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Tree Strategies and a Status Check
Puddock Hill Journal #51: Late summer is a good time to evaluate one’s trees.
Many who dig in the earth will tell you that trees form the skeleton of any garden, which I find mostly true, although I’d add that the land itself forms the backbone. Since we can’t do much about the lay of the land, people focus on that which we can plant or manipulate.
We likely have more than a thousand trees at Puddock Hill, and late summer proves a good time for a wellness check. By now they’ve finished with the year’s growth, in many cases the herbaceous layer around them has died back or been cut back (the latter mostly due to our mad dash to level cursed Japanese stiltgrass), and the leaves are still present for identification.
Thus, I took a walk this week to evaluate things. It gives me no small pleasure to see the progress we’ve made, but there’s also the inevitable failure here and there, and some areas suddenly cry out for more trees, please.
Here’s a brief rundown of the existing stock and how it fits into my overall philosophy.
Mature Specimen Trees
We sometimes joke that the old trees at Puddock Hill sold us the house, but many a true thing is said in jest. Had we arrived to a blank slate, we would have had to start young and waited a lifetime to see truly mature trees. For some of the trees here, we’d have had to wait several lifetimes. Having arrived in middle age, we didn’t have the luxury of time. In fact, I regret that I didn’t plant more trees fifteen years ago.
Alas, some of the old trees we inherited were in poor shape and required removal, in particular several oaks by the back patio and a healthy southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) that was growing too close to the house. It tore a hole in our hearts to take that old girl down.
The remaining mature trees include natives such as sycamore, white oak, red oak, black walnut, baldcypress, red maple, tuliptree, sweetgum, ash, hemlock, sour gum, and black cherry, among others. Non-native trees include gingko, Spanish fir, Chinese fir, dawn redwood, umbrella pine, Japanese maple, and atlas cedar.
In general, we do not remove mature non-native trees, but we do remove any new ones that crop up. For all mature trees, we keep an eye out for pests, selectively prune when necessary and practicable (some of the trees are 80 feet tall or more), and cable when we deem it necessary. We even reinstalled a lightning rod in the old sycamore by the front of the house.
Here’s a picture of a basswood or American linden (Tilia americana) growing near the tenant house. It has required no interventions from us and maintains a perfect specimen shape:
The old joke (attributed to Mark Twain) is to buy land because they’re not making any more of it. I’d say, buy land with ancient trees because all the money in the world can’t transplant a 100-year-old tree growing in native soil. Then take care of the ones you have.
Rewilding with Trees
It has been our ambition the past few years to rewild the edges of Puddock Hill, which essentially means encouraging the land to return to forest.
This task is not easily or cheaply done. For one thing, when we arrived whitetail deer had already decimated the understory—an entire generation of young trees having ceased to exist. For another thing, the ground under the remaining mature trees looked nothing like a forest floor in most places. Where one would expect leaf litter there were herbaceous plants, many of them invasive. I suspect this is because the canopy is too thin, but I can’t say for sure.
When we committed to going native and rewilding our edges, the first thing we did was erect a deer fence around all the property except a corridor for deer to pass by without being forced into the road. In a balanced ecosystem, the deer would be fine, but there are more of them today than when the colonists arrived, and their only significant predator in our part of the world is the automobile. They browse natives, opening more space for invasives, and the bucks rub young tree trunks to death.
Once we had erected the fence, over the course of two years we planted hundreds of trees, mostly along the eastern side of the property. Most of these were whips about two feet tall, purchased bare root in bulk. I’d say a quarter of them survived two winters. This tuliptree, about twelve feet tall after three years, is among the most successful:
We planted some larger trees (I think from 1-gallon pots) on the slope above the big pond and along the stream inside the fence. Another dozen or so went outside the fence along the road, individually caged to minimize deer damage.
Along the stream, we mostly planted in groups: first several dogwoods in a shadier area, then a couple of magnolias, about a dozen sycamores below the big pond embankment, and beyond them, where the ground is wetter, the same number of baldcypress trees. I also planted five Atlantic white cedars, only two of which survived two winters.
Here’s one of the sycamores, about ten feet tall:
And a row of baldcypress (this side of the deer fence), just coming into their own, at best a third that size:
We staggered the trees along the stream. In the east woods, we planted roughly ten feet apart but randomly, sometimes crowding into other trees as nature will do. Here’s a tuliptree planted quite close to a mature black walnut:
Note that this tree, which is maybe five feet tall, and the much taller tuliptree shown previously were planted as whips at the same time. This one seems to have gotten itself established, but it’s growing more slowly for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is competition with the bigger tree for resources. (I used to believe, as others claim, that black walnuts are allelopathic, but apparently that claim is now in dispute.)
Other trees from our rewilding project are coming into their own. Here are a few more. Flowering dogwood in a woodsy area by the stream:
Willow oak on the dry side of the wet woods:
Chestnut oak in the east woods:
Black cherry near the entrance to the upper big pond path:
I wish I had space to show you every one!
We can’t quite let nature take its course with regard to the rewilded trees. When we had an early spring drought this year, we loaded up the Polaris with a tank and watered every one we could reach. I also take care to remove any vines attempting to take hold of them, especially invasive ones like Japanese honeysuckle, Asiatic bittersweet, and the dreaded porcelainberry.
The best trees in my opinion are natives that crop up in the right place without human intervention. While I’d like to think they’d all survive because nature wants them there, it’s much more complicated than that, and some will die after a year or two. But they are a sign that natural succession has begun to do its work, and some will indeed make it to maturity.
As I walk around, if I find volunteer trees in a good place that may fall prey to the string trimmer, I make a point of marking them with wooden stakes. Most successful of all volunteers are the sassafras trees, which makes sense since they’re a pioneer species. Here are a bunch, about six feet tall, on the big pond slope:
Every summer we also find invasive and native trees in planting beds and meadows. The invasives we of course remove, usually by cutting to the ground multiple times during summer, as I will not use herbicides.
In a few weeks, I will mark the native trees in these places with labeled ribbons so once they’ve lost their leaves I’ll know where to find them and what they are. In October or November, we’ll transplant them, although I confess that we had a very low success rate in this effort last year.
Here’s a white oak (center) that volunteered when we first moved into the house. We found it when we removed an old fenced garden and decided to leave it as a specimen tree. Now it’s at least twenty feet tall:
If you’re reading this, I don’t have to preach to you about the role trees play in the ecosystem, cleaning water, checking erosion, providing shade, feeding wildlife, storing carbon. If you’re planting natives, you really can’t have too many trees.
No room for additional pictures today. I’ll catch up next week with asters and goldenrod!