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’s Strictly Opinion: Angie’s Theory

Bear with me, as I am about to post for the umpteenth time about proper watering.  I have just cause-most problematic issues I am dealing with now regarding the landscape have to do with water.  A scheme for watering the plants has been the hottest topic of our season, given the high heat, and the utter lack of rain.  I mean to discuss the water that your plants, garden, and landscape require.  Thoughtful and dispassionately informed watering makes a difficult season more manageable.  I hope by association to address the problems that arise from too much water.  My clients who have not watered, or who have overwatered-we have a discussion pending,   

Our August nights have been on the cool side- downright chilly.  I ordinarily dial back the water when the nights cool off.  This makes sense.  Cool temperatures means water evaporates from the soil at a slower rate.  Hot days do not tell the entire story.  The night time story is a story line worth following.   My advice?  Ignore the day temperatures.  Follow the night temperatures.

Overly wet soil under any circumstances, hot or cold,  can result in root rot.  Rotted feeder roots means that no matter how much water is available to absorb, the mechanism for that absorption has been destroyed.  A plant with root rot cannot absorb any water from the soil.  Your worried watering may be killing your plants. Why am I blathering on about the importance of proper watering?  A misguided hose, watering can, or sprinkler system kills more plants than any other factor.  Too much water kills more plants than drought, insects, or disease.  Too much water can sicken and endanger an entire landscape. 

Those gardeners that never water anything are not really gardeners.  Those gardeners that water over and over again given a tough summer season are fearful gardeners.  I understand that fear-I reacted to the steamy heat and dry with my hose, open full blast.  But I see now that my off the top of my head reaction was harmful.  Thoughtful watering makes for a great landscape and garden.  As Buck says, be cool, and assess the situation.  Being cool, and properly assessing the situation-a good thing.   This is my theory.  Cool off.  Observe before you make a move.  Water only when there is a call for water. Do not water solely thinking you will help plants suffering in the heat.  Plants have an extraordinary will to live.  A drink now and then will help them to survive.  An ocean of water -they may drown.   

Consider these simple examples.  Japanese iris love wet ground-during their growing season, that is.  Flooded fall and winter ground will kill them.  Lavender can endure heavy clay-meaning astonishly water retentive soil-over the summer, but winter wet will kill them.  Yews are a snap to grow, unless an overactive irrigation system drags them down, and eventually drowns them.  Established landscape plants rarely need supplemental  irrigation, unless there is a drought.  Overwatered trees and shrubs will go yellow in leaf.  Hydrangeas appreciate a regular source of water-it takes a lot for them to produce prodigious blooms of great size.  Water them regularly.  Smart watering makes the difference between a passable landscape-and a stellar landscape.  Think through the wet and the dry-make a plan to endorse and follow that happy medium. 

Angie supervises one of my crews.  She is of the opinion that containers and plants should be watered first thing in the morning.  This gives them the entire day to soak up, to make use of,  that morning water.  Once dusk comes, the warmth of the day has already absorbed the the day’s watering.  The excess-so much steam.  This is a theory, remember.  This is a garden story that might make no sense scientifically, but could make emotional sense.  Dryer, overnight, given cooler temperatures-a good thing.  Good water during the day feeds the plants.  Dryer at night ensures their survival. I like my summer container plantings to go on into the fall.  Watching the water really carefully now will make a difference in their longevity.

 I usually water my containers after work-this is when I have time.  I load up the corgis at 6:15 most mornings-to go to work.  They fuss if I am late serving breakfast-they really fuss if we do not leave on time.  Given those dogs, I am not a morning waterer.  Tonight I find that all of my containers have just enough moisture to survive until morning.  If I water them tonight, they will be soaking wet in overnight chilly weather.  I make a call – no water tonight.  Tomorrow morning I will water-the corgis loaded up in the Suburban.  I will load them in the car, and water what really needs water.  

I read somewhere long ago that plants do most of their growing in the wee hours of the morning-meaning 4 until 6am.  It makes sense that their roots need to be able to breathe then.  My containers are the most water sensitive of any plants I grow.  As I am interested that they grow on into the fall, I am interested in testing Angie’s theory.  Water in the morning.  Make the daytime evaporation rate work in the interest of enabling  dryer and happier plants overnight-before morning. 

Every gardener needs to carefully observe how their plants react to their care.  Good observation makes for a really good garden.  Great gardens are unquestionably more about care than design.  Make every effort to get the water right.               






Indecent Exposure

2007 Dietz (11)I would not hesitate for a second, recommending that new plantings be mulched with 2 to 3 inches of bark.  Mulch conserves moisture in the soil, and it discourages the germination of weeds.  Transplanting is a big shock; a little mulch can be calming. I do not, however, admire decorative mulch, mulch gardens, mulch landscapes, mulch over existing weeds, or mountains of mulch anywhere else beyond a landscape supply yard. Mulch should not be seen or heard from.  Whomever designed the landscape pictured above should get a ticket, three points, and a hefty fine.  Who would cut giant beds, dot in a few maroon-leaved weigela in no discernable pattern, and call it a landscape?  This is a bark garden, just weeks after completion.  In a year’s time, the mulch will be a dirty grey, blown about by rain, bikes and wind.  All the while organisms in the soil are degrading said bark such that any weed seeds in the soil underneath will soon have optimal conditions to germinate and grow.  I shuddered when I saw this, and shuddered again when I realized the clients had no idea the hand that had been dealt to them. 

July23bb 006Suburban landscape/ gardens in front yards- in conspicuous lieu of grass-have become quite popular the last ten years or so.  Occasionally the news tells the tale of neighbors up in arms over a non-conforming suburban yard whose messy assortment of perennials, vegetables and whatever else threatens to disturb the status quo.  The debate about lawn versus garden is immaterial here-this yard is indeed a mess.  What I find even more astonishing are the drifts of bark.  As if bark over bare dirt,weeds, and some scraggly plants could improve the look here.     

birthday 006No kidding, nature abhors a vacuum.  The above pictured bark is a testimonial to the fact that bare or barked dirt stays bare only a short time.  Bark slows down weeds at first, but them helps them grow all the more robustly.  A forest completely destroyed and buried in volcanic ash will reforest, given enough time.  Some landscapes could get that fresh well-tended look if the bark were banished.  It is not as if any removal is required.  A landscape quick-fix?  Plant more of what you already have in your bark beds.

Egren 7-07 (2)It is difficult to get plants to grow under trees; the shade and competition for water can be daunting.  Planting a companion plant at the same time the tree goes in gives everyone involved a chance. I planted rooted cuttings of pachysandra with a weeding fork underneath these English oaks close to ten years ago.  The groundcover has taken over the job of the bark. Though a planting of pachysandra is never going to make your heart pound, it is vastly better looking than the bark. The shape and density of growth is enough.

DSC_0013There are lots of groundcovers for both sun and shade.  This dwarf hosta is a happy combination of bold texture and ground hugging scale.  Not that a groundcover needs to be short, mind you.  Groundcover is anything that covers the ground. For your planting trouble, you get a mass of green that conserves moisture in the soil, and discourages weeds. Does this not sound like a good idea?

Forbes 2005 (25)There is not one thing intrinsically wrong with grass. It is a vigorous groundcover, and  it does need to be cut.  It is doing amazingly well in the shade of these Bradford pears.  It is as much landscape as some people can handle. A grass panel, or sculpture can be strikingly beautiful. Just because a zillion lawn care products exist is no sign you are obliged to use them.  Just cut the grass. Even when my garden is weedy and falling over from neglect, I feel better when the grass is cut.  I like that illusion of order.    

May 27 2009 014Sweet woodriff is a beautiful groundcover, but it must be sited properly.  In too much shade, and in too wet a soil, fungus will prevail in late summer, leaving the garden with brown rotted leaves and bare patches.  I am willing to put up with its problems, as it covers the ground under my hellebores so beautifully.  My hellebores still seed here, though there is not a square inch of bare dirt to be seen. 

2008 Perenic #2 5-12-08 (7)A client with a private garden carved into a hillside asked me to redo the space.  The shrubs had become considerably overgrown, and a tree had died.  The walled garden on the inside has been totally redone.  But I was equally as interested in the street side presentation of the garden. The grass was tough to cut next to the brick wall; the grade was sloppily uneven.  I stripped the grass five feet away from the wall, and added 20 yards of soil to level the ground.

2008 Perenic INSTALL 7-3-08 (2)
Five columnar gingko trees of unusual size and shape were planted around the perimeter of the wall retaining that sunken garden.The branches and leaves are beautiful from the second story terrace.  I barked the trees, yes, but I also planted hydrangeas as groundcover.  Three years later, the view from the street is green. No dirt or bark slides down the hill after a rain.   It will take a few years for the trees to grow out of their hydrangea groundcover enough for that relationship to seem right. The secret garden is truly secret now; nothing in the streetside landscape gives it away. It is a gesture with a sporting chance at a future.