The last of 2013

december vegetables 001A sunny day, so the Brit cleared out the raised beds today. Our final harvest of 2013: About two dozen stubby orange carrots no longer than 4 1/2 inches (but more often the length of baby carrots), oversized, foot-and-a-half leeks that came to us as seedlings from Ohio and a bowl full of kale.

The beds are now empty (aside from where we planted garlic for 2014 a month ago) and covered with leaves to keep the soil from getting compacted and to restore some nutrients to the mix as they break down.

With winter here, it’s time to flip through the seed catalogs that have started arriving and coming up with a plan for 2014. Any favorites to recommend?

What might replace the oak

In the ongoing (and sporadic) debate over the replacement for the oak, I’ve gone through “Why grow THAT when you can grow THIS?” from my local library. These plants caught my eye, with the first two the strongest contenders for replacing the oak. The others could earn a spot elsewhere.

London plane instead of a birch. It says: Large deciduous tree grown for brown, gray and white bark. I say: Bark looks like a military camouflage pattern. It’s also described as tough as nails (a plus to me!) and can be 75-100 feet high, 60-75 feet wide, hardy from zone 4 to zone 9, wants full sun.

London Plane bark, courtesy of
London Plane bark, courtesy of

Yellowwood instead of a mimosa. It says: Fragrant white or pink spring flowers, gold fall foliage. I say: This could work. It has the height — 60-80 feet. It gets 40-50 feet wide. Rosea is the pink-flower cultivar. Hardy from zone 4 to zone 8. What’s wrong with the mimosa? A brazen hussy, says this book, spreading its seedlings across the U.S. Southeast. True, we find seedlings, but then what about a maple? Mimosa can be 20-40 feet, for reference. If our mimosa has died, this is too tall for that spot.

Yellowwood tree flowers, courtesy of
Yellowwood tree flowers, courtesy of

Tupelo instead of Callery Pear. It says: Spring flowers bring bees from miles around. Orange to red fall foliage. Eastern native. I say: Spring and fall pluses, though more spring color would be nice. 30-50 feet high, hardy from zone 3 to zone 9. Callery Pear, by the way, is described as “trouble with a capital P.”

‘Morning Cloud’ Chitalpa instead of a dogwood. It says: Small deciduous tree grown for multiseason pink flower. I say: Multiseason flowers a plus. 20-35 feet high, so just may be tall enough. hardy from zone 6 to 11. Other alternatives to a dogwood: Pagoda Dogwood (flower, fruit, fall foliage, zones 3 to 7, just 15-25 feet high) and Chinese dogwood (flower, fruit, red-purple fall leaves, zones 5-8, 15-30 feet high).

Seven-son flower instead of birch. It says: Small deciduous tree or large shrub grown for white bark, white to pink fall flower, pink fall fruit. I say: Probably too small for the oak spot (just 15-20 feet high) but like that it’s called a showstopper and has interesting park plus flowers and fruit. Will take part shade as well as full sun, and is hardy from zone 4 to zone 9.

Redbud instead of a jacaranda. It says: Zone 4-hardy redbud is the cover girl for small garden trees. I say: We couldn’t grow a jacaranda anyway (zone 9+), and this scores on spring flowers and terrific fall color (purple in some cultivars instead of gold). 20-30 feet, full sun to part shade. Zones 4-9. Rutgers says the Eastern redbud is occasionally severely damaged by deer. Was a friend offering a seedling?

Elderberry instead of a Japanese maple. It says: Grown for fine texture, multiseason purple or gold foliage in cultivars, edible summer fruit. I say: Can I have both purple foliage and the fruit? ‘Black lace’ foliage looks appealing. And how would it taste in jam? But it’s on the short side: 15-25 feet high, just 10 feet wide so perhaps a more manageable size for elsewhere in the yard. Zone 3 to zone 9, full sun to part shade. Shallow roots, almost seem more like a forsythia when a thick hedgerow is mentioned here. Another vote for elderberry over forsythia is here (with spicebush as another alternative). Rutgers says the red elderberry is a shrub and rarely damaged by deer. I see a garden project sneaking up on me….

Goumi instead of olive. It says: Large shrub or small tree grown for edible summer fruit, fragrant yellow spring flower, multiseason silver foliage. I say: This could be a fun shrub, only 8-10 feet high so not a tree replacement. Not that we could ever grow an olive tree. Goumi is hardy from zone 4 to zone 9 and also appears in “Paradise Lot”. Full sun to part shade. Fruit works in pies and jellies.

Chinese fringe tree instead of an ornamental fruit tree. It says: Sweeping cloudscape of fragrant white flowers in spring, foliage turns gold in the fall, when female plants produce blue berries. I say: Two pluses are that it is rarely bothered by diseases and pests, and it needs little pruning. Hardy in zones 5 to 9, just 10-20 feet high (and wide). Rutgers says seldom severely damaged by deer.

What tree should we plant?

Tree with purple leaves

We had to take down an 80-foot oak this fall. It was stressed with an bacteria that is infecting oaks all over our area and was dying — and near power lines. Three tree companies agreed it needed to go (they disagreed on others, so we left those, though we left those, though there is another oak that we are worried about). We ended up with lots of wood to split for firewood, no leaves to rake up — and a dilemma.

This tree was in the southeast corner of the property, so we know it helped shade the house in the summer. Fortunately, it was next to some giant spruces that we think started out as Christmas trees for the previous owner. So we still have some shade givers, plus a divider to the neighboring property.

Still, we know we want to plant something, though perhaps a bit further away from the lot line and those spruces. But what? A more disease-resistant oak? Something that flowers in the spring and also adds color in the fall? The Brit and I do like the other neighbors’ Korean dogwoods, but they don’t get anywhere near as tall as the oaks.

I’ve consulted Tracy DiSabato-Aust‘s “50 High Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants,” but nothing is higher that 10 feet. “Why Grow This When You Can Grow That” thankfully is not just about flowers and has a few suggestions. And I’m just finishing an intriguing book called “Paradise Lot — Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City.” The goumi tree (bush?) has caught my eye because it adds nitrogen to the soil and has tart berries. (OK, we’d no doubt be fighting birds for those!) But it seems to be only 6-9 feet tall.A pawpaw tree that the same guys grow? Or would it be a deer magnet? Same with persimmon, which they also mention?

I’ve also seen some trees in the area with purple leaves that would add some nice color and contrast, though again they don’t seem to get that tall. See the picture at the top. Are they purple plums?

We’re taking suggestions! And should we plant in the spring, or wait until fall?

Hopefully we won’t be facing the same decision with our mimosa tree in the back yard. It looked great at the end of August, and still had lots of those pink-and-white tufts. Then it went bare sometime in the first 10 days of September. We’ll be watching in 2014.

Mimosa tree in bloom in the backyard