April 8, 2010

Army Surplus Trees

I have planted too many trees, and I have planted them too near the house and too near each other.  Despite what I have learned about growth imperatives and the meaning of "twenty foot spread" on a nursery pot label, I have erred.  I blame my father.

When I was 4 years old he came home with flats of seedling spruces, about 30 tiny little green shoots that he said he'd gotten for nothing because they were army surplus trees.  Did the army have surplus trees?  Did they grow trees to harvest branches for camouflaging soldiers?  I don't know, but I do remember that we always cut our Christmas tree at Arnold's Farm, and these may have actually been Arnie's, not the army's, extras.  In any event, they were tiny, they were green, and there were a lot of them.

He planted all of them a couple lawnmower widths apart to screen the side of our lot from the road.  Gardener, you may be picturing a meadow or a field where these seedlings were set out.  But we lived in a spanking new postwar suburban development on a half acre corner lot carved out of an old apple orchard.  30 forest sized trees growing to maturity among the spreading old apples on this small lot was never one of his better ideas, no matter how cute the little sprigs looked lined up.
In 1954 you can barely see the tiny trees - green spots in a row behind my father along the road.  
Why he's wearing lederhosen to mow the lawn is a lost fact of family history.  
Apologies for the poor photo quality, these were scanned from old negative slides.

By 1960 the spruces behind him here were getting a little bigger.

Some of them didn't make it, and some met a quick end if the lawnmower strayed a little.  Some were crumpled under too much snow when the plow went by on the road.  For years we had to walk carefully in the yard, in order not to trample baby trees.

But enough survived and thrived that 15 years after planting they formed a green hedge that did offer privacy to what little was left of open lawn in our diminished back yard.  That was when my father died.  I left home for college, and my mother sold the house.

We all go back to see the old neighborhood, and of course I did.  56 years after he planted them, the spruces are now a giant, dark, forbidding mass of broken limbs, sun-starved branches and black ominous trunks tangled up, claiming half the yard.    

They're not very pretty; in fact the garden designer in me wanted to scream at the current owners "take them down!"  "Let in some light!"  "They're not even healthy, who would let their property go to such ruin?" and by the time I really got my gardening dander up: "Who would plant this claustrophobic mess in complete disregard for nature's plan for these trees?"

Oh.  They were such tiny army surplus seedlings a long time ago.


  1. My parents did the same thing, they came from the Department of Agriculture. We had a really assembly line with my dad digging the (tiny) hole, my mum dropping them in, and the kids (low to the ground) firming them in. Amazing how fast they grow, once you could see them above the grass in the field.

  2. It's so hard to imagine those tiny plants full grown. I did a similar thing with some shrubs in front of the house. At first those little dots seemed too far apart, but eventually I ended up cutting down over half of them.

  3. Such great pics of your dad! I always have to fight the urge to plant trees to close to the house lol.

  4. It's a hard lesson to learn. I am really trying to choose carefully this time - and site them even more carefully!

  5. Thanks everyone for chiming in... it's good to know how many people plant too many seedlings too close together. It really is the hardest part of garden design I think.

  6. lol, I didn't know that the Army had surplus trees. I'm surprised they're still up; the cost of removing them must be prohibitive, or the new owners like dank dark conditions. I agree that spacing trees is the hardest part of garden design. Since they stay small for a relatively long time it's hard to imagine them big!

  7. Sweet bay, it really is the hardest challenge to space trees appropriately isn't it!

  8. Gail (born in 1954)April 14, 2010 at 9:37 PM

    like all seeds planted in 1954, we've grown into tangled up, dark trunks with ominous branches.. Thankfully, not too many broken limbs!!

  9. Gail, trees as a metaphor for life -- oh my.


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