June 3, 2015

Three Down, Eight or Nine to Go....

For the past few weeks, there has seldom been a day when there has not been a copy of William Cullina’s ‘Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines’ or the American Horticultural Society’s ‘Northeast Smartgarden Regional Guide’ open on Betty’s desk.  Alongside those two tomes have been catalogs from several area nurseries.

It isn’t that Betty is expecting to find some heretofore unknown specimen of maple or oak lurking within those books.  Rather, she is looking for roughly a dozen very special trees. Specifically, native trees that will serve as the anchors for a brand new landscape.  The books are akin to audition tapes; a means of winnowing hundreds of candidates down to a few finalists.

Our oxydendrum will have flowers
on distinctive white panticles
We are starting with a blank canvas at our new home.  In the past two weeks we have carted away hundreds of cubic yards of rock and dirt officially classified by the University of Massachusetts Soil Laboratory as incapable of supporting plant life, and replaced it with eighteen inches of organics-rich screened loam.  We topped that loam with several inches of mulch, which now awaits a garden.

The garden is being designed to combine beauty with ecological sensitivity and low maintenance.  “Ecological sensitivity” translates to a strong emphasis on native trees and shrubs that will support the local population of birds and insects.  “Low maintenance” means exactly that: a garden that, once in place, doesn’t require long hours of maintenance to keep it looking attractive. 

This is amalanchier
'Autumn Brilliance'
The trees are the anchors.  There will likely be eleven or twelve of them.  On a recent weekday, we rode with senior horticulturalist Henry Schmidt of Weston Nurseries around their ‘back lot’, looking for the trees on Betty’s list.  The first tree we spotted was an oxydendrum, sometimes called a sourwood tree.  It’s a tree native to the northeast that is seldom seen, and that’s a shame.  An oxydendrum produces white flowers on long, distinctive panticles in midsummer; those panticles remain in place even as the leaves turn a vivid red in fall.  The tree before us was a magnificent specimen, standing nearly twelve feet tall.

Deep in the tree holding area, Henry stopped in from of a group of cornus florida.  Flowering dogwoods can be found everywhere in New England, but most of the dogwoods we see are the Asian kousa varieties, and Massachusetts is considered the northern limit of the native variety. Betty specified one that was not only native but with pink bracts or petals. We found a perfect specimen, more than ten feet tall, and it was duly tagged.  The third tree on the list was an amelanchier, or shadbush.  We spotted a multi-stemmed clumping version of this beautiful ornamental tree that feeds early pollinators, then the birds, and finally turns a rainbow of colors in the autumn. 

Two days later, we returned to the nursery with a borrowed pickup truck and our three purchases were effortlessly loaded by a guy driving a nifty machine that functioned like a giant hand.  The ‘hand’ picked up the tree, tilted it just so, and placed it in the truck.  We got them home.  So far, so good.

Here are first trees planted, our
oxydendrum and cornus florida
The problem was getting them off of the truck.  In the past, we’ve purchased much smaller trees.  If their root balls were wrapped in burlap, the width of the ball was usually a foot to eighteen inches.  These three trees, by contrast, had root balls two feet wide or even larger.  Moreover, they were wet.  I tried lifting one.  It would not budge.

After ten minutes of flailing and grunting, Betty grudgingly allowed me to go across the street to where our neighbors – a family roughly half our age – were entertaining some muscle-bound friends.  It turns out they had been watching our travails and were discussing whether to offer their assistance unprompted.  They were pleased to be asked to pitch in.  Even so, it took three of us to get the trees to their planned planting sites.  Had it not been for their intercession, those trees would likely still be on the truck.

Digging holes for the trees was another revelation.  Current theory says that you should dig “a saucer, not a teacup”.  Once upon a time, you dug a hole slightly larger than the root ball, lowered the tree into the hole, and filled the hole with enriched soil and water.  The problem with that practice was that the tree roots would get to the edge of that rich soil, encounter the lesser-quality surrounding stuff, and decide to stay put; resulting in a stunted tree with a poor root system.

Hence the saucer, which provides the tree with ample room to stretch out its roots.  The problem is that it require removing two to three times as much soil as the “saucer” technique.  The hole for each tree required up to an hour of digging, despite all that new loam.

But the trees are in.  They all stand up straight and face in the correct direction.  My one piece of advice to all assistant tree planters reading this is to always make certain that the Chief Tree Planter has specifically signed off on the tree direction, even at the risk of annoying the Chief Tree Planter by asking that unseemly question, “Are you sure?”  The alternative is trying to wrestle a tree’s root ball in a morass of mud; an exercise that can result in the uttering of many Bad Words.

And, did I mention that out expedition produced three trees?  And that there are eight or nine more to be located?  It’s going to be a long June….


  1. June is a very trying month, even for a retired teacher. So much to do and only 30 days to do it in. But July is on the calendar, as a friend told me long ago. Just lift up the page - see that it is there - and choose a few days to circle and reserve just for yourself.

    "When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself."
    ~ Isak Dinesen

  2. Well, that good old Southern expression "Bless your hearts" comes to mind. But you have started...