Sunday Opinion: Aging Trees

A good client has lost 6 very big and very old trees in the terrible storms we have had this season. The damage to her landscape is considerable.  The remaining old trees in the same proximity look lonely, and off center. She is asking me what to do.  I haven’t answered her yet, but she will most likely need to start over. Just yesterday we had a storm, wind driven and rain laden, blow through such that Detroit Edison counts it as their 10th worst storm on record.  Luckily my neighborhood was spared.  At the shop, a giant limb of a willow sheared off, and landed on our neighbor’s roof.  Lots of people lost their power in the greater Detroit area. The big winds and the big rain took down trees in a wide range of communities.  Big trees.  As in, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.  Miraculously, no person was injured.

Big storms are the plague of the weak and the big old trees. A sapling can gracefully bend under the duress of a straight line wind.  No harm done. Old trees whose wood is stiff with age do not bend-they break. The canopy of a big tree is like a a giant sail. A wind that is too strong can stress that trunk beyond reason. For certain, large caliper trees that are snapped off above the ground, or uprooted in the height of a storm are victims of the unpredictable direction and incredible strength of that force we call nature. If you have ever seen a big tree uprooted or snapped off you understand the meaning of the word “force”.

Other trees in poor condition go over or shed big limbs without much in the way of protest. A lack of health, or a lack of regular maintenance makes them a target for the effects of severe weather.  There are a lot of limbs on the ground now.  The pruning that violent nature does is extreme. No judicious or clean cuts. I suppose storm pruning is effective.  Any limb that is weak, or growing at an unsustainable angle gets a haircut in a matter of seconds. There is no time for a second opinion.

Our trees are our biggest plants. Old trees are up there, dealing with the brunt of the weather. All kinds of issues challenge their health.  As they age, they need care.  Maples in the tree lawn develop girdling roots.  Sun loving deciduous trees in too much shade grow towards the light.  Lots of our evergreens are being threatened by needle cast disease. I could go on and on about the illnesses of trees, but that is not my point.  Trees need a gardener in charge to look after them, routinely-unless being at the mercy of nature is a place you don’t mind being.

My city does no pruning or maintenance on the street trees. I would guess this is a budget issue.  So the three trees in the tree lawn on my corner lot that they finally took down this spring – I had to make a case that not to take them down would expose people to serious danger.  They finally agreed. They were all maples, more than 2/3rds dead, suffering from girdling roots and seriously weakened by fungus.  The maples were a poor choice to begin with. Their roots need room.  They are much too large growing to restrict to the space in an urban tree lawn.  Years of neglect made them a disaster waiting to happen. One giant limb at a just about horizontal angle arcing over my street featured a home trunk entirely rotted on the interior. That tree worried me to no end.  I am glad it is gone now, before it collapsed under its own weight.  In my next life I would like to be in charge of street tree plantings.  Not that I have an agenda proud of the history of street trees in my urban community.  I just have a big love for trees, and want to see them take hold and thrive.  Old trees ask for some care.  Loosing one – grievous. Certain neighborhoods in Royal Oak have incredibly gorgeous and substantial London Plane trees, thriving.  These trees have been looked after all along the way.

An landscape asks for a regular hand.  An aging landscape asks for a better than regular hand.  There is no substitute for regular care.  This is not to say that regular care will insure you will never have storm related damage to your trees.  But it will provide them a fighting chance.

As for my dead maples, I have had the stumps ground down 24 inches. I had to transplant all of the hosta planted around them like skirts.  I raked and seeded each 6′ diameter circle of bare dirt.  Now it’s time to think about how I will replant that tree lawn.  All living plants have a life span. Long and short.  Expected, and unexpected. Looking after a property also means starting over.

Monday Opinion: When I’m 64

When I am 64-that would be yesterday.  How is being 64 going so far?  Sunday had to be one of the most beautiful June days in recent memory. 78 degrees, and breezy.  Delightful.  I put my feet up, whenever I could.  No worries-I took the time to enjoy the day.  I have sketchy plans for the work this week-sketchy is good enough.  What was I studying on, having turned 64?   Orange geraniums, and roses.

Many years ago a client in the fashion industry was miffed that I planted orange geraniums in her pots.  She thought they were too pedestrian.  I have been planting container gardens since 1987.  I have seen a lot of plants come and go.  I have passed on a lot of plants that couldn’t stick out a summer season in a container, start to finish.  Ordinary plants are ordinary for very good reasons.  They deliver. The dandelions bloom and prosper, no matter every effort that is made to eradicate them.  Queen Anne’s Lace prospers and blooms in every field, and every crack in the highway.  Pachysandra is a green mulch that covers the ground in almost every condition.  As for orange geraniums, I love their color and robust habit.  They bloom profusely. My client who felt she was getting pedestrian  was mistaken. I appreciate any plant that is willing.  They are a sensational shade of orange.  Orange flowers and ordinary plants did not interest me much, 30 years ago.  What did interest me was too embarassing to to repeat.  I was a young person, endowed with all those ideas that reeked of  babyhood.  As for that planting of orange geraniums for my client- I switched her plants out, and took the orange geraniums home.

I was thinking yesterday  that my fascination for orange geraniums might be a function of my age.  I worry about that. Too much history can smell musty.  I have been at planting containers a very long time. I  like to think that every year my choices get better, my eye gets sharper.  In an orderly scheme of things, my ability to compose gets better at the same rate that my knowledge of horticulture gets better.  But maybe my love of orange geraniums, picotee petunias, yellow variegated foliage and purple sweat shirts may be a sign of my age.  I have a memory of my Mom in her sixties-how old fashioned she was!  It could be I am following in her footsteps. What would a young client think about picotee petunias?  They might be appalled. At 64, I am thinking much about how I can continue to be relevant to my clients.That said, I think it is important at any age to put aside fashion, and think independently.  Plants go in and out of fashion.  Fashion is a concept that applies only given permission. An old windbreaker from the seventies may suit you just fine.  My Chevy suburban with 110,000 miles-I am still quite happy with it.    So even if a love of orange geraniums is a function of my 64th year, I will go ahead and plant them.

As for the roses, on the occasion of my 64th birthday, I have this to say.  I was sure that every one of my 26 roses were dead this spring.  I have not touched them for two months, as I have not had time to touch them. Given my neglect,  25 of my roses have come back strong from the root.  I was not in any way patient about the trouble they suffered from our winter.  I have ignored them, as I had to.  I have been so busy, working.  They had time to do what they would do, without interference from me.  The spring is a very busy time for me.  A late spring is all about work day and night.  I was not expecting them to burst forth and grow from underground.  The day I saw new growth from the bottom shocked me.  I was so sure they were dead.  Not so.  Many of them are going on 5 feet tall now.  Five feet of growth in 6 weeks?  Astonishing.  I have not taken any of the dead climbing rose canes off the wall.  Those dead canes still have dead leaves attached to them.  The few canes that are blooming are surrounded by dead rose leaves from last fall.

I have never seen anything like this, even though I am 64.  I thought about cutting all of the dead canes of the wall, but I decided not to interfere.  This decision was pure instinct.  I will just tie the new canes to the old.  This seems fitting.

I have just about driven Buck crazy, wanting to go see the dead roses every night after work.  He is such a good sport about touring the garden, every day.  But even he has gotten caught up in the rose drama.  The roses are roaring back.  I am thinking I might need to hard prune my shrub roses every 2 or 3 years.  To force basil growth.  Truth be told, my roses were rangy and overgrown. I did not prune them back hard.  Maybe I was too old to be tough on them.   Our past winter was decisive. Nature may have done for my roses what I needed to do, and didn’t.

A the dawn of the age of 64, I am learning so much I never knew about nature, roses, and the color orange.

Sunday Opinion: Scale And Proportion

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Whenever Buck does a CAD drawing for a project, or an object, he includes a drawing of Man 01.  For those of you who do not do design drawings on a computer, CAD stands for computer assisted design.  This line drawing of a man who is 6′ tall is stored in his computer as a “block”.  Buck has thousands of blocks stored in his computer. Those blocks are stored drawings of shapes and forms he uses over and over again.  Pasting a block into a drawing means he does not have to draw that portion from scratch.  An entirely new shape will require a drawing from start to finish.  A complicated design for an object to be made can take many hours to draw.
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I have watched him translate an idea into a precisely rendered drawing. Who knows how long ago it was that he learned the language of this two-dimensional design program.  It must be a long time, as his fingers fly over the keyboard of his computer faster than my eyes can follow.  I see lines drawn to precise lengths that connect to other lines, which finally, and exactly, describe a form.  Down to the last 1/64th of an inch.  Given a specific engineering inquiry, he can design to 1000th of an inch. This level of precision isn’t an issue for you and I.   What purpose does the man01 block serve?  This 6′ tall idea of the height and volume occupied by a man is size that is easy to recognize.  6′ tall isn’t short, but it isn’t tall, either.  Man01 is a average size guy.  When man01 is standing next to a planter box we are thinking of building, I have more than the dimensions of that box.  I have  a size and height that is familiar to me.  I can compare the size of the man, to the size of the proposed box.

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Anything that Buck makes at Branch, requires a drawing.  He has the drawings for our stock products stored in his computer.  The company that laser cuts our steel, or the company that rolls our steel in multiple dimensions, require those drawings to program their computers to cut or roll to our exact specifications.  Building an object successfully that involves a number of different people and operations doesn’t happen via a breakfast meeting or a conference call.  What is drawn on the page is an exact template for what will be built.

people-in-the-garden.jpgBuck makes those drawings with the help of a computer program programmed to precisely, and mathematically describe a form.  He drives the bus. He tells the computer what he wants to see. The many years he spent as an architect required a working knowledge of how to translate a design into a drawing.  Not just any drawing.  A drawing that would spell out to a contractor exactly how to build a house,  a stadium, a heating system, a plumbing plan, or a fruit cellar.  A bell tower, or a topiary form, or a bench.  But rest assured, a mathematically precise rendering of an idea of an object does in no way indicate that an object will be beautiful.

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Man01 is a gesture in a beautiful direction.  The proportion of a planter box for the garden is a key element of its design.  How a person would relate to the dimension and proportion of that box, whether standing or sitting, will influence how a gardener eventually views, and reviews, that form.  Every person has an idea all their own about what is beautiful and of interest.  Each person likewise has an idea of what doesn’t move them.  This makes garden ornament very difficult to design.  One way we broaden our appeal is by offering different sizes.  Comparing a set of possible sizes to the mano1 block helps us to decide what to build and what not to build.  The computer is a tool that helps with the decision making process.

in-the-garden.jpgMan01 is a symbol on Buck’s drawings for scale and proportion.  Woman01 is a scale I sometimes ask for from Buck.  5.5 feet.  But no matter the gender,  human scale is an element that should inform landscape design.  A good feeling for the scale and proportion of a property, the plants, and the people can produce visually interesting relationships.

friends-in-the-garden.jpgFriends for dinner in the garden is great fun.  Friends comfortable in the garden is an important part of design.

Late In The Week: Nature

Thank heavens that the garden has gone to sleep.  What I have had to do this year to keep my perennials happy-lots of time and effort.  I have old maples with girdling roots, and Princeton Gold maples, arborvitae, and boxwood that need yearly pruning.  Big branches of my clematis succumbed to wilt.  The roses-I have not looked at them in weeks.  The fall anemones-so so.  The taxus has trouble.  My annual pots were the worst ever this summer.  I wholly blame my choices, but the rainy and cold summer weather did not much help me out.  The coming of the fall was welcome-who wants to spend more than five minutes looking at the results of a lost summer? Fall-I could not wait.  My  fall season was brief and unremarkable.  Do I need to redesign??     Fall came abruptly to an end-many weeks ago.

Our recent work in anticipation of winter involved chopping frozen soil out of lots of pots.  No matter how warmly I dressed, the bone chilling cold took my breath away.  None of the pictures of the work tell the story of the cold. What a relief that I have been at this winter work long enough to have engineered a method by which most of the work gets done indoors.  The ability to work indoors means the work gets done with dispatch.  But no matter what we do in the shop, the installation happens outdoors.  My crews are troupers to the last. They know how to break the ice, and warm up the winter gardening season.

Planting spring flowering bulbs was a challenge this fall.  Nature saw fit to go to the cold very early. Planting bulbs involved chopping into fearsomely cold soil. I am not sorry that all of the bulbs are safely entrenched below ground.  What is usually an easy exercise was this year a study in persistence.  The fall color this year-not so swell.  I only have one word to explain this phenomena-nature.  Every year there is some unanticipated phenomena.  That would be best described as nature, naturally. We have had 6 inches of snow today.  Not that it wasn’t beautiful.  But 6 inches in mid December?

I regularly read a blog from Kansas-oh yes.  He doesn’t post so much, but what he does post is of great value.   http://myeducationofagardener.wordpress.com/  I read every word, sometimes twice.  He once said that nature bats last.  No kidding.  I am within 3 projects of being done for this season.  Once we have closed out the landscape work for the season, I will decorate at home, for the holiday, and the winter.  Today, I was too weary to do much of anything.  But tomorrow I am sure I will be better rested.  Nature is an ally, a foe, a mystery, a phenomena, a wonder, a treasure, a challenge, a friend, an exasperation, a respite – but above all, a way of life.  More tomorrow,  Deborah