Sunday, March 13, 2016

So you say you need a tree

This Sunday will be the first day of spring, which marks many things in the gardening calendar, but for me, it is the beginning of the season when people start saying they need a tree. Now sometimes they know exactly what they want, “I’m looking for a pair of 7 inch caliper Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ please,” But most of the time they don’t. So I ask them a series of questions.

First I ask where they live, and if they have deer, to make sure they know when they choose their trees, which will be eaten and which won’t. Then I ask what do they want the tree to do? Do they need it to block their view of something or is it going to be a focal point? Do they want it to give shade, or to flower, or to be interesting to look at all season long? Is the tree is going to be in sun or in shade? Do they want it to be tall or short? I ask where is it going in their garden and how much room do they have for this tree? And then I ask them if they need it to be an evergreen or a deciduous tree. Most of the time they can give me an answer, to at least some of the questions, and we’ll jump in one of the golf carts and zoom over to the areas where the trees that most readily meet their expectations are standing. We use a golf cart because we’ve got to cover 14 acres and the trees that I need to show people are never all gathered together in one spot, quietly waiting.

Occasionally the people I’m questioning just seem to glaze over or look at me cock-eyed as I run through my litany. So I speak to them in a different way. I ask them about their tastes, how they live and what makes them happy. “What kind of house do you have and what does your garden already have in it that you like? Do you need the tree to be green all year long, or is it okay if it loses its leaves? Are you trying to screen out your neighbors house, or to get a little shade by the patio? What shape tree gets you excited? Do you want a multi-stem or a tree with a single trunk?” This last is always an interesting question in that a few trees can come both ways; crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) and swamp maples (Acer rubrum) come instantly to mind; and most people have very definite expectations of how their trees should grow (multi-stemmed crape myrtles are preferred five to one while swamp maples are expected to have a single trunk.) “Do you want it to look like a lollipop – as if it was drawn by a child, or a vase, or irregular?” Sometimes these questions get us a little further along the way to making our decisions, but sometimes we just get into the golf cart and drive around looking at shapes. Gumdrop. Shrubby. Pyramidal. Vase. Compact. Espaliered. Blob on a stick. Squiggly. Columnar. Oval. Topiaried. Spreading. Open. Layered. Weeping. Weeping is actually a fascinating shape, people either love them or hate them, there really doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

“Do you want it to look formal or loose and more organic? Do you want it to look like you planted it or that it grew on the property from seed? Is this tree going to stand by itself or be in a row? Do they want to line a driveway? Do you want to see it when you drive in or from the master bedroom?” I don’t normally ask people how much money they want to spend, because once we figure out what kind of trees they need or like, we can always find it either smaller or larger, but sometimes they come in asking which is my best bargain. Other times they want to see what’s the most expensive tree we have. Some folks want it to be fully mature, while others want to plant it to grow along with them.

There’s almost always a tree that meets people’s dreams (excepting of course those folks who want an upright evergreen, shade tolerant, deer-resistant, flowering evergreen that tops out at about 10 feet. I tell those people I want that tree too, and if we invent or bred one, we can retire as zillionaires.) For the rest there’s always a tree that’ll meet their wants, but sometimes it won’t work in their realities. I can use both evergreens and deciduous trees to block a view. But it you need to screen out that new house that’s just been built right on your property line and your property slopes down so you’re much lower then they are, I could get you a row of Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) that are tall enough, but they might cost more than your house did. So sometimes there’s compromises.

I know you’ve always wanted a huge Yoshino flowering cherry (Prunus x yodensis) like the ones in Washington, but since there’s pretty deep shade in the spot you are describing, it’s not going to be happy there. I know, that as a salesperson, people expect me to just give them whatever they want, but a larger part of my job is actually saying no to people who want to put a tree in the wrong place. 

Saying no and suggesting something better, that’s really one of the cruxes of the picking out the perfect tree. No you can’t put a European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) where it’s going to get salt spray from the ocean, even if you’re a couple of blocks from the beach – if the new foliage gets salt on it, it’ll be toast; a fern leaf beech (Fagus aspleniflora) or any other beech would be a far better choice. No a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) will not work on the bright, but never sunny north side of your house, but a silverbell (Halesia carolina) would be fantastic there as would the variegated butterfly Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’), or a white flowered eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Alba'). I agree that Hollywood junipers (Juniperus torulosa) look amazing in the dunes, but the deer will most definitely eat them in the winter unless you want to wrap them in burlap or fencing. You could substitute white spruce (Picea glauca) which are significantly more deer resistant but unfortunately, look a little incongruous in the dunes, or you could go with Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii) but they are susceptible to turpentine beetles. Me, personally, I would wrap the Hollywoods, because they are gorgeous, but this is your choice.

I want to make people happy when they choose their tree, because trees matter. They are significant in both how they change a property and how they make us feel. Trees ground us, and connect us with the earth. So we all want the trees we choose to not just survive, but to thrive.

Then there are the tree collectors. These are people who know almost as much as I do about trees, and sometimes more, and with them, exploring the nursery is a huge treat. They’re the people I snap and email photos for to the moment something crazy, new, unusual or beautiful comes off the trucks. Some of them have huge houses, some tiny properties, some live right around the corner while others live in completely different states, but shopping for trees with them is always exciting. They’re the ones that understand how cool a weeping astringent persimmon (Diospyros kaki ‘Pendula’) is and can discuss with me the merits of it versus the more common Magic Fountain weeping persimmon (Diasporas virginiana 'JN5') – not only in regards to shape, but with a whole long debate on the variable pros and cons of astringent versus non astringent fruits. I adore these folks and have a few whom I have been choosing trees with for over a decade, trees which I’ve helped place and obsess over almost as much as they have, but selling anyone a tree is a chance to get to know them and a chance for me to help them get to know trees, and what could be better than that?

I love selling people trees, not only because there are so many fantastic ones to choose from and because they truly will transform a space with their addition, but because teaching people about trees and talking to people who love trees is a conversation that has the possibility of going almost anyplace. It’s science and nature and beauty and color and form and texture and history and emotion, all wrapped up in a single package of burlap and string.

Paige Patterson has just placed an order for a whole mess of gooseberries to be shipped to her this spring because they remind her of when she was a child living in England.


  1. Hello Paige! This is Denise, who Lori introduced you to and for a while, I cared for your awesome cats at the absolutely best home ever... I will forever hold visual memories of the incredible indoor nests, etc.. I love how you refer to plants, like homeless.. I know when a vegetarian says they don't eat meat because of not wanting to eat a living creature, I think, but, plants, ARE living creatures too... I hope you are well.. I am in San Francisco.. thanks for what remains wonderful memories of you and your "ben hur" running shoulder-to-shoulder felines..

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