The Self-Taught Gardener: Putting down roots

An understanding of time and maturation is at the center of the artful selection and placement of trees. There are wonderful species and varieties for almost every situation.

Stockbridge — If in spring a young man’s fancy turns to love, surely an old gardener’s fancy must turn to trees. With the replanting of the trees along Main Street in Great Barrington, an array of upcoming plant sales, and being in a new home where the haze of chartreuse takes over a corner of my property as the leaves and flowers of a camperdown elm emerge, I cannot stop thinking about what trees contribute to the landscape (and which trees I should contribute to my landscape by adding a few new selections.) For me, the season most associated with trees is not fall and its array of colorful foliage, but early spring, when trees, not necessarily at their most dramatic (with glorious exceptions such as cherries and magnolias,) show the most promise of what is to come. I believe I may have a predilection for opening acts over the moment right before the final curtain falls, but I do not think that I am alone on this front. As one drives about at this time of year, it is clear that I am not the only one who slows down to absorb the soft green glow of emerging leaves and flowers that float above against bright blue skies. This exhilarating and fresh color combination is rarely found in our gardens, with the exception of a few bright blue flowering salvias with brilliant green bracts and a planting at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden of a camperdown elm, whose chartreuse leaves were complemented by an underplanting of English bluebells which broke into flower at the same time.

This big-leaf magnolia requires considerable space in the garden, I grew on a whip of this tree in my garden (where if functioned almost like a foliage perennial and then transplanted it into its place on the edge of the woodland after is had grown on for several years, making sure that I kept as much of its rootball intact when I moved it. Photo: Lee Buttala
This big-leaf magnolia requires considerable space in the garden, I grew on a whip of this tree in my garden (where if functioned almost like a foliage perennial and then transplanted it into its place on the edge of the woodland after is had grown on for several years, making sure that I kept as much of its rootball intact when I moved it. Photo: Lee Buttala

However, upon further examination, though my thoughts gravitate toward woodies in the spring, there isn’t a season that I do not think about trees because, unlike the herbaceous layer of our gardens, trees have a permanent presence that provides us with comfort throughout the seasons. Ideally, we select trees for our gardens with this in mind. Trees contribute so much – flowers, bark, structure, shade, leaves and essential habitat – and yet we often select and place them rather cavalierly even though siting and selecting a tree is one of the most important acts in the garden. Although I have moved a few trees that I have planted (and several repeatedly), planning should be able to prevent this. The backaches I have known from rethinking the placement of a big-leaf magnolia and digging it out, along with as much of its root ball as I could lift, serve as a painful reminder of my poor planning. The twinges and spasms feel like some sort of penance for not planning ahead. It would not surprise me if ancient priests required penitent constituents to move tulip trees and mighty oaks so that their larger sins would be forgiven.

This image of a mature fern leaf beech makes it clear that this tree needs consider space to grow and prosper, which should be taking into consideration when the tree is planted.
This image of a mature fern leaf beech makes it clear that this tree needs consider space to grow and prosper, which should be taking into consideration when the tree is planted.

There are endless rules and pieces of advice about selecting and siting a tree, most of which are ignored by gardeners as we have the arrogance to think we can bend nature to our needs. It is not a surprise that Americans are not good at planning for their retirement, when we plant what will eventually become a sixty foot tall beech just five feet from the foundation of our houses. And this is bad news because, given the slow growth rate of beeches, we will need the funds to fix our foundations from such thoughtless plantings at about the time we retire.

But an understanding of time and maturation is at the center of the artful selection and placement of trees. There are wonderful species and varieties for almost every situation, and placing these trees where they belong is, as my father would say, an exercise in building character. I remember a bur oak, dug from the woods near our cottage, that my father planted when I was a child, carefully setting it out at a distance from our house that seemed ludicrous at the time, as this eight foot sapling seemed barely noticeable in the landscape. Within a few years the oak seemed to hold its own, and now, more years later than I care to admit, it is still perfectly sited and shades my childhood bedroom from the summer heat.

The peeling bark of Japanese stewartia appears camouflaged and is a welcome sight all year long. Siting this medium sized tree where it can be seen in winter is a good idea.
The peeling bark of Japanese stewartia appears camouflaged and is a welcome sight all year long. Siting this medium sized tree where it can be seen in winter is a good idea.

When I set trees out at my old house in Connecticut, I remember struggling to determine where they should be planted. I would set out a stake where a tree should go and stare at it from all angles, sometimes for several seasons, and feel like there was no way that the tree would ever grow to a size that would warrant setting it out to this carefully calculated distance. (Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants was my reference for determining a tree’s mature size, and still is, although now it is an app on my iPad and with me wherever I go.) Just a decade and a half later, the Japanese snowbell that I set in the midst of a boxwood parterre twenty-two feet from our kitchen window in Connecticut, has come into its own. Its muscular trunk is visible from the sink and in early June its fragrant white flowers hang down from above as one enters the back door. Gardeners often like to lament their mistakes, but every time I look at this tree, filled out and filling its space most elegantly because it was given the room it needs to grow, I smile and have a sense of satisfaction with myself that I rarely feel about garden decisions that I have made in the heat of the moment. A Japanese stewartia and a fern-leaf beech seen from the second story provide me with a similar pride. And on this day, which is my father’s birthday, I cannot help but think that my dad, who died 25 years ago, is looking down, proud of the character lesson that he shared with me, and admiring a well-placed tree in — or out of — flower.

Stewartia malacodendron, a Texas native, is noteworthy for its blue and purple stamens and anthers, and is still awaiting its final home in my garden. Photo: Lee Buttala
Stewartia malacodendron, a Texas native, is noteworthy for its blue and purple stamens and anthers, and is still awaiting its final home in my garden. Photo: Lee Buttala

I know my father is also taking in the purple-filamented Stewartia malacodendron, given to me years ago by Bill Cullina, that I have moved three times in search of a proper place for it, and is accepting the fallibility of his son as well. For good fathers, like good gardeners, understand that mistakes are part of the lesson too.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.