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Posts Tagged ‘Plants’

Well, this town outside of Boston can’t be considered ‘the country’ these days, but still, there’s plenty of room for a tree to grow. This Gleditsia, unlike the two in the previous post, has plenty of room to grow, and shows what form and size a Honey Locust really wants to take:

Plenty of rooting room translates into plenty of canopy.

Plenty of rooting room translates into plenty of canopy.

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I was recently on Newbury Street in Boston. Turning away from the nifty pay-for-parking machine (these things have replaced meters on the street, and they couldn’t be more convenient, or more helpful for reducing street furniture clutter), I spotted this valiant little Gleditsia, working hard to stay alive:
What had been a typical street tree -- a standard-form Honey Locust -- was cut down at some point, and now sports shrub-like topgrowth.
A little way down the street was another Gleditsia, this one growing in a similarly sized tree pit, but intact from the saw:

Both trees work hard under severe limitations.  The far tree shows what the nearer tree could have looked like.

Both trees work hard under severe limitations. The far tree shows what the nearer tree could have looked like.


How well these characters are doing is a direct consequence of how well they’re being cared for, and of their native vitality. The far tree is impressive for its growth despite the tiny volume of root space available for it; the near tree admirable for its persistence.

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This tree has never been bare-rooted, as far as I know (though who could say, at this point?) It lives at Elm Bank, Mass. Hort’s headquarters in Wellesley, MA, and I took these photos at last week’s air-tool workshop there.

Norway spruce at Elm Bank.

Norway spruce at Elm Bank.


  Somehow it seems that Morticia Addams should come drifting into the picture to perch on this fantastic bench, sweeping a murky gloom behind her.

Somehow it seems that Morticia Addams should come drifting into the picture to perch on this fantastic bench, sweeping a murky gloom behind her.


For those of you still clicking on this site to see air-tool transplant posts, check out Taking Place In The Trees (www.takingplaceinthetrees.net).

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Announcing a new blog! Toby and I would like to keep Taking Place a site for conversation on landscape architectural issues, and it has become clear that my woody plant posts could overwhelm this blog in way we hadn’t planned. So I’ve just started another blog, a sister to this one, called Taking Place In The Trees (www.takingplaceinthetrees.net). It’s focused on woody plant issues, and my aim is to talk about and show good photos of trees, shrubs, and innovations in their planting and care.

I began to post on it last month, with a couple of posts you may have read here. At this point, though, I’m officially launching Taking Place In The Trees as part of the Taking Place family, with posts you may not see here. I’m hoping to be able to duplicate my earlier woody plant posts from this blog on it, to get them all in one place; in the meantime, to see all those posts, click on the ‘Plants’ in the Categories section on the right side of this page, and they’ll all pop up for your reading pleasure.

I’m looking forward to showcasing and discussing more plant topics on Taking Place In The Trees, and to continuing the landscape architecture conversation that Toby and I have going on Taking Place. I hope you continue to visit both sites, and enjoy them!

Nature/culture -- the familiar combo.

Nature/culture -- the familiar combo.

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Harvard University has recently been building on Memorial Drive, along the Charles River. The site that had held a garden center (most recently, Mahoney’s, and before that, the Grower’s Market, where I sold Christmas trees one year) is now becoming a park and a graduate student dormitory. The dorm is done; the park (originally slated for a Renzo Piano museum building) is still apparently in construction.

The other day I was strolling past the parcels, and had to stop to look at a planting buffering one of the dorm’s corners. It was so rich-looking, so dense and lush, and yet it stood only a couple feet high. Fantastic! What was it?

Three feet high, with thick foliage making a bumper at the building's base.

Three feet high, with thick foliage making a bumper at the building's base.

I leaned in to take a look, and discovered that it was a mass of Fothergilla, a shrub related to Hamamelis, or Witch Hazel. (I thought at first that it was Hamamelis, wrote and posted an entire blog post on it, and then realized a few days later that I’d been mistaken. So consider this post a corrective to the other one, which I’ve now taken down.)

I figure that these are Fothergilla gardenii, or Dwarf Fothergilla, given their spacing and configuration. The plants in this mass are set on 18-24″ centers. That’s quite close even for a dwarf plant that’s recorded to grow to between three and six feet in height.

Spacing between 18 and 24 inches on center.

Spacing between 18 and 24 inches on center.

We have discussed plant spacing issues earlier in this blog, and have talked about the differing (and equally viable) strategies of planting close versus planting to make each plant a specimen. The jostling that plants do with each other when planted close can make for an interesting and complex arrangement.

Fothergilla gardenii is a suckering shrub that tends to form thickets; perhaps the landscape architect was aiming for a full-thicket look right from the start. It’ll be interesting to see how the planting grows, and what forms the plants can negotiate in this circumstance (will they be able to sucker where light appears not to reach the ground inside the mass?).

Michael Van Valkenburgh, landscape architect of record for this site, is known for using close plantings in his projects, and he’s generally pretty horticulturally astute. This planting represents an interesting experiment, one worth revisiting over time to see how it progresses.

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The Hamamelis planting in the last post raises the issue of mass plantings, which have long been a favorite of many landscape architects.

I remember a mass rose planting, no longer extant, in a very public location in downtown Boston. One time I went out to do a little guerilla pruning in it with an administrator from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. (Hmm. Perhaps it doesn’t really count as guerrilla pruning if the person you’re working with has the influence to make sure the cuttings are taken away by staff, much as she wanted it to seem as if she was doing the pruning sub rosa, so to speak.)

Rose thorns.  Ow ow ow.

Rose thorns. Ow ow ow.

While were able to clean up the specimen roses in the planting, the mass-planted rugosa roses were another question — it was impossible for us to navigate through the thorns to remove the several years’ worth of dead wood that had accumulated. It was quite clear why they so drastically needed maintenance, and equally clear why they’d had so little. I believe that this planting has been torn out.

At Naumkeag in Stockbridge, MA, a similar deal. Fletcher Steele designed a beautiful mass Pyracantha planting on a bank below the drive, but neither I, an intern at the time, nor anyone on The Trustees of Reservations permanent staff had the asbestos legs, hands, or arms that would have made a good pruning job possible. (The common name for Pyracantha is Firethorn.)

Pyracantha has a stunning berry display, as well as some of the wickedest thorns you'll ever come across, mostly hidden under the berries and leaves (one is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photo).

Pyracantha has a stunning berry display, as well as some of the wickedest thorns you'll ever come across, mostly hidden under the berries and leaves (one is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photo).

The best we could do was to snip down the most obvious vertical and horizontal shoots to keep the whole thing in bounds, and just let the plants fend for themselves. I’m not sure that planting is still there, either, though in the name of historic authenticity, it may be.

However and wherever a mass planting is used, it makes sense to understand not just the look of the plant species used, but also its habit, its limitations (thorns, for instance, or a tendency toward brittleness or over-enthusiastic suckering), and the opportunities you may be closing off in using it — not least of which might be the willingness of maintenance staff to take care of it, if it’s a difficult species.

Masses can help shape space, which is what we aim to do. At the same time (perhaps I’ve said this before), it’s not a bad idea for landscape architects to get out there themselves and work with as many plants as possible in person — to do some planting, do some pruning, do some moving — to understand how these vital design elements really work in the landscape, and what it takes to keep a design looking the way you want it to look.

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Here’s a quick post to alert readers to the Massachusetts Arborists Association Special Seminar and Demonstration on air tool use. A team of four arborists — Mike Furgal, Matt Foti, Rolf Briggs, and Dave Leonard — will be showing how compressed-air tools can be used in arboricultural work (root forensics, bare-root planting, bare-root transplanting, shrub moving, etc.), and will discuss the advancements that this technology provide those working with or using woody plants in the landscape.

The seminar will be on September 10 at Elm Bank, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s property in Wellesley, MA — check the MAA link above for registration information. Registration is not limited to arborists, so interested landscape architects and contractors can go and see this work. I highly recommend signing up; last year’s seminar at Matt Foti’s farm, where Mike Furgal debuted the air-tool transplanting method, was really outstanding, and this year there’s bound to be even more information available and a great deal of informed and informative discussion.

One point: Bare-root transplanting, either with an air-tool or by root-washing, may never replace other methods of transplanting. But for specimen tree transplanting, where the value of an existing tree merits the effort involved, it is currently the gold standard. The number of roots retained with bare-root transplanting prevents the tremendous stress caused by other methods, and should be considered a valuable tool in the kit available to landscape architects, arborists, and contractors.

Bare-rooting allows for the moving of a tree this large in less than one day...

Bare-rooting allows for the moving of a tree this large in less than one day...


while preserving this much root mass.

while preserving this much root mass.

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Matt Foti took these photos from last week’s big transplant project, and they illustrate some useful points.

Air-tool excavation is a very messy process, and it bears mentioning again that eye, ear, head, and face protection are really necessary.  Mike Furgal is wearing a face mask here; a respirator would give him even greater lung protection.  Blowing a good sandy loam is one thing; when pebbles and small rocks show up in the soil they become missiles, so long sleeves and pants should also be worn.

Air-tool excavation is a very messy process, and it bears mentioning again that eye, ear, head, and face protection are really necessary. Mike Furgal is wearing a face mask here; a respirator would give him even greater lung protection. Blowing a good sandy loam is one thing; when pebbles and small rocks show up in the soil they become missiles, so long sleeves and pants should also be worn.


Here is what a well-tied tree looks like in transit.  Note how the roots have been carefully pigtailed, and tiebacks to the tree's trunk are done neatly and professionally, to preserve the roots during excavation and in transit.

Here is what a well-tied tree looks like in transit. Note how the roots have been carefully pigtailed, and tiebacks to the tree's trunk are done neatly and professionally, to preserve the roots during excavation and in transit.


This project took place in late July, during a week of 85-degree heat.  Leaf turgor pressure was maintained throughout by the trees themselves (aided with some in-process watering).

This project took place in late July, during a week of 85-degree heat. Leaf turgor pressure was maintained throughout by the trees themselves (aided with some in-process watering).


Keeping the pigtails neat from the start makes unbundling and spreading the roots fairly easy.  The tree is now resting in the crater dug for its new home; the crew will unbundle and spread the roots out radially, pack soil underneath them to help level the tree, and backfill, water, and mulch the transplant.  Using a forklift allows the arborists to look under the root plate and gauge its bottom profile, which helps in shaping the floor of the planting crater.

Keeping the pigtails neat from the start makes unbundling and spreading the roots fairly easy. The tree is now resting in the crater dug for its new home; the crew will unbundle and spread the roots out radially, pack soil underneath them to help level the tree, and backfill, water, and mulch the transplant. Using a forklift allows the arborists to look under the root plate and gauge its bottom profile, which helps in shaping the floor of the planting crater.

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One reader wrote in with this comment to my last post:

“It would be no good to specify bare root unless you were thoroughly acquainted with the land – soil, ledge, utility lines, for example – and spreading roots of other trees.”

And my answer, because there’s a lot to it:

Actually, bare root is good just for the reasons you enumerate; it’s much easier to plant roots alone than it is to plant a big slug of soil encasing a plant’s roots. And landscape architects, contractors, and arborists have ways of dealing with the issues you mention.

Contractors are required to call Dig Safe (http://www.digsafe.com/) to locate underground utilities on site before any excavation begins. The mis-location of utilities has been known to happen, but excavators are (ideally) careful about how they dig and about stopping when they hit something. Accidents can and do happen, but safeguards have been worked out to minimize their occurrence. (We had a little excitement at last week’s transplanting site over a gas line — apparently DigSafe found one gas line and marked it, but didn’t realize there was another several feet away. The mini-excavator found it — without breaking it — and DigSafe was called out to mark its course immediately.)

Irrigation lines, visible in some of the photos from last week’s posts, are considered expendable/fixable during a construction project. They are relatively flimsy and they run everywhere under many projects, so it is understood that they may be broken (even a shovel can break one), and will be fixed after construction and planting have been completed.

Bare-rooting a tree or shrub for planting — regardless of the surrounding soil type — often is better for the plant than planting it in a soil root ball. When one type of soil is introduced to another, as when a clayey soil root ball is placed in a sand/loam soil, the interface between those two types of soil resists the movement of water from one to the other. That means that if a clay root ball gets watered in thoroughly, water may not move so readily into the sandy loam. What incentive does the root mass have to move beyond that interface and thus into the sandy loam? Not much. Opening up a root ball and mixing some of its clay with the surrounding soil in the wall of the hole will help, but still — with a bare-root plant that issue is a non-issue. Even with a poor soil, it’s easy to mix some planting loam in with the surrounding soil (again, you want to mix, not simply dump a pile that will give you that same resistant interface) and plant the bare-root tree or shrub in the mix; doing so will make it possible for the plant’s roots to reach as far as they have to for the moisture they need.

it is a tendency, unfortunately, of many planting crews (especially on very large jobs where speed is of the essence and there may be little job training for laborers) simply to push the burlap on a root ball down just below the surface, or in some instances to leave it tied in place before backfilling. Natural burlap eventually will rot, but it can take years, especially given the subsurface soil environment, where the burlap is protected from the atmospheric oxygen and UV light that breaks it down so readily in the nursery. In the meantime, that burlap constrains root extension into the surrounding soil, and can contribute to the roots turning back in to the root ball, which affects the growth of the whole tree. So — another reason bare-root is a good approach: no burlap to fool around with and to constrain root growth.

As for ledge: You’re unlikely to know the location and profile of subsurface ledge until you start digging. That’s just the way it is. Again, though, the presence of high ledge (that is, ledge just below the soil surface) argues for using a bare-root planting method. Since tree roots typically live in the top 12″ of soil (sometimes 18″, and sometimes deeper, given the plant genus and the depth of good soil), and tree root balls can be as deep as 36″, planting a tree with soil around its roots means that you have to accommodate that root ball. Sometimes you can slice off its bottom with little ill effect on the roots. Sometimes you can’t. With a bare-root plant, you don’t have to jimmy around so much with adjusting the height of the root ball. Certainly, you’ll have to be sure you have adequate soil depth to plant the roots themselves (spreading them out radially, as they typically need to grow), but bare-root planting gives you much more flexibility in this regard.

OK. That’s it for this post, because I have to hit today’s design deadline, and this was a digression from working on it. Sorry about the lack of photos on this post; next one will have a set of really good ones, courtesy of Matt Foti.

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Tom Ryan*, my first landscape architecture mentor, and I have discussed the desirability of specifying that the trees and shrubs we design into a site be planted bare root whenever possible. As long as the roots can be kept moist — something now entirely possible with the use of hydrogels — most nursery-grown plants fare better, are more apt to be planted in a way that promotes their future health, and are less expensive than B&B plants. And we all know that healthier plants mean more long-lived designs….

Nina Bassuk and the Urban Horticulture Institute at Cornell have put up on the web an outstanding illustrated tutorial on how to plant shrubs and trees bare root.

One of the challenges for landscape architects is to get more nurseries to offer bare-root plants for sale. Currently, balled-and-burlapped and container-grown are the most available kinds of woody plants in the nursery-to-contractor trade. Like any business, nurseries respond to demand.

Like any business, nurseries respond to demand. Years ago, I was having a casual chat with the president of a local nursery and garden center, and asking why plant selections were limited to a number of fairly standard species and cultivars (I had recently assembled a plant list that specified some more unusual species than his large nursery carried). He told me that if his nursery responded to demand; without greater demand for more variety, his business stuck with the standard choices. If more contractors were to bring him more complex lists, his nursery would be happy to accommodate them. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg argument — but essentially it means that continued and persistent demand will get results.

If landscape architects, through our planting choices and plant specifications, possess the ability to influence nursery offerings, then why shouldn’t we also be able to influence the method with which those offerings are packaged? With a greater understanding of the benefits of bare-root plants, perhaps more of us will start to specify bare-root plants, and so create the demand for nurseries to meet. It’s an idea worth exploring.

If you have had experience specifying bare-root plants for a project, we’d love it if you would write in and tell us about it.

Chionanthus retusus, Swan Point Cemetery

Chionanthus retusus, Swan Point Cemetery

*This September Tom will be named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects — a great honor for any landscape architect, and one that he fully deserves.

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