Happy Little Trees

Redbud raindrops

Some trees are gems. Others (read: Bradford Pears) are dire errors to be suffered.

Here are a few tips for figuring out which is which:

Pensive in the gardenWho remembers Bob Ross, the lush-haired creator of PBS’s long-running “The Joy of Oil Painting” series? Maybe the 80s were a more innocent time, or possibly I was just a naive, sheltered only child; but I can’t remember rolling my eyes even once at Ross’s exuberant fan-brush renditions of “happy little trees.” Or could it be because when somebody goes out on a limb far enough, too enthusiastic to notice people’s ridicule, it eventually wins folks over? I have to hope so, because let’s face it: typing a fervent blog about one’s own backyard is pretty freaking dorky.

April in the back yard

April in the back yard

Until three days ago, I was never interested in blogging. I figure, who wants to read some prosaic play-by-play of my daily life? Who really cares what I’m thinking? They don’t.

Occasionally, though, people do come into my yard, like it, and start asking me questions about plants. Sometimes the questions are specific, like “What’s this one with the weird pods?” But more often, people will look around, shrug their shoulders, and say something like, “I could never do this.” Forgetting that Mom and I have been building this garden for eight years now, they see the “finished” product and have no idea where to start in their own yards.

That’s why I thought it would be fun to put together a few posts about how Mom and I got from there to here. It was in tiny steps, steps that anyone can do, and we started from zero–zero knowledge (in my case, at least), and a totally empty canvas. Worse than an empty canvas, really: the yard was full of trash, weeds the size of houses, and black walnut trees, which secrete a toxin that kills many plants.

Fortunately, my mom does not get intimidated. When faced with chaos, she looks around for a nanosecond and then gets started on a tiny corner of it. Come to think of it, she is probably the person we should place in charge of putting New Orleans and Baghdad back together.

Do not be fooled by this black walnut's comical appearance: the tree is evil

Do not be fooled by this black walnut’s comical appearance: the tree is evil

Over time, I’ll tell you the story of how this little backyard oasis of ours–a supremely happy, peaceful place for me–rose from the chaos. But I have this horrible tendency to throw a lot of information at people, as if they could possibly absorb it all at once. (A friend of mine asked me once, “What note is this?” on the piano, and I commenced explaining all about music theory, and how scales are constructed, and the standard I, IV, V, relative minor chord progressions of rock music, and so on. After twenty minutes of this, he looked at me, pressed an “F,” and said, “Is this middle C?”)

Instead, I’ll talk about how to get started, one little bit at a time, the same way Mom and I did.

One question a lot of people ask is, “What tree should I plant?” For indeed, all trees are not created equal. And when you’re contemplating breaking ground on a blank slate of a back yard, especially a large one, a tree is a great place to begin.

The first and most difficult question is, where do you want to plant a tree? A very small tree or shrub planted in the middle of a large expanse of yard can look pretty random and lonely. And it’s a terrible idea to plant a tree that will be huge one day right next to your house. (Always consider the future size of anything you plant. Ten years may seem a long way away, but the day will come when that cute little tulip poplar becomes a towering seventy-foot beast. Too bad you planted it under the power lines.)

So first, choose a spot: for a big tree, an empty place in the yard you’d like to be shady one day; or for a smaller one, a place that will be part of a future bed (perhaps along a fence) or will help to enclose or define an area (such as a patio).

What tree should I plant?

Japanese maple leaf

Japanese maple leaf

Why don’t more contractors ask this question? Every time I drive by yet another Bradford pear, split down the middle or toppled by a light breeze, I shake my fist and cry out, “WHYYY?” And the tulip poplar underneath powerlines is a real example — check out the new development on Glen Echo, right by the four-way stop. It won’t be long before NES is mutilating the hell out of those nice, new tulip poplars on the sidewalk strip below the wires. Because they will not be below the wires for long.

It’s easy to make these mistakes. Garden stores carry trees not based on which ones are best, hardiest for the area, most beautiful, or the most sensible choices. They carry what people buy. And people keep buying Bradford pears because they grow fast and bloom early and profusely. People want a speedy reward. But very often, fast-growing trees mean soft wood, and they are therefore not long for this world. Soon the split branches will be lying in your yard, and you will be calling a guy to come and grind the stump.

If you want a hardy, long-lived small tree that will be stunning in springtime, consider these options instead. Some of them may be a little bit harder to find, but you’re going to live with this tree for a long, long time. So choose well!

My Favorite Small Trees:

Dogwoods – A no-brainer, and easy to find at any garden store. They are native to the area, so they tend to do well here, even in the heat. Two of the most common varieties are:

The gorgeous variegated leaf and flower of "Lemon ripple"

The gorgeous variegated leaf and flower of “Lemon ripple”

Cornus florida, or “flowering dogwood” – Drive around Nashville in mid-April, and you will notice the delicate four-petaled blooms everywhere (mostly creamy white, but some are pink). The trees also produce brilliant red berries that can provide color well into December. Usually around 15-20′, but can get to 30′-40′ on occasion. Usually considered an understory tree, it can handle a sunny spot as well.

Cornus kousa, or “kousa dogwood” – Very similar, but a native of Asia that blooms about a month later. Mom says the kousa is more disease resistant, and I always listen to her. So I have several kousas in my yard. The most spectacular ones I have are a couple of very small variegated cultivars (such as “lemon ripple” and “wolf-eyes”) that seem to prefer part-shade.

Redbud blooms

Redbud blooms

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) – A must-have Tennessee native plant that has proved extremely hardly in my yard. The early-spring blooms are quite rewarding, and my favorite cultivar, a purple-leafed variety called “Forest Pansy” is getting easier to find. Drive down the Belmont side of Lipscomb’s campus, and you’ll notice an excellent row of them on the street. The leaves emerge a brilliant, glossy purple, then gradually fade to deep green through the summer. Likes full sun to light shade.

Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) – I wish more people would plant this sweet little blooming tree. My tree bible, the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” by Michael Dirr, says this:

“I would like to make a case for this as the national shrub, for even dogwood does not carry itself with such refinement, dignity, and class when in flower.”

It’s also a native to the area, is pollution-resistant (so it makes a good street tree), and can be pruned as a tree or a shrub. Small and slow-growing, it is a gorgeous bloomer, with lacy white “fringe-like” blossoms in May. If you find this somewhere, snap it up! Nobody seems to know about it.

Go get a Japanese maple right now

Go get a Japanese maple right now

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) – Absolutely my favorite tree, my favorite plant of any kind, and found in every available spot in my yard. There are so many cultivars of this regal little tree, I can’t dream of remembering them all.

A native of Japan (obviously), they evoke the elegance, serenity, and that sense of perfectly ordered randomness that Japanese-style gardens produce so well. Japanese maples are very slow growers, and most prefer a little bit of shade. A few will eventually reach 20′-25′, but many top out at 5′ or 10′.

The variety of leaves is astonishing: from larger palmate green or deep red leaves to delicately lacy foliage, and some offer brilliant peach or red shades and even variegation in springtime new growth and fall color. “Coral Bark” also sports brilliant red bark, which is nice for brightening a winter landscape. Some of the smaller cultivars that grow in a drooping habit also work wonderfully in patio pots, and they are sufficiently cold-hardy to survive there, especially in a protected area near the house.

Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina) – A brilliant horticulturalist friend of mine named Robert convinced me to try this tree, although he warned that it can be difficult to get established. I figured I would give it a try, since it was (after all) named after Hal.

Somehow, it has survived three years now, and WOW! What an incredible bloom. (See below.) A native to the area, it produces the most wonderful little white bell-shaped blooms in April. You’ll have to seek this plant out if you want one, but it is a show-stopper. Mine seems very happy in full sun.

Carolina Silverbell in bloom

Carolina Silverbell in bloom

How to plant a tree:

First, pick a spot where it’s likely to be happy. If the tag says, “Full sun,” don’t plant it in the shade. (Seems obvious, but people ignore this guideline.) And if it says, “Prefers well-drained soil,” don’t put it in dense clay, in a low spot where water tends to pool up.

Mom always says, “Dig a $20 hole for a $10 plant.” Which means dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball. If the roots are really gnarled up and “bound” in the pot, loosen them a bit. Set the tree in the hole so that it’s even with the ground, i.e. not too deep or too shallow. Add a little peat and manure (available at any garden center) to the dirt as you refill the hole, to improve the soil and help it hold moisture, and be sure you push the dirt mixture in with your fingers so that there are no air pockets–roots don’t like to be exposed to the air. Don’t mound up any dirt or mulch around the tree trunk. And when you’re finished, water the tree in well–about 30 seconds of a good, long drink.

When to plant a tree:

Technically, you can plant a tree anytime you like. But the best times to plant are fall and spring, when the tree is sure to get lots of rain and when the ground isn’t too frozen to dig. If you do plant in summer, plan to give the tree a good, deep watering about once a week until fall, especially if the weather gets really hot and dry. Watering deeply once a week is much better for your new tree than a shallow sprinkling of water every day. The deep watering helps the tree’s roots to stretch down, which is going to help it find moisture during long, hot summers and make it more drought tolerant in the long run. Once your tree is established with good, deep roots, you should not have to water it except in times of extreme drought.

Why to plant a tree:

Your whole life you’ve been emitting carbon dioxide. (And possibly some methane.) Get out there and make some oxygen! (Chevron, wanna buy some carbon offsets?) And besides, the trees you plant may well outlive you. You can think of them as your legacy, as lovely things that (in some cases) can be enjoyed for generations.

A few places to shop for trees:

Gro Wild – by appointment only; specializes in natives. One problem–they tend to sell the trees once they are already fairly large. More expensive, and harder to plant. Wonderful variety, though, and very knowledgable folks there.

Hewitt Garden & Design Center – The most incredible selection of mature Japanese maples to splurge on, if you’re feeling flush.

Bates Nursery – Has an excellent selection of trees and shrubs

Big-box garden centers often have common varieties of dogwoods, Japanese maples, and redbuds for good prices. Sometimes you can find “Forest Pansy” redbud there for good prices. (Buy them quick, otherwise I will.)

5 thoughts on “Happy Little Trees

  1. Kim, this post is amazing. Your backyard is magical. Just absolutely beautiful. Every time you post a picture of your yard I suddenly develop a scathing case of garden-envy. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m relatively new to gardening, so I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. xoxo

  2. Kim thank you for sharing such great (and entertaining) information. I’ve never been a gardener but I would love our yard to be an oasis like yours–it’s beautiful! Thanks for being part of my Sunday morning with coffee. 🙂

  3. Pingback: When to plant? A very brief FAQ. | The Greenery

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