Tough love for the weeping birch

As we sat in the Starbucks drive-thru line, a familiar song came on the oldies station: the Sir Douglas Quintet playing “She’s About a Mover.” (Watch the go-go girls in this clip!) What does that mean, I wondered aloud. She’s good looking? She has good dance moves? We didn’t really know. A few Googleseconds later, we learned that it meant she didn’t stick around in relationships for very long—she moved on.

That not only describes my twenties, but also my relationship with a succession of trees in my front yard.

As long as I’ve lived here, there’s been a tree just off the northwest corner of the house. Thirty-three years ago it was a robust holly that dropped berries and prickly leaves all over the lawn. Enough of that! I replaced it with a deodar cedar, a graceful, and yes, still somewhat prickly evergreen, my favorite of the trees that have occupied this space. Sadly, I lost Deodara during a particularly soggy winter, when a windstorm blew it down. How heartbreaking.

Craftsman bungalow and gardens

1985? The baby deodar cedar is on the left.

Woman in wdding dress stands in front of deodar cedar tree.

1995. It got so big! And I’m so young!

Next came one of my gardening mistakes: I impetuously fell for a lovely sumac, whose lacy foliage turned flame red in the fall. After several years, its crown grew large and threatened to split. Goodbye, sumac. What I wasn’t prepared for were the runners that it had secretly sent out in all directions, resulting in a mini-forest of sumacs that sprang from the lawn for years afterwards. I felt like I was being stalked by its ghost. I think we’ve eradicated them all by now.

Sun shining through red sumac leaves.

2005. Gorgeous!

Three tabby cats on sidewalk in front of Craftsman bungalow.

2009, with three cats in the yard. Its wide canopy starts at the left edge of the photo and goes clear to the chimney.

We planted a young Mount Fuji cherry tree in its place. Then, a mere year later, we walked past the Ace Hardware a block from our house and I fell hard for a weeping birch. I’m so fickle. I had to tell the cherry that I’d met someone new. We gently ushered the cherry off to the parking strip and installed the birch. It had an interesting, sinuous shape. I was smitten with its long branches and delicate leaves that fluttered in the breeze.

Mt Fuji cherry tree glows in morning sun.

Young Mt. Fuji cherry in morning sun.

Craftsman bungalow and gardens in summer.

2011. Young birch in background.

Here it is in 2015 … it’s even bigger now.

Craftsman bungalow and gardens

Can’t wait for summer!

After our long, wet winter, the gardens look more like this.

Black and white cat in winter garden.

Chex is waiting for summer, too.

Several more revolutions around the sun, and my birch has grown from an adorably quirky sapling into something of a brute. Arms and tentacles reach out to swat people walking down the sidewalk and smother nearby shrubs. And as much as it makes a great foil for the side porch in summer, screening us from the street, it’s getting a little too friendly with the porch. What used to feel like cozy protection now feels like possessive overbearance. Have you ever been in a relationship like that?

When it lost its leaves in the fall, I wondered to Eric whether we shouldn’t simply kill it in its sleep and start over (again) with something new and more self-contained. But I can’t do it. Truth be told, I still have feelings for this tree. I’ve decided to give it one more chance. We’re going to prune it and attempt to teach it some manners. This usually doesn’t work with people. Can it work on a tree?

This birch really belongs on the banks of a brook, with enough space to spread out all it wants in all directions. But, it lives in town next to a rain barrel. It needs to shape up. Its foliage is so thick that when I stand next to the trunk, the long branches cascade down around me and create the effect of a little secret room. It’s so secret that last year we discovered a homeless woman had been camping under the tree for a few nights. We were tipped off by a scrap of blue tarp on the ground. Eric looked under the tree and found more tarp and a tent pole. How did we know it was a woman? She left us her dirty underwear.

That was enough for me! I trimmed the birch’s floor-length locks to about 18 inches above the ground, which made the poor tree look like Cousin Itt in a waltz-length gown. No one is going to camp in my yard again without a permit!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about pruning, it’s that you want to err on the side of being conservative. You don’t want to step back to admire your handiwork and think, “… Oops!” I know this from experience.

The tree grows predominantly to the northeast, with the heaviest branches on that side (between the sidewalk and side porch). Lately it’s been producing more young branches in the opposite direction in a natural attempt to balance itself. Eric made just three cuts: The long arm that was reaching south to the front porch is gone. So is a branch that was heading straight west over the triangle garden. And the lower (and closest to the side porch) of the two top branches. This removed a  lot of weight, mostly from the heavier northeast side, but also some from the west and south.

It’s hard to tell that the tree’s been pruned. I admit, if it weren’t for the date stamp, I wouldn’t be sure which are the before and after pictures. I think we’ll see a difference once it leafs out, though. We can always take more off.

I’ll keep you posted. Anyone feel like camping? We’re taking reservations for summer.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


14 thoughts on “Tough love for the weeping birch

  1. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    Is that Checkers up there on the canopy? He wants to be king of the forest! You are a wild woman with a lot of trees in your past. I hope she starts behaving for you. Attacking you and your guests is unacceptable and sheltering homeless people is unacceptable. The fact that someone would camp out on your lawn is crazy. I wonder what her story is.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      It’s young Crosby (about Ponche’s age?) in the tree. Checkers (aka “Chunkers”) is too fat to shinny up a tree!
      For a while, we had a steady stream of homeless people traipsing through the neighborhood. That situation has improved a lot, thank goodness!

  2. Barbara H.

    Oh gosh, I enjoyed your tree saga. I’m glad there’s a happy ending, at least so far. I feel your pain with the suckering sumac/

  3. Karen B.

    We have a birch in our front yard and it’s kept to the space we allowed without over-stepping it’s boundaries. I’m surprised you don’t put a Japanese maple in that corner. I know there are so many varieties and they all seem to do better in your climate than they do in ours. I wish the birch good luck and hope it shapes up!

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Hi Karen! Yes, I’ve thought about a Japanese maple. If I have to do it again, that would be one of the front runners, or a small dogwood. We already have five J maples in various places. Love their variety.
      Have you sold your place and moved yet?

  4. Eric

    After I read this I told my lovely wife that the trees could be looked at as a metaphor for her past relationships. She didn’t hit me so I continued by saying the birch is going to be there for a very long time…just don’t trim too much.

  5. Donna Ohashi

    Wow – it’s been ages since I last heard that song. I always did wonder what “mover” referred to, so thanks for explaining it. I love your analogy between “Trees in Your Yard” to “People in Relationships” – so clever. And the story about the homeless woman camping beneath your tree was hilarious! I guess I better check out the big trees in my backyard from time to time . . . LOL!

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Haha–urban living is more of an adventure than people might think! If you have campers, I hope they take their underwear with them! 🙂

  6. Jo

    For me choosing any shrub or tree takes way longer than it should. Probably why my yard is still bare. Yours looks great. Having someone camping under your tree right under your nose is downright scary. How do they think of it? Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I, on the other hand, pounce on any plant I like, as long as I think it will thrive in the space (and I’m not always right about that). My gardens are constantly changing. It’s the editor in me!
      I think homeless people are so desperate that they don’t use the same logic that you or I would. This woman probably just wanted to get out of the rain and hide.

  7. Nine Dark Moons

    great story, D’Arcy! your tree sagas & photos to match are wonderful 🙂 the homeless woman… omg… could have been a cross-dressing homeless person… ugh! we saw a homeless woman drop her drawers and squat on the lawn of a convenience store in oahu last year – we weren’t sure if she was going for #1 or #2 so we hightailed it out of there.


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