Archives for April 2010

Flowering Trees


All trees flower; the spent chartreuse blooms from the Norway maples in my neighborhood have begun to blanket the streets like an algal bloom on a pond.  I do so appreciate that vibrant spring green; I feel deserving of it, after my winter. Green flowers seem appropriately dignified, for a tree. But those early and girly pink flowering trees-do we love them? This old weeping cherry-is it beautiful, or is that candy pink ballerina’s tutu too too much?   

I am very fond of all the magnolias that manage to survive in my zone.  The saucer magnolia has opulently scaled pale pink blooms.  They flop open in a decadent and provocative manner.  The slightest frost stains the pale flowers with rust; the slightest heat finishes the flowers off in moments.  The ground beneath them will be littered with decaying petals-no other tree makes such an ostentatious display in bloom.   It is the Sarah Bernhardt of flowering trees; do I like this?  Whether I do, or not, I like seeing this play, every year.   

These weeping willows are astonishly dramatic, at the blooming and leafing out stage. This grove is dripping yellow green spring. No small part of how beautiful they look is the large space that was given over to allowing them to be what nature intended.  Willows are perfectly splendid in the spring. 

This old crabapple ignites, and lights up the sky behind my neighbor’s garage; it is in full bud right now, ready to burst forth on the scene from my terrace.  I do not even see this tree the entire rest of the year.  The next 10 days, it turns the air pink.  Do I like this?  Would I have this?  Am I happy to have it right now-yes.

Across the street is an old top grafted cherry.  The trunk bark is split open like a weak seam on a tight shirt-who knows whether lightning, scald, or other damage created such a giant wound.  But the tree has put on its frothy petticoat every year I have lived here, despite the fact it gets no care of any kind. Some days I marvel at the contrast of its dainty blooms, and its scarred trunk-other days I cannot bear to look.  Are grafted, weeping and blooming trees an alien nation- born of man’s misguided meddling with nature?  No matter my answer to this question, would I have inherited this tree, I would care for it, and treasure its persistence.  

My big Norway is in its glory right this moment-chartreuse and blue never looked so good.  This stage will be gone, before I have had my visual fill. Some trees are architectural; their branch structure, or bark, or shape, or leaf forms reward the eye of a gardener.  The giant shade trees- their massive dignity have graced streets all across this country. They are able to put a protective roof over a garden in such a graceful way you might not even notice.   The ornamental trees-those smaller trees with odd forms, or showy blooms-they have their day, and their place.  Should you be thinking about trees, try to figure out what you like; I hope you have more success than I.   

Who are the ornamental trees?  If you like subtly natural, look at the amelanchiers (serviceberries, or shadblow), cornelian cherry, witch hazel, and its relative, parrotia.  If you like the showgirls, go for pink cherries, crabs, and magnolias. Magnolia Jane is small growing and very floriferous. If you blush at that pink, try the Venus dogwoods, snowdrift crabs, apple trees, the magnolias stellata, or the yellow magnolias-Yellow Butterflies, or Elizabeth. Should you live in my zone, visit a nursery right now, and review your choices. Be seduced-this is what spring is all about.

My ornamental tree review, The Galaxy Magnolia Girls, are putting on their show nightly, as long as the cool temperatures last.  I do not plan to miss a single performance.

More On Pruning

This hedge has everything going wrong.  More than likely, it gets topped every year with an electric hedge clipper.  The work goes fast, and the result makes me cringe.  Repeated cuts into the top layer has resulted in so many branch breaks that the resulting dense top layer of foliage forms an impenatrable barrier to light to the interior of the shrub.  This hedge is mostly sticks, all year round.  Pruning branches individually takes a lot more time, but the time it takes is worth it.  Sometimes I describe pruning as a haircut-specifically, a shag haircut.  The branches on top are short and shaggy; the upper side branches are headed back slightly to allow light to get all the way to the bottom.   

The early season look of this hedge is ample evidence that skirting up a shrub is a bad idea.  In an effort to keep the sides of the shrub perfectly vertical, all those stray side branches have been pruned off. Not so clear from this picture is that the hedge had been planted so close to the driveway that any side branches would impinge on that hard surface.  This hedge in its natural state would be 4 times as wide, and beautiful.  A skirted shrub is all legs, with little tufts of green on the top.  Naturally, carefully consider placement before you plant. 

This lilac hedge is wedged between two driveways. There really isn’t room between the drives for any plant that I know of, even though the screen is welcome to both neighboring parties.  To make the best of a bad situation, regularly removing the largest stem to the ground every year will encourage the lilac to sprout from the ground level.  This keeps the green coming from below. This hedge has a decidedly layered look.  A lower layer of green, then a taller layer of sticks, then another layer of green. This striping is very evident in early spring. Its clear these lilaces were pruned across the top, all the same height, on repeated occasions.  Pruning branches irregularly, at all different heights, encourages green all over.  Only a few plants can be pruned into boxes and globes, or balloons.   Balloon bushes are those skirted up stick shrubs with balls of green at the top; they look like a hot air balloon, only not as pretty.  This is a particularly displeasing look, as it bears no remote resemblance to any plant’s real habit of growth.

These hydrangeas have been pruned back to a few main trunks.  Though the look is sparse, there is little to fear.  Limelights bloom on new wood.  They do not bloom until July in my zone.  There is plenty of time for this shrub to grow and put out flowers.  Cutting back to these main trunks in the spring keeps the shrb in scale with the allocated space in a natural way.  Letting pruning go for too long only makes your shrub renovation look even more extreme.

Hydrangeas grow fast.  This bleak look lasts for only a short time in the spring.

I prune my own hydrangeas to a roughly symmetrical height, first.  Mine are grown in blocks, not rows; they make a substantial mass when they bloom.  They are also tucked behind a Hicks yew hedge; I need every inch of height I can get out of my hydrangeas so I can see their flowers from the street.  Pruning should be done with a particular end result in mind.  I do not prune my hydrangeas any lower than 30″ overall, as I like their height.  

Once I have pruned down to the height I like, I then prune out crossing branches.  I may prune out the center of the shrub if I think it has gotten too dense. I leave the outside branches alone. There might be some vague resemblance to an egg laid on its side, with holes in the top-when I am done pruning.  

It is easy to see that this single old calloused cut from last spring resulted in three new branches.  Pruning is not the end of something-it is the start of something bigger.  These three branches from last year, located in the center of the shrub, I have pruned back hard. I like to avoid long runs of woody branches-as I do not like hydrangea plants that droop.  A sturdily branched undercarriage makes for a strong and weather tolerant shrub. 

This bed of hydrangeas belongs to a client.  They face down an old stone wall which is but four feet tall. She cuts them back very hard-to within 14 inches of the ground.  She has in mind to keep the flowers at about the same height as the wall.  Pruning hard keeps the eventual plant height in bounds.  

In bounds, but blooming beautifully; this I like.

Let’s Talk Pruning

Were I ever to be appointed garden czar, I would require a certificate in proper pruning before I would ever sell a pair of pruners to anyone interested in growing plants.  OK, just kidding. This is the USA, and everyone’s freedom to prune as they see fit is guarenteed by the constitution. But I do see lots of evidence of uninformed pruning, so I thought it might be a good idea to offer some pointers; does this sound more friendly?

 Plants have a natural habit of growth.  Anyone interested in plant habit has no end of sources to research this subject.  Plant tags give this information at no extra cost.  Where people get into trouble is placing a plant they like in the wrong place. Shrubs that mature at 8′ by 8′ have no business being planted next to the sidewalk.  Planting two giant shrubs closely on either side of a walk that with true and brave pruning that results in an arch overhead-brilliant. The single shrub placed properly for the pot size, and not the mature size, will grow into a pruning nightmare. The pruning required to correct a mistake will make you look like a dictator-not a gardener.

The appearance of a large growing shrub planted in a too small a space, that has been pruned back to fit that arbitrary space, will offend the eye.  Pruning is about giving every branch light and air; pruning is about keeping a shrub green and thriving top to bottom.  Pruning is not about wedging a plant into a space that nature never intended. Any plant, given the time, space and care to mature to its finest form-glorious. 

        Woody flowering shrubs have a specific period of bloom-nothing tricky here.  Prune promptly after the bloom. I am talking forsythia, lilac, rhodendron, roses, and the like. Every pruning cut encourages a plant to send out multiple shoots from the cut. The best time of the year to see how one cut produces multiple shoots is right now.  There is not much foliage yet to obscure how a plant is responding to your pruning.  Get out in your garden, and study the pattern of the sticks-the results of your pruning. 

 Woody deciduous shrubs have a natural habit that provides no end of clues about how to properly prune. Euonymus compactus alata-dwarf burning bush, grows strongly to 8 feet high, and as wide. The yews pictured above are some form of taxus densiformis.  Their natural form is loose and sprawly. Should you be pruning in a box or ball shape 4 by 4 feet-there is conflict sure to come. Each cut brings forth a proliferation of new growth.  Sooner or later the growth on the skin of this yew will be so dense, all the foliage on the interior will languish and finally die from lack of light.  Though closely trimmed yews can be very pretty, I try to cut a few light holes in various spots-I call this swiss-cheesing the plant.  Let some light reach the interior.  These yews are placed such that should they get bigger and bigger, they will not obstruct a walk. Yews cut back to bare wood will sprout again-but the recovery will be slow. 

 Once hydrangea buds show green, I prune.  Annabelle I never prune hard.  Like a tea rose, a hard pruned Annabelle will reward you with fewer, and even more giant ball shaped blooms.  As this shrub has weak stems, and goes over in the first hard rain after blooming-there is no need to exascerbate its shortcomings. Those giant balls on the ground in the mud-not so satisfying. Prune lightly, and all over.  Every branch; take the time to cut them so they have a little sun and air space all their own. Your patience will be rewarded with lots of a little bit smaller blooms-making the entire shrub more weather resistant. 

There are those yards where I see everything pruned into a green meatballs, green boxes, mushrooms, or rectangles. Or some lopsided version of the above. Should it be your idea to prune towards a geometric shape, get out the level lines and do it right.  Imposing mathematical geometry on a natural form needs to be done with knowledge aforethought.  And purpose. And most importantly-the right plant. Some plants respond and thrive in response to this treatment.  Other plants respond by throwing a skin of leaves-the interior branches go dead from lack of light.  Boxwood tolerates this type of treatment; other plants-not so much.

 No plant needs a heavy hand.  Heavy hands come from those non-gardening people who have been given the chore to get the yard in shape.  Heavy hands given a sharp instrument-not always the best result.  I think about every cut.  I cut with a natural form in mind.  I cut to help provide air, light, and densely natural shape. There are those for whom this statement is an utter bore-but if you garden with a passion, you know exactly what I mean.  

Prune with sharp and clean clips.  It is no good to spread communicable trouble around with dirty and infected clips.  Clip what needs be clipped-pass on what does not. Stop the pruning in midstream, and consult-should you have any questions.  Poor pruning is not the end of the world; plants have an incredibly strong instinct to survive.  They will endure, and possibly outlast you. But the season comes but once a year. 

Stay tuned.  More on proper pruning to come.

Sunday Opinion: The Captains Of Industry

When I get home after work, I head right outside.  Everything is budding up now, from my giant maple on down. It is plenty warm enough to be outside-what could be better?  The deep clear blue evening sky is a perfect foil the chartreuse flowers now in full bloom on said Norway maple.  Acer Platanoides can grow to fifty feet; I estimate mine is close to forty feet high.  The deep furrows on the bark that bear the scars of Milo’s frustrated attempts to climb up and after after the squirrels that torment him- another clue to its age.  The Norways have the most beautiful of all the maple flowers.  Arranged in three inch diameter clusters on the stems, their color is electrically charged living spring green.  This old tree has been president and chief executive officer of my fountain garden since I moved here fifteen years ago.  Its surface rooting and shade make it the organizing metaphor of everything trying to grow underneath it.  It is a water hog; on a hot day in July, it probably takes up 90 gallons.  Much of what goes on in the growing world cannot be visually detected; a lot of the action is underground.  Plants of this scale dramatically influence the world around them.  You might think of them as an ecosystem unto themselves- when you plan to garden in their vicinity.  This effort will help you be a more successful gardener, on the ground.

Giant old trees have been photographed, written about, preserved and revered in landscapes all over the planet. The redwoods in California are the stuff of legends. Giant trees are home to all manner of wildlife-our native American bald eagles nest high off the ground.   Vicious weather that took down great numbers of old trees in England some years back-big news. Some of the great old trees in my greater community live on in old cemeteries.  Should I ever retire, I would want to visit and study the landscapes in old cemeteries, in neighborhoods-for what grows there- undisturbed.  Though I have made a career of churning up and remaking, I have a great respect for that which has been left alone to age beautifully.

I live on a corner in an urban neighborhood. I have a number of Norway maples planted in the right of way-that strip between the sidewalk and the road.  They are struggling; it is a heartbreak to watch.  My city does not care for them.  They do not prune; nature prunes them via ice storms and high winds. They do not treat illness. I see some people in my neighborhood caring for their row trees-I thank them every time I drive by their houses.  I have one Norway with astonishingly large bracket fungus; these fruiting bodies-the physical evidence of a massive fungal infection, are a sign its life will not be long now.  The roots of all of these giant trees are dogged by concrete as far as the eye can see.  But they live on, no matter how injured they might be from physical damage, neglect, or thoughtless planting or placement. I so admire their steel. Their will to live is a very beautiful thing to witness.

I live in an old neighborhood-many of the houses were built between 1920 and 1930.  My house is 80 years old this year.  There are trees of age here, there, and all over my neighborhood.  The most beautiful saucer magnolias I have ever had the privilege to see are right around the block from me. The Norway maple in my back yard-old.  I don’t disturb it much.  I do see that it gets water in dry spells, and pruning when it needs it.  I do not do much, but it greatly endows and enriches my gardening life. It screens my view of both my neighbors houses, and our community electric lines, to the rear.  It encourages me to turn my eyes to the sky in the spring. The corgis love the shade in the heat of the summer.  It is a most stately and beautiful plant.  The largest in my yard.  It oversees plenty, silently, benignly. It has yet to whine, fuss, negotiate, or hold forth. It roots vigorously and thickly in one small spot that I plant with annuals every year-this does not mean we have a battle; we have a yearly conversation. 

My eyes turn towards the skies in late April-I would not want to miss the Norway maple, blooming.  My skies have other residents, besides those topmost maple branches, blooming.  The birds are back, and flying.  Last night, I had my camera pointed skyward.  Streaking across my lens, a mini jet.  Buck and I  talk about that plane.  Who is on board?  Where are they going-or from whence are they returning?  Buck’s take-a captain of industry is travelling.  Who are the captains of industry?  No doubt, I believe I live in the best country on the planet.  My country welcomes, houses, and protects a most intelligent, imaginative, loyal, hardworking and outspoken group of people from sea to shining sea. Those captains of industry-those people that organize, energize, imagine, invent, create,and protect-I imagine those people that are flying headlong across my sky on a Saturday night.

Like those giant trees who bear this wind, that infection-the daily give and take-I greatly admire the captains of industry. There are those people that organize a space, preside over an eco-system, think through how to help people with serious illness.  They put people to work.  They greet the future with a vision.  They are tireless, incredibly intelligent, and driven by what they believe in. They work around the clock.  They think through and travel ahead of time.    I would not want to do without them any more than I would want to do without my big maple.

    Travelling overhead last night-whoever you are-many thanks.