MusingsCR Lawn, Upon His Retirement
Leave that Weed
In Admiration of Old Trees
Plant Exploring on the Allagash River
Hedges: Thinking Outside the Boxwood
Upon his retirement, June 30, 2018
On Saturday morning December 18, 1982, CR Lawn, Gene Frey and I sat down together in Waterville to discuss a proposal I’d concocted to start a new division of Fedco Seeds. It would be called Fedco Trees and would have its own catalog. They liked my idea. With CR’s help, I fleshed out the plan and in September 1983 we put together the first Trees catalog: two sheets of paper stapled in the upper lefthand corner. So began Fedco Trees and a long partnership with CR.
Although for the next 35 years CR mostly remained in the background of Fedco Trees, he did play a key role. For many years I would drive out to visit him on his farm in Canaan on some warm August evening. Having spent all day working in his expansive trial gardens, he would meet me on his cabin porch and we’d create the next year’s budget, writing up a list of expenses on the backsides of a couple of sheets of scrap paper. He would scribble away in pen while I answered his questions about how many rolls of pallet-wrap we’d use for bundling the trees or how many blueberries, grapes or apple trees I thought we’d sell. I’d leave well after dark with a plan.
In the spring, CR always came to the Trees pick-up. As we handed out bags of trees, CR would do the paper work for every customer. More than one customer looked on in disbelief as he tallied up long columns of numbers, doing the math in his head. He rarely, if ever, made a mistake.
As Fedco Seeds grew, CR’s involvement with Trees began to subside. Still, he and I would occasionally have long interesting talks, sometimes late at night when I’d come to the old office off Main St. in Waterville to pick up the mail after seeing a movie at Railroad Square. CR liked to work into the wee hours, and that was a good time to catch him. If he wasn’t too busy, we’d chat about a particular finance issue or some plant research or maybe the Red Sox. Eventually he stopped coming to the spring Tree Sale. It was large by then and he wanted to get into his gardens. But he always remained deeply interested in Fedco Trees.
One year CR was asked to give a talk in Camden. He doesn’t drive and he asked me to join him and be his chauffeur. It was a rare treat to have him alone in the car for the long drive to the coast. Our hosts asked us to talk about the history of Fedco Trees and Fedco Seeds. We decided to switch roles: he told the story of Fedco Trees and I told the story of Fedco Seeds. It was a delightful event. No only that, we both mostly got it right!
In recent years a younger generation of Fedco Trees leaders discovered CR and all he has to offer. As they’ve learned the ropes, they’ve also spent much time with him, just as I did decades ago. CR Lawn’s name never showed up much in the Trees catalog. He never tagged a tree or pulled a Tree order. But it couldn’t and wouldn’t be Fedco Trees without him. Thank you, CR!
My personal therapy is wandering when I can around the fields and forest where I live, looking at plants and trees. I love gazing at the diverse flora, not just the interesting plants or the cultivated ones, but all of them, even the boring ones. Some of the trees that others call “trash,” like the quaking poplars, are my favorites. They’re kind of like the suckers and pickerel that live in our shallow lakes, fish that others toss out. That’s an a-okay supper in my book. Although in late autumn I’ll mow down the popple sprouts in the field, I want always to see the big ones rising above the tree line with leaves shimmering like silver coins. The way they catch the light is like nothing else in the forest.
At some point in my wandering, I realized most plants aren’t perfect, meaning, they’ve been damaged in one way or another. Among my favorite things to inspect are the fallen trees that grow moss and tiny seedlings, and the hung-up ones, recently succumbed to windstorms. Winter swings through like an ax-wielding giant, snow and ice leaving wreckage in their wakes. It’s the very rare specimen that isn’t scarred, and most trees don’t grow straight. Some graft to each other and some form funky curves and shapes that catch my eye. They plant themselves crooked and oddly spaced, yet they produce fruit. I’m amazed by the resilience of these beings and the creative ways they find to keep going. Life wants to live. Some of the best examples are the trees whose tops snapped under the pressure of the ice storms from the winter of ’98. New buds emerged and the tops made a little jog over to one side and sent up new leaders, as if nothing happened.
I’ve seen trees that died from transplant shock rise again, long after I’ve issued their death certificates. When I moved my favorite rose this spring, its few small buds fell off and died, and it sat there… dead. I was too sad to dig it up. Then, in early August, new leaves emerged and now it’s thriving. How does this happen?
Porcupines have girdled the best of my peach trees. I was sure it was game over, but they rebounded, grew new bark and produced peaches for many more years. My old horse Chester was kind of like a pet moose. He got into a neighbor’s hardwood stand once and chewed large patches of bark on the trunks of their most visible and seemingly perfect plantings. I was mortified but unable to fix the problem. A few years later, I had to look hard to find the damage.
The sugar bush is pocked with the damage of sugar maple borers. The beech stands are a mess. Come summer, Japanese beetles, tent caterpillars and other plagues make their livings in my yard. And so I play god and decide who stays and who leaves, but I never get them all. We live together in this imperfect landscape—I’m tired of being mad about these things.
I work at a tree nursery and grade trees for perfection. After all, most folks don’t want a young tree that’s shaped like a boomerang or the letter S, even if this is all a tree wants to be. Over the years, I’ve planted more trees than even our most enthusiastic returning customers, and most of what I’ve planted are the rejects from the season’s crop. With few exceptions, all these culls have thrived. I don’t baby them much and I’m bad about keeping up with soil tests. I’m cheap on amendments and my compost is ad hoc and unscientific. You would laugh if you saw the Brandywine crab I planted last spring: it looked like someone ran over it with a bush hog after letting their two-year-old prune it with a dull saw. It sat in its new spot for a while before sending out several incredible shoots that will someday soon make a wonderful shape. It’s imperfect, and it’ll do just fine.
Every summer I count how many monarch butterflies I see. Growing up they seemed abundant in the landscape, but now my annual count is often as low as 2 or 3. One year I didn’t see any. To help in some small way, I’ve encouraged the milkweed population wherever possible. In my perennial gardens, milkweed isn’t a weed anymore but one of the ornamentals. Who decided such a fancy flower wasn’t pretty anyway? It looks especially at home among the more traditional plants of the garden. The genus Asclepias, known as the milkweeds, consists of 27 different species native to North America. Milkweed is the only food source for monarch larvae.
In addition to common milkweed, plantings of bright orange Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa, are attracting them, too. Mid-July in Maine, the monarchs are just arriving from their 1000-mile journey from pine-oak forests in central Mexico. My count so far is up to 13 monarch sightings and there’s a chrysalis stuck to the side of the house. They are laying their eggs on the milkweed and caterpillars are becoming visible. With their overall population in massive decline—down 80% since the mid-’90s—it’s encouraging to see so many this early in the season. The monarch may be listed as endangered by this spring.
While I’m not the biggest fan of thistle, butterflies of all kinds feed on their flowers, so don’t feel too bad if you don’t manage to completely eradicate this prickly presence from your property. The same goes for vetch and goldenrod. Something to keep in mind when planning a butterfly garden is that large masses of butterfly plants make better habitat than scattered plantings. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has helped protect more than 680,000 acres of land across the U.S. for pollinators. Through cost-share programs of USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers and landowners are planting out more acres of native pollinator habitat every year. See the NRCS website for more details or contact your local NRCS office. Check out the Fedco Seeds catalog, too, for wildflower mixes.
– Lauren Cormier
Companion plants encourage natural processes that benefit the overall health and vitality of fruit trees. This means less work lugging around sprayers, buying fertilizer, spreading compost and worrying about pollination. These plants help us do the work and they do it well. Five important roles companion plants can play in the orchard:
- Living Mulches produce large quantities of organic matter that can be cut back to decompose around tree bases, enriching the soil.
- Dynamic Accumulators have long taproots that bring up minerals from deep subsoil. Cut foliage throughout the season to break down around trees, creating dark nutrient-dense soil.
- Nitrogen-Fixers transform nitrogen from the air to the soil where it can be absorbed by tree roots.
- Beneficial Insect Accumulators contain nectar sought by predatory insects (aka beneficial insects, including braconid wasps, syrphid flies and lacewings) that feed on fruit-tree pests. BIAs also attract orchard pollinators.
- Pest Confusers have bitter aromas that deter and confuse insect pests from eating fruit.
Orchard Companions for Neatniks
Most of us know someone with a passion for bushhogs, lawn mowers and weed whackers. You know, the gearhead gardeners who just can’t resist gas-powered grooming methods. The idea of letting a patch of comfrey, or even worse, a stand of tansy, grow in the middle of the orchard is unfathomable to the neatniks of the gardening world.
As a typical “wild gardener” I prefer to plant something someplace and if I don’t like the results, I simply dig it up and set it somewhere else. Gearheads are emotionally challenged by such planting methods and in their efforts to keep the landscape neat and tidy, often mistake intentional plantings for weeds run amok. The moment I hear the high-pitched buzz of the weed whacker I drop what I’m doing and race towards the sound to make sure that my newly planted bee balm isn’t a casualty in the war against weeds. If this sounds at all familiar, you might be thinking that planting orchard companions is a little too challenging for you and your whack-happy family and friends. Au contraire! You can create a beautiful dynamic ecosystem for the orchard using plants meant to be cut down regularly. Even the most addicted zero-turn mower driver will be satisfied.
Here are a few planting suggestions that allow for the best of both worlds.
At the base of the tree: Plant low-growing spreading groundcovers. Choose varieties tough enough to fend off impending grasses and withstand the heavy foot traffic required to care for and harvest from your trees. For young trees, choose sun-loving plants like arnica, creeping thyme, chives and lemon balm. For beneath mature tree canopies, choose shade-tolerant plants like wild geranium, lady’s mantle and wood betony. All these plants will spread fairly quickly if you let them go to seed the first few growing seasons—eventually they’ll form an easy-to-mow ring around the tree.
On the edge or in the center of the orchard: Prepare soil beds along the edge of your orchard or large circular beds between rows of trees. The goal is for these plants to multiply, offering their rich nectar to the pollinators and giving nutrients back to the soil, so plant each variety with plenty of room for it to sprawl.
When to cut the living mulches? Cut the plants down to the ground immediately after the flowers look their best. Spread the plant material around trees, shrubs and in garden paths to mulch and feed the soil. Cutting plants right after the first bloom often allows time for a repeat bloom.
A glimpse at my 2015 Orchard Companion field notes:
- April 26: Used mattock to cultivate 3 planting beds along the treeline. Left a 5' mowing path on either side of beds. Seeded Dutch white clover between beds. Planted tansy in the middle bed and Monarda in the other two beds.
- May 10: Prepped 3 more soil beds along the orchard edge. Seeded Dutch white clover between beds. Planted boneset, Monarda and yarrow.
- May 12: Prepped soil under 3 young fruit trees. Worked up a 10' circle around the base of each tree. Planted creeping thyme, chives and lemon balm 2' away from the base of each tree.
- June 10: Comfrey blossoms at peak bloom. Tons of bees! Wait to cut.
- June 14: Comfrey flowers nearly spent. Cut foliage & used to mulch around the young lemon balms under cherry tree.
- July 15: Comfrey 4' tall again! Cut & used as mulch.
- July 20: Yarrow at peak bloom. Bees and bugs everywhere! Wait to cut.
- July 17: Lovage at peak bloom. Time to make lovage syrup!
- July 25: Monarda and yarrow flowers nearly done. Cut & used as mulch around the young creeping thyme under apple trees.
- July 26: Boneset and tansy flowers at their peak. Buzzing with life—starting to see syrphid flies! Let it stand to attract more beneficial insects.
—Laura ChildsBack to top.
Espalier [eh-spal-yer, -yey] refers to trees trained to grow on a two-dimensional plane, also the practice of this technique. It’s a form of art using live plants to optimize their qualities in a relatively small space. On a flat plane, all parts of the tree are exposed to the sun, which enhances fruit and blossom production. Bending and pruning allows you to direct the plant’s energy where you want it. Espalier forms can range from large-scale informal patterns to diminutive highly stylized designs. Thought to date back to the age of the Egyptian pharaohs, espalier became popular with the Romans and medieval fortress and monastery dwellers who found that the warmth from the stone walls created a microclimate, which allowed them to grow fruits that were otherwise too tender for their region. Espaliers were not uncommon in early American gardens. The method continues in Europe today.
We don’t see much of this Old World gardening fashion in the States. But if you poke around a bit, you might find a hidden delight where you least expect it. In downtown Belfast, ME, in back of the Consumers Fuel building is an apple tree gracefully sprawled out against the southeast-facing red brick wall. You would never know it is there unless you happen to drive down the unfrequented side street and turn your head at just the right moment. I’ve been driving past this tree for years. Often, I’ll pull in behind the building and stare at it awhile, studying its lines and letting the wonderful feeling I get from looking at its elegant form quietly sink into my bones. In every season, it’s a beaut: In spring, it’s a wall of blossoms; in summer, it’s covered with lush green foliage and clusters and clusters of fruit. Wintertime might be my favorite, when the dark grey branches look like veins sculpted against the masonry. Recently, I decided to knock on the door and find out how it got there, and how it stays there.
John Holmes is the steward of this lovely tree. He’s been caring for it since the ’80s. Every few years, he looks at the new growth, selects the branches he wants to keep, pins them down to the mortar, and prunes away the rest. Pruning happens whenever there is a mechanized man lift on site—this is a full-sized standard tree with branches that want to reach up over the top of the two-story building!
And how did the tree get there? This tree is a chance seedling—a wild volunteer—that sprouted next to the old foundation window. Mr. Holmes began tending the tree when it was young, inspired by a wall of espaliered trees he saw in France. The tree has responded well to the loving care he has provided. The foliage is green and profuse and it produces large quantities of smallish not-too-unpalatable apples. It’s an amazing combination of art and function. When I commented on the rarity of espaliered trees like this one in our country, Mr. Holmes responded, “Many people want instant gratification these days, and these things take time.”
Thinking about trying this at home? Consider the points below, do some further research, and then go for it. You’ll want a detailed handbook to guide you through the steps. (See Additional Resources below.)
Why espalier? To make good use of vertical space when you have limited room to expand, to create a privacy screen, divide areas of your yard, or because you love the way it looks.
What kind of plants can I use? Tree fruits like apple, pear, peach, apricot and plum; ornamentals like flowering quince, roses, forsythia. Across the south of France, it seems like every little stone train station has espaliered roses growing against the wall. Experiment and see what works for you.
Does rootstock matter? Espalier forces the branches of the tree to grow horizontally. This directs the energy into creating fruit-bearing spurs. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees accept this treatment a little better; they don’t want to grow over the top of the building. It’s hard to keep standard-sized trees small and because they want to grow tall, they do better as larger structured espaliers, like the one in Belfast. However, we have friends who are getting fruit on low-growing standard trees. It’s possible, but your yields may be smaller.
Are certain apple varieties better than others? Most of our apple varieties will work in espalier. Some sources claim you need spur-bearing types rather than tip-bearing. Don’t worry about this. Most apples are spur-bearing. You may want to think about whether the tree is an annual or a biennial bearer. If you have limited space, you may want a tree that fruits every year.
Supporting the espalier: If you don’t live in a stone castle or have a brick wall, you’ll need to create a support system for your espalier trees. This can still be against a building but with a trellis that keeps the plant away from the wall, to allow for airflow and prevent problems like rotting of your wood shingles. You will need wood or metal supports and sturdy wire, whether you leave the support in place permanently or remove it after the trees have matured, creating a freestanding fence. We built a wooden trellis on the south wall of our wood-shingled cottage for grapevines, which provide great window shade in summer. Keep in mind that certain vining plants, like grapes, can be a nuisance to shingles or to mortar in brick walls.
How difficult is espalier? Simple informal patterns will be easier to manage than complicated ones. Slow-growing plants might be preferable while fast-growing types will keep you on your toes. Early training of the plant is critical and most intensive in the first 3–6 years. After that, it’s about maintenance. Pruning will become an extended-season activity, not just a once-a-year duty. However, in cool climes, you still want to avoid late-summer pruning. Planting instructions and care are per usual, as outlined in the beginning of the catalog.
Additional Resources These books provide easy-to-follow instructions and all the details you need to get started on your espalier: Hedges, Screens and Espaliers by Susan Chamberlain, and Living Fences: A Gardener’s Guide to Hedges, Vines & Espaliers by Ogden Tanner. Of course, there are endless resources online with photos to inspire you. Check out Lee Reich’s 1999 Arnoldia article “Fruiting Espaliers: A Fusion of Art and Science” (vol. 59, no.1).Back to top.
A single mature tree often lends feeling to a place, and when in just the right spot, it’s hard to imagine the scene without the tree there. I often get overly excited thinking about all the different kinds of trees I would like to plant and where they will all go. From nuts and apricots to Katsura and oak. But then I notice how one giant beautiful tree can be just right. Not crowded by other trees, just planted in the perfect spot where it has plenty of open space to stand up to its fullest potential. Sometimes these grand trees were planted by forward-thinking persons, but often I think they just got there on their own. I think of all the different things that have happened around the tree since it was young, and how over the past few hundred years it has seen more changes than I ever will in my lifetime. Lately I’ve been admiring the stand of old Eastern White Pines that grow straight and high above the house, giving a feeling of security and comfort whether it’s freezing and blowing at –10° or a hot and humid 95°. On a trip to Japan last year I got to see the oldest trees I’ve ever laid eyes on, including a 700-year-old cedar and an ancient ginkgo well over 3' in diameter. Although there was nice understory and other shrubs and plants around, the big trees were planted in such a way that they could be admired without interference for many generations to come. Something to think about while out planting tiny little trees.
Whenever I dip my paddle into the Allagash River of northern Maine, I get excited to think about revisiting some of my old plant friends, hardy gems of the rugged north. Jutting out into the river on little islands and peninsulas are massive elms and silver maples in full graceful form. I can barely wait for that point in the trip when my canoe will round the bend and I see them again, standing tall like kings and queens of the river. There’s also the old Moir farm, an abandoned homestead leftover from the logging days. Beyond the stands of highbush cranberry, the house and barn have nearly collapsed but beside them grows the largest elderberry shrub that I have ever seen. I’m sure someone who used to live there made an elderberry pie or two. In the field, a rhubarb patch continues to grow as if nothing else around it has changed. Farther down the river, corridors of balsam firs cool the air and bathe passing canoeists in their sweet aroma. Among all the treasures along the river are the many little flowering plants, some growing in the water, some on the gravelly banks. I don’t know many of their names and I don’t even care. They are lovely reminders of why I keep returning.
Hedges for Conservation, Diversity, Food and Beauty
Peach, raddle and plash… Along pasture lines throughout England, hawthorn hedgerows seem to go on forever. These impenetrable fences were twisted together with woody stems (pleached, plashed or raddled) and laid in certain patterns resulting in some of the branches grafting to each other. Not even the boldest livestock would think of busting through these thorny barriers. In the county of Devon, 33,000 miles of hedges—some over 800 years old—have been preserved, thanks to the continuity of traditional farming. These hedges host 600 species of flowering plants, 1500 species of insects, 65 species of birds and 20 species of mammals while also serving as berry gardens, defining property lines and providing coppice wood for cooking and heating. Evidence suggests that people have planted hedges since the Bronze Age, maybe even earlier.
Natural Hedges and Modern Agriculture
Take a walk along the edge of a field where it meets the woods. You’ll find plants growing along this boundary that don’t grow on either side: blackberries, juneberries, hazelnuts, elderberries and more. They escaped the mower blade and are enjoying the benefits of a nice sunny field. A convergence between two ecosystems, these natural edges are very high in species diversity. Leaving native perennials, shrubs and trees intact along the edges of our lawn, field or house creates natural “shelterbelts” that benefit our landscape, especially in areas where wildlife and biodiversity are threatened by development and monoculture. U.S. farmers are recognizing these benefits and using hedges in the form of alley cropping, silvopasture and riparian forest buffers in their agroforestry practices.
Hedges can be so much more than symmetrical rows of level-topped yews or a single line of conifers. While these are respectable options, we think it’s fun to mix it up and do something a little different.
Hedges can be:
- straight lines, wavy lines, undulating layers or zigzags
- single- or multi-species plantings
- free form or sculpted
- annual or perennial or a combination of both
- tall or low, erect or rangy
- forage for birds, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, beneficial insects and humans
- protection for nesting birds and migratory animals
- erosion control and water conservation
- privacy screens, windbreaks, mazes or secret gardens
- texture, aroma, character and color in a cultivated landscape
- renewable material for kindling, crafts, bouquets and wood chips
Mix and match and layer! Consider combining:
- nuts, fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs
- early, mid- and late-season flowering plants (give the bees a hand!)
- dark and light contrasting foliage (like evergreens with deciduous trees)
What to plant in your hedgerows? In England, traditional hedges often combined:
- mountain ash (rowan)
Fedco grower Sharon Turner of Washington, ME, specializes in designing hedges. A few of her favorites in layered plantings are:
- Highbush cranberry
- Nanking cherry
- Buttonbush for damp areas
- All Cornus species including dogwoods and cornelian cherry
Things to consider before getting started:
- How much space do you have?
- What purposes do you want your hedge to serve?
- Which sizes and habits do you wish to display?
- How much pruning do you want to do…or not do?
- Carefully choose your site. Some plants fill in by colonizing suckers and may be best some distance away from your veggie garden. Planting near a road? Choose salt- and pollution-tolerant trees.
- Layering: think about planting taller trees in one row flanked by shorter items on either side. Remember, forest trees can be kept smaller by pruning. Be creative. There are no rules. Experiment!
- If possible, take some time to prepare a site by cover-cropping in advance. If not, just dig holes, plant, mulch heavily and water until the plants become established. In time, they will fill in and suppress surrounding weeds.
- Seedlings make great hedge plants.