A letter to Jason

There are a few “tips” included in this blog that doubles as a gardening column. Jason is the nephew of my late friend, Larry, aka Lester, whom I often mentioned in these columns in previous years. Jason and his wife just welcomed a baby boy into this world and I suggested they plant a tree in the baby’s honor. I wrote Jason this email today.

Hi Jason,

First, make sure you select a long-lived tree for your son! No crabapple, flowering cherry, peach, paper birch or any other fruit tree! No evergreens either, as they all seem to have health issues these days.

Personally, I like ginkgoes because they are tough, grow fast and seem immune to most pests, having outlived them evolutionarily. I have two of them, different cultivars, that have totally different growth habits. One is already 25 feet tall, after only about 12 years of growth. It is straight as an arrow with perfectly symmetrical, whorled branches. The other one, although only a few years younger and fifty feet away, is barely seven feet tall. It leans towards the sun and I have to keep it staked.

They both have beautiful, bright yellow, fall color and the leaves remain until a hard frost. I use the leaves to make a tincture that I believe has cured my tinnitus.

Female Ginkgo trees bear edible fruit that smells like cat urine when ripe. Despite that fact, they are sometimes used in Chinese cooking. If you want a gingko, be sure to get a male clone!

My second, or maybe even first, choice, would be sugar maple. This species is not without many pests of course, but it has beautiful fall color and a wonderful growth habit. There are many interesting cultivars with arrowhead shapes to columnar, to round. When your son is a teenager, he could probably tap “his” tree and use the sap to make maple syrup as his Uncle Lester and I did.

Lester loved larch trees, and so do I. They are the only deciduous conifer that commonly grows in our region, featuring beautiful, pale, lime-green spring growth and orange fall color that signals the peak of woodcock migration in our town.

Lester and I timed many of our woodcock hunts on the larch color change each October. The ones by Lester’s cabin are European larch and you can also buy Japanese larch. Larch are all quite similar, except for the grafted ones that “weep.” I would not suggest any grafted tree, really. Graft unions sometimes fail in a few years.

The first “Grandkid Tree” I planted on my property was an American Larch (Tamarack) that I dug up in the Adirondacks, near Lake Placid. I planted it for my oldest grandson, Will. Will is 15 years old now and almost six feet tall. It took 10 years for the tree to catch up to him! That “wild” Larch tree was deliberately planted in a very wet spot, since that is what they like to grow in, in their native habitat, up north.

It languished for about five years, remaining a two-foot-tall shrub, as is often the case when you transplant a “wild” tree. Transplanting, mature, native trees and shrubs onto your property sounds like a cool idea, but it is usually not a great idea. Unless you root prune them several times prior to digging them up, over a year or more, you cut off 90% of the existing roots and they will take years to adapt to their new home.

Lester and I spent many, many hours over the years doing exactly that, to landscape his log cabin. He had a “native plant theme” way before “native” landscaping became fashionable. We dug up the oak tree and the sugar maples he planted by the cabin, as well as the shadbush, the pinkster, the horizontal junipers, hobblebush and a few things that did not make it, like winterberry.

Anyway, my transplanted Larch tree finally shot up and started growing one to two feet a year. It has now become the biggest tree I have planted on my property. I need to get a picture of six-foot-tall Will, standing next to “his” tree the next time they come up to visit. Unfortunately, a few years ago, a porcupine climbed the tree and ate the bark off the central leader, killing it and resulting in three central leaders. It is not quite as pleasingly symmetrical now, but big enough to fully display its beautiful fall color and it serves as a perennial reminder to me, of Lester. That’s the real point of memorial trees actually. We all have a “Lester” in our hearts to recall.

Whatever species you decide, I suggest that you buy a nursery grown, high quality, named cultivar, tree from a reputable, preferably, local, source.

Reach Bob at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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