Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Your Trees Might Not Make It

Winter is coming. Usually by now, giant acorns from our neighbor's burr oak tree are hitting the driveway like golf balls. Usually, squirrels are madly filling their winter larders with acorns and other provisions. Usually, I'm not this worried.

I don't see acorns in the burr, post, and blackjack oaks this fall. None. A few are up there in the branches, but they're so small—stunted by a devastating summer of record-setting heat and drought—that I spot them only when they drop onto the driveway.

I wonder what all the wildlife that depends on acorns and other seeds for winter forage will do between now and spring. I wonder if even a majority of them will make it to spring.

And I wonder about the trees themselves.

For landscapes in much of the country, this has been one of the toughest years in memory. If trees and shrubs weren't being flooded, or ravaged by high winds, they were being subjected to record-setting droughts and heatwaves. And let's not forget the blizzards and ice storms of last winter, or the catastrophic early snow in the Northeast this fall that shattered and felled countless trees that hadn't yet dropped their foliage.

Most tree species are built to take a lot—at least, they are when grown in the kind of climate where they evolved. Even so, there's a limit to what even the toughest tree can withstand.

We've had life-saving rains this past month, though experience tells us that the tap could shut off at any moment, plunging us back into the summer's exceptional drought. I have hopes that our trees will have enough soil moisture to tide them over at least until hard winter sets in. But we have our hoses at the ready, prepared to soak the ground around critical root zones if and when the soil starts to dry out again.

Other than that, it's a waiting game. Did some of the trees lose too much of their root systems during the drought? After being largely defoliated by a late-spring hailstorm, did they have enough leaves left to photosynthesize sufficiently and store energy? Will disease or pests attack before they can regain their former vitality?

Spring will tell.

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
I do have hope. Especially after hearing from my friend, artist Pablo Solomon. Pablo lost a big oak to a tornado three years ago. The same twister practically wrung the life out of a nearby mesquite tree. But this year, life sprang eternal, as the saying goes.

"After three years and a drought," reports Pablo, "the mesquite has decided to renew itself. Tough stuff."

His photo shows a healthy sprig of new growth sprouted from the side of what otherwise appears to be a dead stump—with the toppled oak in the background.

Which goes to prove my long-held belief that plants want to live if given half a chance. So we'll be ready with supplemental water this winter. And we'll be there to welcome our hard-weathered trees next spring if they're able to show up.

Monday, November 21, 2011

When Plants Get In Your Face

It all started innocently one spring, when I spotted a cute little seedling sprouting in the landscape bed near  the front porch. At first, I mistook the volunteer for a Rose of Sharon shrub, of which I had many. But when it shot up to shoulder height, I got the news: a mulberry tree.

I backed off, gave it a brief moment of thought, and decided, Okay. It'll grow up and shade the porch from the blistering summer sun. So I let it grow...and grow...and grow, barely four feet from the foundation. Of course, as the tree matured, its branches played havoc with roof shingles. During severe storms, its swaying and lashing threatened to do even more damage. And we won't even mention the masses of purple mulberries that rained onto the porch and got tracked indoors during the fruiting season.

Eventually, we had to remove the too-close mulberry. Sadly surveying the vacated spot, I replaced the volunteer with a crape myrtle that would grow and provide shade without turning into a 100-pound gorilla in the room.

All too often, trees growing too close to structures started out as volunteers that someone lacked the heart or the interest to evict. The tree at the right is undoubtedly one of those, its trunk pressed right up against a stone wall. (This sad example has the added misfortune of being wrapped in Treacherous Beauty.) Someday, this misfit will feel the bite of a chainsaw and be brought down long before its time.

But trees growing too close to structures were often put there on purpose. I've seen young Japanese laceleaf maples planted next to walkways in foundation beds barely 18 inches deep, when these pricey trees mature into mushroom shapes that will turn into an obstacle course for pedestrians.

And that's one of the most common mistakes homeowners make when planting trees: not taking into consideration their mature size and shape. Unlike the furniture in your living room, these important elements of the landscape cannot be moved around when their size or shape has matured into proportions that no longer suit their location.

Shrubs tend to be an even more common "too close for comfort" problem. When most people plant a tree, they expect it to get bigger, and so at least make an effort to plant it some distance from structures, even if that distance eventually proves to be not far enough. But for some reason, the cute little arborvitae or American holly plant brought home from the garden center in a one-gallon container often doesn't get the same amount of consideration.

Needless to say, an 8-foot-tall shrub growing 2 feet from a wall won't be able to mature into its full glory. And, as with a tree growing too close for comfort, the cramped plant is likely to be less robust, more vulnerable to problems caused by poor air circulation, and more apt to succumb to extreme weather conditions.

Even when shrubs are spaced properly, they're no gift to the landscape if they are neglected. The plantings at the left have been allowed to grossly overgrow their purpose,  darkening the windows from the inside and all but hiding the house on the outside. If this property were to be put on the market, the run-amok shrubs alone would be enough to turn off many potential buyers. And the overgrowth makes it impossible to do routine maintenance work on the exterior of the house.

On my own recently-purchased property, two crape myrtles were planted right up against a window bump-out, where they scrape against the paint and don't have room to grow into their proper shape. So,although they are obviously long-established plants, they will have to be dug up and moved out a few feet next spring. Then they will have to undergo rehabilitation pruning for several years to come.

How much simpler it would be if they had been properly located when they were originally planted.