Gardening Tips: A Letter to Jason | Columnists


There are some “tips” included in this blog which doubles as a gardening column. Jason is the nephew of my late friend, Larry, aka Lester, whom I have written about often in these columns in previous years. Jason and his wife have just welcomed a baby boy into this world and I suggested they plant a tree in the baby’s honor. I wrote Jason this email today.

First, be sure to select a long-lasting tree for your son! No crabapple, cherry blossom, peach, paper birch or any other fruit tree! No conifers either, as they all seem to have health issues these days.

Personally, I like ginkgos because they are tough, fast growing, and seem immune to most pests, having survived them through evolution. I have two, different cultivars, which have totally different growth habits. One is already 25 feet tall, after only 12 years of growth. It is straight as an arrow with perfectly symmetrical whorled branches. The other, although a few years younger and fifty yards away, is barely seven feet tall. It leans towards the sun and I have to keep it staked.

They both have a beautiful bright yellow fall color and the leaves stay through a hard freeze. I use the leaves to make a tincture which I believe cured my tinnitus.

Female Ginkgo trees bear edible fruits that smell like cat urine when ripe. Despite this, they are sometimes used in Chinese cuisine. If you want a gingko, make sure you get a male clone!

My second, if not first, choice would be sugar maple. Of course, this species is not free from many pests, but it has beautiful fall color and a wonderful growth habit. There are many interesting cultivars with arrowhead to columnar to round shapes. When your son is a teenager, he could probably tap “his” tree and use the sap to make maple syrup like his Uncle Lester and I did.

Lester loved larches, and so did I. They are the only deciduous conifer that grows commonly in our area, with beautiful pale lime green spring growth and an orange fall color that signals the peak of woodcock migration in our town.

Lester and I have timed many of our woodcock hunts on the larch’s color change each October. The ones at Lester’s cabin are made from European larch and you can also buy Japanese larch. The larches are all quite similar, except for the grafted ones which “weep”. I wouldn’t suggest any grafted trees, really. Graft unions sometimes fail within a few years.

The first “grandchild tree” I planted on my property was an American Larch (Tamarack) that I dug up in the Adirondacks near Lake Placid. I planted it for my eldest grandson, Will. Will is 15 now and nearly six feet tall. It took 10 years for the tree to catch up! This “wild” larch was deliberately planted in a high humidity location, as this is what they like to grow, in their native habitat in the north.

It languished for about five years, remaining a two-foot-tall shrub, as is often the case when you transplant a “wild” tree. Transplanting mature native trees and shrubs to your property sounds like a good idea, but it’s usually not a good idea. Unless you prune them several times before digging them up, over a year or more you’re cutting off 90% of the existing roots and they’ll take years to adjust to their new home.

Lester and I have spent many hours over the years doing just that, outfitting his log cabin. It had a “native plant theme” long before “native” landscaping came into vogue. We dug up the oak and sugar maples he planted near the cabin, as well as shad, pinkster, creeping junipers, hobblebush, and a few things that didn’t survive, like wintergreen.

Anyway, my transplanted larch eventually sprouted and started to grow one to two feet per year. It has now become the tallest tree I have planted on my property. I have to take a picture of Will, who is six feet tall, standing next to “his” tree the next time they come to visit. Unfortunately, a few years ago a porcupine climbed the tree and ate the bark of the central stem, killing it and resulting in three central stems. It’s not quite as pleasingly symmetrical now, but large enough to fully display its beautiful fall color and it serves as an everlasting reminder of Lester to me. That’s the real point of memorial trees actually. We all have a “Lester” in our hearts to remember.

Whichever species you choose, I suggest buying a high-quality, nursery-grown named cultivar from a reputable source, preferably local.

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