Saturday, March 30, 2013

Big Fruit Trees Can Work for Shade Too!

     I started a series of blogs concerning adding food producing plants into your landscape a couple of weeks ago.  The first two were devoted to nut bearing trees. This week I would like to turn your attention toward larger fruit bearing trees.  These trees provide three real assets to your site.  They provide flowering and/or color interest, fruit, and shade.  That is a lot of punch from a single plant.  Fruit bearing trees are not the tall shade trees that you will get from their nut bearing relatives, but they can get fairly tall.  While tall nut trees will reach 75 - 100', tall fruit trees will reach 20 - 30'.  That provides an interesting lower layer that is larger than an ornamental or a shrub.

Pawpaw fruit in the summer
     The first tree that I would like to bring to your attention is the pawpaw.  This is a lovely native tree that will reach 25 feet in height.  It was a favorite among the native American Indians and among our founding Fathers.  Thomas Jefferson actually loved this tree so much that he had seeds shipped to him when he was Minister to France.  The tree itself tends to look exotic and tropical with large oblong leaves and a pyramidal shape.  In the wild it grows along rivers and streams and at the edges of deep woods.  In your yard, try planting it where it gets light shade to full sun.  For the first year or two, you will need to provide some shade protection as the young seedlings are sensitive to excessive sun.  The trees will grow in the shade, and do grow in the woods under natural conditions, but they do not bear much fruit under shaded conditions.  Two trees planted fairly near each other will help ensure pollination. You will be rewarded with five inch long mango-like fruit that is great fresh or can be frozen as pulp and saved for later.  This is ripe and ready to pick when it is soft and smells sweet and fruity.
Persimmon have a lovely fall color
     The persimmon is another great native fruit tree.  This tree reaches 40 feet in height and has a more open and rounded canopy than the pawpaw.  It prefers full sunlight and is typically found on the forest edge in the wild.  The flowers are not as showy as some of the other fruit trees.  They are a small yellow-green waxy looking flower with four petals, but the fruit are showy in the fall.  The fruit are berries that gradually change from green to a deep orange.  Unripened fruit is very sour in flavor and care should be taken not to eat it in this state as it contains a tannin shibuol which polymerizes in the stomach.  The persimmon fruit have traditionally been used in puddings and cakes as well as eaten fresh.  The American persimmon is extremely high in vitamin C and calcium.
     For those wanting a more exotic or non-native tree, the mulberry might be a good choice.  Like the persimmon, the mulberry is a tree that produces a berry.  It has a rounded canopy and prefers full sun.  Depending on variety and location, the tree will reach 15 - 40' in mature height.  Flowers are insignificant, but the berries are prominent in the late summer, ripening from red into a black color when ripe.  Harvesting is best done by placing a sheet under the tree and shaking it when the majority of the berries are ripe.  I would like to caution you, however, about mulberries.  First, they are extremely attractive to birds who can create a sizable mess when the berries are ripe; so plant the tree away from things that you want protected.  The berries themselves stain everything that they come in contact with including hands if you are hand picking them.  Also, tree seedlings tend to spring up everywhere the birds have deposited the seed.  Expect to spend a good deal of each year weeding them out of places where they are not wanted.
     Finally, in the larger fruiting category, I would like to suggest the pear.  It is also not native, having originated in Europe, but it is a good reliable fruit tree.  The tree has an open rounded canopy and, depending on the variety, can reach 40 feet in height.  Blooms are in the spring and are showy and usually white.  Fruit ripens through the summer and is ready by late summer or early fall.  There are a large number of varieties of pear trees available and choice should be made based on your fruit preference and tree size requirements.  Pears are easy to grow and require full sun and a moderate amount of water.
     If you have a need for a tree that is smaller than the large nut or shade trees but larger than an ornamental, consider a larger fruit tree.  You might be delighted with the resulting tree and with the 'fruits of your labor'.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Achoo - It's Yellow Horde Season Again!

     One fine spring day about twelve years ago I was chatting with a Chinese friend and noticed a tell-tale yellow tinge to the air.  This became more prominent with each little gust of breeze.  "Oh," I said, "It's yellow horde season again."  She bristled.  Without even thinking, I had angered her until she came to understand what I was talking about.  You see, long before I had any inkling that 'yellow horde' might be a term used to refer to people I knew it as a term used to refer to the annual onslaught of yellow pollen in the spring.  As a kid growing up in South Carolina I remember the lakes that surrounded our neighborhood turning from their usual black to bright yellow.  Then when the wind would blow it was as if someone was pushing a thin layer of yellow paint around on the water creating a wrinkled yellow scum.  I also remember the choking yellow dust that filled your nose and gave you a constant sense of being dried out and in a dust storm.  The stuff got in you eyes like a gritty sand blast, and filled the air like yellow fog.  As an adult, I find that the yellow horde is just as prominent in North Carolina; it just comes into full force a bit later in the year.
     Pollen season begins in this area with the red maple trees in late January and early February.  To most people they simply appear as a slight red tinge to the otherwise bare branches.  To the allergic, the first sign is often an unreasonable amount of sneezing followed by a glance out the window to see that faint red in the forest canopy.  That early pollen rush is not really the yellow horde though.  It's just an early warning inconvenience.
     The 'real' yellow horde to me is the pine pollen season.  Pine pollen is massive in both quantity and in the size of the pollen grains.  When the pines bloom, there is no escape.  Yellow becomes a way of life for awhile.  The ground and everything on it turns yellow.  Clouds of the stuff drift in the wind and the air turns yellow.  Rain gathers it up in great yellow rivers.  Invariably for those who have allergy issues, sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes become a way of life.
     What most people don't realize is that the pine pollen is not the cause of their misery.  Pine pollen is relatively large in size.  It is designed to fall to the ground in order to pollinate the next generation of trees.  In fact, pine trees produce separate sex flowers on the same tree but in separate locations.  Male flowers tend to be located on or near the top of the tree and female flowers on the more sturdy lower branches.  Thus pollen filtering to the ground has a better chance of coming in contact with the female flowers.  As large heavy grains, pine pollen is really too heavy to get too far into the human system except by ingesting.  In addition, the chemical composition of pine pollen keeps it from being a serious allergen.  All that dry mouth comes from sucking that stuff in through your mouth and swallowing.
     Unfortunately, oak pollen is surprisingly small and light.  It can travel on the wind for several miles.  The hickories also have similar properties.  By chance these trees happen to bloom at the same time as the pine.  They produce separate sex flowers on the same tree, but depend on the wind to carry the pollen to the female flowers.  Thus the need for a fine dust-like pollen grain.  The chemical composition of these pollens helps to contribute to the allergy issues that they create.
     Juniper is also a serious pollen allergen.  They produce massive quantities of very tiny pollen, especially when the conditions of a nice wet spring occur, often producing more pollen than the notorious ragweed.  Plus, their pollen can drift for miles.  To add to their punch, the protein coat of the individual grains have an unusually  irritating effect on the human immune system.  Unfortunately, many of the junipers also  bloom at a similar time to the pines and oaks and for years people were encouraged to plant juniper as a ground cover in masses.  Not only did they not make a good ground cover because of the difficulty of keeping weeds and trash out of them, they also added a lovely one-two punch of adding to seasonal allergy misery in enormous ways.
     It might not help you to feel better when you are being attacked by the annual yellow horde, but it is good to know that your allergy is not likely to be caused by the pine tree near your window.  It could actually be caused by that oak forest several miles away or by your neighbor's ugly trash covered hillside of juniper.  Regardless of the cause, the good news is that it will not last forever.  In a month or so it will go away for the year.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Small Trees Can Give Nuts Too!

     Last week I discussed the possibility that you could use your land for more than just an aesthetically pleasing place to be.  I suggested that you could use nut trees to provide you with both shade and edible nuts.  This week I am continuing that discussion.
     Nuts can also be grown on smaller trees!  Large, majestic nut  trees that provide shade can be wonderful, but you might not have that big an area or you might not need more shade trees.  That is really not a problem.  Use small trees instead of shade trees and you can still grow nuts.
     I tend to prefer to recommend native trees over imported species because they are better adapted to the conditions that they will face growing and they are less likely to escape the confines of a specific property and become a problem to wildlife elsewhere.  There are two smaller nuts trees that grow well in this area of North Carolina that are native throughout the eastern half of the United States.
A mature clump of American Hazelnut
     The first is the American Hazelnut.  This is a tree that reaches nine to twelve feet with a spread of fifteen to eighteen feet.  It reproduces by means of rhizomes, as well as by nut production, and can form into a dense thicket, so it should be used in informal settings.  The trees have a rounded canopy with a somewhat course visual texture due to their large leaves, and they tend to grow as a multistemmed, almost leggy, large shrub or small tree.  The nuts are small and acorn like in appearance.  They have a sweet flavor and can be eaten raw or ground into a flour for use in making a cake-like bread.  They were commonly used by the American Indians to flavor soups and their bark was used to make a tea to aid in the reduction of a fever and the hives.  In the wild they can be found in moist to dry woodlands and along the edges of forests and streams.  They prefer open sunlight, but can be grown successfully in shade.  They make an especially good choice of use in bio-retention areas or rain gardens as they can tolerate the extremely wet and often dry conditions found there.  As an added bonus, you can expect to get a couple of nuts the first year after planting and a fairly good crop within two to three years.
     Another great small nut tree is the Allegheny Chinkapin.  This tree also has a course texture and produces a sweet flavored nut.  It grows six to fifteen feet tall and has a rounded crown.  American Indians favored the nuts and used the leaves to reduce fever and as a headache remedy.  Because this tree is a close relative to the American Chestnut, it is subject to chestnut blight and it does produce the foul smelling odor of chestnuts when in bloom.  It is strongly suggested that if you are planning to use this tree, you select a blight resistant cultivar.
     A nut similar in flavor can be grown on a chestnut.  Because it is closely related to the Chinkapin the tree will have a similar appearance.  Commercially, you find that the American chestnut is no longer really available.  This is due to the chestnut blight.  The Chinese chestnut is a blight resistant tree and will provide you with a suitable replacement.  It reaches forty feet in height and has a rounded canopy.  Nuts are borne in spiny cases in clusters of two to three.  The tree does have a very foul smelling flower, so I recommend that it be planted away from any dwelling.
     Finally, you could use a hardy almond as a possible ornamental and nut producing tree.  These are not native to the eastern United States and have had mixed success, but if they are planted with that in mind they could surprise you.  They are actually related to the cherry and as such should be pruned and treated in the same way.  Spring flowering will be similar to the cherry with delicate pink five-petalled flowers in masses along the stems.  The trees themselves will reach fifteen to eighteen feet in height and have an open vase shape.  The nut is actually the equivalent of the pit of their fruit.
     Add variety to your site by adding small trees as well as large shade trees and remember that those small trees can actually work for you as well.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Shade and Food All in One - Making your Land Work for You

     The sun is shining, the sky a clear blue and it is actually not cold today.  That makes it an inviting day to do spring planting.  Although it is still a bit early for your tender plants, it is still a good time to begin planning your planting.  It is a perfectly fine time to plant shrubs and trees and you still have time to do the last of that winter pruning that you should have done in January but put off for a warmer day.  In other words, there are outlets for that pull of the great outdoors to do springtime activities.
     While you are thinking about changes to your property, consider making your land work for you.  Whether you have a small urban lot or a large tract of land, you can add edibles to your site.  The yard does not need to be merely ornamental; although your edibles can also be aesthetically pleasing.
     Do you need shade trees?  Why not plant trees that provide shade and produce nuts? There are a number of trees to choose from and they each have their unique shapes and assets.
     If you live in the South, a couple of pecan trees can be really lovely.  They have an open vase shape and large compound leaves that give them an interesting summer texture.  Flowers are long 'string of pearls' catkins that come out in the mid-spring.  The trees are native to North America and were a major source of food for the American Indians.  In their native environment, they grow in river valleys and are found in soils with relatively high water contents.
The lovely open shape of a grove of mature pecan trees
     For your site, plant them in well drained, deep soils and in places where they will not be subjected to extensive amount of frost.  Try to avoid really low spots where cold tends to settle, especially at night.  Consider these trees to be a long term planting.  It will take at least ten years before you can expect to see any nuts on your trees and they will not reach maturity until they are about twenty years old.  They will live to be 200 to 300 years old, though.  Because of the timing of the male and female flowering, you should plant at least two to three trees on your site and it is preferable to have each one be a different variety.  This will ensure a better fruiting from each tree.
     Closely related to the pecan and also a great choice for a tree planting is the hickory.  A number of varieties of hickory are also native to North America.  Like pecan trees, you will need to plant at least two to three trees to get good pollination, and they will prefer similar conditions to those for pecans.  Hickories are a bit hardier though and will definitely thrive and bear fruit at much colder temperatures and in areas with much shorter growing seasons.  They have a more pyramidal shape than pecan trees and they also have the large compound leave of the rest or their genus.
     The other nut tree that makes a great addition to any property is the walnut.  There are a number of different walnut varieties available, and of them the black walnut is actually native to North America.  In good conditions, walnut trees will also live 200 years or more.  They require deep, fertile, moist but well drained soil.  They can take periodic flooding and actually grow along stream banks, but they cannot take long term flooding or flooding that occurs frequently during the production season.  Walnuts have a wider range than the other two trees.  They can be found growing naturally as far north as Minnesota and as far south as the Florida pan handle and mid Texas. 
     Walnuts have a broad spreading crown and large compound leaves.  Like pecans and hickory, they need a minimum of two to three trees to be planted within close proximity in order to ensure good fruiting.  It is also important to note that walnuts produce a chemical that they release into the soil around their root system that suppresses competing plant growth; so plan to have them in a bedded area.
     Though most people do not usually think of nut production when they are planning on planting shade trees, they can have both.  Plant nut trees for shade trees and make your land work for you in more than just an aesthetic way.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Implementing a School Plan

     About twenty five years ago, I was working for a small landscape architectural firm.  I was the only woman designer in the firm at the time and I was usually given the 'dog' projects - the projects that no one else in the firm wanted to do.  One day I was handed a project that was essentially an addition to a local elementary school.  The school was not a glamorous project (it was a poor school with a very small budget), and it was in a part of the county that had a past history of huge vandalism issues. 
     As I met with the people involved with the proposed project, the budget and the vandalism concerns became the key factors in their design needs.  Secondary, but also a key component, was the fact that their students scored lower on testing than other area students and that they seemed to have no sense of school pride or loyalty.  The administrators attributed this to the fact that so many of their students were having to go to class in portable classrooms and they felt that this problem would go away when the addition was completed and the kids moved into permanent classrooms.  That was probably a correct assessment of the situation to a point, but a visit of the surrounding neighborhoods showed that this problem was obviously a neighborhood wide condition.
     As we progressed with the planning and more of the budget was taken for the building than originally planned, I began to really feel the pinch.  How was I to provide these students with a good, useful and stable site with no money to pay for the materials or labor?
     I eventually devised a plan.  Have the contractor do the rough grading of the site, build the addition, pave the additional parking and drives and then do the finish grading.  Have the students do the rest of the site installation.  The students ranged in ages from kindergarten through the fifth grade, thus there would be some more grown kids to do the heavier things if the required sizes were scaled back.
     I met with the Town Planning and explained the problems and my solution.  They agreed to allow the minimum plant and tree sizes to be reduced for this one project and to allow for a longer time period for the planting to be completed.  The school administrators agreed to allow me to have access to a portion of the student's time and to allow access for a couple of Saturday workdays where parents would be invited to join in.  The contractor agreed to pull the planting portion out of his contract and leave the site after finish grading and temporary seeding were completed.  That left me with the students.
     I wrote lesson plans for the teachers so that this work could be incorporated into their science studies.  Each grade had a task in the project.  The younger students grew plants from seed to be used by the older ones for planting.  Some of the grades did things to amend the soil like create compost and then incorporate it into the soil.  They actually had the perfect situation for obtaining the composting materials from their cafeteria scraps and the surrounding neighborhoods.  They learned quickly to instruct students to separate their non-compostable waste and their animal product waste from that they could use.
     Additional math lesson plans - think elementary geometry class - were written for the older students so that they could lay the information provided on the plan out onto the site.  They had a couple of wonderful lessons outside with string, old hoses and flagging (donated by a local surveyor) laying out the components of the plan in their school yard.
     In the end, after a couple of years the school was completely planted.  The kids had a great time doing the job and learned a good deal about botany, horticulture, soil studies and geometry.  More importantly, they took a great deal of pride in what they had accomplished.  Vandalism of the school site was virtually wiped out.  Students who did do damage, were resoundingly disciplined by their fellow students who had taken a vested interest in their school.  Subsequent students have been taught how to care for the plants as they grow and mature and are still benefiting from this project.
     The real lesson learned was that if you can get people to make the codes and regulations work for the project rather than against it and if you can include the people most effected by the project, the bulk of the problems foreseen will simply melt away.  The key is to include people in the plan, not to leave them out.