Lessons from Marcescence Trees

I love how you are always learning new things in a garden. There are so many mysteries in the plant world and getting to ponder them is something I especially enjoy.

We have two trees that are practically curb side on our front lawn that hang on to their leaves in the fall. Last spring, our first one here, I thought it was just an anomaly. Sometimes winter comes so fast the trees are caught off guard and are caught still wearing their summer greens. A few times-not often-our aspens have failed to shed their leaves because of this. Eventually they turn brown but they hang there all winter long. Just like on our two trees.

This year, when our two trees once again hung onto their brown dead leaves I started doing some research. Since I knew it wasn’t because of an early winter, I figured it was due to lack of water or inadequate nutrition or some failing on my part. Instead I learned a new word.


Marcescence is a classification of trees that hold their brown leaves all winter long, only releasing them when the new green leaves push them off to make way.

Apparently our Young’s Weeping Birch and Tatarian Maple are such trees. Or if they’re not, they certainly behave as if they are.

The bare branches of our crab apple wave its naked arms in front of our Young’s Weeping Birch while to the far left the Tartarian Maple holds its whirlybird pod-like leaves intact as well.

Whenever I learn something like this I am always certain I’m the last one to step up to the information wicket. Everyone else reading this is thinking, Duh! Who hasn’t heard of marcescent trees? And, obviously, the answer is me.

Why marcescent trees hang on to their dead leaves is a bit of a botanical mystery, which makes me love it even more. Some researchers think it is a self protection mechanism to hide the spring buds and make them less appealing to deer.

For being in a city, we get a ton of deer in our front yard. They are always eager to pitch in and help prune the crab apple and lilacs, but I haven’t noticed so much as a nibble on the two trees that hold their leaves, so it seems to be a valid theory.

A second plausible explanation is that the trees hang on to their leaves so they can deposit them at their roots in the spring, when they need the mulch and nutrients the most. The practice minimizes the risk of the leaves blowing away with the autumn and winter winds. If that is the reason, it isn’t working so well this year. It’s been a gusty spring. Most of the leaves have been sent skittering down the street, taking their nutrition with them.

Watching the leaves take off serves as a reminder of the uselessness of hanging onto negative things from the past, in hopes that it will somehow serve you in the future. It won’t. Well, unless it is something like lighting your hair on fire because you bent too close to an open flame. Hanging onto that memory could help prevent you from doing it again and that would be very helpful. However, other than those sorts of things, nothing good comes from hoarding old hurts.

It doesn’t do a lot for your appearance neither. I hate to diss my own trees, which I love dearly, but the look of dead brown leaves (in my view) are not nearly as attractive as naked branches against a cobalt winter sky or the fresh green buds that are unfurling on our other trees even as I type. Which doesn’t mean I will replace the trees or fail to appreciate them for who they are, but it is a warning that it can be better for body and soul to just let it go. These are now my Warning Trees.

I look out at these trees a few times a day, as I do the dishes. Now instead of wondering, “What is wrong with those trees?” I can think, “They are Marcescence. Hangers on of the past.” and it will serve as a warning that it is better to suffer a few deer nibbles than to try and protect oneself in a coat of bitter memories from a time that is better released to the winds.

A garden is a great provider of therapy, as well as flowers, fruit and vegetables. if we just hang out in a garden and ponder our questions long enough, the garden will provide profound answers. I was going to add that it is also cheaper than therapy, but (ahem) my credit card bill often says otherwise!

Well, enough philosophizing. A glorious day is shaping up outside. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky and (most) of the trees have leafed out. Another day of lessons await. It’s a great day to be a gardener.

Turning up the Heat

Summer truly arrived yesterday. I knew this for sure when I was driving home from the grocery store and trying to figure out what was wrong with the car. The heater wasn’t on, the seat warmer wasn’t on, but it was strangely warm. I looked down at the outside temperature gauge and was shocked to read 19 Celsius!

I had to laugh. It’s been almost eight months since I have even thought the words air conditioner. I was out of practice in assuming a warm car could actually mean it was warm outside. I didn’t turn the ac on though. I just rolled down the window and smiled.

Later, I zipped down to Canadian Tire to pick up some garden supplies. I walked out back and summer had arrived there as well. Just a couple days ago all they had in their outdoor garden centre were pallets of soil and mulch. Today it was full of trees and plants. It was like stepping into a slice of heaven.

The potted fruit trees were in full blossom and loaded with bumble bees. I wondered if they came with the trees or if they had simply lucked out and spotted them below as they flew through the city. I suspect the latter, since they were in such a happy frenzy. They looked like I felt.

Nature is so miraculous and gardeners get a front row seat. How lucky are we?

Discovering (and Taming) My Inner Garden Grinch

All that beautiful nitrogen laden snow has melted, delivering its magic formula down to the soil and roots that are revving up below.

The Peace Country is infamous for going from winter to summer overnight. The joke among local farmers goes, “Spring came on a Tuesday this year, but I was in town and missed it.”

Fall can be brief as well. Some years the leaves turn colour and then a huge wind sweeps through and knocks them off the trees all in the same week.

For all my defensive chatter about needing to live in a place that gets four seasons and not being able to live somewhere warm all year round, we really only have two seasons…winter and summer. Some years it is more like the nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding that is often joked about. But none of that matters now, for we are about to plant a big ole kiss right on summer’s cheek.

Speaking of cheeks, I once read your garden is ready for planting when you’d be comfortable setting a bare butt cheek on your soil. If I followed that adage I might never plant my garden (!) but I get the wisdom behind it. If your soil feels comfortably warm against your own sensitive skin, then it will be comfortable against the seed’s skin too. I just went out to test the soil (with my hands) in my raised beds and the soil is still a bit cool to the touch, but I am sure it will be warm enough in a day or two.

You can always speed things along with a cold frame or a sheet of poly to get your soil up to a comfortable temperature. Some people have quite deep raised beds and can afford to leave a few inches between the soil surface and the top of the bed frame. This allows room for an easy and instant cold frame simply by laying a sheet of greenhouse coroplast over the top of the bed and weighing it down with bricks. Be sure to remember to remove or at least vent during warm days to avoid frying the plants though! Having extra top space also offers side shelter for baby transplants, with the walls around it acting as a windbreak.

My own raised beds are only a foot deep, so I don’t have enough space. I need to fill them right to the brim. It is still possible to build cold frames that set over top with fancy lids and the whole shebang and we may do that one day. In the meantime, ahem, I have also rented a few deep beds over at the school which look like they are filled to perfection for easy covering.

All the elementary schools in our city have installed gardens in recent years, with beds reserved for the school, students and a few extra for the community besides. It’s a wonderful thing. It is ran by the wonderful people at NEAT (Northern Environmental Action Team). Last I heard, they still had a few beds available at some of the schools as well as at their main community garden, so contact them soon if you’re interested.

The school is a two minute walk from our house, so when I heard there were beds available for rent I couldn’t resist. I am ashamed to admit that at first I hesitated and not because I already have a garden. I was worried the garden would be vandalized or my produce would be stolen by the kids who frequent the playground over the summer.

I was busy thinking of what sort of things I could grow that wouldn’t hold any appeal for the little thieves, when I caught myself. It was like I suddenly stepped outside my own body and started observing my own thoughts. It wasn’t pretty. What kind of person was I ageing my way into being? Why would I even think the children would want to steal anything? A vision of me chasing some poor little kids across the playground while waving a hoe over my head, popped into mind. Good Lord.

What if, instead of being a pessimistic garden grinch, I thought of things I knew kids might like, planted them on purpose and encouraged them to pick things? I imagined growing peas, carrots, strawberries, cherry tomatoes and purple dragon beans (just so I could tell kids the bean’s name should the opportunity arise). Maybe I would add some herbs like lemon balm and lavender for them to pinch off and smell.

I imagined kids eating out of my garden, relishing the sight, the smell and the taste. Maybe one day they would look back on that summer and credit raiding that old lady’s garden at their school with instilling a love of growing and eating fresh vegetables. Maybe they would go on to do something super botanical that would save the world. Or maybe they would simply go on to plant a garden of their own. That would be reward enough.

The thought of growing a garden for the purpose of sharing, instead of hoarding it all for myself, caused my green grinchy heart to grow three sizes that way.

We will see how it goes. And grows. All I know for sure is I am now feeling grateful for the opportunity to be part of our community garden, grateful for my garden at home and crazy grateful for summer!

Not White Rain but Snow with a Capital S

Yesterday I mowed our lawn for the very first time this year. After building numerous garden beds, I have very little lawn left and it would be better environmentally if I had none at all, but I still like a few patches of green.

Our little electric mower sprang to life after a winter in the shed, without so much as a hiccup. When that first waft of fresh cut grass hit me, I almost teared up. I paused and breathed in the scent like a person hovering their nose over a caramel cappuccino. 

That was yesterday.

This morning we woke up to this…

This is NOT white rain. I repeat, NOT white rain. What a difference a day makes. Just to the left of the first plant pot is where I stood breathing in the scent of freshly cut grass less than 24 hours ago.

There is another way to look at it though. As disconcerting as the sight might be, for gardeners it is like someone gifted their yard with a huge dump of free organic nitrogen in the night, just in time for the growing season. How magical is that?

All moisture collects nitrogen as it falls through the atmosphere, but nothing gifts the earth as much as snow on thawed ground. Winter snow tends to run off the frozen earth come spring, taking its nitrogen with it. Light rain collects negligible amounts of nitrogen. Heavy rain, on the other hand, can pick up as much nitrogen as snow, but will usually come down so hard it runs off before any amount has a chance to sink in. An early fall or late spring snow is the best gift of all for growers.

Lightening also packs a load of nitrogen, but has to actually hit your garden in order to deposit it. You might get some nitrogen, but a soft covering of snow is a far less traumatic way to receive some free nutrients.

I admit when I pulled up the blinds this morning my first reaction wasn’t, “Wow! Free nitrogen. Thank you Universe!” and I did feel a tad traumatized. However, once I calmed down, I realized it couldn’t have come at a better time. Next week we are moving consistently into the double digits and out of the freezing zone at nights. Thanks to this snowfall, the garden will be primed and ready for seeding.

So yes, thank you Universe for your timely gift and please accept my sincere apologies for the things I might have said to you this morning.

Peas are going into the ground next week. Can’t wait to get seeding.

White Rain and a Hardening Heart

On the heels of the backyard iceberg finally disappearing, we’ve been experiencing some white rain showers for the last few days. Since it melts as it hits the ground, I see no need to toss the S word around, so I will leave it at that.

It all gets considered though, when figuring out the optimum day to seed the garden. I used to wait for the May long weekend, but that can be way later than necessary. I have learned to take my cue from nature instead of the calendar.

When the dandelions are in full bloom, it is time to put in the cool weather seeds such as peas, carrots, beets, turnips, onion sets and even potatoes. When the trees have leafed out, it is usually safe to put out the tougher transplants, provided they have gone through the hardening off period of being set outside for increasing lengths of time.

Hardening off plants is an important step to a successful garden and one that is a case of do as I say, not as I do. I completely suck at the process. Oh, I start off setting my darlings out on a sheltered porch for a couple of hours before rushing out to anxiously whisk them back inside, just like a good gardener should. But alas, in only a few short days it all falls apart. The darlings are forgotten and accidentally left out for the entire day. Usually before the first week is even over, I get up one morning and remember I forgot to bring them in the night before. The same seedlings I carefully purchased, sowed, labelled, watered, fertilized and fussed over for weeks, are left thoughtlessly abandoned like so much compost.

Of course I rush right out, oh so sorry and full of apologies, but the plants are having none of it. There they are, sitting on the porch, shoulders hunched, looking weary of it all before the season has even properly begun. Some years it is worse. Far worse. I rush out to find frost has had its way with them in the night. You’d think I would learn.

Sometimes spring gets away on me and I end up skipping the hardening off process altogether and just plant them out in the garden straight from the greenhouse or grow lights.

I watched a vlog recently where the gardener said he doesn’t bother with hardening off. He likened his method to taking the plants out in the woods and handing them each a knife and a packet of matches and saying, “Let’s see what you’re made of. I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on you.” As terrible as it sounds, I can identify.

One of the zillion great things about plants, is that they are resilient. They don’t even need knives or matches. They are designed to grow and to produce and will overcome all kinds of crazy odds to make that happen. Don’t think for a second I’m not grateful for that. But it is so much better for all concerned if you do things right and help them along. That is how bumper crops are made.

Maybe this will be the year I harden my plants off properly and they start the year with robust enthusiasm and no need for any disappointed withering glances in my direction. Or knives or match boxes. With age comes wisdom and all that. Unfortunately, with age comes forgetfulness as well. It could go either way really.

So long as the rain stops coming down white, everything should be okay. Sort of.

P.S. This morning the white rain is no longer disappearing as it hits the ground. I am now calling it rain dust. Or rain frosting. But, and this is important, I am still calling it rain. 


The Rhubarb

Yesterday was the day! The snow has been gone from the front yard for awhile now, but in the back, stubbornly hunkered against the north side of the house, was a huge persistent chunk of snow that resembled an iceberg. Its melt rate has been painfully slow. Finally only a few shards remained and yesterday morning they were gone.

Insert happy spring dance here.

Oodles of crocuses have been blooming and daffodils are spearing their way skyward as well. Several perennials have even leafed out, including The Rhubarb.

I bought The Rhubarb the first spring we were in our new apartment. Strangely enough, of all the plants I had left behind in our country garden, it was the rhubarb unfurling in the spring that I missed most of all. I felt bad putting such an earthy plant into a pot, but it didn’t seem to mind. I thought maybe if I tucked it into a sheltered corner on the balcony come winter and surrounded it with other pots, the rhubarb might survive and I could look forward to its annual unfurling once again.

Instead there were some issues with my balcony garden and the strata complained, I overreacted, and banished the lot to our yard at the store. Come fall the pots were emptied and put away, but the pot with the rhubarb was tucked in a corner along the fence and forgotten.

We were well into the next spring, when Darcy discovered the rhubarb in full leaf. By this time I had rented four beds at the Community Garden, so I took the rhubarb there where it hung out in its pot, at the end of one of my beds. I left it there come winter, and the next spring up it came in its pot once again. The following spring we moved into our house and the rhubarb was brought from the community garden to our backyard, released from its pot and for the first time in its rhubarb life, allowed to discover what it was like to wiggle its roots deep into the earth.

And now, here it is, coming up once again, but this time sans pot.

The really weird thing about all of this? I don’t even like rhubarb. As a kid my mom would send me outside with a bowl of sugar and I would pull up a rhubarb stalk, laze out in a lawn chair and basically use the rhubarb to spoon up the sugar.

Darcy is even more ambivalent about rhubarb than I am. Even sugared up rhubarb pies or cobblers fail to impress him much. Our sons were a different story. Not only did they love rhubarb, they ate it raw without any sugar at all, causing us to worry they were deficient in some kind of vitamin or mineral or something.

I will always grow rhubarb simply for its early rise in the spring, its majestic leaves, its gorgeous ruby stalks and the plumes of cream that froth its tops later in the season (though if growing for production you usually snap the stalks off before they flower). If left to bloom, it is a worthy stand in for other ornamentals such as rodgersia. My whole goal for the front yard is to create a space that is equally edible and pretty. Another bonus for using rhubarb out front is that deer leave it alone.

A rhubarb in bloom against that big Peace Country sky!

The Rhubarb, however, was planted in the backyard. Of course it was. I feel guilty to be moving the poor thing once again after it has been so brave, for so long, but hopefully this move will be its last. And not because the move kills it. Given its years of tenacity I am sure it will make the move without mishap. It would be pretty ironic if this is what ends up doing it in though.

And who knows? Maybe our tastes have changed. Once The Rhubarb is established, I think I will try out a few rhubarb recipes again just to find out. That’s a wonderful thing about life. Things are always changing and you just never know.

April Snow Brings May Flowers…or something like that.

The snow was almost gone from the front yard and little spikes of bulbs were spearing their way up all over the place. On the south bed, up against the house, one daring little crocus even burst into bloom.

Today, while out snow blowing the driveway, there was no sign of life. Or lawn. Just lots of the white stuff and I don’t mean crocus petals.

Every year spring arrives and we lose our minds. Every year, just as the last bit of snow is about to melt, winter makes a comeback and every year we are equal parts outraged and surprised.

As that old joke goes, winter in the north is like an angry person who storms out of the room only to return and say, “And another thing…”

Today we woke up to another thing which turned out to be several inches thick. Which is also a good thing, given the amount of life that was starting to bubble to the surface. When temperatures drop, the snow acts like an insulating blanket keeping all that greenery protected until winter decides to exit again, which, according the forecast, will happen tomorrow with highs of +11 C.

So once again, we are looking forward to spring casting off its white comforter. But this time we are keeping a wary eye on the door in case winter has a few last stormy retorts.