A friend describing the evolution of a gardener told me, “Once the infatuation with annuals is over, the passion for perennials spent, the fixation on foliage done, that is the time the mature gardener starts to grow trees from seed – such an act of faith.”
Trees are our links to the future and the past. To walk through an old-growth forest is to hear the echoes of centuries. To gaze at a stand of white pine is to see the proud masts of the tall ships. To stand under the spreading canopy of an oak or beech is to know it will provide shelter for generations to come.
From totems and travois to Home Depot’s stacks of two-by-fours; from voyageurs’ canoes to sounding boards; the forest has been an abundant source of building materials, food, fertilizers, fuels, medicine and magic.
Topping the list of most used North American native plants compiled by ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman is Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) with 368 different uses, including 52 as drugs and 188 as fibre alone.* Cedar may have been named arbor vitae, but in fact all trees are trees of life.
So much of the garden’s restorative power comes from trees: from their greenery, their deep seasonal rhythms, their solidity and strength, their mystery and their beauty.
Witness the ancient Egyptian who, around 1400 BC, had this inscribed on his tomb: “That each day I may walk unceasingly on the banks of my water, that my soul may repose on the branches of the trees which I planted, that I may refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore.”
Or consider the group of modern school children who, when asked what they would most like to have in their playground, replied, “Shade and a place to sit.”
We tend to be amazingly cavalier about our trees, on local and global scales. Too often they are regarded not as living things but as permanent fixtures that will withstand any amount of abuse and neglect. In fact, it takes very little to destroy the complex balance of a tree’s ecosystem, and people seem bent on finding ever new and different ways to do it. Grievous indeed when you consider that our very lives depend on trees.
If soil is the skin of the earth, then trees are the lungs. Every leaf on these fantastically complex plants is a little oxygen factory, keeping the air we breathe breathable. This happens through the most vital manufacturing process on earth—photosynthesis, a process scientists have never been able to replicate.
A single 20-inch diameter tree can take in 157 pounds of carbon dioxide and produce 115 pounds of oxygen a year. (The average person uses about 400 pounds of oxygen annually). Trees also improve the atmosphere by filtering out pollen, dust, ash and smoke, and by sucking up pollutants—that sickly soup of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen oxides produced by our vehicles and factories.
For gardeners and non-gardeners alike, there are few landscapes as magical as a woodland. One of the historic Rothschilds once declared, “Every garden no matter how small should have at least one acre of woodland.”
“Ha,” say those of us tending our little postage-stamp Edens. But, with just one or two large trees, it is possible to create that woodland feel. Layers of understory shrubs, clusters of perennials, and carpets of mosses and groundcovers combine to bring the forest’s lush coolness to your doorstep.
In my last garden we liberated a large sugar maple and a small stand of birches from their imprisoning lawn, lifting all the sod and using it to create berms around the edge. We top-dressed the whole area with a thick layer of manure, triple mix, and well-shredded leaves and let it sit for a winter.
By the following spring the soil was workable. In went a range of woodland plants and spring ephemeral bulbs, as well as a couple of old logs to rot down. One day, I was gardening near the house and watched as two young lads, deep in conversation, cut across the corner to walk along the path through my little woodland, their heads close together, intent on “important boy business.”
I was immensely gratified to see that they found the path so inviting and used it so naturally. I hope another time they pause to check out the strange raspberry-like fruits of the dogwood, the startling wands of white baneberries, or the black beetles scurrying intently through the leaves.
The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago; the second best time is today. And it should be a real tree such as beech, oak, fir or redwood. A tree for the ages – not some short-lived, weedy type.
As Proust wrote, we can learn a great deal from “that vigorous and pacific tribe in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent and intimate hours.”
* Moerman, Daniel E., Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, 1998. pp 11-12.
“Tree © 2010 Felicity Lear
“Trees” © 2009 Chris Holt Photos