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The Appeal of Trees

From a single specimen to a small forest, trees offer shelter and solace, structure and style. And there’s no time like now to branch out…

What’s the allure of trees? They soften or frame a view and add structure to a garden, even when they are not towering oaks or maples. They provide shade and shelter, homes and food for wild creatures, food and fuel for humans. They have lined and defined many a street and have inspired many a poet, and we are deeply attached to them.

One of my favourite places to appreciate trees is at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS, where native species are planted in small ecosystems. There are also several very special non-native trees growing there, including a magnificent European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and a fine specimen of the oldest known tree in the world, a ginkgo or maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba).

The Gardens’ director, Peter Romkey, is a big fan of trees, both in natural and in garden settings. “They control temperature and humidity, reduce and direct the impact of rain, filter airborne particulate matter, reduce wind, store carbon, support swings and tree houses, produce oxygen and are completely recyclable,” he says. “What’s also amazing is the economics of trees; they increase their value enormously over a short period of time.” He offers some sample prices as proof. You can purchase a two-foot-high white spruce for around $10; in 10 years the tree is 22 feet in height; try to price a 22-foot conifer—if you can even find one to purchase! 

Trees play a huge role in folklore, tradition and heritage. Consider the young ginkgo in our backyard. It’s the only living member of an order of plants that flourished more than 150 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, the Jurassic period in particular, well loved by dinosaur fans. It’s pretty amazing to look at the rich green, two-lobed leaves of our young tree and know that it is the oldest species of tree still existing today. Some specimens, primarily in Asia—the tree was introduced to Europe from Asia several centuries ago, and then brought here to the New World—are more than 1,000 years old. Maybe our tree won’t live that long, but it still may have a rich legacy.

Choosing the Tree

Paul Grimm loves plants in general but trees in particular. That’s a very good thing, given he and his family operate Springvale Nurseries in Berwick, NS. Paul, a former dairy farmer turned tree grower, has a choice collection of both native and non-native ornamental trees at his own farm homestead, and grows a wide range of shrubs and trees to sell.

“The number one thing to remember about planting trees,” says Paul, “is to make sure they get proper care after you put them in the ground. You can’t just dig a hole, drop the tree in it, bury the root ball, walk away and expect your tree to prosper.”

But even before you start digging that hole for your new leafy friend, you need to determine what sort of tree, or trees, you want to have, what will suit your site and what you want to accomplish. Are you a gardener who doesn’t want to deal with cleaning up leaves every fall? Maybe you prefer to go with conifers rather than deciduous trees. How large is your site? It’s one thing to purchase a small tree and plant it in a tiny yard, only to discover that it will mature at more than 50 feet tall and overwhelm your neighbours. (If the planting information with your tree doesn’t specify height and width at maturity, check with the nursery staff.) The other usual considerations apply: is it for shade or will it be shaded; is it to create focus or a windbreak? How will it integrate into or enhance the rest of your design—and how, pray tell, will its shadow play out in winter?

Then there’s the question of budget. It doesn’t matter whether you buy a tree that’s container grown or one with its root ball in burlap. Generally, however, only young, small trees—which are of course cheaper than grand old dames—are sold in containers.

Notwithstanding size and price, some gardeners and landscapers prefer to go with trees that are containerized because they are not being dug out of a field nursery, possibly damaging their root systems. If you are planting a container-grown tree you’ll need to score the roots first—cut with pruners and then gently tease them apart—so they will spread out into their new spacious home and not continue to grow in a circular shape.

Planting Trees Correctly

Once you’ve determined where you want your new addition and what species you want, it’s time to prepare for planting. As you would do with most any plant, from a vegetable transplant to a flowering shrub, plan to dig a hole at least two times the diameter of your tree’s root ball—but no deeper than what it’s already been growing. You don’t want the tree to sink into the ground. At the same time, when you fill in around the tree, you should be able to tamp the soil down to create a bit of a surface depression or saucer—factoring in a layer of mulch, if using—which will help to catch and hold water rather than have it run off the surface.

Once your tree is tamped into its new home, water it well. In fact the most critical nutrient that your new tree will need during its first year of growth is water. Be prepared to water generously twice weekly. Mulching helps to keep the soil moist, but remember not to place it right up to the tree’s trunk—this creates an environment conducive to pests and diseases.

Staking is one of those things that depends on the tree and the grower. Paul Grimm says it is necessary only for the first one or two years, to get your new tree growing straight. He points out that many times trees with a bit of an angle or incline to their trunks tend to straighten by themselves, “or they develop a graceful sweep to their silhouettes, which is appealing.” One thing to remember, however, is not to stake a tree using wire around its trunk—you run the risk of the wire cutting into the trunk as it grows, which can be deadly.

Tree Problems

Again as with other plants, trees are susceptible to problems with insect pests or diseases. Some of the fungal diseases that show symptoms on leaves are a result of stressful environmental conditions, and will not hurt the tree, but others can be more serious. Nursery growers often say they dread customers coming in insisting they want a common tree such as ‘Crimson King’ maple. There are so many of these trees already planted in subdivisions and public spaces that we are setting ourselves up for a problem, as with the notorious Dutch elm disease, which has wiped out the vast majority of American elms (Ulmus americanus) in North America because our ancestors planted the trees so thickly. And there’s currently a plague of spanworms causing problems with ornamental maples and other trees in St. John’s, NL.

So Many Choices

One way to develop a beautiful garden with diverse tree species is to include native trees in your planting. “White and red spruce and Eastern white cedar are great conifer selections, while good deciduous species include sugar or rock maple, red maple and white ash,” says Peter Romkey. “These trees are spectacular when grown as specimens but like all native species they enjoy the company of other trees in small, informal group plantings.” If you’re looking for more unusual native species, Peter adds, try ironwood, hemlock, Jack pine and moose maple. In addition, both birch and willow have dwarf species that are wonderful in small yards or in rock gardens.

You might even find your own new variety of ornamental tree when out hiking through the wilderness areas of the Atlantic Provinces. “Most of the ornamentals currently planted were discovered by horticulturists who look continuously for trees with odd leaves, branch angles or dwarfed individuals that can be developed into ornamentals,” Peter says. “These odd genetic variations are found throughout the Acadian Forest Region on native species. Keep your eyes open and you could discover a spectacular specimen in your own backyard.”

Paul Grimm is hard-pressed to choose a favourite few trees, because he’s quite fond of all trees. “So much depends on what you want to create with your trees,” he says. He admits to having a great fondness for striped or moose maple (Acer pennsylvanicum), white ash (Fraxinus americana), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and the lovely freesia or yellow-leafed honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). He’s particularly smitten with unusual types of maples, those with interesting bark colour and texture or leaf shape, including Acer griseum, the grey maple known for its lovely peeling bark, or the green vine maple (A. circinatum), as well as the more shrub-sized maples, such as hedging maple (A. campestre) and Amur maple (A. ginnala).

The most sage piece of advice that Paul Grimm offers? “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; and the next best time is today.”

Well, wait till spring.

10 Top Tree Picks

Beyond the birches, more than maples, more fabulous than fir: some choice selections to try.

1. American Linden or Basswood(Tilia americana) This can become a large, magnificent tree over time, but even in its early years it’s a lovely addition to a garden—with room for its eventual growth. It boasts fragrant, creamy coloured flowers with nutlike fruit appearing in late summer, favoured by squirrels and birds. Its relative Tilia cordata, the little-leafed lime or linden, also has fragrant flowers much loved by bees, and is a good choice for tolerating difficult growing conditions.

2. Bean Tree (Catalpa) Often a popular tree on golf courses, the catalpa flowers in mid summer with sprays of white flowers accented with yellow and red. Probably the most commonly seen is the Indian bean tree (C. bignonioides), which makes a wonderful specimen tree in a yard or garden setting where its form and flowers can be shown off to best effect.

3. Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica forma purpurea) This is a glorious tree, with rich deep purple-bronze foliage and wonderfully smooth bark, but it is a slow grower; be prepared to be patient, or to enjoy it as a large shrub for years, knowing that your children and grandchildren will love its beauty later on. The weeping form is a good candidate for a specimen tree, planted on its own.

4. Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) Until 1941, this tree was thought to exist only as fossil remains; then plant hunters discovered it in the Szechwan region of China. Seed from the dawn redwood was brought into cultivation in North America a few years later, and one of the oldest specimens actually grows on a private property in Halifax. This fast-growing conifer has lovely soft foliage and is quite hardy in Atlantic Canada, with little in the way of particular growing requirements.

5. False Cypress(Chameaecyparis species) This has to be one of the most diverse genera of evergreen trees and shrubs. Whether you’re looking for a compact, dwarf shrub or a stately, easy-care tree, there’s a false cypress for you. Some species are particularly good for hedges or screens, and tend to be easy to grow in a wide range of climate and soil conditions.

6. Hawthorn (Crataegus species) These splendid deciduous trees are thorny but wonderful for attracting birds, which feast on the red, rosehip-like fruit in late summer through autumn. Some cultivars boast rosy pink or reddish clusters of blooms in spring, rather than the more common white blooms.

7. Japanese Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) Another beautiful and often underutilized species, the katsura has lovely heart-shaped foliage, with young leaves often tinged with shades of rose. Fall colour varies but is often quite spectacular, and the overall shape and form of the tree is one of gentle grace.

8. Magnolia (Magnolia, various species) Magnolias have a reputation for being finicky and hard to grow in Atlantic Canada. While it’s true that some are not suited for the colder areas of our region, there are varieties that are both hardy and beautiful, and breeders are developing more types all the time. Some magnolias are incredibly fragrant while in bloom, adding to their appeal.

9. Red Buckeye (Aesculus x carnea) If you like horse chestnut trees, then you can’t help but love the red buckeye or red horse chestnut. The form is similar to the regular, white-flowered horse chestnut, but in late spring or early summer the tree is covered in upright panicles or clusters of pink to red flowers.

10. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis, various species) Witch hazels are small trees or large shrubs that feature interesting flowers, with spindly, spider-like petals in shades of yellow or red, and attractive scents. Some witch hazels are the first trees to burst into bloom in late winter or early spring, while others tend to flower in the fall.

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