“April is the cruellest month …”
And here we are enduring a very nasty April indeed. We have been given mostly snow today. Not bad, better than ice.
I need you to be thinking about trees and shrubs. About planting them to soften your landscape; to add dimension and interest; to make your house not look like it was dropped from outer space; to make your garden think you really care.
Is that too much to ask? No.
Let’s start out with a working knowledge of what a tree is: “1. a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to considerable height and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground.”
A shrub: “a woody plant smaller than a tree, usually having multiple permanent stems branching from or near the ground.”
Thank you, Webster’s Dictionary.
Now that we have that clear, let’s look at trees first. There are a few that truly love living here no matter what April throws their way. Mountain ash comes to mind first and fast. They have been planted all over Homer.
Their attributes are many: 1. They grow fast; mine now reach about 30 feet and were planted 15 years ago. 2. They have a beautiful shape. 3. They turn a gorgeous deep yellow in the fall. 4. They produce red berries that attract birds. We have had the pleasure of flocks of robins feeding on the berries in mid-winter. Now there is a sight to behold. Bohemian waxwings will whirl in between November and February and strip every last berry from the branches. That alone is worth the effort to plant a couple of these beauties.
The Amur chokecherry has won my heart. It has the very most lovely coppery peeling bark that glows all winter long. They can get as tall as 45 feet. The tree is covered with clusters of white blossoms (once April is on its way). This is the tree where an Anna’s hummingbird seeks refuge late in the summer. The green of the leaves and the green of her feathers complement each other perfectly. To see a hummingbird at rest is just as delightful as watching it dance from flower to flower.
The common chokecherry has two varieties that make a bold statement in our landscapes. Both the Canada Red and Shubert are the ones that turn maroon in early summer. The first leaves are green and make their way to maroon as the season progresses. They also have clusters of white flowers in early spring. These will reach about 30 feet and spread 20 feet.
I have one Amur and one Shubert planted somewhat too close to each other, but I have a plan for them. I want their canopies to interlace and I want to sling a hammock from their trunks. As it is, the grandchildren truly love to climb into the Amur. I intentionally refrained from pruning off a branch that should have fallen to the loppers. That branch is the grands’ access to the tree, let it be. These trees have a few drawbacks that you need to recognize. Any tree that grows fast dies fast. They have a life expectancy of about 40 to 60 years. They also are somewhat fragile, meaning they will break under a heavy snow load or a vicious wind. Last but not least — the moose will eat them, relentlessly. They need protection.
Then there are our very own native spruce that I don’t think we give enough attention to. They are fabulous. In their first three or four years, give them five gallons of water a week to help them establish and they will reward you with 18 inches to two feet of growth a year. They really do grow fast. And huge, so be sure to give them enough room. They also cast a mighty dense shadow. Plant more of these. If you are looking to make your property a bit more private there is nothing like a spruce for the job.
Whatever tree you plant, (and there are more than the ones I have just listed, these are just ones that I have) think about where your power lines are, the driveway, your property lines, your neighbors’ needs (do they want the shade that a spruce offers?). I have a dear friend who planted a tree directly under her clothes line. Go figure.
Now, on to shrubs. Here the list can go on and on, so I will limit it for now. Lilacs, roses, red twig dogwood and mock orange.
Lilacs need sun. I am just discovering how much they don’t bloom when shaded by the trees that they are growing under. Keep that in mind. I have James McFarland, Donald Wyman, Mt. Baker, Miss Kim and dwarf Korean here and there around the property. They have different bloom times so we are graced with their fragrance for an extended period.
The red twig dogwood is so gorgeous I really and truly think you all need a few of these. They too have clusters of white flowers, look lovely in the fall, and you really can’t beat those red twigs all winter long.
Mock orange is underused here in Homer. We need more of these. They are so covered with white blooms that have a delicate scent. Their arching shape is graceful, the birds love to shelter in them and they grow fast. Mine are about eight or nine feet tall and six feet wide. They bring so much joy to my heart. One of them is interplanted with Theresa Bugnet roses and Johnson blue geraniums, creating quite a haven for afternoon tea.
Roses are something Homer needs more of. Rosa rugosa is what you are looking for. They have a long list of varieties, but, if you are just starting out, go for the Hansa. These are the roses that are in front of the museum and the hospital. They are as tough as nails, have gorgeous double magenta blooms, get about five feet tall and spread. They shoot out suckers that you can either dig out rather carelessly and give to others, or mow down. Give them room.
I also have Theresa Bugnet that has heartbreakingly beautiful double pink blooms that smell heavenly, has a graceful shape and somewhat behaves herself in that she stays in place. The rabbits gnawed these down to the ground last year but they bounced back, fortunately. I am realizing just how incomplete this list is. I could go on and on. I will spare you
Note: Now is the time to give your houseplants some attention. Re-pot if needed and give all of them a shower. Do this now because you are going to run out of time as the outdoor growing season progresses. Oh — and wash your windows, inside and out, the plants will be grateful.
Rosemare Fitzpatrick is a longtime Homer gardener.