"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." — Greek Proverb
“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” — Hal Borland
“The most passive aggressive fights you will ever have in your marriage will be over whether you can plant one more tree.” — Me to my sons someday (probably).
Much has been said over the years about trees. Much has been written on this blog about lawns, yard work and other chores of home ownership. Without a doubt, planting and caring for my trees has been the most rewarding part of it. However, to understand how I wound up being a man who prefers Arbor Day to Thanksgiving, we need to take a step back in time.
The first 10 years of my life were spent in an apartment and in a house that lacked significant foliage, at least of the deciduous variety. The crabapple trees adjacent to the house and the tall fir trees in sight were enough to result in a dreary environment during Seattle’s soggy winters, leaving the thought of adding trees far from my parents’ radar. Here’s a recent Google Maps capture of the property in Auburn, Washington:
Things on the tree front took a step further back when we moved into a new housing development in Enumclaw, Washington when I was 10 years old. As you can see, things haven’t improved a whole hell of a lot since in the tree department. However, I am detecting a common theme of the current owners saying “Screw shade trees. Let’s plant an awning!” :
At the age of 15, we moved to Minnesota, settling on the outskirts of Lindstrom in another treeless housing development. Even today, it’s only graced by the presence of some scraggly apple trees and less than majestic volunteers that have sprung up along the swamp out back:
By now you should realize two things:
My father has largely managed to avoid the toil of fall litter cleanup
I did not grow up in the shade of trees like many previous generations
Rather than spending life behind bars like so many who grew up treeless, I wound up married with a home of my own, which brings us near the present day.
Upon moving into our residence in Inver Grove Heights, I was happy with the presence of trees, although I didn’t know much about any of them. I was just happy that I had some trees to provide shade and a bit of an escape from the monotony of the American lawn. Here’s a picture taken during our first summer here (note the tree lined lot and the American Elm visible above the roof line:
Our second full year in our house, 2014, is when the shit hit the…well, let’s just say when the trees hit the chipper. Our backyard American Elm was taken down after a bout with Dutch Elm Disease, the larger of the two Royal Red Norway Maples in the front yard was removed due to a trunk defect that increased the likelihood of it falling on the part of the house where our newborn slept. Then, a city project resulted the removal of a poorly constructed retaining wall on the side of our property, resulting in the loss of numerous Siberian Elms and spruce trees.
What happened wasn’t entirely up to me. While I had made the decision to remove the Royal Red Norway Maple and decided going along with the city project at no cost was a better decision than being left to maintain a failing retaining wall on my own in the years to come, there was nothing I could do about the Dutch Elm Disease that took out our property’s most prominent tree.
What I could control is how to shape the future of our lot and I knew trees would be an important aspect of my planning. As you can see in the above photo, a new tree was planted in the front yard. It’s an Accolade Elm, a European/Asian hybrid elm developed at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago. Here’s how it looks today, nearly 5 years later:
Planted at the same time as the Accolade Elm (chosen as part of the city’s project), a Green Mountain Sugar Maple was added to my landscape for the purposes of beautiful fall color. Here’s my sugar maple in the fall of 2018:
Fast forward to September 2015. I decided to plant a new American Elm a few feet away from where our previous one stood. The variety I chose was “Princeton”, a tree that has proven to be highly resistant to Dutch Elm Disease.
The following September it was time to add some spring color in the form of a “Spring Snow” flowering crabapple tree.
As 2017 rolled around I decided I wanted to add a tree on the other side of our house to provide an interesting view from our master bedroom window. I went with a “Matador” Maple, a cross between a Silver Maple and Red Maple, two trees that are native to Minnesota.
Last but not least there are two trees in our front yard that have been survivors through all of this change. One, a Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn, provides a beautiful flower show every few years:
The other is the smaller of the two Royal Red Norway Maple trees that were here when we moved in. A neighbor informed me that this tree was planted by the previous owner and her children in honor of their late husband and father.
Unfortunately, I realized at some point in 2014 that this tree had been planted too deep and had developed numerous girdled roots, a condition that would eventually result in the tree’s premature demise if not addressed. Knowing the tree’s history and purpose, I decided to roll up my sleeves and attempt to save it. I carefully dug out the area around the trunk, cut out the girdling roots that were wrapping around its base, and constructed a tree well around the tree. This allowed the root flare of the tree to breathe and develop while providing protection from increase runoff given that it was technically below grade.
The procedure was a success, as the tree quickly gained size and the root flare properly developed. Today you can hardly tell the tree was planted incorrectly and nearly removed. As I understand it, the family still lives in the area. I hope they take some comfort in seeing this tree still there despite the other changes that have occurred during our 7 years here.