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Digging In: Scott Aker

Under the Lindens

By Scott Aker
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page H07

Q I am moving to a farm in southwest Virginia and want some advice on trees to plant. At the moment, there are only pines and a few hardwoods near the site of my new home. I am looking for a tree that will develop a good root system, shade the house and grow relatively fast (I'm 62 and want to enjoy them). Any suggestions for my flower garden would be welcomed, too.

A Willow oak grows surprisingly fast and can provide appreciable shade in as little as 10 years if water and nutrients are adequate. The elm varieties 'Valley Forge' and 'Princeton' are good choices as well because they grow rapidly and will not be troubled by Dutch elm disease.

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I am very fond of some of the lesser-known lindens. Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) is very widely planted, but it is smaller in every respect than the silverleaf linden (Tilia tomentosa), which may develop into a respectable shade tree in a shorter time. If you want great fall color, plant a maple, but be selective about the cultivar. 'Greencolumn,' a variety of black maple (Acer nigrum), and 'Legacy,' a sugar maple (Acer saccharum), are both good bets for tolerating long, hot summers.

I'm not sure what your taste in flowers is, but if I were handed your property, I would plant red hot pokers, cannas, and masses of bright gladioluses for summer bloom. I would add some tuberoses, oriental lilies and ginger lilies for fragrance. I would plant daylilies, particularly the Siloam cultivars, and interplant them with plenty of daffodils. I would plant a 'New Dawn' climbing rose. To get me through the winter, I would include some hellebores, witchhazels and winterberry hollies. For the fall, there would be asters, amsonia and chrysanthemums.

There would also have to be some bearded iris and sunflowers in the equation, along with swaths of larkspur. Perhaps I have gone too far in revealing my odd tastes in flowers, but I think you get the point: Plant what you like and be sure to think of all seasons when you select plants.

I have a weeping Japanese apricot tree that I sought out because it had not been grafted on to rootstock. I dislike grafted weeping trees. When it arrived in the mail, it had few branches. Eventually it developed two branches halfway up the trunk and then sprouted a few on top. I would like to encourage the thinner branches at the top. I consider the two large branches in the middle unattractive and awkward. How should I prune this little tree?

I dislike grafted weeping trees and, like you, prefer ones that are growing on their own roots. Grafted versions are propagated to hasten their readiness for sale and for a uniform look. I understand why growers grow weeping trees this way, but the plants can have the appearance of a fountain on a stick for a long time after they are planted. Also, the rootstock often sprouts and outgrows the desired weeping portion of the tree. I applaud your willingness to start with a smaller tree that is not grafted. Your patience will be rewarded with a tree that will be more natural and have more interest as a specimen.

Don't be in a rush to do radical pruning on your little tree, it needs all the branches it has at the moment. For one thing, if the trunk is damaged or dies, you will want to bend one of the lower branches skyward to take its place, using a splint.

Some random wandering in the trunk of a weeping tree is natural and will ultimately give your tree character. While the leader is growing, discourage the lower side branches by removing half of their mass during this growing season. This will shunt energy into growth of the leader and the upper branches. Don't worry about this making the tree ugly, because the lower branches can be removed entirely within the next year or two as the tree grows.

Scott Aker is a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum.


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