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Get Growing: Picking a tree, a tall order

How exciting to have a new home to landscape!

After more than 35 years in my present home I have no good excuse to plant any more trees and shrubs, tempted though I am. However, my oldest son has just bought his first home in southern Connecticut and is eager to put his stamp on it. I envy him and all those thousands of others in our area and beyond who look forward to the joy of crafting the landscape to their own taste. He’s asked for advice about a spring-flowering ornamental tree.

The only other tree in his front yard is a gorgeous Japanese maple, so old and sturdy that my six-year-old grand-daughter and her friends spend hours of fun climbing its low branches without fear of damaging it.

So what to recommend as a partner for the Japanese maple?

Not a ‘Bradford’ pear! Those over-planted specimen trees are spectacular right now in full bloom but they have extremely poor branching patterns and weak wood. They are a storm-disaster waiting to happen.

My daughter-in-law showed me a picture of a tree she likes: a pink dogwood (Cornus florida) which would do very well. Its angular branching pattern would be a nice complement to the maple and it would provide lovely spring color as well as fall foliage and berries for the birds.

My son wondered about a peach, a cherry or an apricot, any of which would probably do well in their Zone 7 climate. Apricots would be a mite tender up in the Pioneer Valley. If they want to harvest fruit, a peach or apricot would make some sense. Never having owned either one, however, I’m not sure of the amount of pruning and training that might be required.

As for cherries, I really am not fond of the Kwansan type which have a rather stiff outline although they do have gorgeous flowers. Weeping ones are absolutely charming, but I’m not sure it should be the only ornamental tree on the property.

I do know about crabapples, however. They have beautiful May blossoms followed by decent fall color (yellow) and long-lasting small fruits that the birds love. They are also native trees, although I would recommend a hybrid that fruits yearly (some are biannual fruit producers) and also insist they get a disease-resistant variety. I love my Malus sargentii, which is dwarf, but it usually flowers well in alternate years and is also prone to cedar rust for which the junipers in the area are alternate hosts.

Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) would be another possibility with its startling magenta flowers in early spring, another native. And then there are the magnolias. The house across the street from my son’s has a saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangiana) but I prefer the more delicate M. stellata. That was the first tree we planted in South Amherst in 1976 in front of the barn. It was about the height of my son who was four at the time, perhaps three feet. Now the tree towers up to the second story of the barn and he is a mere 6 feet.

There are so many other possibilities but they only can use one small tree on their small lot. Fortunately there are shade trees (maples) on the south side of the house, so they don’t need something big. If anyone has other suggestions, please send me an email.

Today is Arbor Day, the last Friday in April every year. So do consider planting some kind of tree yourself. Natives are important but don’t feel you have to plant all native species if something more exotic like a star magnolia appeals. And do consider fruit trees. Pawpaws are the “in” tree at the moment — but you have to like the fruit.

WISTERIA SEASON: I have just returned from a week in California in the Santa Cruz Mountains, visiting my sister — who is a fantastic gardener; much better than I am. Her daffodils had long gone by and there was just one clump of tulips in bloom. But the wisteria. She has a lavender one in her main garden, which was in full bloom when I arrived on April 16. By the end of the week it was going by, but a charming climbing rose in deep pink had insinuated itself into the display and the combination was lovely. On the other side of the house, a white wisteria twined its way up a live oak and a Douglas fir and was just coming into bloom when I arrived. I have taken dozens of pictures of that stupendous plant, whose tendrils are far up in the stratosphere. It has enormous panicles of white blossoms visited dawn to dusk by native pollinators, especially a black species of bumblebee. The buzz from the deck was incredible. Beneath the wisteria were a collection of terra cotta pots, simple ones, footed ones, some with coiled decorations. They had all been planted — in mid-April, mind you — with petunias and marigolds. Earlier, Roz said, they had been filled with primroses, which she planted in her main garden the week before I arrived. Yes, California is different. But wisteria does well in the Pioneer Valley. Just be sure it doesn’t take over your house.

SUSTAINABILITY FESTIVAL: Amherst will celebrate its Sustainability Festival tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Witness tree planting demonstrations, visit booths with information on growing vegetables, ornamentals, trees and shrubs. Learn about solar power and other energy-saving programs. The Amherst Farmers Market will be open for the second week. Downtown will be abuzz with ideas on growing plants and saving the environment.

PLANT SALES: The first nonprofit plant sale of the season is tomorrow at Florence Congregational Church, 130 Pine St., Florence, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Annuals, perennials, vegetables, trees and shrubs as well as house plants from parishioners’ gardens will be for sale for quite low prices. There is also a tag sale and bake sale. Next up is May 11 with sales in Northampton, Williamsburg, Belchertown and Pelham. Details next week.

WILDFLOWERS: Learn which wildflowers are blooming in early May during a spring walk at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon. Botanists Connie Parks and Janet Bissell will lead the walk to see bloodroot, squirrel corn, trout lily and more. All of these can be planted in your own wildflower garden (nursery purchases only, please, no transplanting from the wild). Fee is $8. Bring a hand lens and field guide if possible. Register by calling 584-3009.

NATIVE SUBSTITUTES FOR INVASIVES: Learn which native plants are good substitutes for now-banned invasive species such as Norway maple, barberry and burning bush at a “learn about” program at the Hadley Garden Center on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Volunteers with the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association will give advice about native plants. Free. On Thursday at 6 p.m. Debbie Windoloski of Gardenscapes will lead a “walk about” in the nursery: “Naturescaping: Creating Backyard Wildlife Habitats.” Free. 584-1423.

PRIMROSES AND DAFFODILS: The American Primrose Society holds its annual national convention at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston the weekend of May 4. At the same time the Seven States Daffodil Show is held in an adjacent room. Hundreds of potted primroses will be displayed at the primrose show while hundreds of cut daffodils will be judged in the daffodil show. If you think that primroses are only the ones you buy at the supermarket in midwinter and that all daffodils are yellow trumpets, you are in for a surprise. There will be lectures, garden tours, sales of potted primroses and much information shared by experts. The Daffodil and Primrose Shows are included with regular admission to Tower Hill Botanic Garden; $12 Adults, $9 Seniors, and $7 Youth ages 6-18, Children under 6 and members are free. For more information go to www.towerhillbg.org.

PLANT SWAPS:

The Belchertown Plant Swap starts on May 7 at 6 p.m. at 253 Warren Wright Road at the home of Elaine Williamson. Send “wishes” to her at elainerwilliamson@yahoo.com by Tuesday at 7 p.m. She will list the wish list on the yahoo list serve http://groups.yahoo.com/group/elainesplantswap/. Bring perennial divisions, annual seedlings, vegetable starts, bulbs etc. to the plant swap.

The South Deerfield Plant Swap is Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 2 Hobbie Road, South Deerfield. For more information, call 665-4039. Bette Sokoloski is the organizer of BJ’s Flower Swappers. There is a $2 fee for this plant swap which is celebrating its 15th year.

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