By Henry Homeyer
I recently looked through my first book, Notes from the Garden, looking for inspiration for another winter article. In it I read that I had planted my ‘Merrill’ magnolia in 2001. I forgot that I only planted her 20 years ago this spring – it feels like she’s always been there!
As I looked out the window at this beautiful tree that blooms with a thousand large, slightly fragrant, double white flowers every April, I thought, How many of us plant a tree with a vision of what it will look like in 20 years’ time? I was mainly hoping that it would survive to flourish modestly. But it’s been a magnificent tree for a decade or more.
I invite you to make a wish list this winter. Think of large, majestic trees that you would like to have and figure out where to plant them. Dream of blossoming trees. Think of native trees that feed the young birds with thousands of barely noticeable caterpillars that feed on their leaves. Imagine an armchair in the shade of a tree that you planted. Imagine grandchildren playing in its shadow.
I think it’s important to realize that trees get a good size pretty quickly. Most grow 2 to 3 feet a year, some even more than that. What if you’re 60, 70, or 80 years old? Even if you never see it bloom or drop nuts on the lawn, make the environment better now and for years to come.
Years ago I visited the writer, illustrator, eccentric and well-known recluse Tasha Tudor at her home in southern Vermont. She was in her late 80s at the time, but she was still planting trees. She asked me if I could help her find two specific varieties of crab apples that she had planted 30 years ago but couldn’t find anywhere.
I immediately found one variety in EC Brown’s kindergarten in Thetford. I couldn’t find the other one, so I asked her where she had bought it. She told me she bought it from Weston Nurseries and I called her. The woman who answered the phone remembered her and the fact that she had traveled with a rooster under her arm. Amazingly, she remembered the guy who was waiting for her that day too, he was still working there and he was taken to the phone. He stated that the variety was no longer produced. End of the story.
Actually it wasn’t. I saw Wayne Mezitt, the owner of Weston Nurseries, at a fair and told him the story of his people who remembered Tasha. He grinned and said he would make her some of the trees she wanted by grafting branches onto rootstock. And he did. Three years later, Wayne and I met Tasha and gave them the trees she wanted. At the time, she was over 90 years old but was still planting trees. Has she ever seen them bloom? Unlikely, but I love the idea of someone their age planting trees. I hope to do the same.
When you plant trees over a long period of time, it is difficult to keep track of when you planted them and what variety was planted. Keeping track of things requires real discipline. In my experience, tags are fine for a couple of years, but at some point they are lost or the writing fades until it is illegible.
When you are closely connected to your phone or tablet, this is a great way to keep track of what you plant – until the phone dies or is replaced. I don’t have a cell phone so I can’t advise how to keep a record of it. But I take a lot of photos and they are in my computer by date, so I can find almost anything I plant – as long as I label well – and the computer doesn’t eat things that my time does from time to time.
I like to write things down with a real pen, sometimes even with my trusted fountain pen. Years ago I bought a 10 year old Gardener’s Journal from Lee Valley Tool Co. They still sell it for about the same price: $ 32.90. It’s tough and durable. The only thing missing is a search function. It has one page for each day of the year and 10 sections per page – a few lines for each day. In principle, I would write the weather, which I planted or pruned or dug up every day. But life gets in the way of even the best of intentions.
I like old-fashioned 3-by-5 index cards for making lists: to-do lists, shopping lists. They fit well in a pocket and good ones are pretty sturdy. My winter resolution (it’s like a New Year’s resolution, but made after Groundhog Day) is: I’ll fill out a note card every time I plant something, whether it’s a perennial flower, tree, or shrub. I have an old fashioned 3 by 5 card wooden box and will be using it this year to keep an eye on my plantings.
So what’s on the cards? First, I have to decide whether to use common or scientific names for plant literacy. I will use the scientific names as this is how I think of most of my plants. But I will also include common names, planting date, source of the plant where planting is going on, soil changes that may be added, or other details that may be useful. When plants die, I keep the map but put a black dot in the top right corner of the map.
Last fall, I wrote a list of the woody plants I have planted here in Cornish Flat since I bought my house in 1970. I’ve listed nearly 80 species or varieties. I think when I have time this winter I will start the project. I’ll fill out a card for each tree the next raw, gray, wet day.
Henry Homeyer is the author of four gardening books. His website is Gardening-Guy.com. You can reach him at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH, 03746 or email@example.com.