Last week our neighbors had a huge tree taken down. Men in hard hats and ear protection came early in the morning in big trucks and revved up their chainsaws and started up the chippers, and yelled instructions at each other at the top of their lungs.
This was not a dead tree, it was a huge living eastern cottonwood in their back yard. While some would argue that it's a travesty to chop down a live forest tree, I am of the opposite opinion. It's okay to take down trees. Not to clear cut or decimate whole forests, but occasionally a large, healthy tree is in the wrong spot, or it's a nuisance. Cutting down a tree if you want is #9 on The Renegade Gardener's list of 10 approved tenets of renegade gardening, so there.
The eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) is a trash tree here. Our hillsides are covered with them, they overtake open fields, and they are fast growing, weak wooded trees that self destruct in 20 years, falling apart on their own, and in any kind of storm. The one in the picture below dominated our back hill when we moved in. It, unlike the neighbor's cottonwood, was dead as a hammer, and shed huge branches in every breeze, and fell apart when it rained. The town took it down two years ago. I miss the winter structure, and the two cranky crows who perched in it, always on the same branches and always in bad humor, but not the mess or the hulking dead look in summer when all the other trees leafed out.
Our neighbor's live tree was a female and dispersed cotton seed fluff all over the neighborhood when in bloom. Really annoying stuff, it looked like snow on a warm summer day, and it gathered in every corner and piled into every nook.
The cottonwood does have a redeeming feature, though; on a breezy day the big triangle-shaped leaves flutter like their cousins the quaking aspens, and they make a noisy rushing sound like ocean surf. At night when you don't see the leaves moving, the sound alone is confusing; the leaves rustle in a way that sounds just like pittery pattery rain, but it's dry.
Nevertheless, the neighbor's tree came down. The men did not chop it down, but rather dis-assambled it in the reverse order that it had grown, starting with removal of the branches:
Then, when it was just a tall stick without any branches, they sawed the trunk into pieces from the top down:
As the trunk was cut into pieces, the operator dropped each section from above into a pile of tires, which worked surprisingly well to absorb the impact of the logs tumbling down from on high:
Then there was nothing:
And a whole entire tree, some 50 feet tall, was reduced in the chipper to mulch:
It took about 45 minutes in all.
There are other woodsy trees in the neighbor's back yard as you can see in the pictures, providing screening and bird homes and playgrounds for squirrels. In fact there are plenty of other cottonwoods there. But this one large tree that dominated their yard, made a cottony mess and had every intention of dropping branches on their house, is gone. Already it's not missed.
I love Stacy London and Clinton Kelly on TLC's What Not to Wear, even though I have to watch it upstairs on Friday nights so Jim doesn't get hives. There's something immensely appealing to me about the whole makeover idea, starting over fresh and improved and looking so good at the suspenseful Reveal.
One mantra repeated over and over to underemployed victims in grody sweatpants is "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have"; aspirational advice that I intuitively followed when I was working because it made sense, I had a decent figure then, and I liked dressing up each day (except for those years in the 1990s which involved shoulder pads and pantyhose).
But when I retired, I lost my way.
Where were Stacy & Clinton when I headed out into the garden, aspiring to become an amateur arborist? Where was the ready counsel when I was learning to mulch and spread and deadhead?
In the garden I wore cast off jeans that didn't fit anymore. They didn't fit any better when I was weeding on my hands and knees. They were uncomfortable.
Digging planting holes, I wore an old bra that rode up, because it didn't matter if it got dirty, and it scooted up even worse when I lifted 5 gallon pots and hauled mulch.
In the yard I wore last year's gym sneakers that got wet and stiffened. Outdated shirts had buttons missing, which alarmingly revealed the migrating bra.
Finally, this winter, I realized I need to dress for the job I want. I want to be a gardener.
Happily they make clothes for aspiring landscapers. I bought them all this winter, gaining an entire new wardrobe en masse, a la What Not to Wear, even throwing away the unfashionable old stuff in a big trashcan, just like they do on the show, with just as violently satisfying effect.
I got Bogs boots (they're in a footwear category called "Women's Agricultural", how can you resist?) I got pants in my real size (another Stacy / Clintonism: dress the body you have, not the one you want) They're so spanking clean and fresh but soon to be mud caked and stained.
A nice soft denim shirt, marketed as a fashion item, but to be worn as workwear. Decent socks, not the old ones that abandoned their elastic after too many years in the gym.
And brand new bras for the girls (you have to watch the show to tolerate that expression without gagging) even though they'll get stretched and dirty.
I'm so excited for my big Reveal this spring as I head out into the yard. There may be applause, if the daffodils are paying attention. I still have to get hair and makeup lined up though.
In the wild trees grow any which way they want or can. Double leaders, multiple trunks, offshoots, twisted forms, it's all good. But in our landscapes we want trees with pleasing shapes, and that means pruning them while they're still small. It's like raising teenagers: you have to do a lot of shaping while they are young, and then hope they follow the form you set out when they grow up.
Most of my trees are small; I usually plant one gallon or five gallon container saplings. Many of my juvenile trees are at that awkward stage and need help. Sometimes my problem is not what to prune off; instead I have missing limbs, and lopsided forms. I really need to add limbs, or somehow attach them in different locations on the trunk.
I have photographed several examples this month before they leaf out so you can see what I'm fussing about.
Here is my flowering cherry, Prunus Okame. You can see there is a nice angled limb to the left, but the right side of this twiggy trunk has no lower branches at all. It's a beautiful bloomer, and it even has nice fall color. But what can I do to make this look more like a tree and not so much like a one armed soldier saluting?
And here is a skimpy looking sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana. You can see it is also missing lower branches on one side. But if I take off that lone lower branch I'll have a magnolia lollipop:
(Here it is again, from another angle and in leaf. I really don't want to trim off that lower branch):
Some of my trees have branches in the wrong places. Here is my paperbark maple, Acer griseum, another beautiful tree. The peeling reddish bark is awesome, the fall color is a nice rusty red, but it's unevenly branched. This has a large limb to the left that should be pruned off, but then what do I have left?
This is my pink flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. It's nice and full, but the branches on the left angle out; those on the right angle up. Sometimes you can use a little discipline, just like you do with teenagers. In this case I have tied the rightmost branches to a stake, and I'm pulling them downward over time to become a little more horizontal. Sometimes this can work, sometimes it doesn't. Just so you know, I never tied my teenage children to a stake despite overwhelming justification; this is a tree branch discipline only.
A couple of my new trees slouch. Here is a tiny dwarf ginkgo, called Spring Grove, and even though it is only 18 inches high (it will get to be 3 feet or so), it looks like it wants to sit down:
A Hyndrangea paniculata 'Tardiva' standard has been growing with a curved trunk that keeps it from being able to stand on its own. You have to look closely through the twiggy fothergilla at its base, but take a close peek and you'll see it's so curved, it might just lie down on its side in the dirt if I didn't keep it staked:
I feel as though it's a constant battle to get these young trees to shape up. It really does remind me of raising teens; the worry that they won't turn out right, the conviction that they are always going to be this way, I mean always. The persistent interventions, including support, strings, crutches, constant help. They just won't be decent mature specimens without a lot of work on my part.
But here's the good news. I have done this before. I have raised teens, and they have straightened up and they have matured and they have become good men -- hard working, loving, thriving, decent adult men.
I just need to be patient. Prune a little off, offer some support, and be patient.
Yesterday as I cleaned up the gardens in front, a bee followed me around. At first I thought it was just buzzing nearby. I was pleased to see it, a good sign in early spring. But then I noticed it was deliberately and specifically following me. As I raked winter debris from around my plants, the bee hovered over me, then swooped in for a look. Anything good here? Any new blooms?
When I moved on to the next part of the bed he was right there with me. He didn't zig zag around, instead he hovered patiently and intently right at shoulder level as I knelt over the garden. It was clear he was watching what I did. Again and again he moved with me, my companion on this lovely warm day, as we both searched for signs of spring in the warming soil. He was happiest when we reached the blooming heath (Erica darleyensis 'Ghost Hills' which I thought would bloom spectral white, but it's a bright pink heath).
There's not much else in bloom in my March garden, so my bee companion had to work pretty hard to find what he wanted. It was so obvious he wanted me to help him find something flowering. It was a wonderful quiet hour of interspecies communication, and it pleased me beyond reason.
I was similarly pleased last summer to have a hummingbird companion in my garden. I had put out sugar water to attract them, and enjoyed the views as they helicoptered at the feeders. But one sunny afternoon as I watered the back garden, a hummer came over and began dancing in the spray of the hose.
As with the bee, my first thought was that he was just coincidentally flying around nearby doing his own thing. Then he hovered level with my face, looked at me, and dive bombed into the spray. Again and again, with joy. The water drops sparkled, the tiny hummingbird shimmied, and together we shared some moments sprinkling the garden. Not nearby, not wary of getting too close, but unabashedly in concert, communicating to each other how enjoyable misting water and sunshine are on an afternoon in the summer.
These were small moments, with small creatures. But I am overwhelmed with the realization that they directed the conversation with me, not the other way around. I have been so used to doing all the communicating ("come here and visit my feeders, hummingbirds" or "shoo, go away, don't sting me, bee") that it never dawned on me they might be able to say something so clearly and so effectively to me. And with such obvious delight in my presence in their world.
Tilia cordata 'Greenspire' My poor, poor Littleleaf Linden. Basswood. Called a Lime Tree in Europe because of a confusing linguisitics heritage from medieval English, and a Bee Tree on both sides of the Atlantic for obvious reasons in June when the pretty flowers are swarmed.
My Tilia cordata 'Greenspire'. Murdered in December 2008.
It won't live. The damage in these pictures looks bad enough, but it's even worse. Where the outer bark is still whole around the back, it has pulled away from the inner bark, leaving a kind of detached wrapping that the wind whistles through as it swirls around inside.
This was not one of my little one gallon wonders. This was a large expensive specimen planted by Bartlett Tree Experts in 2007. It's in our front yard, it's the focal point as you come down the street to round the cul de sac, it needed to be a statement tree.
And it was. It had a nice trim pear shape form, a very dense head of heart shaped leaves, good yellow color in Fall. This one was too young to bloom very heavily yet, but I knew it would eventually get tons of sweet flowers, and lots of bees. It also got lots of Japanese beetles, lindens do. But it withstood those attacks very well, and was thriving.
Until December 25, 2008.
In August of '08 I put plastic spiral wrapping around the trunk to protect it from the male deer who rub their antlers in late summer and fall to remove shedding velvet. Trees this size are particularly vulnerable. They don't bother bigger trunks, but this caliper seems about right to them I guess. And linden bark is smooth, apparently an appealing feature. It was ugly, seeing that plastic wrap on our specimen tree, right in line with our front door. So when the rut was over, in the first part of winter, I took it off --- removed it Christmas Eve, December 24, so the decorated yard would look nice for the holiday. When I woke up Christmas morning the bark had been shredded raw.
My lime tree lived on into 2009, and partially leafed out, but it's looking sparse, and it won't survive.
In Celtic regions in the middle ages, the lime tree was sacred and it was common for judicial cases to be heard while the court sat under a lime tree, as it was said to inspire fairness and justice. Before this tree is removed I am going to find the buck that did this and bring him to justice under my linden tree.
In my neighborhood lindens are the tree of choice for antler activities. There are two others planted in areas nearby, and both have suffered damage along the trunk, although they seem to be surviving. George Valchar, who wrote about his Connecticut gardens, says he planted a 12 foot linden specimen only to lose it immediately to a bad case of antler rub (and despite the title of his book, he doesn't write about his personal experiences; it's just an inventory of plants in his yard. So this solitary personal fact about his linden and deer jumped out at me.)
Our house was built right smack in the middle of a deer thoroughfare that runs from a pond in a wooded area below us, up to the treed area to the northwest behind us. Deer live by habit, and there is nothing that we can do to re-route our herd around my deliciously landscaped yard. They always have to follow the same paths. Pond, meadow, yard, trees. Sometimes they go trees, yard, meadow, pond. But they always have to navigate diagonally right through our half acre to get where they're going, and the fact that we put such tasty vegetation right on their route just delights them.
I've tried all the remedies everyone else has used, from predator scents (what predators? They don't know what one is supposed to smell like because there haven't been any in our part of the world for decades) to vile rotten egg sprays, to plastic tubes that looked like this and made me feel as though we lived in a natural gas pipe field:
Wrapping each and every tree and shrub is impossible and unsightly. Perimeter fences, either electric or 12 foot high barriers, are equally out of the question. Motion-triggered water sprays aren't practical in the winter here, and would litter the landscape with hoses everywhere. I really needed another way.
The solution: Wireless deer zappers that deliver a mild electric shock on contact. They are one foot high plastic stakes that hold two AA batteries, which last for a year. At the top of the stake is a clear plastic saturated scent lure. The deer smells it, wanders over, licks it, and gets a surprise. It's not harmful... I've touched it myself and it made me jump and say a bad word, but it doesn't hurt. Although I didn't actually put my tongue on it.
You may not want to use these if children or pets play in your yard.
Last summer I put 12 stakes all around the paths that the deer regularly take on their route through our yard and open meadow. You need a lot, it's not a fence, and although there is a smell lure, they kind of need to stumble across a stake in their browsing. Over the summer I saw several very deep hoof marks going every which way near the stakes, showing a deer had bounded away in alarm. At least that's my forensic evaluation of the tracks in the mud.
You don't protect plants with these, instead you modify the routes the deer take amidst all your plantings. I think they are working. In past winters my China Girl hollies (ilex meserveae) always got pruned by the hungry deer into such raggy shapes. For 3 years, this is what I had every spring:
I put stakes near them last winter, and had no damage at all when I looked this spring.
This week I gathered up all the stakes to replace the batteries and put them back out in slightly different locations for novelty and surprise. I found 11 of the 12 stakes. The last one? Gone to where the lonely socks from the dryer go? Taken by the deer for study and examination to figure out how they work? Lying on its side in the mud right in front of me where I'm likely to step on it and get my toes zapped? Where could it be?
I don't know if the deer will figure out it's only the green stakes that shock them, and learn to eat around the zappers. For now the deer seem to be wary of their normal route through my yard, and the stakes are pretty inconspicuous in the landscape, especially as plants grow and fill in.
Wireless technology to combat deer: it's just so 21st century. I call them iZaps... I'm sure you'll be able to get them soon from iTunes.