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Northeast: Facing the Trees

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BY GORDON HAYWARD / Putney, Vermont, Zone 4

During September and October, as the demands of caring for flowering shrubs and perennials wane, and before outdoor temperatures plummet, my attention often shifts to the many native trees in our one-acre garden here in southern Vermont. While the leaves are still on, I evaluate each tree to see what it is contributing to the garden. In this reassessment, I keep in mind that there are many alternatives between leaving a tree untouched and cutting it down.

Sometimes a little trimming is all that's needed. Last September, for example, I was standing under a group of five 14-inch-caliper ash trees, the trunks of which roughly scribed a 30-foot-diameter circle. We were just completing a stone-paved sitting area under the trees when I noticed a thicket of criss-crossing branches overhead. I cut off the inner branches of all five trees to a height of 25 feet, leaving their outer branches intact. In this way I defined a dramatic 25-foot-high, 30-foot-wide open space above our new sitting area.

Another autumn during my annual tree assessment, I noticed that branches from the maples and black locusts that grow along the west side of our lawn path had grown so far over that the grass was being robbed of direct sunlight from 10 A.M. on. That fall, I cut many of the lower branches back to allow more light onto the path. I know that in future years, as their branches spread, I'll just have to cut some of those trees down—either that or take the lawn up and put stone down.

That same September, I noticed that a 12-inch-caliper black locust had become so tall it was shading a large area of the mixed border in which it was growing. Rather than cut the locust to the ground, I lopped off the top and all of the branches, leaving a 14-foot-high post in the ground. I girdled the base with a chain saw to prevent sprouting, and trained Wisteria ‘Aunt Dee’ up the post.

Rather than just play the supporting role, a trunk can also be a showpiece. One fall I discovered that a 16-inch-caliper butternut, a short-lived tree at best, was losing many of its upper branches. Given that there were many other trees in the area, I cut the tree down, leaving an 8-foot-high trunk. Having stripped the bark off, my wife Mary asked our friend Gerry Prozzo, a sculptor, to carve the face of the Green Man—a druidic symbol of the point where the worlds of man and plants coincide—into the side of the trunk. I treat it twice a year with an organic sealant, and it weathers well.

But there always comes a time when a tree has just grown too big, is throwing too much shade, or taking too much water and too many nutrients from nearby trees, shrubs, and perennials. That's when I get the chain saw out and cut it up for firewood. And that means fewer leaves to rake in October.

To do in the garden

  • Divide peonies and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).
  • Uproot and give away excess freely seeding perennials such as Alchemilla mollis, Heliopsis ‘Summer Sun’, and Astrantia major that have spread far and wide.
  • Remove all hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctiloba) that has insinuated itself into inappropriate spots in the garden.
  • Rake fallen leaves in the morning when they are moist and dew-covered, and pile them downwind of your garden so they don't get blown back in. Scatter a few shovelfuls of topsoil or compost atop each load of moist leaves to hasten their decomposition.

Worth growing

Pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)

This hardy (USDA Zones 4-9) herbaceous perennial with dark green glossy leaves blooms hot pink in September and early October. The long-lasting flowers, reminiscent of large snapdragon blooms, are held atop sturdy 24- to 36-inch reddish stems that form a dense clump. Being native to the edges of marshland and moist woodland in the Carolinas and Tennessee, pink turtlehead requires rich, moist soil and filtered shade. Try the cultivar ‘Hot Lips’ combined with masses of blue-flowered Lobelia siphilitica.