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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Life is a beech

When it comes to woody plants, I feel more strongly about protecting them from insects and managing diseases than I do about perennials and annuals.

The longer I garden, the more I love woody plants. Watching a tree or shrub that I’ve planted take on size and start to show its mature form is an act of patience, and it involves plenty of care and stewardship along the way. This begins with structural pruning when the plant is young to give the specimen its desired form (or as I realized today, the form desired by the man who cuts your lawn when my cornelian cherry with low branches almost took Chuck off his mower when he zipped by it) to removing damaged, diseased, dead and divergent branches to keep it healthy as the tree develops. For some of our trees that sit in the lawn, I also create planting wells around them to prevent damage to the trees from two most preventable things that can destroy a tree—string trimmers and lawn mowers that take away the bark of the tree and leave it susceptible to disease.

When it comes to woody plants, I feel more strongly about protecting them from insects and managing diseases than I do about perennials and annuals, probably due to my long-standing relationship with them and the energy I have put into planting, pruning and assessing their form and growth from year to year. On the other hand, when a perennial shows signs of disease or distress and it seems to be something ongoing, I tend to simply remove it from the garden. I am not one of those gardeners who loves to assess and identify diseases and pests. There are so many plants I want to grow; I usually see loss of a perennial or even some small shrubs as an opportunity to plant something new that may like the conditions of my garden better.

Signs of infestation of beech leaf disease on our tree led me to call in the experts as soon as I noticed it.

But trees are something else. The horizontal European beech that we have in front of our side garden has been with us for several years now, slowly growing in (as beeches are not quick growing trees) and giving us some privacy from the street and our neighbors across the way.  When I saw that some of its lower leaves were puckering, I was immediately concerned that it might have beech leaf disease—a disease taking down many of our native beeches and, not unlike Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, and ash borers, changing the nature of the woods that surround us. I made a call to Ron Yaple at Race Mountain Tree Services who confirmed my worst fears. It was indeed beech leaf disease, an illness caused by a nematode thought to harken from Japan that has been working its way across the country. I knew this was not something to treat lightly and I also knew that, unlike an unhappy rose or delphinium that I would simply pull out and replace, I did not want to remove this tree. Besides, plucking out a 19-foot-tall beech would require more than a quick tug and a toss into the compost pile.

I also knew I would be willing to take steps to try and restore the tree’s health. Since this disease was first noted here, plant pathologists have been working to develop treatments to staunch it and there are a few remedies that are looking promising. When Ron offered a foliar spray now and two more in late summer, I did not question him about it. I knew I wanted to keep this tree, which Brian and I planted together early on in our time here, for as long as we could. This treatment is not organic and may or may not be successful in the long run. I fully understand that friends and other gardeners may not view it favorably, but I felt, like a child being told that a parent needed radiation or chemotherapy that might successfully treat a life-threatening illness, that I wanted to try and keep this tree around.

Some worry that tree diseases may impact related trees and that our native fringe tree, which is related to the ash, may be taken down in time by ash borers. Only time will tell.

Ron Yaple and I bemoaned the effect this disease is likely to have on the American beeches in this region. There is no way to treat all the magical beeches that show themselves in the woodlands each winter, holding onto their golden leaves long after the other deciduous trees have lost theirs, lighting the forest understory. We mourned their potential loss along with the elms, ashes and chestnuts that have gone before them. I even felt some guilt about being able to keep our tree. Luckily, two American elms on our property appear resistant to Dutch elm disease, and new varieties have been developed that show some resistance. Similarly, new varieties of American chestnuts seem to be showing promise, many of them developed using genes that give resistance to the blight. I hope this, too, will be true for the American beech, but at the moment I am simply focusing on the beech at our house, hoping it might cheat death and continue to provide us the joy of having it in our lives.

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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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