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Treescapes: Native Species Find Favor With Horticulturists

Fri, 04/12/2024 - 14:07
The Madoo Conservancy's native tree species include a weeping English oak, a tulip tree, a moss cedar, and two species of magnolia, grandiflora and Elizabeth.
Alejandro Saralegui

For gardeners and landscapers seeking four-season interest, low maintenance, and environmental impact, trees check off all the boxes. Plus, they offer shade for sitting areas, a backdrop for a garden, and nesting places for birds, among ecological benefits. Just as there’s no irrigation watering trees in a forest, it is not needed for the established trees in your yard. The time and money saved on irrigation and maintenance might feel liberating.

 "Plant trees well and they'll need nothing long-term. They evolved here," says Tony Piazza of Piazza Horticultural in Southampton.

Keystone Plants

 Rick Bogusch, garden director of the Peconic Land Trust's Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton, oversees a range of specimen trees, yet it's a scarlet oak outside his own kitchen window that he says he most appreciates.

 He is in the early stages of planning an oak grove at Bridge Gardens, and laying out the placement of trees that will mature to 40-to-60-foot-wide canopies. He also mentions less-common oaks: willow oak, pin oak, and mossy cup oak. Oaks are keystone plants integral to supporting the environment. It will be fascinating to see the variances between the species he selects for the oak grove.

'Quite a Spectacular Show'

 Where space might be a factor, midsize trees are ideal. Gardeners seeking to ramp up the pollinator-friendly factor might consider native trees with spring blossoms. As a bonus, some trees' blooms turn into berries in the fall for winter interest that will feed birds. 

 "There are so many beautiful natives: red bud, dogwood, forest pansy, plus the near-native Carolina silverbell. Redbud is so adaptable and a spectacular four-season tree," says Mr. Bogusch. He also raves about the smoke bush's ethereal, wine-pink blooms.

 Edwina von Gal, founder of the Perfect Earth Project and 2/3 for the Birds, echoes many of Mr. Bogusch's suggestions and mentions that the fringe tree with fragrant white frills in the spring is "quite a spectacular show." 

 American holly is a lush evergreen that also provides berries for birds, and it's deer resistant, unlike others in the ilex family. Ilex and many other berry-producing trees are dioecious (female trees must be near a male tree to be pollinated), so it's best to plant a few to pollinate each other. 

 Alejandro Saralegui, director of the Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack, described a paper bark maple with cinnamon-brown exfoliating bark at Madoo that is striking in all seasons. Some of the specimens in Madoo's magnolia bosk reach a little taller, but there are 12 to 15 different types to consider.

Preserve Mature Trees

 Of course, it can be easier to keep existing, mature trees, whose arching canopy can provide shade cooler than a patio umbrella. They support the environment with powerful carbon sequestration and flood water absorption. The expansive height of mature trees is often revered for adding a stately quality to a home, yet lately they are cut down in surprising numbers.

 "Oftentimes, the people paid to cut down the trees are the same ones making money to plant new ones,” Ms. von Gal said.

The Argument for Planting Young Trees

 Starting small can be an economical option and yield healthier trees in the long term. Some trees will actually grow faster over time if transplanted young, explains Julie Sakellariadis, the vice chair of the New York Botanical Garden. And Mr. Saralegui notes that Madoo rarely plants trees greater than three inches in diameter.

 Trees with a tap root don't like to be disturbed. Some tree sellers receive a percentage of a sale as an incentive, which may motivate them to sell older, larger trees.

Look Outside Your Windows

 When considering placement, look out your windows for vantage points. Red buds (Cercis canadensis) within sight of a kitchen or bedroom window, for example, are spectacular. So are a magnolia's creamy white blooms and deep glossy leaves. They also can thoughtfully buffer the view of a neighbor's house without looking like a screening hedge.

 Take the time to plant trees properly and identify their root flare -- the depth at which they should be planted. There's a bit of a "Goldilocks" approach to planting a tree: If planted too deeply, the bark will rot and the tree will suffer. Too shallow leads to adventitious roots sprouting around the trunk. If planted on a hump above the ground, roots will struggle to establish beyond the dome and won't absorb water as readily when rainwater sinks into the natural grade of the ground.

 The rule of thumb is to dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball. Dig the hole only as deep as the root ball, so the tree will not settle too deeply. Remove the cage or burlap from the ball and shake the roots out. Avoid air pockets around the roots. It's not hard to fill them in, yet gaps underground cause roots to dry out. Several of a friend's shrubs died because the landscaper left air pockets. The remaining plants were saved by poking a stick to locate pockets and using water pressure from a hose to flush soil into them.

Right Place, Right Conditions

 Several native trees thrive in moist soil and can absorb rainwater to help mitigate flooding. River birch, for example, is also the host plant for the luminous green luna moth. 

 "Given the chance, pawpaws will grow into a charming grove," Mr. Bogusch said.

 Mr. Piazza and others praise the resilience and beauty of the native Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica).

 Beech leaf disease is killing local trees, and so it's best, now, to avoid the options in the beech family. These waves of tree disease suggest that planting a variety of species in our landscape, to avoid having a monoculture of trees succumb to a disease, is ideal.

 Trees covered by invasive vines will die a slow death. It's like living with a boa constrictor in the house: you might be able to coexist for a while, but at some point it's not going to end well. Vines will take the light and water away from a tree, strangling it. Cut vines off at the ground and up as high as you can reach. Repeat until the vines give up. "They will," Ms. vol Gal assures.

Watering Advice

 Wrapping soaker hoses closely around the base of the tree creates a dependency on water. "You want the tree's roots to grow out to reach water, as well as establish root structure for stability," Ms. von Gal explained.

 After planting a tree, water it regularly but not every day. Quick, frequent blasts of water will encourage surface roots instead of a healthy, expansive root system. Tree roots typically grow in the top two feet of soil and can expand beyond the tree's canopy.

For Your Viewing Pleasure

 Local gardens accessible to the public offer a variety of settings incorporating trees to consider. The Madoo Conservancy, LandCraft Foundation, LongHouse Reserve, and Bridge Gardens inspire throughout the seasons.

 The grounds of the Ladies Village Improvement Society in East Hampton Village offer an established park-like setting. The Leiber Collection's canopy of oaks and specimen trees offer a tranquil respite under the dappled sunlight in Springs.

 A canopy of trees shades the mossy paths at Sagg Swamp Preserve in Bridgehampton -- one of The Nature Conservancy's many local sanctuaries.

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