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Planting Strong Roots

With trial and error, we’ve found what trees thrive — and which die — in Chesapeake Country’s dense soil

Non-natives like dawn redwood have flourished alongside natives such as magnolia grandiflora.

My husband and I have planted more than our share of trees in the soil of Chesapeake Country. We are not arborists by any means, but we have always wanted to plant trees. A cottage in Shady Side gave us opportunity, inspiration and a flat former cornfield, altitude eight feet, just a few hundred feet from the West River.
    Over the past 12 years, we have dug wide holes in the yellow clay and put in probably 120 trees. At least half have died, due to drought, deer damage or our irrational optimism.
    But the saplings that have survived are starting to caliper up and look like real trees. I share our failures and successes in hopes of saving you money and disappointment.
    Now is a good time of year to plant a tree. Cool air temperatures, still-warm soil and lots of rain give the new transplants a fair chance to settle in before the spring growing season. You’ll also get a good price; many nurseries have them on sale to put in your hands for overwinter care.

Miss Hazel’s Dawn Redwood
    Back in 2000, my husband and I fell in love with a 50-year-old cottage on two and a half level acres. It had a circle of big red maples and a huge dawn redwood shading the south side of the house.
    The dawn redwood was an exotic surprise. This dinosaur of a tree had been rediscovered in a remote Chinese valley in the 1940s, just before our house was built. Ten or so years later, following a dangerous expedition into the Szechuan interior by a botanist and a San Francisco newspaperman, the trees were made commercially available in this country. My father, an old China hand, had planted a few, as had many another adventurous American tree lover with adequate space. Ours flourished.
    Clearly the owners of our modest but solid acquisition, described by neighbors as Miss Hazel’s place, had also been paying attention to the tree nursery news of the 1950s.
    The remaining trees on our land were mostly tough natives — hollies, willow oaks, silver and red maples and of course cedars — planted in rows to accommodate the riding mower.
    Baking South County summers made us grateful to the thrifty tree scouts who, half a century ago, dug up, thoughtfully placed and unfailingly mowed around the hardy trees shading our Shady Side home, and splurged on that one store-bought Paleocene transplant. They left us lots of open space to play with, which inspired us to expand the trees before handing the land over to its next proprietors.
    Our big expanse of lawn is now dotted with adolescent natives and a few imports that will provide wildlife habitat, evergreen structure, architectural interest or a color contrast to the dark-green woodsy backdrop. To keep the wide open feeling of the lot — and our big piece of sky — we have stopped planting, except for an annual live Christmas tree.

The Living and the Dead
    Our first investment was two additional dawn redwoods. They had a difficult time during the three years of drought that started about five years ago. Both dropped their needles at the end of August, and we thought they were dead. But the next spring they had recovered. In a good moist year these trees can go up three to four feet, topping out at over 150 feet. The heavy clay doesn’t seem to faze them.
    Their native relative, the bald cypress, has also done well for us. This, too, is a deciduous conifer that doesn’t mind wet clay or drought; we have a weeping form as well as the standard type. It doesn’t grow as fast or as tall as the dawn redwood, and it loves to be near a pond, which sets it off to advantage.
    Next we put in three white Jacquemontii birches. All died within a few years due to drought and defoliation by Japanese beetles. If you want a birch, go with the beautiful native river birch, preferably Heritage, which is fast-growing. Ours hasn’t shown any deleterious effects from those three dry years.
    Inspired by Italian landscapes, we put in five Lombardy poplars along the road. This was doubtless a mistake, as we discovered too late, since they are subject to a canker that kills them prematurely, as well as many other shortcomings. One, top-heavy, blew over in a storm. We were lucky to get help from two very handy neighbors with a come-along to winch it upright. After that, my husband cut them all off halfway up.
    The chopped-off trunks were a favored platform for birds’ nests. The poplars recovered briskly from that insulting setback and are thriving, 25 feet tall after 12 years, despite being out of fashion and out of favor. But you can see the skeletons of many dead Lombardies in Chesapeake Country.
    Our one blue spruce declined slowly and finally gave up, along with a blue atlas cedar and five deodars. We have one blue atlas cedar and a deodar lingering, but they are clearly miserable. Don’t bother with these. If you want something evergreen and silvery blue, go with the Arizona cypress. There are several named kinds (Blue Ice is one), and they are all tough as nails and seem hardy here despite doubts at some nurseries. None of our four has quailed at our adverse conditions.
    Male deer have killed or injured many of our saplings by rubbing their antlers against the trunks in fall. We lost a yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea) this way, as well as a tupelo, two Virginia pines and a weeping cherry. The tupelo, yellowwood and pines, all native, were doing very well before these attacks, so I would try those again. We now wrap and stake the trunks to discourage deer.

Good Luck with Orchards
    Deer devoured all the spring leaves of the cherry and several apple trees. Fruit trees seem to have a difficult time even without this handicap, so if you are going to try them, make sure you physically protect the trunks and emerging leaves until the trees are big enough to survive any loss. Deer repellants and hanging bars of soap from the branches won’t do it.
    Our original tree inventory included a small orchard of three mature Red Delicious apple trees, which succumbed over five years or so to apple-cedar rust, which is endemic here due to the huge population of native cedars (Juniperus virginiana). We are now trying a few apples bred to resist rust, including JonaFree. So far so good, after three years. Many crab apples are also susceptible to apple-cedar rust.
    A few neighbors have mature pear trees, which are supposed to be more tolerant of clay than other fruit trees. Our one try, with a Comice that was not bothered by deer, has now come down with fire blight. So check for resistant varieties online or with your local nursery.
    On the magnolia front, a grandiflora dug up in the woods by a generous neighbor seems impregnable and completely at home. There is also the resilient sweet bay magnolia, broken down three years running by rutting bucks but still coming back strong. This year we’ve finally put up steel stakes to protect the remaining leader. Both trees are native, and their strength shows.
    Oddly, a number of impulse buys have done unexpectedly well: a weeping beech, a Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), a false cypress and an Alberta spruce. The last two are part of what we hope will be our live Christmas tree grove.
    Some of these survivors are natives; some are not. Native or not, all appreciate some soil improvement: gypsum to help break up the clay and plenty of organic matter and mulch. Water regularly when it’s dry the first few years at least.
    No matter how much clay you have, one or more of these trees should fit the bill.