Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2010
Regional Report

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Several species of hickory, such as these autumn-hued examples, have a life-span of two hundred years or more.

Plant It Forward With Legacy Trees

It's been more than three decades since American journalist Bill Vaughan pointed out, "Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, and then names the streets after them," and yet, by and large, the same can be said today.

In my area, though visionary planning is embraced by both leaders and citizens, protection and preservation of green space is still a major concern. In fact, local conservation groups estimate as many as ten acres are cleared in the county for development each day.

It's not just the loss of trees, however, that impacts the livability and sustainability of our communities. It's also the choices we make for their replacement, especially in residential areas. For example, I've never planted an oak tree. Have you?

In years past, I've added any number of small ornamentals, such as Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume), smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), and lilac chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). Chosen for strictly for their beauty, trees like these add to the enjoyment of the garden, but make little contribution to the long-term health of the ecosystem.

On a recent trip to Mount Vernon, I made special note of the trees around the home and its central lawn. Among the hundreds planted on the estate by George Washington, more than a handful survive the 210 years since his death. Those species that remain include tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), white ash (Fraxinus americana), Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), white mulberry (Morus alba), and American holly (Ilex opaca).

Instead of the magnificent poplars and ashes at this historic American home, can you imagine Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana) in their place? But more often than not, Bradfords or their like are what most contemporary homeowners select.

Though few of us live in grand style, every landscape should have at least one legacy tree. And while ornamentals will always have a place in our gardens, we must also plant for a sustainable future by adding trees that will live for a hundred years or more.

To determine if you can add a legacy tree to the garden, take a step back and look at the landscape from a distance. A large, long-lived tree should be planted away from structures and power lines so it can grow to its mature size without pruning. Think about the possible tree's growth habit, too, and how the varied choices might compliment the house and work within the landscape. A spreading tree will shelter a home and soften hard edges while a conical shape will provide a strong vertical accent.

To narrow the choice further, visit arboretums, botanical gardens, old city parks and historic neighborhoods to see what thrives in your area. When you find a tree you like, take note of its growing conditions and compare them to your own.

In my neck of the woods, the native forest is an oak-hickory community. In addition to these two genera, there are many other legacy trees that thrive here, as well as in other parts of the Middle South. A short list of the best includes: red maple (Acer rubrum), pecan (Carya illinoinensis), deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), American holly (Ilex opaca), white ash (Fraxinus americana), Southern magnoila (Magnolia grandiflora), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), and American elm (Ulmus americana).

Remember, autumn is the best time for planting trees in the Middle South because, as heat, diseases and pests are declining, rainfall is on the rise. And though air will soon be cold, roots will grow even in winter.

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