By Wendy Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Last February, Northern Virginians awoke to high drifts of snow, tree limbs heavy with snow and ice, arcing to the ground near breaking. As the sun breached the horizon, everything in the early morning light appeared sparkling and white. I was doing what I always do at that hour, standing in the dining room in my pajamas at the bank of large windows overlooking the backyard, silently taking in the scene and drinking my tea. I saw it happen.
One of three 30-foot Eastern White Pines along our back fence fell toward the house. I heard dry wood crackle, snapping branches, the crunch of the trunk as it smashed through a wooden trellis and the cedar raised planting bed directly in its path, followed by the scraping of pine branches on hard pack, then a final, muffled thud as the tree came to rest on the ground, giving rise to a magnificent poof of snow and crystalline shards of ice. From the wreckage, as if by magic, two red foxes with long bushy tails emerged. They sniffed around the unearthed tree roots, then jumped on the tree trunk and over the fallen limbs, playing.
I was shocked, awed, and thankful the tree hadn’t hit the house. I threw my clothes on and went outside to survey the damage. Standing next to my beloved giant pine, I felt a twinge of sadness. It was all so sudden. When planted 14 years earlier, the sapling wasn’t much taller than me. Even today, it appeared healthy with still supple branches that were filled with delicate green pine needles. A large squirrel’s nest was in its crown. As memories of other sudden losses seeped into my consciousness, I had a flash of recognition: The only truth in this life is change.
I decided to dispatch as much of the tree as I could on my own to attempt a quick rescue of the fothergillas that were buried underneath the mass of limbs. But the truth is, I wanted to spend time with the tree. I put my head close to the trunk and smelled its pine scent in the frigid air. And then words started flowing. Words of remembrance – what the garden was like when the three pines went in. Words of gratitude – the tree had lived a purposeful life. It had done its job admirably, screening out the large house behind us, and providing shade for the spring ephemerals beneath it – may apples, trilliums, and blood root – as well as shelter for the squirrels, birds and chipmunks. It was massive but light, airy, and sweet smelling.
Inside that reverie, the smell took me back to summer camp in the north woods of Wisconsin. For the final awards dinner, the ceiling of Camp Agawak’s wood and stone lodge was covered in pine boughs and tables were illuminated by candles. The details are hazy now but inside that smell lives a world of memories – pine forest, Blue Lake, campfires, log cabins without electricity, long hikes, the time Old Dolly went crazy and threw me off her back, earning my blue cap in swimming, our annual skinny dip in the lake, movie nights that made one jumpy walking back to the cabin with only flashlights to light the path, sitting on my bunk writing letters home on rainy days.
It took me three hours to cut off all the limbs leaving only the trunk, which was more than I could handle with my saw. Within two days, the trunk was cut into large pieces and hauled away. The tree’s absence was palpable. But in the midst of my sadness over its loss, other thoughts occurred to me. What was shady will now be sunny. What was once a dry area had become wetter over the years, perhaps a factor in the tree’s downing. What new life could I plant there that might absorb more of the water that was creating problems in that corner?
It was like a switch had flipped. Loss turned into opportunity, into possibility – not necessarily of something better but of something different. I felt a glimmer of excitement.
My garden has had three distinct lives. The quadrant of the landscape where the tree fell is on the verge of having a fourth. I’ve been living with that empty space – with its loss and opportunity – for the past several months, waiting to see how the most impacted plants, the Calycanthus and black haw viburnum, respond to the change, but also the fothergillas, the Amsonia tabernaemontana, and the Shrubby St. John’s Wort, which was flattened in the downing. I’m paying attention in a way that I didn’t before – my beloved pine had thrived without much help or attention from me.
I’ve honed a list of possible additions to fill the space: perhaps a ninebark, button bush, or more Shrubby St. John’s Wort, a pollinator magnet that would be a boon for the adjacent vegetable garden. I’m also looking at small native trees. But I’m also thinking this may be an opportunity to rearrange what’s already there and give it room to expand. Over the years, so many of the garden’s plants have outgrown their allotted space, becoming a management challenge, even a nightmare.
When the weather starts to cool down this fall, I’m going to make my move. The time has come for something new to emerge, although what exactly that will be I’m still not sure. I’m thinking, next summer, it might be the perfect spot for a family of giant sunflowers. 😉