February 22, 2011

Creating a Forest

Planting trees made me a gardener.  I did not start out with a vegetable patch or some flowering annuals and then expand into woody ornamentals and mixed borders.  I started with trees.  I started out gardening to build a forest.

When we moved in, the builder left us this for a back yard view. 

A street runs along the top of the little ridge (our house backs up to this street, it fronts to a quiet cul de sac).  I wanted to sit in my back yard and be screened from the street, the traffic running on it, and the houses lining it.

I didn't want a row of evergreens or a living fence of arborvitae, or any other kind of artificial landscaped look.  I knew what it should look like: a typical wooded New England hillside, dense with forest trees, like it had grown there naturally.  That led me to research what would actually be found on a typical wooded hillside here, and that led me to learn about native trees.

What an education.  I learned about the diversity of our cold climate forests, and I was quickly overwhelmed with how many choices there were.

So, fearlessly, I planted what I had researched.  I got cheap rootbound saplings at Lowe's and free bare root 10 inch twigs from ArborDay.  I found tiny volunteer saplings growing in the woods nearby and moved them.  I ordered some one gallon whips from a mail order catalog.  Where you see a round of brown dirt on the greening hillside, that's where I put in a tree.

I had trouble with rabbits and deer. The scrabbly dirt the builder left on the bank was no good, loose and stony.  I learned I had to encase the spindly trunks in plastic mesh to protect them from critters.  Early in the season, as you can see below, the weed layer was low, but by midsummer monstrous weeds engulfed the baby trees and choked them (this was bulldozed earth, after all, disturbed and opened up).  Bittersweet and poison ivy entangled every sapling.  Goldenrod shaded them and ragweed smothered them.

Out of respect for their suffering, I never actually photographed the wild, tangled, struggling forest-to-be in full summer.

But the ones that didn't strangle or get eaten started to grow.  And some started to overtop the weeds.  I helped, by freeing them from the worst of the poison ivy and bittersweet, and clearing out the rampant autumn olive bushes.  When it was very dry I watered the little saplings; no easy feat to get water out to that back hill, and it was no small commitment to water more than 50 saplings.

It's been a few years, and I am beginning to see a native New England woodland emerging as I sit on my back deck.

And now, in winter, the slender trunks are clearly visible.

To those of you who have lovely woodland gardens, this scrawny strip of a hillside doesn't look like much.  But it takes my breath away to see it.  In every season.

I wanted this strip of woods to appear as if it had grown there naturally; I later learned that meant using "native plants".  I wanted it to be mixed and jumbled up; I later learned that meant "diverse".  I wanted birds to come; I later learned that meant creating an "ecosystem". 

About 40 of the trees I planted survive, not just in the sections the photos show, but stretched out along the whole bank for a couple hundred feet.  Another dozen or more volunteers are growing there too, including some aggressive Eastern cottonwoods, Staghorn sumacs, and some Norway maples, unfortunately not native, but hard to eradicate.

What did I plant?  In no particular order, here is my native, diverse, burgeoning ecosystem:

Red maples, lots (Acer rubrum)
Silver maples, many (Acer saccharinum)
Black gums, several (Nyssa sylvatica)
Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris)
Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Sassafras, many (Sassafras albidum)
Sweet Birches (Betula lenta --- but I lost all of them)
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
River Birches (Betula nigra)
White Pines (Pinus strobus)
Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) 
Persimmons (Diospyros virgiana, originally native a little further south)
Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana)

Once I got the hang of ecosystem forest creation, learning to garden with perennials and shrubbery was easy.


  1. It looks great. It looks like the trees found their own places. Perfect. Keep documenting it with photos and enjoy your "forest."

  2. Oh wow, what an amazing job on planting trees! Awesome.

  3. I bet your garden is full of many thankful birds and other critters. Good job.

  4. What a big job, but as your pix show, so worth it. It's all about the bones!

  5. Laurrie, what a beautiful job you've done. Indeed it does look very natural. One of the things you've managed to do and which I'm trying to do as well, is plant so they're not all tidy and in a row. I've struggled with spacing - too wide and it looks planned, too close and the trees will eventually become too crowded. It looks like you've managed this wonderfully.

  6. Laurrie, Bravo! What a fantastic project to have undertaken. I hope your neighbors appreciate how much 'value' you've added to the neighborhood as a whole.

  7. Beautifully done! It's evident how much joy these trees bring you! Take a bow!

  8. Your young forest looks beautiful. So nice to have the privacy too.

  9. Gardener on Sherlock, thanks so much! I am photo-documenting the progress each year.

    Meemsnyc, thanks for admiring my efforts!

    Lisa, the birds and animals and butterflies are starting to make a real presence in my little forest.

    Cyndy, it's coming along... not a woodland yet, but on its way.

    Marguerite, most are planted too close and I will need to do some thinning at a later date. We'll see . . .

    Debbie, my neighbors might be a little concerned, because this is not even my property, it's common land. But it's common land that no one but me can see, and it's not maintained in any way by the association.

    Cat, thanks for the compliments!

    Sweetbay, the privacy is a big plus, in the summer of course. Right now it's very see-through to the road.

  10. Wow, I'm impressed, Laurrie! I started with vegetables and then annuals before I finally moved on to perennials, but you tackled the hardest part of gardening first. Your little forest is looking good and on its way to creating a beautiful woodland hillside.

  11. What an undertaking!! It looks wonderful and is indeed creating an ecosystem. You watered 50 saplings by hand?? Phenomenal!!!

  12. Rose, thanks so much! I do hope it will one day be a real woodland hillside.

    Casa Mariposa, thanks... watering really was a chore; in addition it's a south facing dry sandy slope!

  13. Laurrie, Would you recommend the Winter King Hawthorn for deer resistance?

  14. Sissy, of all the trees I have planted (so many, so many . . .) I have not planted hawthorns. They get cedar apple rust here because we have so many wild junipers which are the host plants for the fungus. So I don't even try apples or hawthorns. But I would have to say the deer would eat them when young. Our deer eat any newly planted sapling!


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