A year to recover
If your trees and shrubs have not leafed out in a full and healthy way, they might never recover from last year’s drought. Now is a good time to make an honest assessment of the condition of your trees. If branches failed to leaf out at all or have turned to autumn glory too soon, the chain saw may be the only remedy. With the mild temperatures and excellent rainfall of this summer, any tree that could recover already has made marked improvement. If not, now would be a good time to consult with a certified arborist. People with this specialized training also have practical field experience on judging the health of trees and how to treat them.
If a vacancy in your landscape opens up, use it as a new planting opportunity and select the replacement tree of your dreams. When the nasty silver maple started leaning sharply toward the street, we replaced it with two ginkgos, a stately Asian tree that is often cultivated. The leaves resemble those of the maidenhair fern, with parallel veins fanning out from the base. Ginkgos, which grow slowly, offer a soft sea-green foliage in the early spring. They richen to a captivating emerald for the summer and a heart-arresting solid butter yellow in the late autumn. Former St. Louisan and U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov reflected on ginkgos with his poem, The Consent, celebrating the way they drop their leaves in unison, creating a magnificent amber skirt beneath the pale gray spire. When given the choice of replacing a silver maple street tree, we decided to go with quality and tradition. ‘Autumn Gold’ is a prime selection that does not produce the rancid-smelling seeds of female trees. Mature ginkgos are stately, reaching 50 feet in height with a broad silhouette.
My annual tree assessment showed that we will be losing a native catalpa tree in the coming years, with its wizened branches contorted and woodpecker riddled, so we let a chance seedling stay. The mother tree, while deteriorating, poses no risk to house or car, so it will stay as long as nature allows. A family of woodpeckers resides in a hollow high above the ground. The catalpa blooms abundantly with great clusters of white trumpets in the middling-end of spring, followed by string-bean-like seedpods that hold for the season. The seedling is now 2 years old and already 7 feet tall! Perhaps it will bloom next year.
Special Small Trees
The Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa variety chinensis, is one of my favorite understory trees. Blooming much later than our native species of Cornus, it also has clusters of red fruit that the birds love. Several clonal selections are available, and I am fond of the pink flowered form ‘Satomi.’
Another of my favorites is the native redbud and its cultivars. The white form ‘Alba’ is particularly fine for clipping and enjoying indoors, while the native orchid pink ones bring brightness to the roadsides everywhere in spring. ‘Ace of Hearts’ is a delightful compact new cultivar that reaches only about 12 feet in height, with a spread of around 15 feet.
Every garden of any size should have room for a flowering crab. The ‘Madonna’ crabapple is an excellent choice with small early, long-lasting, double white fragrant flowers in profusion, followed by red fruit that gives migrating birds a boost. With improved insect and disease resistance, this premium selection will mature quickly to about 18 feet tall and 10 feet wide.
Spring Flowering Trees
One of the best days in the garden is the one when the first pink and white snowflakes of the cherry trees start to flutter in the light spring breezes. I wish there was more room in my own garden for cherries, but the one I have is special. For your garden, try the ‘Amanogawa’ Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata), a narrow upright tree with semi-double pale pink flowers. It starts the spring with bronzy-green young foliage that slowly ages to medium green for the summer and continues to good fall color. It will be about 25 feet tall by 12 feet wide.
Magnolia ‘Ann’ is a special saucer-form which, while in the traditional shades of orchid purple, has flowers that are later blooming and less likely to be caught and burned by a late frost. Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ is a garden favorite with tight candles of primrose yellow opening into creamy saucers of narrow petals. Maturing to about 15 feet, these small trees are perfect for side yards. ‘Merrill’ magnolia, Magnolialoebneri, has smaller, pure white flowers in very early spring. The one in my front courtyard is 20 years old and 25 feet tall with a 20 foot width. When it blooms, it is a dramatic focal point that draws the eye of every visitor. All three of these magnolias are deciduous.
Fabulous Summer and Fall Color
If you love the white birch forests of New England, you might like the white-barked Himalayan birch, Betula utilis variety jacquemontii. It has the whitest bark of the cultivated selections, along with improved drought and heat tolerance and increased insect and disease resistance. It grows quickly to 35 or 40 feet tall with an 18- to 20-foot-wide spread.
Beyond the crisp autumn colors of the ornamental pears and maple trees, one of Julie Hess’s favorite trees for fall color is the Chinese pistachio, Pistacia chinensis, with brilliant crimson leaves in fall. It makes a wonderful umbrella-shaped, drought-tolerant street tree reaching 60 feet tall.
For even more dramatic fall color, try ‘Autumn Blaze' maple. It will grow quickly to 60 feet, with a 40-foot spread. For a bit of spice from the bayou country, try Nyssa sylvatica ‘Zydeco twist.’ This black gum has contorted zigzag branches and superb red fall color.
Excellent Estate Trees
We all miss the magnificent and stately American elm that once lined many streets. We were able to use annual antibiotic treatments to save two huge specimens at our house. Disease-resistant cultivars are now available, and the American elm will slowly find its way back into our gardens. We knew that these trees would not live forever, so we planted some replacements about five years ago that may be tree-spaded into place when the big ones are gone. Julie Hess and I discussed many choices and decided to use ‘Allee’ Chinese elm, Ulmus chinensis. Not quite as large at maturity (perhaps 50 feet tall by 35 feet wide), it offers the lovely elm shape, but has improved resistance to Dutch elm disease and the elm leaf beetle.
One of the best big trees for estate and park settings is the European beech. The purple leaf form provides drama in the landscape. Soft and fine-textured, the cut-leaf European beech, Fagus sylvatica variety asplenifolia, is another elegant addition. Each beech form may become a broad spreading specimen with a crown from 40 to 60 feet tall and across.
After you mourn your tree losses from old age, storm, drought or nature, take a moment to celebrate the chance to plant a new one. It is always exciting to dig deep into the garden soil and prepare the planting hole for a new tree. Many folks do it to commemorate the birth of a child or a special wedding anniversary. Plant one to offset part of your carbon footprint. Dig one in on the west side of the house to help save energy costs. Choose a tall-maturing shade tree to cool your patio. Just give some thought to your choice; as chances are, the tree will outlive the gardener who plants it.