The weeping willow and sourwood, gifts for our wedding, died early on. The Austrian pine marking the birth of our grandson, Sean, (replacing the original Japanese paperbark pine accidentally mowed down) seems to be succumbing to some kind of tip die-back 16 years later, and ever since I heard about the depredations of the ambrosia beetle, I’ve been worried about our iconic garden beech, which sports a suspicious early-browning swath through its canopy.
Then there’s the couple who nurse a sickly hybrid bestowed in memory of a beloved relative and the lady who can’t stand the mature habit of the vigorous trident maple she planted for a long-ago wedding anniversary. Symbolism and sentiment stay our hands. In the face of such pitfalls, why plant a memorial tree at all?
Because sometimes we just can’t help it. Dedicating a tree to a special person or event is an age-old human rite. Trees have futures and meanings fraught with peril. Just like us, they are blessed and cursed. They grow old majestically or die too soon from accident or disease, sometimes murder. They suffer misfortune, witness history, receive accolades, nurture life and cause unintended harm. Planting a tree is always an act of hope.
Most memorial trees are in our yards, some in cemeteries, others in public spaces. Decisions can be very personal, for weddings, births and deaths, or out of our hands altogether in the case of happenstance. Some trees are selected as specimens for neighborhood associations or parks to commemorate a public event or benefactor. If you’re tasked with selecting or caring for a such a tree, what should you keep in mind?
Ultimate size, width as well as height, is often the most surprising aspect of trees and the biggest threat to their longevity. Make sure a newly planted tree is muddied in and gets an inch of water every week the ground is not frozen for at least the first couple of years; pay extra attention during hot dry spells. In the country, protection from deer rubbing is crucial.
Dig the planting hole two to three times wider than the root ball and place it at soil level or a bit higher, exposing the natural flare of the trunk. If it looks like a telephone pole, it’s too deep. Healthy tree roots will quickly outgrow the original hole, so don’t amend so much that you radically change the texture and drainage from the surrounding soil. A few shovelfuls of good compost is usually sufficient.
Mulch with organic shredded hardwood, pine bark, leaf compost, pine tags or the like, no more than three inches and don’t build a volcano! Often this structure is intended to hold water, but as it deepens with repeated mindless mulching, it ends up shedding water and starving the soil of oxygen. Keep mulch flat and a few inches away from the base of the trunk. Staking is usually not necessary unless you have an unusually top-heavy tree, and can cause harm when not removed within a year by keeping the tree too stiff to develop natural wind resistance and cutting into its bark.
Please don’t just throw down a ceremonial shovel and walk away from a photo op if you’re involved in planting a public tree. Make sure there is specific responsibility (and funding!) for care. Track down the department and individual at the relevant agency (parks and recreation, campus landscaping, etc.) and confirm that the new tree is on a care schedule. Walk by occasionally and keep an eye on it. Have another visible dedication in addition to the tree. A bench with a plaque is ideal, perhaps an engraved stone in the turf. Let aftercomers know the meaning of the tree.
Our marriage has survived the demise of our wedding trees and seen the planting of many more. Perhaps we’ll make a bonfire of Sean’s pine for his senior prom. In the meantime, my birthday beech in the east meadow is coming on 18 years now and I’m beginning to think about what we’ll plant for Sean’s graduation.
Memorial tree suggestions
American holly, red and yellow berried (40-50′ x 18-40′)*
Beech: European (50-60′ x 35-40′); Pendula (weeping); Copper beech, Native American beech*
Dogwood, white and pink (20-30′ x 20-30′)*
Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, dwarf weeping (10-15′), standard (15-20′), green or burgundy
Southern magnolia (60-80′ x 30-50′) or
Little Gem (20′)*
Star magnolia, M. stellata (15-20′ x 10-15′)
White oak (50-80′)*
Fall check list
- Get a soil test and best management practices from the Virginia Healthy Lawns program through Piedmont Master Gardeners (albemarle firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Water woody plants two years and younger well into winter.
- Put up wire cages around small caliper trees to protect from deer.
- Sow fall greens to follow summer veggies.
- Plant cover crops like rye or clover in empty vegetable beds.
- Plant bulbs (brentandbeckysbulbs.com, vanengelen.com, local garden centers).