One of the features that sold me on my little bungalow five years ago was its wonderfully deep and wooded lot. Towering silver maples – both mine and the neighbors’ – and lovely tall hemlocks surrounded the house and overhung the fenced yard. A sinuous swath of lawn curved from the back deck into the wooded far end of the property. It felt private and sylvan.
But there are drawbacks to having an established canopy. Trees get old. Sometimes they get sick. And some trees are invasive imposters that only reveal their nefarious existence after you’re hooked on the greenery.
Shortly after moving in I had to take down an enormous pear that was just a few feet from the house. It loomed two stories above the roof and its branches were resting on the electric wires coming into the house. And all day, every day through that first summer and fall, it rained tiny, hard, BB-like pears – not half an inch big, on the roof and deck. Aside from the mess, the noise and the pain of being hit with the lead-shot bombardment quickly made use of the deck impossible. An arborist confirmed that the tree had exceeded its maturity, and I had it taken down.
Another charm of the house was the tall cedar rising through an opening in the deck. But it, too had its problems. There were hardly any branches except at the very top, some four stories up, and this fall the squirrels began shredding the bark into ribbons, taking huge mouthfuls up to their nests. The cedar looks positively flayed. I can’t imagine it will last much longer.
And then, there are the Buckthorns. Native to Europe, where they are kept trimmed as thorny hedges, when left to grow they become spindly, crazily branched understory trees with horrible huge thorns. They are the first to leaf out in the spring and last to drop their leaves in the fall. Plus, they keep growing when other plants have gone dormant, so nothing grows beneath them. They have no natural pests, of course. The deer don’t eat them, and the ‘lovely’ wooded scrim at the back of my yard was full of them.
Fortunately, they are easy to cut down. Not so fortunately, they are also very painful to cut up and tie into the 18 inch bundles the city’s trash pick-up requires. That was my task most of one summer. But cutting them down does not kill them. More will grow from the roots unless you kill the stump completely.
Enter, via research and Amazon, the Buckthorn Baggie®. It’s a heavy black plastic bag that you put over the remaining 6-inch stump and cinch tight with a zip tie. You spread the bag out over the root system and leave it for a year. That’s supposed to kill the stump and prevent any new shoots from emerging from the roots. I bought 100 of them – used about 60 so far. Now, my back yard sports what looks like an army of black-cloaked garden gnomes waiting to rush the house under cover of darkness.
I’ll get to the rest of the buckthorn in the spring, but my suburban lumberjacking has cost me a lot of the privacy between me and my back-yard neighbors. So I’m thinking of what to plant in their stead.
Eastern Hemlock grows fast, does well in shade – which I have a lot of thanks to the huge maples and oaks on my neighbors’ properties. And Hemlocks are still zoned for this region, even though our growing/plant hardiness zone has changed in recent years from 5 to 6 in response to the warming climate. I have several large hemlocks in the yard already and the soft swishing whisper of the wind through their lacy branches is a soothing summer song.
But, as in all things, there’s never a perfect answer. Hemlocks can grow to be 800 years old. 300 years is a common life span, so long as conditions are right. That means cool, moist soil and hard winters. I am troubled about the possibility of planting these climate-sensitive trees that have a potential long life, only to put their health in jeopardy in a warming future.
And then there’s the wooly adelgid, lately come from Asia to suck the nutrients out of these lovely trees in particular.
Sigh… What’s a tree-loving homeowner to do?
Well, I still think it will be another buckthorn removal summer and a hemlock fall here in the little urban forest of my back yard. I’ll let you know how it goes. For now, here’s the apologia ‘shape’ poem I wrote when I cut down my pear tree. (Poem format may not work on a smart phone.)
Requiem for a Pear Tree
Forgive me, tree.
I did not want to let you go.
Your leafy crown above the house
was soothing music in the autumn wind,
surcease from summer’s heat, and shelter
for the scurried creatures of the neighborhood.
But ninety years is quite an age for such a tree as you,
and you signaled that your time had come—letting go
a thousand brittle twigs, a million sterile seeds, raining
like a storm of hail on roof, the deck, the garden.
All this summer I could hear your readiness
to let go, see how you were holding on
for one more season.
So I chose to
act ahead of
tree, if my timing
was out of joint with yours.