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Magnificent Elm Trees in Central Park

Elm Trees in Central Park

The Elm Trees in Central Park were featured prominently in the NYTimes Sunday Review (2-23-14) in a wonderful article by Guy Trebay. I have not walked in Central Park for many years, but even as a New Yorker in the 1980s I would not have paid much attention to the magnificent allee of elms that runs for about 2.5 miles along Fifth Avenue, “a continuous stand that, as it happens, may be the longest in the world.” In the summer these trees shade the Literary Walk and the stunning photograph by Craig Blankenhorn turns them into an urban sculpture.

Even after I started paying attention to trees, and trying to identify them after our move to Heath, I could not identify an elm which is quite recognizable by it graceful vase shape. I was so inept as identifying trees, and the elm in particular that I was stunned to find that a majestic elm was growing about 200 feet from my front door. One early spring day I was  walking with a friend in front of my house and noticed honeybees flying around. One alighted long enough for us to see that the pollen baskets on its knees were full of a pale yellow pollen. I expressed my surprise that the bee was finding pollen anywhere; my friend raised his eyebrows at me and pointed to the elm tree, a very early producer of tiny flowers and pollen.

The majority of elm trees in the US and Europe were decimated in the 20th century by Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus carried by the elm bark beetle. These allees of giant elms used to adorn many rural roadsides and city avenues. No more.  However, organizations like the Men’s Garden Club of Youngstown, OH have launched efforts to re-elm their region.  Think how wonderful it would be if we could not only imagine all the still existing Elm Streets and Avenues as they looked  more than half a century ago. And yet again wonderful if we could bring them back to our cities and towns. For ways we can each help this project visit the Liberty Tree Society.

Ginkgo – The Ancient Maidenhair Tree

Ginkgo biloba – Maidenhair tree

While we were living in Beijing we became fascinated with the ginkgo tree, sometimes called the maidenhair tree. This is an ancient tree and fossilized leaves dating back 270 MILLION years have been found. They saw the rise and fall of the dinosaur. Today it grows in many temperate and sub-tropical areas of the world because it is so unusual and beautiful and because it is so adaptable. It even tolerates pollution and is used in cities as a street tree.

Ginkgo leaves are distinctive with a fan shape, veins radiating from the stem end and a kind of waxy feel to the leaf.  Their flexible stems allow them to flutter in the breeze, giving form to a summer zephyr. And of course, in the fall they turn a brilliant gold, and most of those leaves will drop all at once during an autumnal night. The leaf above has two lobes which account for its name Ginkgo biloba, but it can have no lobes, or three lobes.

When we planted our trees everyone said “but their fruit stinks.” So I have heard many times before.  Was I worried? No. First off I have never experienced this stink in New York City or Beijing. Second, I have been told that they will not produce this fruit until they are over 30 years old – and we are old enough not to worry about things that may not happen for another ten or twenty years. As our construction guy said when we told him we were putting of a portion of our project he asked, “How long you plan on livin’?”

Ginkgos are male and female. I don’t know what we have. Perhaps we only have males and will never have to worry about stinky fruit. I did hear recently that nurseries propagate only male trees for this very reason. A friend told me that male and female ginkgos have different shapes.  One is more upright, and they other is more horizontal, but she didn’t know which is which. If anyone can illuminate this theory I will be glad to hear it.  I have both upright and horizontal trees. No sign of stinky fruit.

Our trees are about 15 years old, ceremonially planted by grandsons when they were between one and three years old. It was a great day, and the trees a tangible reminder.

The Mighty Oak Trees – and Mine

Oak foliage

Suddenly there seem to be many young oak trees growing by the side of Heath roads. They are particularly noticeable at this time of year because they retain their leaves until late in the season, and they have turn a burnished shade of red. I do not know for sure which of the 600 species of oak they are, or even of the 70 species that grow in the United States, but it is possible they are Quercus rubra, or red oaks.

I have been paying more attention to oaks ever since the walk we took through our woodland this spring with Stu Watson of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. He came to give an assessment of our woods and overgrown fields and give us suggestions on how to improve them for logging, and for bird habitat.

We were surprised that someone from Audubon was able and willing to give advice about logging, but he explained that thoughtfully cutting down trees can mean better habitat for birds, as well as possible profit for landowners. Removing trees can open up the canopy so that more sun can penetrate, allowing new trees to germinate and grow. Birds need tall trees, but they have an equal need for shrubs and young trees for protection as well as food. Some birds spend most of their life in those lower elevations.

As we walked through the woods with Watson, he identified different trees. I now can recognize striped maple with its large rounded leaves and green striped bark. But I was able to identify the tiny oak seedling, all by myself. I was so surprised to see it growing in our woods. There were no other oaks in the neighborhood. It must have been carried and dropped by a squirrel or other creature.

My oak seedling

I was very excited to see this oak seedling, less than a foot tall, because when Dr. Douglas Tallamy spoke at the Western Mass Master Gardeners Spring Symposium this year he said that oaks, the king of trees, support over 500 species of native insects and animals. Since we all need to be aware of our local food web, of plants, insects, animals – and us – I have been thinking of the ways I can do my bit in maintaining this web of life. I don’t use herbicides or pesticides, my husband mows the fields after the nesting season, and I plant many native flower varieties. Of course, I want trees that will support the largest number of species.

You can buy oak seedlings from tree nurseries. You can also collect acorns and plant your own, however, you will need to identify the type of oak tree the acorn belongs to. Immediate planting should be limited to the white oak species group including white, bur, chestnut and swamp oak. Red oak species group acorns must be planted in the second season – the following spring.

I had thought I could just get some acorns from a friend with oak trees, drop them here and there in my woods and wait for Mother Nature to do the rest of the work. Since planting acorns successfully depends on knowing what kind of oak you are dealing with, I think I will just check on my seedling from time to time and send it encouraging thoughts. I will visualize it growing tall and king-like.

Oak trees have been used and enjoyed since ancient times. The oak been used for construction, and is an important timber tree to this day. Some trees in England are so ancient that they have been named. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is reputed to be the place where Robin Hood and his merry men met and plotted. The romantic stories surrounding this oak make it a tourist attraction today.

I don’t know that we have any romantic stories, but when I looked up large oaks on the Internet I found the American Forest website and their database of champion trees of every variety.

American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country. Their mission is to protect and restore forests, and to help preserve the health of our planet for the benefit of its inhabitants. The organization educates and advocates for trees. In cooperation with others they have planted more than 40 million trees in the last quarter century. They also have a Big Trees program that invites people to find and nominate a Big Tree for inclusion in their database. It was in that database that I found the only listing for a Champion oak in Massachusetts is in Shelburne Falls, It was nominated by Peter Bravman in 2007. It measured 368 inches in circumference, 82 feet tall, and with a spread of 105 feet. I hoped this enormous tree grew on a street corner where we could all marvel and admire it, but it grows in the woods on Flagg Mountain. Storms in the last couple of years split the tree so it is no longer in good health. The land the tree grows on now belongs to New England Forestry and is available for walking and hiking.

I will never see my oak seedling reach even the size of one of its limbs, but other people will in the future, and that makes me happy right now.

Between the Rows   November 16, 2013

Golden Gingko – Fallen in Fall


Heavy frost on Monday. 21 degrees yesterday! The gingkos are unleafed all at once. As is their wont.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Brilliant Autumn Color is Flooding Heath’s Hills

Maple autumn color

All of sudden the autumn color we hope for and wait for has appeared. Every hour it seems more brilliant.


Brilliant autumn color


Golden birches

Blushing blueberry bushes

Down with invasive Burning Bush. Up with blueberries. Delicious berries and delightful autumn  color.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Deep autumn color on the oakleaf hydrangea is stunning and unusual.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

The Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Last week I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to meet the noted landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg and hear him speak about how he approached the challenge of redesigning the Monks Garden. He said that Isabella Stewart Gardener herself acknowledged that she was never satisfied with the small walled garden she called the Monks Garden. “That gave me the confidence and courage . . . to make a garden for the future of the Museum.”

Certainly the Monks Garden has been transformed. The last time I visited, a year or two ago, it seemed very bare and brown. In fairness, it was a gray early spring day and my mood may not have been the best. Now the Monks Garden was a sun dappled woodland, with groundcovers of hellebores and ferns. It was a surprise to enter this enchanted space that is so different from the structured geometry of the interior Courtyard.

Van Valkenburg said, “I wasn’t trying to channel Isabella Stewart Gardner . . . but her museum is not a practical place. The garden doesn’t have to be a practical place. The paths are not practical. They don’t have to take you from point A to point B. They don’t have to take you anyplace.” He wanted the garden to be a place where you could get lost.

Anne Hawley, Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum said, “Michael responded to the spirit of the museum which is totally mad. It is just a romp.”

Hawley later explained that the final decision to choose  Van Valkenburg came after she visited his own garden on Martha’s Vineyard. She said it was ‘beguiling.” I was certainly beguiled, gladdened and delighted as I wandered through this magical woodland. The 7500 square foot garden feels spacious even though it is hemmed in on one side by the Palace, and by a curving high brick wall on the other two.

The undulating dark brick paths, subtly brightened by shist blocks, often wind close to each other and sometimes actually kiss, and yet you can rarely see across the planting bed to the opposite path. As I walked the paths I soon began to notice that there are subtle changes in grade. This garden is not flat. The dark brick paths narrow and swell, but they also rise and fall. I think this is another one of the elements that make this garden seem so march larger than it is.


There are many kinds of groundcover plants from the hellebores that will bloom, to evergreens like Christmas fern and European ginger with it shiny leathery leaves. Van Valkenberg said the garden “will be crazy  with hellebores in the spring.” When they have settled in and put out their own new growth visitors to the garden will have an even greater sense of privacy.

Amazingly the Monks Garden was installed just this year. It is a very new garden.  Van Valkenburg talked about the ephemerality of a garden. We gardeners know that a garden is never the same from week to week. Certainly when early spring arrives next year and the bulbs, hepaticas and hellebores come into bloom, no one will remember this fall’s sheen of newness.

Van Valkenburg said one of the goals of the plan was to stretch the seasons. Although there was only one brave hellebore blossom last week, there will be flowers rising through the groundcovers over a long season. Four varieties of camellia, in shades of white and pink will bloom spring and fall. Several stewartia trees will come into bloom in July with their camellia-like flowers. Species daylilies and tall cimicifuga will follow. Several climbing hydrangeas have been planted against the brick wall, another rich variation that will grow over the years.

The small slow growing trees will bring their own color that will carry even into winter. The foliage of the paperbark maples and stewartias provide good autumn color. In the winter the paperbark maple has beautiful exfoliating bark in shades of cinnamon and reddish brown, the gray birch has chalky white bark, while the stewartia has a subtly mottled bark providing substantial interest..

The one large tree in the garden is an ancient katsura with rough gray bark growing against the brick wall lending an air of majesty to this very informal garden.

Van Valkenburg has designed large parks and urban sites. He has won prizes and awards for his work, including the 2003 National Design Award in Environmental Design awarded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects Design Medal. Still he says he always remembers the advice given him when he was beginning his own business by Kevin Lynch, the noted urban planner and designer, to make as many gardens as you can. Along with large projects like the 85 acre Brooklyn Bridge Park which is still under construction, he has always maintained a consistent focus on small scale gardens.

Monks Garden at the ISG Museum

And that brought him to the end of his talk with a beaming smile as he invited us into the Monks Garden saying, “I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun making a garden.”

Between the Rows    September 21, 2013

Beech and Hazel


Beechnuts held above the leaf

On a spring walk in the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest here in Heath we admired a tall beech tree (Fagus grandiflora) that is also known as the bear tree. The trunk is scarred with bear claw damage, climbing up into the foliage with its nuts, and going down again. Beechnuts are an important food for bears and other wildlife. They are high in fat, carbohydrates and protein. It is easy to imagine bears preparing for their winter hibernation by loading up on these small nutritious nuts.

We have many beech trees here at the end of the road, tall old trees on the Lane, a remnant of the old road to Rowe, and in a younger grove by the henhouse. I have always been quite fascinated by beech trees because of the way they hold on to their dying, brown foliage in the fall. This habit is called marcescence. Even as the old leaf is dying a stiff, pointy bud forms at its base, eventually pushing off the old leaf.

A couple of years ago I spoke to Dr. John O’Keefe who had recently retired from his work at the Harvard Forest in Petersham. He explained that my young grove was probably caused by root suckers. A few years ago many beeches were afflicted by beech bark disease. The damage and stress to the trees caused them to send up these root suckers.

Dr. O’Keefe also said there was some thought that there were more new beech groves around because of the rise in wild turkey populations. They helped move the beechnuts around.

Thinking of that bear tree, my husband Henry and I went out to see if our beech trees had any nuts. We managed to pull down a branch on one of the old beeches, and there, held above the foliage, was a pair of soft spined husks that contained a small three sided nut. One of the husks had opened so I thought the nut must be ripe. It was not difficult to remove from the husk or its brown skin. It had a very bland taste. I’m not sure if that indicated it was not fully ripe. I had read they had a bitter taste. It would take a lot of these very small nuts to make much of an addition to a meal.

Later in the spring we were led through our own woodland by Stu Watson from the Audubon Society. He taught us that nuts are known as mast. Nuts are hard mast, an important  food source for wildlife during the fall and winter. In our area this includes acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts as well as beechnuts. Fruits like apples, grapes, blackberries, cherries and others are soft mast and very important for birds migrating in the fall.

Before our walk with Watson I had never thought about providing food for wildlife other than birds. I certainly had been thinking only of myself, not wildlife, when I planted seven hazelnut bushes on a new bank formed by the work on our house foundation. In fact, I was quite distressed to learn, a year after planting, that hazelnuts are deer candy.

Hazelnuts held below the leaf

After locating our beechnuts, Henry and I then went to investigate the shrubby hazelnut planting. While beechnuts are held above the foliage, hazelnuts (Corylus Americana or American filbert) are held below the foliage. It took a while for our eyes to adjust to the shades of green under the foliage, but then we saw the two ruffled and toothed bracts enclosing the husk and nut. It is larger than the beechnut husk and very pretty.

Henry and I tasted the nut, but again it was very bland and this time we decided it definitely was not ripe.

According to the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Department “The nuts of American hazelnut, which have a higher nutritional value than acorns and beechnuts, also are eaten by squirrels, foxes, deer, northern bobwhite, ruffed grouse, turkey, woodpeckers, and pheasants. The leaves, twigs, and catkins are browsed by rabbits, deer, and moose. The male catkins are a winter food for turkey and ruffed grouse. The dense, low growth habit provides cover and nesting sites for many wildlife species.”

This is frustrating news for me. I am not happy that deer, rabbits and squirrels might be attracted to my hazelnut planting, but glad that that the ruffed grouse and turkeys might be attracted to the fallen nuts.

Both beech and hazels are monoecious, which means male and female flowers appear on each plant. Male catkins appear on beech trees in the spring, while the long catkins of the hazel appear in the fall, but they don’t open until spring. The female flowers of both are small and inconspicuous.

Production of tree nuts can fluctuate a great deal from year to year. Beech trees older than 50 years produce the biggest crops, but only an outstanding crop every five years. It is clear that a small harvest will affect wildlife. Those animals that depend on nuts for a large portion of their diet will suffer when nut production is low.

Once again, I find that my own surroundings urge me on to a greater appreciation of the beauty of nature, and the beauty of nature’s systems.  ###

Between the Rows  September 14, 2013

Geese on Their Way to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Geese hurrying to Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

These geese were crossing the street, against the light, in their hurry to look at the newly redesigned and planted Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum‘s Monks Garden. No luck yesterday. The Museum was closed, but the Monks garden is officially open today – a magical woodland stroll garden. Michael Van Valkenburgh, and his associates, are geniuses.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Boston Public Gardens


Boston State House

The Boston Public Gardens begin at the foot of the Boston State House. First is the Boston Common where cattle once grazed, then the Boston Public Garden, the oldest botanic garden in the nation, and finally the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Here are a few photos from my recent visit.

Boston Common Frog Pond

Frolicking tadpoles in the Boston Common Frog Pond watched over by parents and

Boston Common Frog Pond frogs

the frog statues!

Boston Public Garden sign

The Boston Public Garden, established in 1837 is the first botanic garden in our young nation.

Pink Mandevilla Boston Public Garden

White Mandevilla Boston Public Garden

Pagoda Tree in Boston Public Garden

Small Fountain Boston Public Garden

Medical memorial

Statue memorializing the first use of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital to deaden pain.

Rose in Boston Public Garden

Mass plantings of roses.

Parallel planting in Boston Public Garden

A matching planting is on the other side of the path.

Swan Boats in the Boston Public Garden


Commonwealth Avenue Mall

The Commonwealth Avenue Mall is a grand allée of shade trees forming the central axis of the Back Bay, connecting the Public Garden to the Back Bay Fens. Designed by Arthur Gilman, who was inspired by the new Parisian boulevards, the Mall was set out from 1858 to the 1870s. From its inception, the Mall has been a vital amenity for both residents and visitors. Winston Churchill praised it as “the grandest boulevard in North America.”

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is just one of the statues on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.  These three public gardens include many statues and reliefs that celebrate the great men and moments of our history.

For more (almost) Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.


Walking in Our Woods with the Mass Audubon Society


A sunny spot in the woods – overstory and understory, no midstory

I’ve always known we have many different types of bird habitat here at the End of the Road. We have fields that surround our house and the garden. We have a wetland and a pond. Mostly we have woods, about 35 or so acres, surrounding the house, fields, and wetlands.

I have walked in our woods. I have taken grandchildren up the lane, part of the old road to Rowe that was discontinued decades ago. The tree-lined lane runs between two fields and then into the woods. The grandchildren and I would clear what’s left of the road of sticks, and tree seedlings. We’d look at bugs under rotting felled trees and under stones. We talk and enjoy the shade, or complain about the mosquitoes and decide it was time to go home

Sometimes we’d cross the field and go into the western woods and down to the stream that marks the border of our land. I never spent much time thinking about the different character of the woods. They were just ‘the woods.’

My view of our woods changed last Monday when I went through the woods with Stu Watson from the Mass Audubon Society and three neighbors who are very knowledgeable about birds. Watson was there to walk through our fields and woods and tell us how we could make these different habitats more bird friendly. He showed me how to look at my woods with new eyes.

First we walked across the field and learned that in order to protect birds like woodcock and ruffed grouse who nest there, we should not give those fields their annual mowing until the very end of July or beginning of August. Other birds like whippoorwills and tree sparrows like this habitat.

My husband Henry pointed out that some of our white pines had started to encroach on the field. Watson explained that was a good thing. Transitions are important for birds. A field should not stop suddenly at the edge of a woodland. There should be some shrubby transition. There will come a time when that transition will turn into woods, so it needs to be monitored and managed. I never knew that Mass Audubon Society knew so much about trees, in addition to birds.

Watson also suggested that areas around old apple trees in the field be cleared to make the soft mast (fallen fruit) more available to the birds and other wildlife.

From the field we stepped into a stand of white pine. The ground was covered with pine needles and there was very little undergrowth. This is not ideal. Taking down a few trees would allow more sun to enter, and then allow pine regeneration. Birds would welcome the new growth.

Over-, mid-, and understory in the woods

The ideal is to have tall overstory trees, then have a midstory of trees and shrubs between 5-30 feet, and then an understory of ferns, and other low growing plants and groundcovers. This is exactly the structure we gardeners copy when we plant a mixed border of small trees, shrubs and  underplanted with flowers or groundcovers.

Wolf Tree

We moved through the pine woods which rather abruptly changed into a hardwood stand. In the transition area there was pine regeneration because there was more sun, and there were ferns and maple seedlings. I even learned a new maple variety, striped maple, which has large three lobed leaves. This was a much better area for birds because it provided more protective cover and more forage. It also provided several wolf trees, enormous old dead trees that provide a bug smorgasbord for bug eaters, and cavities for birds and other small wildlife to live in. I was happy to see tiny oak seedlings. I don’t know how acorns got into our woods, but oaks support over 500  wildlife species. I want oak trees.

Oak seedling

Walking was more difficult in this area, but Watson repeated several times. “Bad walking means good habitat.”

The third stand was mixed white pine and hardwoods like white ash, black cherry, red maple, and white birch. This section had been logged but there was a well developed midstory. There was very little understory growth, but there was lots of debris on the ground caused by storm damage. Again, thinning needs to be done to allow more sun and thus encourage regeneration.

Watson was very pleased with our various habitats, and the good health of our woods. He gave us his suggestions for improving the habitat. When we re-read our forest management plan prepared by our forester Scott Sylvester with new eyes, we realized that he had anticipated all of Watson’s suggestions ten years ago.

We expected Stu from the Mass Audubon Society to be knowledgeable about birds but then we found out that Scott Sylvester, who is passionate about birds, is one of the organizers of this collaboration between the Mass Audubon Society, the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Franklin Land Trust, a collaboration that mirrors those in Vermont and New Hampshire. The goal is to keep forest bird habitat intact. By the way, it will also make forest land productive for the owner, allowing for selective cutting.

Northern New England is a ‘breeding bird factory” Watson said. Seventy to 90 species of birds nest and breed in this area, and this habitat is crucial to “keeping common birds common.”

This is a pilot program. We were glad to learn about it when it was launched on Mother’s Day with a walk for interested people through the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest in Heath. The program will help woodland owners to look at their property in a way that is not only beneficial to them, but to beautiful birds as well.

For more information about this new Mass Audubon Society program email Stu Watson at or Matt Kamm at

Between the Rows   June 15, 2013

Don’t forget, you still have time to win a free copy of my book, The Roses at the End of the Road. Leave a comment here by midnight Sunday, June 23 and I’ll announce the winner on Monday. You can also  buy copies on sale, or a Kindle edition. All info is here.