Ever wonder where all those trees in the garden centers come from?
Thousands of them are grown from seed or cuttings right here in Western New York, and it can take up to seven years before the trees are ready to be shipped out from the nursery to the garden centers.
"Imagine a turtle walking backwards," joked Robert Smith, who has been growing trees at Schichtel's Nursery in Springville for more than 20 years. That "sort of gives you an idea of watching a tree grow."
It also gives the home gardener insight into why trees don't come with bargain-basement prices. Still, it won't be long until we will start digging, and trees are one of the first plants to go into the ground.
However, Smith pointed out that "although most people think spring is the best time to plant trees, if the tree you are buying is above-ground - in a container or balled and burlapped - you can plant it in the fall or even in the summer. Bare-root trees do best planted in the spring."
If you already know what kind of tree you want to plant this spring, especially if you want several, it's not too early to order. Even Schichtel's, a wholesale nursery with 500,000 trees growing on its 1,600 acres, often cannot fill all its orders from garden centers.
When you walk into a garden center's miniature forest, you can't simply point your finger and say, "I want a birch or a Japanese cherry or an oak," without first doing your homework.
"You have to be sure you have the proper soil, the space and growing zone for the tree," Smith explained.
Here in our immediate area, Zones range from 4 to 5 and in some spots, can even go to 6 but that can be iffy - some plants designated for Zone 6 will survive our often very cool spring nights and our cold winters, but not all.
If you have a small garden, "a red maple tree . . . is beautiful, but is going to grow 75 feet high and have a 50-foot spread, so it is not for you," Smith cautioned. "The same goes for the big oaks, spruce and some of the ash."
But there are a wide variety of trees that will fit into a small garden.
Before getting into that topic further, however, Smith wanted to talk about soil, especially for gardeners who have clay soil.
His suggestion to determine what kind of drainage you have is to dig a hole, about the size you would dig to plant a tree or shrub, fill it with water and let it drain. Then fill it a second time. If it has not drained overnight, "you could have a real problem," Smith said, "and your trees could die from standing in water.
"People should think about raised beds for their trees if their soil is too heavy. Raised beds have become commonplace for flowers and vegetables but a lot of gardeners don't realize they are just as good for trees and shrubs," he said.
Smith was asked to share some of his favorite trees for home gardens:
"For a small garden, the "Red Jewel' crabapple is a winner. There are crabapple cultivars now that have very small fruit that the birds love, plus the tree will give you color all four seasons. Also, there are some cultivars that are horizontal in form, others are upright or rounded, and there are shrubs.
"Flowers can be white, pink, rose and dark red and the fruits can range from red to maroon to yellow.
"The "Gray Dogwood' (Cornus racemosa) is a rounded tree that grows 12 feet high and has a 12-foot spread. It has white flower clusters in early summer, white to blue fruit and beautiful purple-red fall color."
For a medium-size garden, Smith said his "very favorite is the "Japanese Stewartia' (Stewartia pseudocamellia). This is considered a shrub, but will grow to 30 feet high with a 20-foot spread. It is a great accent plant with white flowers in mid-summer, has good fall color and striking bark coloration for winter interest."
For "any size garden," Smith singled out the "Dappled Willow" (Salix int. Hakuro Nishiki), which grows 8 feet tall with a 5-foot spread. Its new shoots are bright pink with narrow variegated leaves of pink, white and green, and it is a great accent plant.
"It's also great for anyone who loves to keep busy in the garden because it actually must be sheared regularly to get the variegation in the leaves," he said.
When it comes to border trees, Smith recommends "European Hornbeam" (Carpinus Betulus), which is pyramid-shaped, grows to 40 feet with a 25-foot spread and can be sheared for a formal hedge, or just left as a loose informal hedge. "This is a good street or lawn tree and has no major disease or insect problems," he said.
Another tree good for planting near the street is "The "Robin Hill Serviceberry' (Amelanchier x grand. Robin Hill) gets about 20 feet tall with a 12-foot spread and can handle road salt," he explained.
And, "there are all kinds of dwarf trees, including all the fruit trees. Even with a small garden, you can have your own little fruit orchard."
What are zones?
Zones are about the "hardiness" of the particular plant. They are designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on average annual minimum temperatures recorded throughout North America from 1974 to 1986.
The term "hardiness" refers to the ability of a plant to withstand an average minimum temperature.
For our area, a Zone 4 plant should be able to survive low temperatures ranging from 20 to 30 degrees below zero and Zone 5, 10 to 20 degrees below zero. Zone 6 plants can be expected to tolerate temperatures dropping to 0 degrees and in some instances 10 degrees below zero.
Remember these temperatures also hold for plants that "sleep" during the winter. That's why Zone 6 was described as "iffy" because we certainly had temperatures colder than 10 degrees below zero this winter.
The catalogs are piling up, and they are tempting. As you spend your free time searching for something different or new for your garden, remember to check the zones.
Unlike the plants in local garden centers that usually are raised for local temperatures, the catalogs offer plants for every part of the country.
Also remember that in almost every instance, first-year plantings will not look like those glorious color catalog photos.
If you decide to order from a catalog for the first time, check around to find someone who has already ordered from it and ask if they would do it again.