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Gardening: A tree for all seasons

23 January 2012

by Jamie Cable

GARDENING and the Church share a close adherence to the seasons. Next week we celebrate Candlemas, and in pre-Christian times a festival of light marked the mid-point of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. I can already detect the increasing strength of the life-giving sun as winter gives way to spring. This, and the forward plan­ning required of the gardener, en­cour­ages a continuing optimism.

The Church has its liturgical calendar, and in the garden nothing can communicate the seasons better than a deciduous tree. From now until the end of March is a great time to plant; so I recommend five trees that sing out the seasons, and would be an asset even to a smaller garden.

The quince, Cydonia oblonga, or­i­gin­­ates from western Asia, and bears papery, white-to-pale-rose blossoms in spring, which give rise to the fragrant pear-shaped fruits that ripen to a golden yellow in autumn. The fruit is delicious added to apple pie, or roasted with meats. If stewed with sugar to a paste, it becomes the dense dark membrillo, which can be cut into slabs and is traditionally served in Spain with Manchego cheese.

Another lesser-used fruit is the medlar, Mespilus germanica, indigen­ous to south-west Asia and south-eastern Europe, including parts of modern Turkey. The trees take on gnarled forms, and bear beautiful white flowers from May to June, followed by the brown fruits, which make a lovely jelly. In autumn, the trees take on a mantle of deep rose, plum, and gold.

The Snowy Mespilus Amelanchier lamarckii, of North American origin, is also a superb tree of manageable size. It displays a cloud of white blossom each spring, and a blaze of scarlet and orange foliage in the au­tumn.

Another candidate with spectacu­lar autumn colour is the Acer griseum (paperbark maple), famous for its peeling orange bark to which the common name alludes. Plant this beauty from central China to catch the low winter sun.

Finally, I recommend the Golden­rain tree Koelreuteria paniculata, native to China and Korea. It is quick growing, and, given a sunny spot, the tree is transformed in a good sum­mer by striking yellow flower-clusters. Lingering, pinkish-bronze bladder-like pods follow these. The feathery leaves also turn a lovely yellow in autumn. It is planted as a street tree throughout central and southern Europe.

It is worth spending a bit of time preparing the planting hole for a new tree. Research shows that a square hole encourages the roots to venture out more quickly. The hole should be at least twice the diameter of the rootball. Enrich the soil used to back­fill with a little compost. The trunk should be secured with a tree-tie two thirds of the way down to a stake driven into the ground at a diagonal. Most important of all is to water through­out the first spring and summer of establishment.

Perhaps, at this tipping point between winter and spring, we could take stock of the trees in our vicinity and consider a new specimen to accompany us through the seasons ahead.

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