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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Cake walk

When it comes to the landscape, there is nothing more exciting, and perhaps more vexing, than planting a tree.

When it comes to the landscape, there is nothing more exciting, and perhaps more vexing, than planting a tree. Siting a tree involves thinking about its eventual size, its form, and how it will impact the plants growing around it (over time a sunny border can become dense shade requiring the reworking of the plant palette to accommodate evolving conditions.) But even after you decide what species and variety please you aesthetically and also can do well in your garden conditions based on the plant’s hardiness, light needs and soil moisture requirements, you still have to find an actual specimen to plant.

I took all these factors into consideration as I thought about adding a shade tree at the front of our house in a newly cleared area. (I think our neighbors would be happier if we were just focusing on creating a beautiful lawn, but somehow that is not high on my list of priorities.) When I alighted on the idea of a variegated giant dogwood (Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’) like the one that was a focal point in my old garden in Connecticut, I was relieved. I knew this tree, also commonly known as the wedding cake tree due to its layered branching, would grow well (and has a fast growth rate once established) and its form would be a wonderful framing device for the flooded marble quarry that sits across the street from us. I have not regularly used variegated foliage in the garden, but I felt that the green and white leaves of this variety would not only complement our blue-gray house, but would also create a sense of light and shadow, even on the cloudiest of days. Variegated foliage, as well as some yellow-leaved plants, can brighten any landscape and can be used most effectively in shady sites to mimic a ray of light breaking through the canopy above.

The variegated leaves of this dogwood provide a landscape with a sense of light and shadow. Here’s another view of it at Hollister House Garden.

It was only then that I remembered how much of an undertaking it had been to acquire my last giant dogwood; it is one of those plants that is often praised for its landscape value but grown by very few nurseries. One would think that a plant’s garden reputation would keep it in commerce, but many factors influence a nurseryman’s desire to grow a variety—ease of propagation, market demand, how fashionable the plant is,  and the other plants that have been developed as replacements in consumer’s eyes (there are a number of variegated dogwoods from different species that seem to have replaced the need for this variety).  It took me two years to locate the previous one, which was about eight feet tall when I purchased it. It came to me from a tree farm in Oregon and had been acquired for me by a local nursery known for its windswept apple orchard and wonderful offerings of woody plants. Unfortunately, twenty years later, this same nursery did not seem to think they could locate another specimen so the search moved forward from there.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to locate a small graft from Cricket Hill Gardens in Thomaston, Conn., but it was only 19 inches tall, which seemed hard to imagine sitting singly in front of our house for the next few years as it grows in. It was at this moment that I remembered first meeting my dear friend Henriette Suhr, 92 at the time, at a plant sale at Hollister House Garden. She was looking at a two-foot-tall specimen of a filigreed English oak and figuring out where she was going to plant it. She inspired me to realize that I, too, could have the patience to watch something grow and come into its own; after all, weren’t the plants in our gardens like children that we nurture as we watch them grow? Henriette is no longer with us, but the tree continues to prosper at her old garden, Rocky Hills.

With this in mind, I went to Thomaston, selected a wedding cake tree sapling (as well as a dwarf dawn redwood and big leaf magnolia of similar size) and came home to plant them. I prepared the soil, giving each tree a generous helping of compost that I worked into the soil I had removed from the hole. I dug each hole much bigger than the standard width recommended of one and a half times the diameter of the pot (after all, I wanted to encourage these plants to acclimate quickly and digging a four-foot hole for a twelve-inch tree was not too much effort, even with the heat and humidity of the past week). I watered them in well and mulched them. Now I will nurture them in the months and years ahead as they grow and mature. There was something exciting about starting small and, instead of waiting the two years it took me to find my last dogwood, I might even be ahead of the game. And there is something to be said for a plant starting out in the place it will end up, as it will grow in response to the light conditions and look as if it first came to life there, perhaps leaning east or west in a manner that gives a garden its sense of place.

Magnolia ashei is a form of bigleaf magnolia that is smaller in stature than Magnolia macrophylla, growing only to about fifteen feet tall. I bought one of these.

 

I also bought a dawn redwood that will only grow to six feet tall, making it an ideal addition to a smaller garden.

That said, yesterday, John O’Brien, who has a specialty nursery in Granby, Conn., emailed me that he had located a larger specimen out west if I was interested in it. Is it possible that I can have my wedding cake (tree) and eat it, too?  Needless to say, as I work in the garden, the more impatient part of me is endlessly scanning to identify a place for a second giant dogwood. This is the nature of a gardener and, just as I came to accept a small tree, I need to accept this aspect of myself as well.

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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.

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