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.

At A Glance: Labor Day

September 1, 2014 (17)window box with lime alocasia

Sept. 1a 2014 (1)Belgian stoneware planted with Persian Shield, polka dot plant, and King begonias

DSC_3987pink dahlias, Persian Queen geraniums, and petunias

June 24 2014 (4)white dahlias, blue salvia, angelonia, showy oregano, frosted curls grass, and petunias

September 1, 2014 (3)shade pot

Sept. 1a 2014 (16)black and limeSept. 1a 2014 (3)window box

Sept. 1a 2014 (18)shade pot

September 1, 2014 (44)window boxes at the shop

August 1, 2014 (64)boxwood, silver shield plectranthus, and variegated licorice

September 1, 2014 (48)late summer

September 1, 2014 (50)Gardening is a whomping lot of work.  But there are the fruits that come from that labor.

Limelight Hydrangeas In Bloom

August 29 2014 (29)I know this is the mid westerner in me talking, but is there any shrub more widely hybridized and marketed and eventually disappointing than the hydrangea? I can barely keep up with the new cultivars. Some are blue.  Some are blue and pink.  Some are red. Some claim to bloom all summer.  A list of  of all the names would take better than a paragraph.  All Summer Beauty, Nikko Blue, Endless Summer, Pinky Winky, Vanilla Strawberry, Invinciball – the list is long. The promises made for these new introductions are big. The performance of various cultivars of hydrangeas in the mid west-a mixed report. I drive by big plantings of hydrangeas every day that are all about the leaves with precious little in the way of flowers. Some are planted in much too much shade.  But others just are not great bloomers. If you are a gardener in my area, and have a big love for hydrangeas that bloom reliably, consider the paniculata hybrids, especially the Lime lights.

August 29 2014 (26)We did have a terrible winter-no gardener would dispute this.  But the hydrangeas I see everywhere with one bloom or so is a usual thing.  Some cultivars bloom on old wood.  In a hard winter, the bloom shoots freeze.  Though the plant may come back and thrive, there are little to no blooms.  Some cultivars rely on more temperate zones than ours.  Some cultivars seem to bloom with abandon for growers, but fail to deliver with gardeners.  The Limelight hydrangeas pictured above are on a very busy street in my area, in full sun. They are blooming their hearts out.  I have no idea what the gardener in charge does for these plants, but they are gorgeous. It could very well that this gardener leaves well enough alone.  This brick wall would be lonely indeed without the hydrangeas.

August 23 2014 (14) I plant professionally, meaning plants that cannot or do not perform are discouraging.  I hope that every landscape I design and install encourages my clients to become involved, take over, and become interested in gardening when I am finished.  This means I favor plants that have some success features built in. I like plants that thrive. Hydrangeas in full bloom are breathtakingly beautiful. Hydrangeas are by nature lusty growing and just about fool proof, given a proper placement.  If you are keen for the flowers, and lots of them, Limelight delivers.

DSC_3979

I have read so many articles claiming that hydrangeas thrive in the shade.  Hmm.  The shrubs may tolerate part shade, but good blooming on hydrangeas in my area asks for a fair amount of sun.  Do  not plant hydrangeas in shade, if you have a love for their flowers. They like regular moisture – the leaves are large, and thin.  Those leaves will crisp if the plant goes dry.  I have my hydrangeas at home on a drip zone, so when they need a drink, I can provide it right to the roots.  I do not recommend overhead watering except when it comes from the sky.

DSC_4001The old Annabelle hydrangea is as charming and as floppy as ever. They bloom early, usually in June.  I like them placed on top of a wall, where their cascading habit looks graceful and deliberate.  The Oakleaf hydrangea is just as beautiful in leaf as in flower – maybe more so.  This bony structured, open growing hydrangea with its loosely arranged blooms-gorgeous.  Climbing hydrangea does tolerate a lot of shade.  It sits for a long time after planting.  Once it gets going, it can engulf a wall.

DSC_3982Pink and blue hydrangeas perform sporadically in my area.  There are neighborhoods where they are lush and floriferous.  I only have one client whose Nikko blue hydrangeas bloom heavily every year.  They are grown in full sun, in a fairly protected location.  The idea of using chemicals to alter the Ph of the soil is not my idea of gardening. Their is a hydrangea cultivar hydrangea macrophylla “Nantucket Blue”, for those gardeners with blue hydrangea envy.  I have never grown it, but I have seen it for sale with the caveat “acidify the soil with sulfur for a deeper blue color”. There are those times when I am envious of what gardeners in other parts of the country are able to grow that I cannot, but that feeling is not that deep seated.

DSC_4046Lime lights are very big growing plants.  Mine at home are over 8 feet tall this year.  They have loved all of the rain.  If your space is smaller, plant a smaller growing version.  Little Lime tops out at 4-5 feet. Little Lamb is another smaller growing panicle hydrangea.

hydrangea-Bombshell.jpgI am trying a new cultivar this year. “Bombshell’ is a dwarf cultivar that typically grows in a rounded mound to only 2-3′ tall and to 3-4′ wide. It was discovered growing in Boskoop, The Netherlands, in May of 2003 as a naturally occurring branch mutation on Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’. It is particularly noted for its dwarf/compact shape, abundant star-shaped sterile flowers with elliptic sepals, dense nearly round flower panicles, and free blooming habit. It blooms earlier and longer than most other panicle hydrangeas.” – this description is from the Missouri Botanical Garden. I recently planted them with a collection of perennials that mature to about the same height.  Big growing shrubs that are pruned to fit small space always have that uncomfortable and anxious feeling about them.  A hydrangea planted with all the room it needs to grow is not only less maintenance, it looks good.

DSC_3983The Lime Lights are putting on a particularly good show this year.

DSC_4000It wouldn’t be late summer in Michigan without them.

 

Mixed Greens

August 16 2014 023My summer driveway garden has only one flowering plant-a white sunpatiens with a variegated leaf.  Lots of them.  I am astonished at how well this plant has performed, given less than ideal sun, chilly temperatures, and relentless rain. The plants have grown at an astonishing rate, and shrug off troublesome weather.  The Japanese beetles did not touch them-I like to think that is because they wouldn’t dare attack a plant this robust. The white mandevillea vine is not flowering profusely, but it is flowering enough to suit me.  All of the other plants are various shades of green.  Green plants in pots have one big visual advantage.  They never look like they are missing something.

August 16 2014 025The flowering plants on my deck are making a strong comeback from the cold and torrential rains. A big pot of lilac New Guinea impatiens is budding-but is missing all of its flowers.  Likewise the pots of geraniums.  Both geraniums and New Guineas have beautiful foliage, but I do not grow them with that in mind.  I grow them for the flowers-the color.  They been missing flowers for several weeks now.  The driveway garden looks perfectly happy.

August 16 2014 024 These green plants took the hostile weather in stride, and have grown steadily.  No rotting flower heads to contend with.  Every one of the plants in these pots is a different shade of green, a different texture, and a different shape.  I have not touched these pots except to water when necessary.  The pots are large, and the soil is completely shaded by plants. I have watered twice in the past 2 weeks.  Now that our temperatures are climbing into the 80′s, I will water accordingly.  I suppose I could pinch the plants in these pots, but I am more interested to see how they will sort things out for themselves.

August 16 2014 038Plants in annual contrainers should be planted with an eye to the eventual overall shape.  The lower pots do not have a vertical growing centerpiece. This pot looks like a big salad-delicious enough to eat.  Like all of the plants in my landscape, they have appreciated the cooler weather and ample rain.  No pouting going on here.

DSC_3735This planting looks good with my butterburrs, the Princeton Gold maples in the background, and hosta behind me. The choice of plants for these containers has a lot to do with the plants in the vicinity.  The drive court is large; the plant palette is limited to the moss between the bricks. These green plants recall and reinforce the overall landscape.

DSC_3726An errant nicotiana mutabilis in a sea of green and gold plectranthus, and some nicotiana alata lime has a few pink flowers.  Should it grow strongly over the fall, I doubt I will mind the interruption. A plant that would breach the strongly horizontal lines would be welcome.

DSC_3736In a spot where five different hard materials come together-the wall stone, the limestone cap, the wood, the wall brick, and the driveway brick – the repetition of a limited number of plants is a softening gesture.

green-plants.jpgGreens done well are hard to beat. The three plants in the above picture, though formally arranged in rows, contrast in shape, surface, form, mass and texture. Variation on a green color scheme provide plenty of visual interest.

rosemary-and-juniper.jpgA friend traveling in France a month ago sent me this picture of a formally pruned juniper hedge, under planted with a skirt of trailing rosemary. The pairing of two needle-foliaged plants of very similar color and form is taken to another dimension all together by a decision to selectively prune. There is a gardener with a point of view at work here.  The elements of good design may begin with the shapes of spaces, and architectural elements, but a green vocabulary never hurts.