Mother Nature is in Control

This spring came on quickly, but it has been frost free and, following a cold winter,  the spring daffodils and tulips were exceptional, especially since this year they were flowering in unison with the azaleas and dogwoods. We had huge crowds of guests admiring the staff’s and nature’s handiwork. 

All of our excitement ended on Monday, April 4, when a severe storm blew through, causing many of the tulips to shatter or face south with twisted stems. It also laid level three large trees and several small flowering trees at the Dixon.  Fortunately no one was hurt and by the time the sirens went off, the damage was done and the severe storm was gone, replaced by a gentle rain. 

I tend to err on the side of tree preservation in my maintenance schedule; I often will give a tree a chance to succeed in lieu of taking the ax to it unless it is an obvious hazard. I also consult more than one professional when seeking advice about a tree. Much thought and consideration goes into each and every tree that is removed from the Dixon grounds. It is a huge responsibility that I do not take lightly. My former occupation as the urban forester for the City of Bartlett gives me a good background in tree risk assessment. Many of these trees have been on this earth longer than we have, so we need to be respectful of them.
The most tragic thing about this damage is the 15’+ Florida flame native azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) that caught the large cherry tree that toppled in the woods. This plant with amazing fragrant honeysuckle- like yellow blooms   held in beautiful trusses were in full bud with some blooms beginning to open just in time for our Plant Sale.  It was a very old specimen in our living collection and added so much to the Woodland Garden, where it arched over the pathway like a graceful arbor. 

We also sustained damage to a large Southern Magnolia tree that served as a screen in the Woodland Garden and a key feature of my new fountain design, completed with an International Paper Grant in 2010. It was undoubtedly planted by my predecessor, Diane Reed, who valued the tree for a screen in shady places, one of her numerous contributions to the gardens.  Although it has fewer blooms under these conditions, it works well for screening purposes.   The tropical-looking big leaf Magnolia macrophylla with  up to 3’ leaves, which was itself a root sprout from a plant that was once cut back for some reason, was also severely damaged and will be cut back to regrow again. 

The enormous cherry tree in flower when it fell had beautiful wood which was revealed as scar tissue on the sheared truck.  Many gardeners hate these cherry trees because they attract tent caterpillars and defoliate early in the late summer. But in terms of native habitat it is an important plant hosting numerous insect and bird partners. From the bees to the cherry-tent caterpillars to the birds that eat the seed, this plant has much to contribute for the ecology of the Mid-South even if it lacks ornamental merit.  I heard recently heard Dr. Doug Tallamy stressing the importance of habitat plants at the joint meeting of the Little and Memphis Garden Clubs meeting this winter.
Even though all of this might sound very negative, it is a part of the natural world and creates opportunity. Think of the precious light that fuels natural systems that would reach the forest floor  creating life when a storm-toppled tree falls in a forest.  In some cases the decaying log itself provides a nurse log giving life to tree seedlings. Part of a cycle.
We as gardeners are the eternal optimists and view these events as opportunities to direct nature for our gardening purposes.  Several years ago a few large oaks went down at the end of the Whispering Bench Allee. 

We relocated some huge Chinese fringe trees and planted clover in this area, which is now one of my favorite sites of the current bulb exhibit.   

I know that very soon we will be planting plants in the spot that presented an opportunity during the April 2011 storm in the Woodland Garden. I can’t wait to see how it will turn out. 
Come see the opportunities nature has created at the Dixon, and find opportunities for your own garden at our Spring Plant Sale this weekend – Dale Skaggs