Let’s Give a Hand for Trees

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Before I was forty, I didn’t take trees seriously. They were there, older and taller than I was. But I noticed them and asked their names. Tall stately magnolias in my parents’ first South Carolina lot, Mount Pleasant, north of Charleston. These majestic beings must have been 150 years old, my mother, the German tree-hugger, insisted. Nothing north of the Mason Dixon line measured up until I met the elephant trunk beeches at Winterthur, the DuPont estate outside Wilmington, Delaware. Their smooth grey trunks flared into huge flanges that clutched the earth, while their enormous heads fluttered far above in the blue. Then I moved to Minnesota and met city boulevard elms, who rivaled the beech, and further north, vast white pine, atavars of an earlier period before white people came to hack and hew. Stepping from a canoe on the Namekagon or upper St. Croix, my husband and I looked up in awe from the trunks that we couldn’t encompass with both our arms stretched around them.

Then two things began to happen. The elms along Minneapolis boulevards began to die, and my first husband and I treated those in front of our house. Second, we divorced, I moved to Saint Paul, eventually remarried and bought a house that was built in 1912. It had been covered with aluminum siding, and its postage-stamp yard thatched with sod. Nothing but a rather puny boulevard ash grew higher than grass. I was suddenly appalled. Where were the leafy consorts shading and beautifying the house? Where were the green-haired friends I’d taken for granted before?

Trees talk, you know. They talked their way onto my yard: first in the front a Honey Locust with feathery golden leaves, and its companion, a Russian olive that bloomed tiny sweet flowers each spring. In the back, against the fence, courtesy of the Arbor Foundation, sprouts of white pine, and blue spruce. I planted so many spruce I had to dig one up when it was still under a foot tall and donate to the next door neighbor. Next on a trip to visit my husband’s parents who lived in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, I acquired three silver maples shoots from my new mother-in-law. These people, missionaries to China, then to poor communities in Virginia, North Dakota, and Iowa, had no heirlooms to give us, but Lu, my husband’s mother, knew what was lasting, and had potted these seedlings for us to take home. If I’d known better, I could have dug similar ones from someone’s yard in Saint Paul, but it seemed fitting that we’d drive these little spouts, no higher than my mid-calf, north to plant all over the back yard, again, so many trees I had to repot one and donate it across the street.

That was the mid-1980s. Every tree but one maple we had to cut down–it was too close to the house–has survived. I listened to them, and when they said “Water,” I did, with the hose turned on low nestled a foot from their trunks. When they said nourish, I did, with fertilizer stakes, pounded into the wet spring soil. I added a lovely spring-flowering crabapple, whose white blossoms float over the backyard like frozen kisses. I’d still be adding trees if I could, but there’s simply no more space. Several years ago, the emerald Ash beetle was sighted in Minnesota, and we had our boulevard ash treated. SInce it may not survive the beetle onslaught, I planted among the astilbe and goldenrod further along the boulevard, a tiny tamarack from the bogs of Northern MInnesota. It likes its feet wet, and we have a kind of rain garden there.

This year in Saint Paul, we had more than enough rain through July. Then the natural watering stopped. There have been sprinkles since, but nothing substantial for going on six weeks. It’s too long for growing things, especially fledgling trees. Along Selby Avenue coming up the hill from Lexington Parkway, I notice droopy new elms, just planted in the boulevards, a variety that’s resistant to Dutch Elm disease. They may not die of Elm beetles, but they will of thirst unless someone wakes up and waters them good. What does a good watering mean? A couple of hours of low-hose seepage around the roots, every week, all the way through the autumn until the ground freezes. Big trees have put down wide-flung root systems that capture water low in the ground. But these new sprouts have yet to do that. They are dying of thirst. I hope somebody will listen. P.S. I also water my big trees because I love them and want them to flourish. Home to me means people I love, a roof that’s secure, cats to purr up close, and trees outside to filter out noise, dust, sun and heat. A house is not a home without its companion trees.

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