Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July

Willow shading my garden bench

A tree is the greatest legacy one gardener can leave another. Trees used to be the spires that in other times defined our skylines. They are magnificent for their foliage, size and variety. They provide shelter and food. Buddha found enlightenment under a tree. Yet today in our culture they are seen as threats something that can loom over a house and must be suspect of potential damage.

When I first started as a landscape architect I was approached by Old Swedes Church in Wilmington Delaware to look over the churchyard and make recommendations for what they could do to save this historic landscape. Over three hundred years old at the time, there was not much that could be done but to plan for its next 300 hundred years. They had lost about half of their trees and the other half would follow suit with time. I evaluated what was there and came up with a plan that allowed for maintaining vistas and planting patterns with the new trees. Today Old Swedes continues its legacy and honors members with new trees planted in memories of loved ones.

A ginkgo at the Woodlands. Locale of first American introduction.

I have, over time worked, on other historic projects that have involved mansions, graveyards, city parks, ruined palaces in foreign countries and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater consulting on the importance of the trees that delineated the site. Unfortunately many people don’t appreciate or take care of these gifts from our past. This July 4 weekend, if you are enjoying a cool breeze under tree in a bench or a hammock take a look at what is directly above you and take heed: this tree may need your help!

Mighty American Sycamore at Woodlands

Trees need care just like any other plant. They can grow into mighty structures, but getting there is not as simple as all that. We have this understanding that plants once established can be forgotten. That may be true for smaller shrubs or other plantings, but trees, if they are to last centuries in urban environments, need to be cared.

Rare fastigiated Zelkova at Woodlands

Typical homeowners have a tendency to spend more money on yearly plantings of annuals like impatience than they do on trees. Trees don’t need much, but they need a few things if they are to survive for the long haul.

Left: Magnolia damaged last winter by snows was hacked and now detritus is left to fester bugs and who knows what else to damage home and other vegetation

Right: Parking area under the most tender roots are slowly killing this pin oak. Dead branches barely hang on above these cars that may hurt individuals and certainly pay back the cars.

Here are four things that trees must have. 1. They need water year round. Most people don’t water in winter because it rains, yet trees go into great stress in winter because of lack of water. 2. Trees need to be pruned. Carrying dead wood from storm damage or as a matter of course, is a magnet for bugs and fungal infections that can destroy them. 3. Every now and then trees need to be fertilized especially if they are growing in difficult situations. 4. Most importantly trees need air in their roots! The Mall in Washington has one of the most compacted soils anywhere in the nation. There, overworked National Park Service staff aerates the soil around the remaining American elms to help them survive. It often surprises me how people that teach their children well come home and park their cars on top of tree roots day after day. The results, I assure you will be a dead tree. In most major building projects, before construction begins landscape architects require that tree plantings to be saved are cordoned off with fencing so that construction crews will not kill them by laying down materials or parking equipment on their roots. Take heed, like all living things trees need their air so we can get ours.

Remaining English elms at the Woodlands

Years ago I worked on a project at Woodland Cemetery. This was once the plantation of William Hamilton a great plant collector of his day. He shared his plants with buddies like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Today, what little remains of his plantings can be seen in the remaining 38 acre West Philadelphia landmark. It served to educate young botanist at the University of Pennsylvania because of a friendship between Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.

My English Elm twig standing barely 5 feet tall

The project was to find a modern day use for this languishing landscape and historic structures that could provide the income to survive into a new future. Great ideas came and went but not the money to implement them, which is probably just as well. My association with the organization garnered me a prized English elm sapling barely 3 inch twig from one of the Board Members.

Historic Painting of The Woodlands circa 1760's showing "Elm Walk" left of central clearing.

The Elm Walk at the Woodlands framed a view to the Schuylkill River that visitors often enjoyed. Today, nearing three hundred years old the few remaining trees serve as a shady lane to mark a few graves now that the Septa commuter trains have cut off the landscape from the historic Schuylkill River view. I have nurtured the twig for almost ten years in my swamp garden where it is now well on its way to make a lasting impression and hopefully last three hundred years. Happy 4th of July

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