A Legacy in Trees


The plantings at Brenton Arboretum take advantage of the rolling hills of the property.

You never know the power of a gift given or received. I thought about this a couple of weeks ago during my first trip in many years to the Des Moines, Iowa, area for a meeting of GWA, an organization for garden communicators. The gift was a book on tree identification, given to Iowa banker Buz Brenton some time in the 1990s by his sister. Brenton was in the family business—banking—but enjoyed walks on farmland the family had owned since the 1850s. With his tree identification book in hand, Brenton gained a deeper appreciation for the oaks, maples and hickories that dotted the rolling hills of the farm.

When he retired from banking, he decided he wanted to do something to help others understand the importance and value of trees. His family still had the farm his great, great, great grandfather had homesteaded in the 1850s and the 143-acres of rolling hills provided the perfect setting for an arboretum. The Brenton Arboretum is truly that — a place about trees, for observing trees, learning about trees, appreciating trees. Unlike the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which has expanses of display gardens as well as trees, Brenton has groves of trees with very little garden space between them.

Sweet bay magnolia were in bloom in early June.

Since its founding in 1997, more than 2,500 trees of 500 species have been planted at the arboretum. It has collections of such midwestern favorites as crab apple trees, oaks, maples and the under-planted Kentucky coffeetree. Designed by Anthony Tyznik, former landscape architect at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, the arboretum takes advantage of the rolling hills on which it is set.  Paths for walking (even dog walking!) snake through the arboretum, giving visitors time to slow down and appreciate the landscape.

Tired and hot garden writers took refuge under the green roof of the picnic pavilion at Brenton Arboretum.

In addition to a visitor’s center, where classes, weddings and other events are held, the arboretum has a picnic shelter on the grounds with a green roof and a play area for children to explore nature.

The day we visited it was very hot and sunny in Des Moines, but as we walked around the paths, I kept thinking this would be a great place for a visit in fall. The arboretum is located outside of Dallas Center, Iowa, just about 20 minutes north of Des Moines. If you decide to visit the arboretum, be sure to stop at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden as well.

A metal sculpture called “St. Francis and the Birds” stands on one of the arboretum’s hills.
I loved the shape of this Homestead buckeye tree.

Free Trees!

In honor of Arbor Day, the Rice County Master Gardeners will be handing out free tree seedlings today at several locations around the county. In Northfield, we’ll be at Just Food Co-op starting at 3 p.m.  The trees are provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Stop by and pick up a tree or three!

UPDATE: Gardeners in Faribault can pick up trees at Lampert’s and those in Lonsdale can get them at the parking lot of Frandsen Bank.

Arbor Day Tree Giveaway

Today is Arbor Day, the 139-year-old celebration of tree planting in America. All around the state, groups will be giving away trees. I’ll be at Just Food Co-op this afternoon (3:30-6 p.m., or whenever we run out of trees) with other Rice County Master Gardeners, giving away trees and offering information on how and where to plant them.

We have a great selection of evergreen and deciduous trees courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Stop by and pick up a tree!

Emerald Ash Borer: What to Look For

I attended the Minneapolis Home and Garden show last week, and after viewing the gardens and checking out all the cool gadgets, I stopped in the MSHS room to buy a few lily bulbs. While there I visited with a young woman from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture who was handing out information on the Emerald Ash Borer, which has been discovered in two places in Minnesota. While there are several signs of the borer’s presence, what’s the first thing most people see? Woodpecker holes. Apparently ash borer larvae are woodpecker candy, so if you see an ash tree that’s getting a real going over by woodpeckers, you may want to look further.

Other signs of an infestation include die-back at the top of a tree, especially if several ash are planted together and they all look bad; D-shaped exit holes in bark; and sprouts of leaves and branches from the base of the tree.

Of course, the first thing to do when scouting for Emerald Ash Borer is to make sure you are looking at an ash tree.  I put this guide up a couple of years ago, which might be helpful in determining if the tree you have is indeed an ash.

Maple in a Chokehold

The hook was embedded in the bark. Please don't let this happen to your trees.

Confession is good for the soul, and while I am really embarrassed about this incident, others may benefit from my mistake. Bottom line: I almost strangled my favorite front yard tree with a dog chain.

Here’s how it happened: We had an old dog, who enjoyed sitting out in the yard, especially if I was out there working. She also had an unfortunate tendency to wander over to other people’s yards to do her business, so we put a longish dog chain (covered in plastic) around the tree so she would stay in our yard. We usually took this chain off in the winter, but we didn’t do it every year, and it soon just became part of the scenery.

Last winter, after a long, good life, the dog died. We had not taken the chain off last fall. In April, we got a younger dog, who had been bounced around quite a bit in her first year and a half of life, and as a result was (and is) skittish about many things — including dog chains.  So, we had not used the chain this year at all, but left it on the tree, hanging on like Christmas lights in July. While mowing the yard recently, I noticed that the shape of the tree looked a little weird at the bottom. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the tree’s diameter had grown a lot this year, what with all the good rain we’ve had, and was larger than the chain loop, which was now cutting into the bark.

I tried to remove the chain, but the hook itself was stuck in the bark, and no amount of pulling seemed to release it. Not wanting to damage the tree taking the chain out, I went inside to do some research. I was horrified to discover that strangulation by dog chain was a common (and particularly idiotic) cause of tree death, according to many sources. Most of the sources basically said, if you let this happen, the tree is a goner, because the chain will cut through the phloem, the tissue which transports nutrients between the crown and roots, essentially choking the tree’s vascular system. My heart sank.

I decided to get an expert opinion on this situation, though, and stopped at Knecht’s Nurseries and Landscaping, the landscapers who have helped me with several projects, including selecting and planting this tree.  After describing the situation as likely dismal, Deb Knecht told me that she and Leif would stop by during their lunch break, so Leif could inspect. When their truck pulled up, I mentally prepared myself for the worst, and some much-deserved ribbing from Leif.

But instead he gave me hope.

“It’s close, but I don’t think you’ve killed it,” he said. “Just get the chain off as soon as you can.”  He suggested I use a bolt cutter to make a couple of snips, and then the rest of the chain would roll right off. As he left, he smiled and said, “You probably should take a picture of it, though.” (See above.)

Right after they left, I shot down to the hardware store and bought a small bolt cutter. It took two cuts, but once those were accomplished, the rest of the chain came off  easily, except for the hook, which I had to tug at a bit. Because the tree has had adequate moisture and fertilizer, there isn’t anything else I can do for it now. Time and nature will — we hope — allow the tree to heal.

I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I hope those of you with dogs will add one more chore to your fall garden chore list: Take chain off tree.

What an Ash Tree Looks Like

IMG_5876One of the commenters on  Locallygrownnorthfield.org, a community Web site where I live, noted that while she has seen lots of pictures of Emerald Ash Borers, she has not seen any of an ash tree. Good point! Ash are commonly used trees in Minnesota, so many people have them in their yards. The photo at left is a shot of a Marshall seedless ash in my yard. (Click on any of the photos for a bigger view.) It was planted as a mature tree 10 years ago, and as you can see, it’s a lovely shade tree, nicely shaped and taller than the roof of our house now.

IMG_5875IMG_5879At left here is the bark of an ash tree. The borer is usually discovered when homeowners notice thinning at the top of their tree and dieback. Arborists will remove some bark and look for the characteristic galleries of the borer. The photo at right shows a typical leaf cluster from an ash. The small dots and slight dieback on the leaves indicate I have a small insect problem with this ash — but it is not the emerald ash borer. (I checked with the folks at Knecht’s about it, but forgot what they said it was, except “don’t worry.”)

Hope this is helpful for those uncertain about whether they have an ash tree in their yards.

Careful Tree Placement and Other Green Ideas

In honor of Earth Day, the Northfield News ran several articles on its Green Living page by members of the city Environmental Quality Commission. I’m not on the commission but am a member of a group advising the EQC on tree issues and was happy to contribute a piece on placing trees to save energy.

As I was researching the story, it struck me that there are a couple of trees in my yard I’d like to move just a hair — but it’s too late for that!  One of the goals of the EQC is to encourage city residents to build the tree canopy — that layer of mature trees that shades streets and yards, reduces pollution, and just generally makes a community a more pleasant place to live.  While fall is a great time to plant trees, spring is fine, too, as long as you water new trees as recommended.

Not all of the Green Living articles are online, so pick up a copy of today’s paper, if you would like to read more about water conservation, the benefits of awnings, and ways to make your yard more environmentally friendly.