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.
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.
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.
Here it is in 2015 … it’s even bigger now.
After our long, wet winter, the gardens look more like this.
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.