With spring fast approaching, let’s look at two popular plant-related spring events, especially at what one prominent authority on sustainable gardening has to say about them. She’s horticulturist Linda Chalker-Scott with Washington State University and her website features "Horticultural Myths." There happens to be one of those on point, from 2001:
The Myth of Arbor Day/Earth Day Planting in the West: "Arbor Day/Earth Day is an ideal time to install trees."
According to the good professor, Arbor Day began in Nebraska back in 1872 as a way to encourage the planting of trees on what was basically grassland, and the official date was set for the first Friday of April. She applauds the moves taken here in the East to move the date up in the hotter regions and back for the colder, for obvious reasons.
Earth Day, officially April 22, is more recent but still, notice, in the spring, and has been used as an event for "revegetating human-altered landscapes," including the planting of trees, which she thinks that’s a bad idea - in the West. In the West they average from 2 to 10 inches of rain per month through the summer, with Seattle at the 2-inch level. Besides the problem that plants need more water during the heat of summer, late spring and summer are when they’re devoting all their resources to new above-ground growth and can’t develop the kind of root structure necessary to survive in the long run.
What Will Survive?
According to Chalker-Scott, the only plants that can survive dry summers are: well established native or Mediterranean climate plants grown under optimal conditions. Notice the plants not ONLY have to be naturally drought-tolerant but they have to be grown under their ideal conditions and have already survived a year or two. And how many of our suburban and urban gardens offer optimal conditions? Thanks to the nature of development itself, very few. So what chance does a sapling stuck in the ground in April have, especially in the hell strip between the street and the sidewalk - a less than tree-friendly place if there ever was one.
So what’s the situation here in the supposedly wet East? Not so different, as it turns out. Our average rainfall (in DC) is only about 4 inches per month for the summer months but man, those wet days may be over. In 2007 we averaged about half that per month, but it’s even worse than that sounds. Because so so much of that rainfall occurred during downpours, droughts were longer than the 2-inch number would indicate. With our less-than-normal rainwater coming in more extreme amounts – either none or too much at once – it was a terrible situation for not just plants but also runoff into our waterways. Hello, Global Weirding.
All this explains why the city garden manager in my town spends Earth Day and Arbor Day FUMING about the utter waste of saplings. Move it to fall, he says to anyone who will listen. It’s happening in enlightened communities across the country and sounds like a change whose time has come.
But What About Those Fun Spring Events?
But-but-but spring is when HUMANS are ready to start planting. People are in the MOOD. That is, if they ever are, and let’s face it – most people never are. But in my town anybody who gives a damn about trees and the environment in general turns out in droves for both events. They’re So happy about the new trees the city gives away on Arbor Day. But I’ve seen the results by late summer and I don’t know who I feel sorrier for – the trees or the discouraged treehuggers, who see their efforts come to nothing, year after year. Some succeed, I’m sure, but they’gardeners, not your average homeowner, tree-lovers though they may be.
Ann Whitted – Fotolia.com