By Karen Valerio, Hennepin County Master Gardener

I have a beautiful pin oak in my front yard, which has provided more than 20 years of extensive shade for my home.   Over the last three years, it has been slowly dying.  I’ve had horticulture professionals and PhDs at my home diagnosing what may be wrong with it and no one knows.  It has to be removed.

It’s going to cost me over $2,000 to remove it, but that pales compared to the emotions involved in losing this big tree.   I’ve been procrastinating for three years.  But it is what it is.  It’s coming out next winter.

So what to do?  I’ve been thinking of my goals:

  1. Get rid of my lawn.
  2. Expand my shade garden.
  3. Make the yard more inviting to birds.
  4. Retain water on my property.

At first, I was thinking about planting another big tree – like a Kentucky Coffee Tree.  Maybe a birch?  Ironwood?  Basswood?  Then it occurred to me.  Why don’t I try something completely different?

Why not plant stone fruit trees?  In Minnesota, we can grow plums, tart cherries, and hybrid apricots.   I researched the choices for specific trees on the University of Minnesota Extension web site and found the info I needed at

European plums and tart cherries do not need another tree to pollinate.  They are self-compatible.  Hybrid plums and apricots need another plum or apricot within 100 yards for pollination.  It might be “fruitful” to plant a couple of these trees along with a serviceberry.   Serviceberries are native to Minnesota and produce edible fruit for people and birds.

In the meantime, what can I do now?  I’m going to add 6 to 8 inches of mulch on my lawn to kill it.  (Normally, you do not want to add this much mulch under a tree because you can suffocate the roots, but my oak is already dying.)  I’ll mow and weed whack the lawn, add the mulch and let it work its magic over the summer.  It will break down, enrich the soil and kill the grass and weeds.

I’ll remove the oak in the winter when the perennials have gone dormant.  Next spring, I’ll plant the new trees, then divide and replant my perennials in the expanded garden.  Simple, right?

Since the trees will be in my front yard, maybe the neighbor kids will pick the fruit.  I’m okay with that.  I want the neighborhood and its kids to know that there are fun alternatives to those big, chemical laden, weed-free lawns.  You can keep water on your own land instead of allowing chemicals to run off into the gutters, sewers and watersheds.  Maybe I can even put a chair and small table out there to enjoy my morning coffee or evening reading.

It’s going to be emotional and a lot of work, but I’m finally looking forward to turning a new page in my front yard — and maybe in the neighborhood as well!