Home Is Where Your Trees Are

The Naked Acre. Part 1

To everyone their own Eden. People who carve their home into a wildwood will feel like pioneers. Those who begin from scratch on a naked lot will, when they have brought their own trees there and reared them to a design, feel like creative artists. Each specimen will be theirs by choice, not chance, and they may feel more free than the wildwood folks to alter their composition as it develops: to erase mistakes and improve improvisations. All its parts will be beholden to the owners for their presence, not vice versa. From the very start the owners will have full control of, and responsibility for, all their trees' well-being. Awareness of this last may weigh on new owners' consciences, like the future of their children, but in the end a pardonable pride will make up for growing pains. Curiously, more people have qualms about raising trees than worry about reproducing and rearing their own kind.

They seem to think that luck has a lot to do with trees, or that you need a green thumb to ensure tree health and beauty. In comparison with children, trees are far more amenable, and hardy. Firmness of hand and purpose, and a cheerful patience, are all that you really need if you observe from the outset the basic needs of tree life, which are three: moisture, nourishment, and air space. The first two are of course controllable through the soil. Less obviously, so is the third. When a young tree is transplanted, air for its roots is just as important as for its upper parts. Infant mortality among trees in new grounds results more often from suffocation than from any other cause. There is a sorry tendency, even among tree merchants who should know better, to plant young stock too deeply or in ground not loosened widely enough around the questing new roots.

Worried that their plantings may blow over, people plunk them into narrow, hard-walled holes and pound them tight. Then they drench them with too much water, stuff them with too much food, fuss over them and peek at the roots to see "how they are doing." The time to peek at roots is when you buy the tree, or dig it afield yourself. But let us come to that phase of treescaping a naked acre after considering the over-all plan. One of the first and most talented Americans to be called "landscape architect," the late great Frederic Law Olmsted, was irritated by the title. He said: "Landscape is not a good word; architecture is not; the combination is not. Gardening is worse. . . . The art is not gardening nor is it architecture. ... It is the sylvan art, fine art in the distinction from Horticulture, Agriculture, or the sylvan useful art." He defined his work, which was usually on the grandest scale, in terms too sweeping to apply to our small naked-acre problems. Olmsted cleared headlands to display their lofty contours. He felled whole woods to reveal distant mountain heights or valley depths. He restored the natural sweep of watercourses, adjusted the sites of ugly structures "with a motive to avoid unnecessary jar upon the foreground of a soothing prospect." And yet his catalog of work elements ends in "fixing . . . the position and outlines of a stable . . . the course of a walk ... or the height of a fence or of a hencoop . . . the answer in one word is - design."

The average practitioner of Olmsted's art today is perforce more tradesman than maestro. He is reduced to carving walnut shells instead of panoramas. He is scarcely needed by the home owner whose problems this book approaches. Too much good money changes hands in return for piddling professional preciosities, when anyone with half an eye for form and perspective can lay out his own modest green spot unaided. Within the limits here contemplated - an acre, more or less - the essence of good taste will be good sense. And in the smallest frame, there is always room for that personal touch which, however invisible it may be to others, will spell out self-expression. The Japanese in their huddled culture found this out and perfected it some centuries ago. Full as the phone books are of landscapists, the house-and-grounds periodicals are even fuller of planting suggestions for new home owners. Many of these run to fancified effects, but invariably they show pictures of how different species look when grown in various combinations. If there is in your family no talent for sketching, amuse and instruct yourselves by playing with cutouts from magazines and catalogs superimposed on blown-up photographs of your house and lot. As a matter of duty, not presumption, some basic suggestions are offered herewith. What you are likely to be after will come under four headings: warmth, shade, beauty, and privacy. By warmth is meant a visual, not a physical, effect - a sense of the house and any outbuildings having come to dwell in, not just on, the site. Planting around the foundations is the answer to this need, but the commonest mistake that warmth seekers make is to overdo such planting, to swaddle the architecture so thickly with growths that in a few short years it is stifled. Most new houses nowadays are low in profile, and so should be their foundation planting. Evergreens give a warm look all year round, but beware of species that will spindle up, like spruce, cedar, arborvitae and cryptomeria. Low-growing by habit or easily kept so by trimming are mugho pine, pfitzer juniper, most forms of Taxus (yew), and such other stand-bys as box and prostrate Euonymus. Solid banks of evergreens can become troublesome. A plague of scale, weevils, or nematodes can deform or wipe out the lot.

Spaced apart by deciduous shrubs they are less care and, to most eyes, less trite. On a north side the deciduous species may not do so well and will perhaps be omitted, but still don't overcrowd the evergreens. Shade can be as important for people indoors as out, but no tree planted for shade should be put closer than twenty feet from your house. Besides affording room for roots and branches you must think ahead to the time when too much canopy may bring dampness as well as coolness to your rooms. Repeated pruning of a tree to keep it from moldering or thrashing the architecture is a two-way nuisance - to yourself and the tree. Any shade tree ordained by Nature to grow much higher than your house is best planted, to start with, toward a border of your property. In per-acre terms, ten "big" trees will be found a great plenty, particularly if twice as many "small" trees, and some shrubs and flowers, need to be given living space.