Evolution Part I – Trees

By: Anne Corke

Aug 09 2017

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Category: Gardening, Life stories, Peterborough Ontario

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Many years ago I wrote a piece about our garden in my Dad’s day, how it had evolved from a bit of farm field into a back lawn complete with trees and a vegetable garden and how that garden had changed over the years. As I stood on the deck this evening, I took stock of the changes that I have seen over my nearly forty years on this property and wondered how it would change in the future when I am no longer here.

In 1978 when I moved here with my Mum and Dad, we set about creating our garden. The front lawn had been sodded but the back was wild and unruly. Dad found a local farmer to plow it up so we could attempt a lawn but the seed couldn’t compete with the wild mustard and in short order the yard was a sea of yellow. And so we started again. This time we had a landscaper prepare and sod the yard to ensure that we would in fact have a lawn that year.

Our property is at the edge of an old hedgerow and the southern boundary had a number of rather ancient hawthorn trees. Their broad canopies cast cool shade during the summer creating a the perfect spot for the dogs to lounge. That lovely shady spot became our pet cemetery sheltering the dogs’ ashes after their demise. Since the hawthorns were the only trees on the lot, my Dad I set about planting a few more, a ginkgo, two mountain ash, a pin cherry, a silver birch and a bronze maple.  In time, the hawthorns acquired a rust disease and had to be removed (but not before their wicked thorns punctured a number of tires on our riding mower). We relocated the pet urns under the cherry tree not realizing that it was a relatively short-lived tree and unlikely to remain as guardian of the cemetery for long.

The pin cherry and the mountain ash grew quickly and became our hammock trees. The airy foliage of the cherry made a perfect canopy for an afternoon nap, its dappled shade dispersed the sun’s heat, its long graceful leaves whispered in the summer breeze. Alas, in time the cherry fell victim to disease and as its larger branches died off, it became a hazard to us and to our neighbours and had to be removed. (We didn’t bother to move the urns a second time as several of them were too fragile to disturb again.) Not long after, the maple, which had sheltered our picnic table and hosted a chorus of birdsong and windchimes in its branches over the years, was also lost to disease.

In the spring, the sweet smell of the flowers of the mountain ash is intoxicating. In autumn, the bright orange berries are a favourite treat for the birds. Robins and cedar waxwings in particular love them. First they eat the most easily accessible berries near the centre of the tree. As the berries are consumed, they move to the thinner outermost branches balancing and bouncing as they struggle to reach those last tasty treats. In European mythology, the mountain ash or rowan tree is thought to be a magical tree which gives protection against malevolent beings, yet another good reason to have one in the garden.

The original ginkgo, which must be approaching fifty years, is finally starting to spread its branches outward and is becoming a very impressive tree. (On Douro Street in Peterborough there’s a lovely old ginkgo tree which takes up the whole front yard, something for mine to aspire to! And on the main street in Colborne is another very ancient one, well worth the drive to see, if you’re a tree hugger like me.) These intriguing trees are relics from the time of the dinosaurs. Their leathery leaves turn golden yellow in autumn and often will all fall at once creating a pool of gold at the base of the trunk. Some years later, we added a second ginkgo, a variety called Saratoga. Generally the ginkgo trees which are sold at nurseries are male but this specimen most definitely is not. After a few years it began to flower. When it’s about sixty years old this charming tree will produce fruit which have a thoroughly disgusting odor when crushed underfoot. Luckily I will have moved on to my next incarnation by then and it will be someone else’s problem (take note Jeremy).

Surprisingly the paper birch which is really not a good choice for a semi-suburban yard continues to thrive. I love its gorgeous peeling bark which seems to take on different hues according to the season. Bright white against a deep blue summer sky or soft cream on a grey winter’s day, it’s a beautiful tree at any time of the year. While it does tend to shed little twigs throughout the year, it is a pretty easy keeper compared to some of the other trees and the preferred nesting location for our local wrens.

My late husband is responsible for the last addition to our urban forest. He had always wanted a chestnut tree and one day at a local nursery he found one and convinced me that we needed to take it home. At first everything was fine. After a few years, it began to produce beautiful white blossoms which delighted the bees. We were thrilled. We took numerous photographs of our lovely tree as the bees hummed a happy tune overhead. Each year there was more blossom. And each fall the task of picking up all the chestnuts became more and more onerous. The honeymoon was over. That bloody tree makes more work than all the others put together. If you don’t pick up the chestnuts, they ruin the grass, creating large craters where they come to rest and sprouting indiscriminately in the lawn. Every fall, I curse my husband as I gather trug after trug of chestnuts.

Did I mention the apple tree. Ah yes, everyone should have an apple tree. Beautiful fresh fruit from your own backyard. Well, yes, if you adhere to the necessary regimen of spraying. Otherwise you harvest scabby apples which are fine for eating or cooking but look rather sad. Like the chestnut, the apple tree creates a lot of work come fall and the apples take a toll on the lawn and on my patience. Last year two friends took home several baskets of apples but there were still lots left to collect. Beware of walking barefoot under the apple tree in the autumn. You may slip and fall on the rotting windfalls or get stung by the wasps who love to feast on them.

Beside the driveway in front of the house is a blue spruce which has grown by leaps and bounds. It needs trimming as it now encroaches on the driveway. It brings back special memories. My eldest brother Peter helped plant it in 1991. He flew over to visit us that spring, specifically to visit our mother who was in hospital. I was delighted that Gary and Jeremy were able to get to know him as he did not emigrate to Canada with the rest of the family but remained in England. He visited twice that year, much to my mother’s delight. Sadly he passed away suddenly four weeks after my mother’s death in November. But every time I look at that blue spruce, I smile and think of him.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the various plants that have graced the garden over the years.

Copyright 2017 Anne Corke

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