From Little Seedlings Great Things Grow

From tiny cones …

by Peter W. Gribble

In every garden, regardless of size, plants show up that weren’t planned for. The phenomenon is widespread. Sidewalk cracks aren’t immune. Neither are parking lots, concrete barriers, outer walls and rooftops of buildings, standing water nor even other plants.

Most of these plants are scarcely surprises and are the recognizable little toughies like dandelions, morning glory and other weeds you need to pull to keep the garden tidy.

A different rule kicks in when it’s a little tree showing up unexpectedly in a pot or garden. You feel like a new parent or someone who finds a baby on their doorstep. It must be universal, this warm, parental concern for something so vulnerable yet full of immense potential. Cyrus the Great of Persia (reigned c. 553-530 BCE) was documented by the Greek general Xenophon deriving enormous pleasure in showing off trees he had grown from seed, nurtured and transplanted out with his own hand.

… do little seedlings sprout …

Your baby tree will get big in a few short years and require transplanting into ever larger and larger containers. You are only postponing the inevitable. At some point, something has to be done.

Years ago, a friend had a Douglas fir seedling (Pseudotsuga menziesii) sprout in one of his pots and this little cutie was nurtured and transplanted over several years into larger pots until a decision had to be made. There was no possibility of Douglas being planted in my friend’s small, overcrowded garden. He contacted me and since an easement existed beside my garden, I said, yes. Douglas, then 1.2 meters (four foot) tall was carefully planted and watered after which best wishes and fond farewells were made. Given the initial, devoted care and my several invitations, I was somewhat disappointed no follow up visits occurred.

When it is my time to move away, Douglas will be on his own. I was pleased with my victory on his behalf this summer when I stopped local municipal authorities from cutting him down since, at the easement’s juncture of three properties, I pointed out he was not in anyone’s way. On his north side, he has a straggly three meter tall cedar hedge for company and protection from north winds. To my secret pleasure, I hope – barring further municipal interference – Douglas will outlive me, since his kind are known to live over 600 years.

… though if you’re not ready for this on your balcony …

Several tree-lovers of my acquaintance more surreptitiously plant their little foundlings in local parks in the middle of the night. Recently I was honoured to be introduced to a gorgeous, full moon maple, bought then planted in the shady perimeter of a forested park in remembrance of a young friend. The planters admit to checking on their little charge with an occasional pail of water during dry periods.

How do you identify and care for your little progeny and help better enjoy the lovely trees who buffer our tumultuous lives?

To place you among the trees in the West End neighbourhood there is the excellent and portable, reference guide, Vancouver Tree Book by David Tracey published by Pure Wave Media (2016.) Also available online, this book broadens and hones our appreciation of how fortunate we are to live in this part of the world.

A beautifully written and intimately researched book is The Songs of Trees, Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell published by Viking (2017). He writes with deep reverence of the intricate relationship we have with the trees and forests in our lives.

If you want a greater selection of pre-weaned baby trees for adoption you won’t have to wait long. Christmas is coming. Spruces, firs, cedars, cypresses and others from 4” pots to one and two gallon sizes will show up in November at major garden centres. Although larger garden centres will have a wide selection of mostly evergreen baby trees and shrubs in their bonsai section.

… a bonsai may be the way to go!

The alarming and comprehensive Living Planet Report 2018 is a call to action, yet among the exhaustive research are few specifics on what the concerned gardener can do. By contrast there was a study, far from alarmist, published in Science (July 2019), offering the simplest and obvious solution to the climate crisis. “Around 0.9 billion hectares of land worldwide would be suitable for reforestation, which could ultimately capture two thirds of human-made carbon emissions. The Crowther Lab of ETH Zurich showed reforestation would be the most effective method to combat climate change.” They suggested Russia was ideally suited to begin this reforestation since they have 151 million available hectares. The US was second with 103 million hectares while Canada came third with 78.4 million hectares.

These are curious choices. It is ironic Russia was Crowther Lab’s first choice to commence the process, as Russia was furiously chopping down vast swathes of forest during the 19th century.

Dr. Astrov in Anton Chekov’s famous play Uncle Vanya, delivers an impassioned plea and prescient warning in Act 1 of what will happen if the laying waste of forests is not stopped.

“There are fewer and fewer forests, the rivers are drying up, the wild creatures are almost exterminated, the climate is being ruined and the land is getting poorer and poorer and more hideous every day.”

Russia is scarcely the sole culprit. North American pioneers had already accomplished this forest wipeout across the eastern part of the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is certainly time to redress the botanical karma. Brazil should be next, although it seems unlikely to happen soon.

So you and I can start now by cherishing the little orphan trees that show up unexpected on our doorstep. In the West End, many have escaped from the great orphanage close by.

Stanley Park is one of the most famous parks in the world with trees of every size: sequoias, cedars, Douglas firs, grand firs, maples, Sitka spruces, and red alders being only a partial list.

During my first walk in Stanley Park years ago, I was startled to see trees with enormous protruding burls deforming their trunks. Most trees continued to grow nonchalantly despite the malignancies. One tree was particularly striking because in the niche between burl and tree, another tree (likely a seed from the original tree and now an adult) had taken root. It grew straight as the foundation tree, sent aerial roots down into the ground and was approaching seven meters (20 feet) tall with a trunk over 30cm (one foot) in diameter. Filling out the niche were ferns, mosses and other small plants. I took several photos and went back several times to sketch this extraordinary mother-daughter pairing.

Then there are those trees deliberately planted more than half a century ago by now unknown, forgotten gardeners.

I was taken to an abandoned property sub-divided and slated for redevelopment. Above the weedy alders, blackberry and morning glory, soared remnants of the earlier garden: a stunning magnolia and an eighty foot tall incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens.) Adjacent was the first stage – completed – of the attractive, new subdivision. Amazingly, the architect/developer had incorporated some of the majestic giants of the original property planted generations earlier.

Keeping trees in containers is not necessarily a challenge if a few rules are followed. Fortunately, a pot will slow growth and instigate a dwarfing of the tree. I once bought two small Hinoki cypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and planted one in the ground and the other in a generous pot … well, generous at the time. I transplanted it twice. The one lucky enough to be in the ground grew happily to 1.8 meters (six feet) in four years. The other despite the upsizing of its pots barely reached 1.2 meters (4 feet.)

If you poke the top of the soil with your index finger and have difficulty in getting beyond a half inch into it, the planting medium is too compact indicating the existence of mostly roots and little soil. This condition dries out quickly – another sign your struggling plant needs up-planting or release into the wild. I felt sorry for my potted cypress and gave it to a friend who had the space for it. Visiting it later the same summer I didn’t recognize it. In the space of three months, it had filled out with new growth and shot up to 1.5 meters (five feet.)

If you have limited space and hope to keep your trees happy in pots, you have to dig them up every few years and prune the roots and refresh the soil by two thirds. Deciduous trees are usually best root pruned in late February or early March well before the leaf buds show any swelling (soak the root ball in a cold water bath for at least half an hour before replanting. If water still freezes at this time postpone the pruning until it doesn’t.) Evergreens are generally best root pruned in the fall.

Root pruning is standard practice in developing and maintaining happy, healthy bonsai trees. As developers build condos and apartments with smaller and smaller balconies, bonsai may be the only way to go.

When root-pruning your bonsai, the first to cut is the main tap root close to the base of your tree. It’s shocking to see this done for the first time (let alone doing it yourself) but this stimulates the immediate production of finer root growth necessary for confined spaces. Sand in the soil mixture stimulates the fine roots to divide more readily. Remember to water your tree as bonsai pots are so shallow, they dry exceptionally fast. If you face south or have too much sun, your bonsai tree can fry and die in a day. I knew someone who was devastated to lose their elegant, twenty-five year old cedar because of one day of unintentional neglect.

Bonsai soil is granular in nature and is usually made up of one third proportions of loam, peat and sand. Specialists like to layer charcoal in the drainage layer for their larger specimens and add Japanese akadama (red clay particles retaining moisture while promoting air circulation) into the mix. Small bark chips, pumice and moss make up other recipes in varying proportions depending on the tree and the pot. For the beginner on a budget: one third equal parts of outdoor potting soil mix, orchid bark mix and sand are good substitutes.

If you are serious about bonsai, read as much as you can and/or join a bonsai society. While you may not want to embrace the entire bonsai aesthetic, which can be very formalized (and expensive), society members’ experience are highly instructive and along with very interesting people, you’ll meet some truly exceptional trees.

Starter seedlings are not hard to find.

A favourite tree of mine and of long acquaintance stands about seven meters (20 feet) tall and nearly five meters (15 feet) wide in a central landscaped island in the middle of a parking lot. It’s a semi-weeping, contorta Japanese maple with a variegated dissectum leaf, a truly venerable and majestic sight. It is estimated by some to be at least 120 years old, but it has begun to show its age in the last year and may slowly be dying. One whole massive trunk-like branch is beginning to scab off its bark and the leaves on that side are curling and drying. Alarmed by this, I checked under the canopy this March and discovered three half-inch tall maple seedings freshly germinated. I dug them up (with permission) since the owners have the area thoroughly weeded underneath each year.

When first rescued, the seedings appeared the same, but quickly grew very differently, despite identical pots, soil, compost, exposure and watering. Today, the tallest is already a foot tall with softly lobed green leaves. The next tallest is ten inches high with variable leaf forms all with pinkish edges reminiscent of its parent’s colouring, but with bright red stems. The smallest remains only three inches tall with the clearly dissectum (finely divided) leaves of its parent but these leaves are a surprising deep burgundy. The three are still single stem infants so show none of the twisting contorta, semi-weeping branches that make their ancient mother tree so distinctive. I hope time or puberty brings out these features in at least one of them.

They are not the only baby trees to call my garden home. There are a thornless Crategus (Hawthorn), two inch-tall Douglas firs (again), a Port Orford cedar (bought), a two-year-old Bloodgood Japanese maple from seed, a two-year-old hazelnut and a three-year-old Katsura (Cercidiphyllum) both from seed, a four inch tall cedar of some kind, and several conifers I’ve not yet identified.

My garden has become a tiny tree sanctuary. Where will the progeny go? At the moment, I have time to determine it. Some may find their way into bonsai pots … unless I find another obliging easement somewhere, a quiet forest or a larger garden.

As for Douglas in the easement, twelve years after his move there, he’s grown to a handsome, statuesque five meter (15 foot) beauty. Generations from now someone may wonder how this majestic 70 meter (210 feet) plus tall hunk of tree got there all by himself.