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Home, Garden, and Car Care Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

Desolation Ridge comes to my backyard
The solution? Tending tiny trees from the Arbor Day Foundation

By Ellen Zunon

“Up on Desolation Ridge, little sticks are trying to grow,” wrote Jack Kerouac in Desolation Angels in 1965. So it is in my backyard, where we had to have five huge trees taken down last fall because they were leaning dangerously over our new roof. Five huge trees that had shaded our patio and made backyard barbecues pleasant and pine-scented.  Five pine trees that were the linchpin of my backyard habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a haven for songbirds and other small wildlife.

But when our other trees started to turn to shades of scarlet and ochre, and I recalled past winters when pine branches had come crashing down on nearby roofs, I knew it was time for the trees to go. So I made a couple of phone calls and found a tree company that would take them down for a manageable fee.

A few days later, a crew of a dozen men arrived with noisy machines at the cracking of dawn’s early light, and by noon all five trees were gone, chopped down and hauled away or ground into wood chips by shrill chippers.

What of my wildlife habitat now?

I had Desolation Ridge right in my backyard. The mock orange behind the birdbath rubbed broken branches next to the wounded hickory, where huge pine branches had come crashing down on it. Two deep gouges in the lawn showed where the tree trunks had come thundering down.

A cardinal and a squirrel sat on adjacent hickory branches, both complaining loudly at the disappearance of their favorite pine tree.

I knew I had to do something to restore the habitat, but what? First of all, we hauled in 10 bags of topsoil to fill in the gouges in the lawn, and we planted grass seed. But what about replacing our trees?

Coincidentally, in that week’s issue of The Enterprise, there was an ad for the Arbor Day Foundation. If you joined by a certain date in October, you would receive 10 free trees as a gift.

Hmmm, chop down five trees, plant 10. It sounded like an ideal solution. Or I could plant half of them, and give the other five away once they were big enough to transplant.

So I sent in my $10 membership fee and waited for my little trees to arrive. The Arbor Day Foundation ships trees in late fall, when they have gone dormant for the winter, or in early spring before the end of the period of dormancy.

The foundation recommends a procedure called “heeling in” if you are unable to plant your trees within a few days of receiving them. This consists of digging a shallow angled trench in the ground, laying the tree roots in the trench, and covering the roots with soil. You’re supposed to dig them up at a later time when you can plant them properly.

But my 10 baby trees arrived in mid-December, when the ground was already too frozen to attempt this process. And when I had unexpected houseguests from out of state right around the winter holidays, I had little time or energy to think of chopping through the frozen ground to tuck tiny trees in for a long winter’s nap. I had to leave the mysterious brown paper package in the garage until after the holidays.

Inside the package, the 10 baby trees were sealed in their plastic wrapping, with hydrating gel stuck to their roots to keep them moist. Each was barely a foot tall, and each tiny tree trunk was painted with color-coded paint to allow the homeowner to identify the different species; I had one scarlet oak, one red oak, one sweetgum, one silver maple, one white flowering dogwood, one Washington hawthorn, two sugar maples, and two red maples.

While the snow flew outside, I tried to picture the line of trees in full leaf around my house. What a nice addition to my backyard habitat these trees would make.

I knew the trees would not survive in the garage until spring, so after the holidays I planted them in flowerpots and gradually brought them up to the main floor, watering them regularly to try to keep them alive. Strange houseplants they were, leafless painted sticks, but ideal conversation pieces!

As the days got longer, so did the sticks, and here and there a tiny leaf began to unfold. I watered the little sticks faithfully and put them in the sunlight.

But sadly, by the time spring arrived and I was able to plant the baby trees, it was evident that only two were still alive: the silver maple and the hawthorn had both sprouted miniature leaves that made them look like Japanese bonsai trees in their pots.

It was time to let them spread their wings — uh, roots. The instructions said to plant the trees in a protected spot for the first year or two, digging a hole as deep as the tree roots are long.

Maybe that’s why most of the trees didn’t survive in flowerpots; their roots didn’t have enough elbow room. We tend to forget that half of the tree lives below the soil line. Or maybe I just didn’t water them enough. Baby trees need plenty of water during their first year.

I planted the two trees in a protected spot in our fenced-in area. It used to be a dog run when the former owners of our property had a pet dog. Now it’s a tree nursery.

Besides the trees from the Arbor Day Foundation, hundreds of maple, pine, and oak seedlings from our remaining trees sprout in the woods. I pull up several dozen at a time to let the larger ones flourish.

As summer progressed I tended the baby trees, watering them every few days unless it rained, and checking on them almost daily. One morning, I was dismayed to see that a voracious critter had stripped the hawthorn of leaves. A rabbit must have gotten in through the fence after all, and only a pale blue stick remained next to the diminutive silver maple.

But by summer’s end, the little blue stick was gamely trying to put out another tiny leaf or two. Maybe it will survive after all. According to the brochure that came with the trees, this tree has a high wildlife value, because it will bear glossy red fruits that stay on the tree into winter once the white spring flowers have bloomed. Eventually it should grow to be 25 to 30 feet tall, with a 25-foot spread.

And the silver maple is a fast-growing tree that may grow twice as tall as the hawthorn. Its name comes from the fact that the underside of the leaves is silvery white, making a contrast with the green surface of the leaves when the wind blows through the tree.

The two trees will make a nice addition to our habitat once they are big enough to transplant to a more permanent location. Incidentally, the Arbor Day Foundation promises to replace the trees if they fail to survive, so I’ll try again this year with a new set of baby sticks.

The foundation was established in 1972, a century after the first Arbor Day was celebrated in the Nebraska plains. Its mission is to inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees. It provides low-cost trees for planting and produces educational materials both for schools and for the general public.

More recently, the Arbor Day Foundation has also focused attention on the role trees play in combating global warming. Here are a few tips: Plant evergreens to form windbreaks on the side of your house facing prevailing winter winds. This will not only help reduce your heating bills, but also reduce the need for more CO2-producing power generation. Planting deciduous trees or bushes near air-conditioning units has a comparable effect in summer. And trees planted near a street, driveway, or patio also absorb carbon dioxide and cool the paved surfaces.

Lastly, planting fruit-bearing trees for your own consumption reduces food costs and fuel spent on transportation. You can find more such tips and information about a great variety of tree species that flourish in our hardiness zone by visiting the foundation’s website at http://www.arborday.org.

On our corner lot, before we button up the house for winter, I’ll enjoy the scent of our remaining pine trees wafting in through the open window along with the comforting odor from the neighbor’s wood stove. I guess I’ll know that we have successfully restored our habitat when the wild turkey couple from the woods down the street comes to our yard for a morning stroll again.

I wonder what they eat? Maybe they’d like some huckleberries for dessert. That might be next year’s project – planting berry bushes.

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