Sunday, October 25, 2015

Great Georgia Trees: American beech

American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Native to the Eastern US and throughout Georgia, the tree known as American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a great tree to have if the conditions are right. Its smooth, gray bark is one of the most recognized among casual hikers, even if they don’t always know its name. In established woodlands with good moisture, large mature specimens can be found on slopes adjacent to streams and creeks.

American beech is rather shade tolerant which allows it to thrive in woodlands.  A mature tree can reach over 100 feet. The Georgia co-champions easily top that. One of Georgia’s co-champions can be found in Lullwater Conservation Park with a height of 122 feet and a circumference of 149 inches.

Fagus grandifolia nuts

Beeches take years to mature enough to produce beechnuts. Once they do, the small triangular nuts are enjoyed by a variety of wildlife: squirrels, chipmunks, and a variety of birds as well as deer and even bear. 

Beechnuts have nothing to do with the gum sold as Beech-Nut gum, so don’t try chewing them as gum (although they are perfectly edible).

An American beech starts to show its fall colors

As a landscape tree, it is a beautiful addition.  Young trees have a pleasing habit with strong horizontal branching. The foliage is very handsome and, despite supporting over 120 insect species as a host, rarely appears damaged. In fall, the foliage transitions from yellow to gold, hanging onto the branches as long as it can. Young trees often retain their faded leaves through the winter, appearing to be draped in a cloak of old lace.

Winter appearance of a young American beech
Now is a good time to plant trees in Georgia and if you’ve got room for one near a moist woodland edge, consider adding American beech to your landscape. It will probably outlive us, but planting for the future is the best reason to plant.

Note: Over the years many folks have carved messages into soft beech bark. Please refrain from doing so as the carving creates openings for bugs, fungi and diseases to damage the tree.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Planting in a Post-Wild World (the book)

A new design book was published recently about landscape design for today’s world. As the title might imply, today’s world is one in which there is little wild space, especially in the spaces where we live. The premise of the book is that we should stop trying to recreate what no longer exists and embrace “a new way of thinking” about design.

I have heard both authors speak about this topic at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference (Thomas Rainer in 2014 and Claudia West in 2015) and both presentations were excellent. Claudia’s discussion on creating interlocking layers in the landscape to mimic the natural process was fresh in my mind as I opened the book.  It’s about time that someone helped us get away from meatball shrubs anchored in a sea of mulch and weeds.

While the authors advocate using native plants as part of the design, their approach is not about using only native plants. They recognize that what we’re dealing with are fragments and long-disturbed sites. There is no going back to original. Native plants can be part of the solution - and a lot of them are featured in the pictures and text - but they may share the space with well-behaved non-native plants.

The purpose of the book is to outline a method and a framework for “designing resilient plant communities.”  The authors encourage us to realize that, in urban and suburban spaces, humans are designing and managing these spaces. If considered properly, we can make choices that connect the plants to the place, the plants to people, and the plants to other plants in the space.

Four main chapters present the concepts in clear text, abundant photos as well as graphs and drawings. Chapter 1 presents the Principles of Designed Plant Communities.  This chapter presents their essential principles. Even those of us who are not designers can take away key points from this chapter such as cover the ground densely like nature does … or nature will do it for you (in the form of weeds).

An everyday example of a design which is not a community and which will be plagued by weeds.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Inspiration of the Wild,” and here we are encouraged to interpret nature rather than imitate it. Plant layers found in nature help us understand that we can design with layers in a way where plants are not in competition with each other but rather exist in a supportive way. I like how the book includes sections about problems to avoid and guidance on handling the edges of the space.

A nature-inspired sweep of dense native perennials

Chapter 3 presents the design process and three essential relationships: the plants to the site, to the humans that interact with it, and to the other plants in the site. These relationships are covered in great detail. Special areas for consideration are noted and the chapter is rich with design concepts. Echoes of Claudia’s talk at Cullowhee are in the overview of several tested plant strategy systems.

Creating and managing a plant community is covered in Chapter 4. There is an extensive section on site preparation, both for understanding the site and for making choices in order to be successful. Installation considerations include timing, choosing healthy plants, planting techniques and more. I particularly liked the details covered in Managing and Monitoring, including an extensive management outline as well as how to shift goals over the lifetime of the planting, an important consideration.

I liked this book because I think it presents concepts that allow us to create landscapes that are beautiful, functional, and long-lasting. Native plants should be a part of the design, but we must acknowledge that disturbance is here to stay. Design approaches can reflect that understanding so that we create a more successful mix of old and new, using beautiful native plants and functional exotic partners.

Ultimately it is up to each of us to decide how many native plants we use. Certainly we need enough native plants to support the ecological functions needed, but does that mean we have backyard habitats and front yard exotics? The ideological war of native vs. exotic plants needs a way to meet in the middle. This book offers that middle.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Double Duty Trees

Everyone likes to get twice as much for their money or their effort. You can do that with some of your landscape design choices too if you plan ahead. Since now is a great time to plant trees in Georgia, here are a few trees that give you two benefits for one effort: good looking flowers and great fall color.

Dried flower capsules decorate a colorful sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

A very early spring-blooming tree is the red maple (Acer rubrum). Last year I posted pictures of it blooming the first week of March. It has a long spring season of interest because the flowers are replaced by seeds that are quite pretty. In the fall, the red leaves are one of the natural standouts throughout the Southeast.

Multiple leaf shapes on Sassafras albidum

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is another early blooming tree, often blooming before the leaves appear. Male and female flowers appear on different trees so you have to have a female to get the showy blue berries, but everyone is guaranteed a fabulous show in the fall.

It’s also a fun tree to show to kids because 3 different shapes of leaves can be found on the same branch.

Amelanchier arborea in spring

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) blooms in April with clusters of soft white flowers. Berries form shortly thereafter and ripen in June (another nickname for this medium-sized tree is Juneberry).

Be prepared to fight the birds for them if you want a snack. Fall color is a mix of burnished yellows, oranges and reds. This makes a great accent tree in the front yard.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) has long been a popular flowering tree in the South, but did you know that it has great fall color? I only realized it several years ago when I noticed a cherry red color in the landscape and realized it was one of my dogwoods. Of course the brilliant red berries, a favorite with birds, make it even more attractive as a choice.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) in fall

If you have enough spring trees, choose the summer-flowering sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Just when you’re wishing for flowers, long sprays of tiny white flowers will appear to light up the garden. Then, early in the fall, the leaves will start to turn, offering a spectacular show of pinkish-purple hues with a touch of orange. It’s a combination that Mother Nature has perfected to delight you.

The summer blooms of sourwood are favorites of bees too

By the way, one of the more common non-native spring-blooming trees is the ornamental cherry, especially the cultivar ‘Yoshino.’ Have you noticed that those trees drop their leaves early in the season with no color display – what a one-hit wonder they are in the Southeastern US! If you have one, consider replacing it with one of these choices.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Visiting Oaks

We have so many native oaks in Georgia that folks don’t usually need to turn to others when choosing trees for their landscapes. Still sometimes people do, particularly if a landscape designer is involved and wants to use something unusual (although lately it seems like using a native better fits the goal of using something unusual as so many landscapes use the same non-native plants over and over).

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

I came across an unusual oak recently and, while it is native to the US, it is not native to Georgia. I was in the parking lot of a restaurant not too far from me and spied some large acorns on the ground. They had a noticeable fringe around the outer edge of the cap, so that really got my attention.

There are two oaks that have a fringed look:  bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima). Neither is native to Georgia, but bur oak can be found in Alabama, according to USDA. Sawtooth oak is native to eastern Asia and was brought to the US as an ornamental or as a wildlife food source.

Sawtooth oak (not native to US)

I have occasionally found sawtooth oak in parking lots, even just a few miles from this one. The leaves are noticeably different than what I was seeing here. They are long and slender with jagged teeth.

The bur oak has lobed leaves and a considerably larger acorn. The ones that I examined were almost square: equally wide as they were long. The biggest bur oak acorn was 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches (with the cap still on).

Quercus macrocarpa

I was excited to realize that I was actually seeing bur oak; I never expected to come across one of these in Georgia. It was surprising to see it being used as a landscape tree.

There were 4 trees in all and they were bearing a good crop of acorns even though it didn’t seem like they should be very old (that parking lot is about 15 years old). They ranged in size from 24-29 inches around (7.6-9.2 DBH) at 4.5 feet.

If you’d like to read some of my previous blogs about oaks that I have found in Georgia, here are links to them: