March in the garden
March 9, 2013
The serenity of a Japanese garden invites us to slow the pace of our lives, to contemplate the seasons.
A dominant element of these gardens is the thoughtful placement of flowering trees.
This same mood may be captured within a foothill garden simply by introducing flowering plums and pears that usher in the dramatic beauty of spring. And, of course, pausing to enjoy them each year.
A week ago I drove in the early morning to Loomis to participate in the annual Gardeners' Gathering held in the Blue Goose packing sheds.
The wild plum in my rural landscape was just beginning to open blossoms. The corridor I drove to the lower elevation was ablaze with color. One of the most dramatic scenes was a steep eastern-facing slope near Auburn, puffs of pink covering the large slope with a sprinkling of natives showing through.
Too severe a slope for a planned orchard, this striking spring scene is most likely an accident of nature. Birds drop seeds after feasting on fruit, creating gardens where none was intended. While I have lived in the foothills for more than three decades, this particular spring scene was new to me. The time of day, the season, and my travels were aligned.
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Flowering plums and pears are the earliest bloomers, with cherries following soon after. Each has a distinct shape and growth habit, with flowers ranging from shades of pink to white.
Wild plums are in bloom now throughout our county, clouds of white spotted among the ponderosa pines.
Occasionally these produce tasty fruit. Most often the very early bloom, even if pollination is successful, is followed by a spring frost that prevents fruit from maturing. In more than 30 years, I have had fruit only four seasons. Seedlings appear in the years after successful fruiting. In one spot, a thicket of wild plums has established on the sunny edge of a wooded area.
Each year I pick sprays of the wild plum to bring inside, usually just before a spring storm. This week there was again the familiar seasonal rhythm of savoring the sweet fragrance of the flowers outside before placing a few twisting branches in an old vase to enjoy when hail and rain arrived.
Purple-leaved plums (Prunus cerasifera) are more formal in shape than their wild cousin. 'Krauter Vesuvius' is upright in growth habit, with pink flowers. 'Thundercloud' has a more rounded shape with maturity, and light pink blossoms. Both are prone to snow damage at higher elevations unless pruned annually to maintain a dense growth habit. Dormant pruning and summer pruning may both be used to control vertical growth. Fruiting is rare.
Flowering pears (Pyrus calleryana) begin bloom in early March too. This is one of my favorite trees. Structurally strong, it rarely sustains any storm damage from snow.
A handsome tree with glossy green leaves, in fall it transitions with the yellows, oranges and reds of autumn, each cultivar offering a distinct color habit.
Large specimens of flowering pear are majestic trees most often spotted in the older Sacramento neighborhoods.
Branching may be open or more upright, depending on the cultivar selected. This past week I discovered an old specimen of pear that was probably 'Bradford', its gnarled branches covered with clusters of white flowers. Looking up into the tree, the blue sky with white clouds beyond were barely visible.
These early-flowering plums and pears require deep soil and full sun. Once established, irrigation needs are minimal. In fact, good drainage is most important. Heavy clay soils need compost added. Four cups of a natural phosphorus (colloidal or soft rock phosphate) and one cup of oyster shell mixed into the soil and compost will ensure root growth and abundant flowering.
Trees are often staked when you purchase them. March is a good month to check all your plantings, removing ties and labels that may cut into the bark and injure the tree in this next season of growth. If staking is necessary because of winds, place two a distance from the trunk, allowing movement within loops that anchor the tree trunk to the stake.
The exquisite beauty of spring-flowering trees is fleeting. This annual show reminds us of the importance of slowing our lives to connect with the natural world.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom", now available locally. She will be a guest on KAHI, the "Garden Guru Show" with Rob Littlepage at 9 a.m. today. For more information, visit http://www.carolynsingergardens.com.