Monday, December 22, 2008
Transitions and Trees
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 22, 2008)
If you had told me in 1992 that one day I would be aggressively selecting trees on our property to prune or cut down, I'd have thought you were crazy.
When we moved here nearly 17 years ago, trees were a rare and precious commodity. On the entire 50 acres, we had only a small thicket of scraggly willows, a handful of mature pines, two large oaks and a scattered assortment of oak seedlings.
We weren't accustomed to a treeless landscape. Before living in Florida, our home was on 5 wooded acres in Cape Cod, Mass. Before we could build a house on that property, we had to carve a homestead out of a dense forest of locust and oak trees covered by a snarly web of bull briar, poison ivy and wild grape vines.
Hand by vine-scratched hand, we cleared a home site. Living in the woods made us feel sheltered and secure. Our new property in Florida, although filled with promise and raw beauty, left us feeling vulnerable and oddly exposed.
To remedy the situation, one of our first priorities was to do massive plantings. Looking back on our efforts, I find it amazing how much work we did. All I can say is that we were young, a bit foolish and full of gusto.
We began by mounding earth around the property perimeter to create an immediate buffer zone. On top of those berms, we installed dozens of transplanted hedge bamboo divisions.
Unfortunately -- here's where the young and a bit foolish part comes in -- we neglected to irrigate the transplants or enrich the soil. One by one, we watched the divisions succumb to the heat and poor soil.
As we quickly learned, even hardy plants such as bamboo need at least a little TLC to survive. Only a couple dozen of the original plants made it through that rough beginning.
Our next major undertaking was the planting of pines -- we hand-planted 4,000 seedlings. Although slash and sand pines can tolerate unirrigated, poor soil, they can't overcome improper planting techniques. Unfortunately, that's what Ralph and I provided. I don't know how many of those tiny trees survived, but it wasn't many.
Once we realized all our hard work had resulted in yet another failure, we hired a professional to come in with the proper equipment to do a follow-up planting. At last, a wise decision. Almost all of the 11,000 trees in the second planting survived. Today they blanket the ground with a dense carpet of pine needles.
Through the years, we never stopped planting. I can't begin to tally the number of bamboos we added to the landscape -- they have to be in the thousands. Open groves of running bamboos and thick clusters of clumping varieties have provided us with privacy and beauty.
The pine trees we planted have sown generations of babies, while the once waist-high oaks grew into towering monsters. If I hadn't seen it happen, I would never believe the thick-trunked trees that cover the property are less than 20 years old. They look like 100-year-old behemoths.
Those oaks have been the main target of our recent culling activity. Branches were infringing on the driveway, getting too close to the house and shading out other plants that we wanted to grow. The most sensible solution was a chain saw. Let the games begin.
On the first day of cutting, my husband asked, "Which trees should we trim?"
With the merits of pre-emptive culling in mind, my reply was decisive, "Take that one out entirely and trim the side limbs on this other oak before they grow any bigger."
He looked at me with surprise, wondering what had become of his tree-coddling wife.
I'm not a ruthless person, but I've come to appreciate the virtues of careful pruning and selective culling. It's amazing how much a physical landscape can change in a relatively short time. Mental landscapes too.
Although I still value their assets, I no longer see trees as permanent fixtures. I try to view them instead as renewable resources. For certain plants to grow, others must go. It is immensely reassuring to know nothing goes to waste. Culled trees become brush piles that shelter small animals, eventually decomposing into rich dirt that supports new growth.
I never thought I would see the day when we'd be thinning out a forest. It took us 17 years to make it full circle, but eventually that is what happened. From Cape Cod woods to Florida fields, barren sand turned into a leafy landscape in the blink of an eye. With the exception of children, there are few things better than trees to measure the passage of time.