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.

At A Glance: Spring Pink

Bad Weather


I have been wringing my hands all week over heavy rains, wind and hail that are to be followed by 30 degrees overnight, tonight.  I have tulips already budded, Galaxy magnolias showing color and ready to pop, hellebores in full bloom-not to mention my star magnolia. As I write, those fluttery petals are drooping from the cold and wind.  A few flowers on my PJM rhododendrons are out-this is very early.  The early spring weather has been very warm- warm enough to make me nervous about the possibility of an untoward frost.  That possibility is looking really good right now.  The maples in the neighborhood just started blooming two days ago.  Those masses of tiny chartreuse flowers against a china blue spring sky-one of my favorite spring moments. What will happen?

I cannot bear to think about the just emerging, dense and soft growth on my magnificent katsura espaliers.  They have only been out of their black semi-truck box for two days, after a weeks trip from the West Coast.  How will those leaves react to freezing temperatures?  I shudder to think. I cannot do a thing about those katsuras, but I can move as much else as possible into the garage.  Nature invariably plays hardball with serious gardeners.  We people seem to think our extenuating circumstances should count for something, and mitigate the natural course of events.  I have had clients who think the weather does not apply to them or their gardens.  Sometimes I have to gently remind them sometimes that no one has made me President of the weather.  Nature is all about variability; many plants have built in mechanisms to deal with that big fluid situation.  Some seeds will not germinate, unless there has been a burn.  Some trees have enough stored energy to re-leaf, given an epic disaster. But a hard freeze to new soft growth-this can be unforgiving.

Weather disasters are tough to take-my star magnolia only blooms once every twelve months; I am watching it fade before its time.  The wet weather last summer wrecked tomato harvests for many gardeners. Though I am not a vegetable gardener, I was sympathetic.  I am intimately acquainted with the sheer exasperation which comes from not being in charge of the weather.  I can plan all I want, but being ready to endure what is not part of your best laid plans is a given, should you garden.

Plants are covered with moisture overnight. Frost protection is an effort to keep the moisture on the surface of leaves or buds from freezing.  Covering plants before the end of the day helps trap heat-and help keep that moisture liquid. Should that moisture on plant leaves or buds freeze, it will reduce the tissue to black mush; every gardener knows what frost damage looks like.  That mush look is chasing me-we spent the day hauling plants inside.  Very hard frosts can freeze leaf cells; this damage is the worst.

The greenhouse room is stuffed; just about every square inch is loaded with spring plants.  I should be happy I have indoor space. After I move past the be grateful thought,  I wish I could float frost cover over my gardening world. As that wish is not about to be fulfilled anytime soon, I can only hope for the best.   

Lots of spring plants are very cold hardy.  But once they have become accustomed to warmer weather, and push new soft growth, they are vulnerable to precipitous temperature drops. Gardeners who germinate plants from seeds indoors are bound to the ritual of hardening off.  Shocking plants with any abrupt change can make them very mad-or kill them.  Though you might think nature invented fall for the great visuals, a long and slow fall cooling period prepares plants for the deep freeze. Should summer ever turn on a dime into winter, there would be terrible losses.  The transitional weather we call fall and spring can be brutal for plants and gardeners. 

These early mini daffodils closed up shop in last night’s 32 degrees.  My crocus came and went so fast, I wondered if I had imagined them blooming.  I will not sleep so good, but I will get up and keep gardening.

The 2010 Espaliers

I have been awaiting with great anticipation the delivery of a group of espaliers from the West Coast.  Even in photographs, I knew they might be among the most amazing trees I had ever seen.  I buy only a small amount of nursery material every year; those plants that have the potential to organize and electrify an entire landscape particularly interest me.  A few weeks ago, I did write about these trees, and post pictures of them from the grower. But today was the day I would finally lay eyes on them. 

The pictures did not really prepare me for what came off that semi-truck.  I was star struck.  They are very large caliper trees, whose years and years of training have produced an entirely unique and compelling living sculpture.  The intersection of nature and man can be a disaster, but in this case-breathtaking. 

Of great concern to me-the travel.  Thousands of miles these trees were trucked- under refrigeration.  Spring weather can be unpredictable-a warm journey across the country could cook the emerging foliage. A truck ride is not the smoothest-those of you who travel in trucks regularly know from whence I speak.  My eyes were on the rootballs before I even looked at the plants.  A broken rootball will kill a tree.  These rootballs were solid as a rock; the balling and burlapping the work of a consummate grower.  I breathed a big sigh of relief.

Plan A was to ship the trees via the rail as far as Chicago, and truck the last leg.  This plan depended on the grower being able to dig the trees well in advance of any leafing out. Fields too wet from spring rain prevented them from digging the trees early-we had no choice but to go to plan B-a truck coming across the country, carrying trees in the process of throwing leaves.  There is worry attached to this plan. A long trucking siege challenges and wears away at trees already stressed from the process of digging, balling, and burlapping.  Nursery people understand how much the trucking cost influences the price of a tree.  Unless you are buying trees and shrubs grown next door to a nursery, a chunk of the eventual price is very much influenced by the cost of transport. I know of no grower in this country growing espaliers of this caliber, so I shut up, and I  paid the freight.   

Seven of the trees are katsuras-Cercidiphyllum Japonicum, for those of you who want to know precisely what tree to which I am referring.   A katsura does not have showy blooms-I would describe it as an unusual tree, very architectural in form.  The leaves sprout red, grow large, and somewhat heart shaped, and mature with a decidedly blue cast. Mature trees are densely foliated, and sculptural.  In this group, I would put the beeches, the dawn redwoods, the weeping Alaskan cedars, the lindens-I am talking green sculpture when I talk katsuras.  

These katsuras have been grown and pruned with strong and precisely spaced lateral branches.  What does this mean?  In leaf, each tree will provide a green wall every bit of 10 feet tall and ten feet wide that takes up not 24 inches of width, in ground.  A living wall of green of astonishing size and very modest footprint-amazing.   If beautiful plants have the ability to astonish you, feel free. 

How these leaves survived a a week in a black, cold, and irregularly vibrating box-most plants have a huge will to survive.  This instinct served these trees well.  The katsura group of 7 weathered the storm like troupers.  The linden group of 7 are just budded-they had a much easier trip.  In my landscape practice, I try very hard to do no harm, to not impose.  How nature works is a miraculous event that needs little in the way of suggestions from me. 14 trees of astonishing provenance came my way today.  In short, thrilling.    

We soaked these trees immediately after delivery, but they had in fact been well prepared for their trip.  I sat on 6 randomly selected rootballs today-I could feel the cold, and the damp.  The rainy weather and cloudy skies the past few days-a better than good re-entry.  I made it my business to go out to see them 4 times today; every gardener understands what it is to be responsible .    

Here is a picture of my group of fourteen espaliers-are they not incredible? Barely leafing, like a crowd of teenagers, I see so much ahead for them.  Some time ago I wrote an essay about the provenance of espaliered trees-Palmette Legendre-should you have an interest.  I have a big interest in outstanding plants-this drives just about everything I design.  These espaliered trees-my only hope for them is that they have thoughtful gardeners in their future.