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One Mercantile

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Never Mind The Forest, Let’s Talk About Trees

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. This week, we welcome Madaline Sparks to our gardening column. She is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine and writes a bi-weekly garden column for the Chatham Courier. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

I recently saw the gritty frontier epic The Revenant. I was looking forward to seeing a movie that has garnered so many accolades and dreading it at the same time. Having seen the trailers, I knew the plot was intense and the violence and gore were a little more graphic than what I can usually tolerate. I’m not a movie reviewer, so I leave the number of stars it should receive to others, but the character in the movie that had the most impact on me was not Leonardo DiCaprio (or the grizzly bear) but the landscape. The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, famously shot the entire movie in natural light, whether shooting day or night. Iñárritu spends a good amount of time focusing on trees, magnificent trees. And trees are present in almost every scene because so much of the story takes place in the snowy wilderness: stands of aspen, the night sky through the web of branches. One huge evergreen plays a very important part.

Snow can admirably highlight the beautiful qualities of trees, especially evergreens. This year, I’m definitely missing the snow cover that insulates the ground in a typical New England winter. But I’m finding that the lack of snow is allowing me to see trees in a slightly different way; it’s not distracting me from appreciating the various bark textures, canopy shapes and the intricate branching structure of different varieties. 

In the growing season, the focus is mostly on foliage and flowers. But it is not until winter that we can see the true structure of trees. Bark is the feature that we notice most and evergreens are the stars of the landscape, when all their deciduous cousins are naked.

I think we tend to take trees for granted. We plant them too close to electrical lines so they get hacked into bizarre topiary, we shred their surface roots with lawnmowers and damage their bark with careless weed whacking. They are not immune to these slights. The environment of the 21st century can be the biggest challenge our trees have to contend with. Severe and unpredictable weather extremes and fungal and insect infestations are all threats to our cherished forests and specimen trees. It is not until we are threatened with losing a treasured tree on our property that we call an arborist to “fix” it.

Unfortunately, it’s often too late to save a valued tree and the only safe and prudent solution is a take-down. Saying good-bye to a 100-year-old maple or oak is like losing a member of the family. A leafless winter view offers the opportunity to inventory the health of your valued trees and to have an arborist come to assess any work that should be done to preserve their life for many years to come.

If adding trees to your landscape is on your To Do list for the coming planting season, think carefully about what variety will give you and future generations the most beauty and enjoyment. For me, looking for trees that offer multiple seasons of interest forms the foundation of selecting new varieties to plant for clients or myself. Researching disease resistance and opting for trees that offer benefits to native fauna are also important features on which to focus. Noting the mature height and spread of trees is very important when selecting material. The age-old rule of “Right Plant, Right Place” is essential to this task. There’s a tree suited to fit every condition and taste. Some stunning smaller trees I covet for my own landscape are Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) and Paperbark maple (Acer griseum), shown in the photo at the top of the page.

The bible for researching trees for professionals and amateurs alike is The Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael Dirr. It’s hefty and pricey but worth it. An excellent way to shop for trees and see them in their maturity is to go to the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. Look at them now and then again in the growing season.

If you like to look at amazing trees from a cozy place beside the fireplace, check out the American Forests website. All the champions of the National Big Tree program, which was established in 1940 to celebrate the magnificence of this country’s oldest and grandest trees, can be viewed there. If you know of a spectacular tree that might be the biggest of its kind, you can also nominate it on their website.


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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/18/16 at 10:39 AM • Permalink