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Archive for the ‘Plants’ Category

Contractors, arborists, and landscape architects in Massachusetts would do well to check out the Ecological Landscaping Association’s September events list.  The ELA is offering a number of really good workshops, on topics ranging from Boston-area restoration projects to the use of fire in landscape management, as well as a two-part, two-day workshop on root issues.  

One day of the root work will focus on soils(f you’ve read any of this blog, or Taking Place In The Trees, you’ll know that I’m interested in roots.)  In the air tool workshop, entitled At The Root: Air Tools Workshop, Rolf Briggs and Matt Foti will be talking about using air to work in the root zone, to decompact soils, to transplant trees and shrubs and also about how to plant nursery-grown stock properly.  

Matt and Rolf have done a similar workshop for the Mass. Arborists Association in the past, and Matt holds an annual workshop on proper planting techniques.  Being able to see what a root system looks like is eye-opening.  Learning — not just from written specs or a generic tree-planting detail — how a tree or shrub should be planted is essential, and well worth the price of admission.  I have been to at least three of these workshops, and learn something new at each one, and so can say that this workshop is one every landscape architect who designs plantings, and every contractor who sells plantings should attend.

Michael waters in a hemlock whose root flare has been excavated with air.

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A year ago I wrote a post on dappled willows (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’), comparing one rigorously maintained specimen and one planted-and-forgotten specimen. Two takeaway points from that post (I hope): 1) plants in a garden usually require at least some maintenance — more or less, depending on the genus and its role in the garden; and 2) willows really want to grow.

Here’s a photo illustrating the second point. This willow — I think it’s an old weeping willow (Salix babylonica) — clearly had started to break apart, and had apparently become fairly hazardous. Its owner whacked the entire top off, and the willow responded with this explosion of shoots. Willows grow fast and grow weak, but they’re vigorous enough to continue growing even if they break up, fall over, are pruned to the nth degree, or are cut down, which is what makes them such great coppicing plants. But that’s a topic for another post…In the meantime, enjoy the photo, which I took in a New Hampshire seacoast town.

Cartoon character or tree? Weeping willow growing into a new form after having been topped.

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That last post made a good point — sometimes the leftovers in a landscape can be used as a feature in and of itself — but I much prefer the photo here. This hemlock is very much alive, and lives outside of Boston on private property. Carl Cathcart, Consulting Arborist, took me to see this wonderful tree last July, and you can see more photos of and information on the tree at Taking Place in the Trees.

To get an idea of the scale of this tree, look just to the right of the tree's center; Carl Cathcart is standing on the ground under the tree's canopy, and his legs are just visible.

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It has been a while since I’ve written about root flares. I got some photos from my friend Carl Cathcart the other day, showcasing the excavation of a hemlock root flare. This tree is one of a hedge of 7-8′ tall hemlocks planted two years ago. Its owner had noticed that while the hedge wasn’t failing, it wasn’t exactly thriving, either. He called Carl, a Consulting Arborist, in to inspect the situation.

Carl zeroed in immediately on the base of the tree, and with a little hand excavation discovered that the hemlocks were sitting at least four inches too deep in their root balls. It has been customary for years to plant balled and burlapped trees so that the top of their root balls sits at or slightly above the finish grade around them. Cultivation practices in the growers’ nurseries have changed since that technique became the standard, though, and now it is necessary to check each root ball to make sure that root ball soil is not covering a tree’s root flare. A buried root flare — whether it is buried with root ball soil, compost, or an excess of mulch post-planting — spells trouble for a woody plant, and can be the cause of a tree’s failure to thrive. Small leaves, shorter-than-normal annual twig extension, and thin foliage can all be symptoms of a buried root flare. Root flares are not roots and are not adapted to life under the soil surface; they are part of the tree’s aboveground trunk, and typically need to be exposed to the air.

The in-field solution to this problem (should the excess soil not be removed in the nursery) is to excavate the root flare onsite during project planting. This task should be done before the tree is planted, so that the flare is planted at the correct grade; unfortunately, many contractors are not even aware of the issue, and will not have included time for root excavation in their bid. Here’s where landscape architects can make a major difference in the longevity of their project’s woody plants, and where contractors can distinguish themselves from the competition; LAs aware of the need to excavate root flares should include that requirement in their bid sheets for contractors, and contractors aware of that need (whether they are in a bid situation or not) can use this task, and the benefits it brings to the planted landscape, as a compelling selling point.

When root flare excavation doesn’t take place when the plants go in the ground, the signs of tree stress will likely show up within a year or two. At that point, hand excavation is still possible, but air-tool excavation usually will be more efficient.

When Carl identified the problem, he advised the homeowner to have air-tool excavation done. Matt Foti of Matthew R. Foti Tree and Landscape sent over a crew to carry out the work; Carl’s photos illustrate this post-planting process nicely.

The arborist has tied up the hemlock's branches for easier access in to the root ball. In this photo some of the soil has been blown away already.


A compressed air tool blows off the root mass. Just visible behind the tree is a plywood barrier that helps keep airborne soil from covering the surrounding plants.

The root flare has been uncovered; note the soil line about four inches up from the root mass. When you see side branches at, just above, or even emerging from below the soil level you can suspect a buried root flare. Carefully scraping away soil at the tree's trunk will indicate if further excavation is necessary. Now that the root flare is exposed, it is possible to see the girdling root that has formed on the trunk's left side.


The girdling root has been cut off, preventing any further vascular constriction in the root coming off the trunk and heading toward the photo's lower left corner.


With the root flare exposed and girdling roots removed, planting soil is blown or shoveled back into the excavated area at the correct grade.


The last step, before untying the branches, is to water the excavated area thoroughly, to rehydrate roots and to eliminate any air pockets in the root mass.

Project site: Private Residence, Sudbury, MA

Consulting Arborist: Carl Cathcart, A Plant Healthcare Consultant
Arborist for root flare excavation: Matthew R. Foti Landscape and Tree Service, Inc.

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About ten years ago, I noticed a mild fad rev up in the gardening world; all the garden centers around here started carrying Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, usually trained into standard form with a 3-4′ high stem and a pompom of foliage at top. Hakuro Nishiki, also known as Dappled Willow, is a fast-growing, twiggy large shrub/small tree with variegated white and light green to pink leaves, and it lights up a garden with its foliage, which is profuse and almost aggressively healthy-looking.

I’m fond of these plants, though they certainly need to be placed with care. They like full sun, but can deal with some shade. Because they grow so vigorously, it’s a good idea to commit to pruning them every year or so, to keep them in bounds. Actually, I can see how sculpting them in various ways each year might be an interesting exercise — not something you’d want to do with most plants, but this one seems malleable enough to allow some experimentation.

I have written earlier about L. and A., my excellent clients on the North Shore, who enjoy developing and fostering their landscape. Several years ago L. bought a Dappled Willow for her perennial garden. It’s not a standard form; instead, she’s keeping it pruned low, to keep it in scale with other elements in the garden. Here’s a photo of it in leaf:

This plant is about thirty inches high and wide, and is kept as a mounded shrub with pruning.

And here’s a photo of how L. prunes it to keep it contained to this form:

Every year L. cuts this Dappled Willow back hard, to keep its vigorous growth contained in a form that works for her perennial garden.

I have wondered what these plants look like unpruned, and last week got to see one. If the willow in L.’s garden looks like a contained explosion, this one looks as if the top blew off the container:

Perhaps the owner of this plant didn't realize what level of attention Hakuro Nishiki was going to require annually.

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The massive four-stem Norway maple that blew down in high winds last week.

Following up on the list post item from June 9, about what to use to replace a lost Norway maple: it will be a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis ‘Shademaster’), placed slightly upslope from the Norway stump.

Last week I visited the North Shore seaside site (where last year we revamped the drive court planting and added bamboo and holly for property line screening; to read about those projects, see Refinement and Air Spade In Action) and saw the spatial effect of losing this tree.

Surprisingly, the loss wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. The tree’s canopy had taken up a huge amount of space and cast deep shade over quite an area. It had screened my clients from an unappealing view of the corner of their neighbor’s house — but also from a wider view of the Boston skyline in the distance. Now the horizon is wider; they’re going to have a spectacular view of the city’s July 4 fireworks. While the neighbor’s house is unfortunately visible for the moment, the honey locust will mitigate that view. A younger specimen maple just over the property line, which had been hidden by the larger tree, looks healthy, and helps provide a perspective-focusing foreground to the far horizon.

Fortunately too, while the tree provided shade over a wide area of the site, much of its underplanting consisted of junipers and taxus, which should benefit from having more sunlight. The redtwig dogwood, azaleas, and hydrangea will think a bit about how much they like being exposed, but I think they’ll adapt. Even the little spring shade garden should fare all right, protected as much of it by a dense shrub planting from full sun exposure. Many of the herbaceous plants in it are ephemeral anyway, showing up in early spring before any trees leaf out, and fading back as foliage emerges above them.

Shade cast by the now-gone Norway maple protected the little spring garden and its ligularia circle at the path's end.

Our biggest concern for this newly sunny area is the ligularia bed. This bed, banded with a circle of bluestone, makes the southern terminus of a sightline through the tiny spring garden. The ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ ligularia, with its chocolate-brown foliage and golden spikes of flowers, makes a ravishing dot at the bottom of the exclamation point. And it’s a shade lover.

Ligularia 'Britt Marie Crawford' in its circle bed.

It may not be at all happy to be getting sun all day every day. My hope is that it can handle it well enough for long enough to feel relief from the kinder, more dappled shade that the new honey locust will eventually cast.

This site has seen several mature trees come down since last year; neighbors next to the drive court removed a large maple and a lovely S-shaped pine, an ailing ash tree got taken out, and a graceful Russian olive specimen, some 20 feet tall, blew down in the same storm that took the big Norway maple.

Each subtraction has shifted the sun/shade proportions, and each will affect the growth and health of the surrounding area. This kind of change requires adaptation both by the plants and by the owners, and provides opportunities for new ways of seeing a familiar place.

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ZZZZZZZZZZZZSSSSSSDDDDchew!! Excuse me; Toby’s photo of the pollinating pine in that last post just makes my nose tickle.

His points about pollinating trees make sense to me; wind-pollinated trees are different in nature from insect-pollinated trees, and have quite different effects on those allergic to fine particulates.

I have to say that Mr. Ogren’s original Op-Ed piece stood out as much for its hypo-allergenic focus as for its assertions about what trees do get planted in cities. To set the record straight, a number of the plants he mentioned (both favorably and unfavorably) — box elder, mulberry, silver maple, willow, cottonwood, and even red maple — are considered either outright weed trees or are simply weak-wooded and would never pass muster for planting in dense urban areas. More often than not, most of these trees volunteer in the city, and are able to thrive because they are wind-pollinated, produce a lot of seed, and are able to grow quickly and under conditions that would stymie less tenacious trees.

Landscape architects and arborists working in cities tend to avoid these plants for street tree plantings; in fact, I would think of using some of them — if any — only on larger sites where space was not an issue, where I wanted fast and effective growth, and where there was no chance that they would invade other areas. Municipal lists of acceptable street trees are actually, quite limited, as the piece points out, and mainly include slower-growing or more structurally sound trees than some of these worst culprits — the criteria for street tree selection in a city have to take into account those trees that have relatively reliable structure and habit, can deal with difficult soil, exposure, and moisture conditions, and that don’t create walking hazards with heavy fruit set.

What struck me most, after reading Mr. Ogren’s piece, was the realization of how much vegetative biomass there is in cities, despite our best efforts to pave wherever possible. The ocean of pollen we swim in every spring and summer comes from volunteer as well as planted trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs, and reducing the pollen count in any area feels a little bit like setting aside a piece of the ocean to make a freshwater pond…

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