ts here, if only because of the fantastic regional variety of available plants. But here’s a brief list of some plants that have such pronounced or damaging flower, leaf or fruit drop that I would always recommend locating them away from a watershape:

[ ] Jacaranda Tree – This is one of the most beautiful trees around, but the pale purple flowers of the Jacaranda are well known for staining patios, cars and anything left under their canopy – including decks and watershape interiors. By all means use them – but place them away from watershapes where the flowers can fall onto a lawn or other surface that won’t be stained.

[ ] Eucalyptus Tree – These are among my favorite large trees, but they can wreak havoc on the bottom of any pool. These are evergreens, but they do drop their leaves and seed pods – and can mar a white-plaster pool quite quickly with a stain that is difficult (if not impossible) to remove. In this case, my recommendation is extreme: I’d avoid planting one in any yard with a watershape.

[ ] Carob Tree – Most of us think of carob as a chocolate substitute (is there really any substitute for chocolate?), but these trees are quite commonly used and produce a seed pod (the source of the chocolate substitute) that is quite large and makes quite a mess when it drops. There’s also an odor about these trees that many people consider unpleasant. Bottom line: Plant something else next to your watershapes.

[ ] Liquidambar – Have you ever stepped on a little, brown, spiky, ball-shaped object that looked like a mace out of a gladiator movie? It was probably the fruit from a Liquidambar Tree – something you’ll never forget if you happen to be in bare feet at the time. These trees give an incredible color show in fall and are definitely worth having somewhere in a yard – so long as you keep them at a distance from your watershapes.

[ ] Silk Tree – Also known as Albizia julibrissin, this is one of the most beautiful and delicate-looking of all trees, but its “drop” factor makes it almost completely incompatible with a watershape. It is totally deciduous, dropping its finely-toothed leaves in the fall along with delicate, fluffy, pin-cushion-like flowers that drop off in the summer – not to mention large seed pods that also create extra litter. Steer clear!

[ ] Chorisia speciosa – Although it has beautiful flowers and ominous-looking spikes on its trunk that keep intruders away (you wouldn’t want to slide down this one!), the Floss Silk Tree drops a cotton-like plume that will coat everything in sight. A yard with this tree will look as though someone decorated it early for Halloween – a combination of debris types that is bound to clog filters and displease swimmers as well.


If the trees you and your clients select present any sort of litter problem – and that’s true of just about any deciduous tree and also about many evergreens – here are some good guidelines. If you follow them, I’m fairly certain your customers won’t be going out to buy a chainsaw anytime soon.

[ ] Think big. When it comes to leaves, the bigger they are, the easier they will be to clean up. By contrast, a plant whose leaves are numerous and small will usually scatter more and make a greater mess. Magnolia trees (which come in both evergreen and deciduous varieties, by the way) usually have large leaves. The evergreen varieties are quite manageable with respect to debris, while the deciduous ones tend to be smallish (such as a Magnolia soulagiana – the saucer or Chinese magnolia) and present few clean-up problems.

[ ] Consider the future. As you select plants, think about how big your trees will be when mature. Just because you plant a 15-gallon Birch (typically 8 to 10 feet high with a 3 or 4 foot diameter) 20 feet away from the watershape, in 5 years that same tree could easily be 20 feet or higher with a 10- to 12-foot canopy. This means it will be creeping closer to the watershape just by its nature.

[ ] Weigh the possibilities. As you think through your options, try to gauge just how far leaves and other droppings will reasonably be able to travel. Wind and the site’s degree of exposure are big factors here: The lighter the leaf, flower or seed pod, the farther it will travel. Your goal should be to place the plants far enough away from the watershape that you minimize the opportunity for falling debris to reach it – especially in a breeze.

[ ] Remember your clients. This is a huge factor: Only plant what your clients say they are willing to clean up! At a minimum, do your duty by making them fully aware before planting of everything you know about a plant’s “drop factor.”

A great many of you have learned these lessons through trial and error or by dint of experience and lessons learned the hard way. If you’ve found plants that are suited to use around watershapes – or found ones you avoid like the plague – please let me know. I’ll spread the word!

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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