Garden Notes: Bark is often overlooked as a mark of beauty and individuality

Lichen grows on the bark of an oak.
Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Lichen grows on the bark of an oak.

Almost two years ago I checked with Matt Pelikan for his opinion concerning the least harmful time, in wildlife terms, to do away with a massive English ivy plant that was causing me anxiety. With a proverbial Jack’s beanstalk stem, thick as my fist, the ivy was laddering up a crucial white oak in my woodland garden area and into the tree’s crown.

The ivy had performed its morphological trick, changing its juvenile leaves for adult ones and setting flowering umbels, which in turn produce seed, and was now vying with its host for dominance. Next phase would be the gradual decline and death of the host tree, one that I did not want to lose. Matt’s advice: cut the ivy either after fall migration, or before nesting season commences.

I have been agonizing about the impending execution. All I needed to do was sever the main trunk and leave smaller tendrils to carry on. There were several problems. One is that this ivy was providing year-round shelter and berries for squirrels and birds that live in my garden area, easily confirmed by the empty sunflower seed husks and residue of tiny droppings about the tree’s base. Bird-sown ivy seedlings were sprouting here and there.

The second is that I dislike killing things outright. What is wrong with me? I accept being cruel to be kind, a frequent necessity in the realm of tending gardens and plants. “Plantanasia,” where something just “happens” to die on your watch, according to the late great wit, Tita Vivian, is one thing; outright destruction a quite another. Ugh!

All the above to confess that I have done the dastardly deed. My punishment is to witness the drooping, fading, and dropping of the lovely bottle-green foliage and the imagined consternation of its many residents, whose home I am wrecking. Compensation is knowing the tree will fare better and that the ivy will make a persistent comeback from a very stout rootstock.

Deciduous trees

Many of us garden on clayey morainal soils. We do not have an early spot here; I must wait, and wait, for overt signs of spring. This is when I find deciduous trees particularly interesting. The now-vibrant morning and afternoon light acquires a spectrum that brings out the subtle colors of their bark, and of the lichens they support. I think I like them best of all plants. Trees help me to appreciate late winter, the shining moment of beautiful bark and branch structure, rather than focusing on signs of early spring.

Exotic specimen plants are not necessary. The chalky pallor of white oak trunks stands out from the rest of the woods, making it easy to distinguish them from black oak. Branch structures are distinctive: post oaks, which hold onto their rustling leathery leaves until spring, are one of the finest winter features of the more open habitats that support them, with a striking wavy branches and typical oak lichen growth. Groves of sassafras share a similar squiggliness in the crown, but their trunks are often rich brown, the vertical bark plates braided with deep fissures.

Beetlebung are finely furrowed, associating with their kind as they, like sassafras and beech, sprout from roots of parent trees, their assemblies forming a delicate overhead netting of fine pendulous branchlets. American beech, aspiring and fine textured, are unparalleled for their eye-catching groves and smooth pale grey bark. At the other end of the texture spectrum are pignut hickories whose bark is a darker grey than beech, quite rough, with spare, bold branches manifesting hickory’s symbolic sturdiness. The above-mentioned trees love to grow here. They can be found all over the Vineyard and require no special care or purchase price.

None of which is written to exclude specimen trees with especially eye-catching bark. Far from it, the following is a partial list of trees and shrubs with winter bark interest:

Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku,’ Acer griseum, Betula nigra, Betula papyrifera, Cornus kousa, Magnolia cultivars, Parrotia persica, Platanus x acerifolia, Platanus occidentalis, Prunus serrula, Stewartia pseudocamellia, Stewartia monadelpha, Ulmus parvifolia, Lagerstroemia x indica, Cornus sericea, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire,’ and Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis.’

Care should be taken not to over-do specimen tree features in home gardens. Birches, stewartias, maples, or cherries and such — a little goes a long way. Gardens augmented with visually strong trees of specimen appeal require a sure touch. One dogwood alleé at Polly Hill Arboretum is striking. Would it be so if there were half a dozen?

In the garden

March and the maritime climate have arrived together, bone-chilling and dour. Even if conditions are not conducive, yard and garden work clamors to be done. Raccoons are active. Deer ticks are about. Two dogs recently taken on a walk yielded more than 50.

Cut down ornamental grasses now, for they have already started into green growth. Prune climbing roses, aiming to clean up trunk areas and reduce the canes to about six nice strong ones. Tie them in, aiming for horizontal positioning. If verticality is unavoidable, spiral the canes gently around the uprights, keeping them as horizontal as possible.

As temperatures permit, apply horticultural oil sprays for the control of sucking insects such as hemlock woolly adelgid, spider mites, cottony scales, and pests of orchard trees. Spread compost and leaf mould on vegetable gardens and flowerbeds. Lawns love being raked with a leaf rake at this time of year. It is like giving them a stimulating massage—they green up almost immediately. Prune blueberries, raspberries, and grapevines.

Polly Hill Arboretum

PHA winter walk, Saturday, March 10 at 10 am. PHA members may use the PHA’s Spongberg library by appointment. As the gardening season approaches, make a library appointment to investigate its wide array of books and publications.