The Trees in My Life: Trees for Pacific Northwest Gardens

Recently, our neighbors took down a huge cherry tree at the northeast corner of their property.  Huge as in 60+ feet.  It was just next to our shared fence and has provided all of our shade since we moved here.  It had been ailing for years with branches dying back from the tips, and whole sections of it were dead.  In some ways, it was a nuisance in continually dropping so much of so many things on us during the growing season — first petals (which were lovely), then stems and dried sepals (less lovely), then hundreds of cherries (which you don’t want to eat by the time they reach the ground & stick to everything, especially your shoes), then leaves (which we turn into lovely leaf mold).

Giant Cherry Tree

This photo was taken the day it came down — in fact, you can see the arborist in the tree.  The timing coincides with our neighbors embarking on a building project this summer and they’ll be using this space to build an ADU.  And while it needed to come down, and we’re excited for our neighbors and their long-planned project, it has dramatically changed the feeling (and light) in our back garden.  And not only that, but it had become like an old friend in the landscape — always there with big presence and impact — so we’re still getting used to it being gone.

We planted a Betula Jacquemontii (Himalayan White Birch) on our side of the fence in that corner (you can see it in the above photo) which we hope will replace some of that shade and become a large presence in the garden.  But after its 6 years in the ground it’s only just over 15′ high, so it has a ways to go.  I suspect it’ll do better (ie: grow faster) now that it doesn’t have to compete so much for light and moisture.

All this to say that this change got me thinking about how, despite the fact that I’ve planted numerous trees in our garden, none of them will reach the stature of that cherry tree in my lifetime.  And that got me thinking about the trees that I have planted in our garden — so I walked around the garden and started counting them up and checking in on them.  And I counted 35 trees.

It’s important to note at this point that we live on a “standard” 50×100′ Portland city lot, and our house actually has a huge footprint — it comes closer to the property line in both the front and the back than most other houses on our side of the block.

I posted about the event of the tree being taken down to friends, and mentioned how we’ve planted 35 trees in our 7+ years here so far.  And a fellow gardening friend expressed surprise at that number.  And to be honest, it sounded high to me too.  So here we are with this blog post in which I’m cataloging the trees growing in our garden — all of which we planted in our 7 years here…

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

…with a couple of exceptions, which are these two trees (shown above) in our hellstrip.  Both were planted (according to a neighbor) about two years before we moved in.  Both are maples, one is believed to be ‘October Glory’, and both have amazing autumnal color.

Clerodendrum trichotomum

Just to the right of the maples is a Clerodendrum trichotomum (Harlequin glorybower) which was planted just last year — it was a volunteer in a friend’s garden.  This tree makes an appearance all over Portland, often near the sidewalk, and its leaves smell of peanut butter if you rub them, and flowers are beautifully fragrant — delightful.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

On the other side of our driveway, also in the hellstrip, is a Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’.  This poor tree was moved after a few years in the ground to give it more room (it was previously closer to the telephone pole), and also ravaged by a truck rack repeatedly, but it perseveres.  You’ll notice many of our trees are tied to bamboo stakes and/or tree branches are bent by stakes, and some branches are tied to each other — until they take the shape I’m after, I often guide my trees in the general direction I want them to go, and it’s cause for celebration when the stakes and ties can be removed.  Not only because it means the tree is doing well, but also because we don’t have to look at them any longer.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Just next to the driveway we have a Cupressus arizonica ‘Sulphura’, which moved to this spot last year from a container, and will likely end up closer to the house when our construction is finished.  I love this tree.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Proceeding around the house, counter-clockwise, here we are on the south side against the fence.  I’ve planted a bunch of evergreen screening here because the windows on this side are our bedroom, our bathroom, and my office, and we wanted the ability to eventually have privacy without having to keep the blinds or curtains closed all the time (especially when the windows are open).  Please excuse the string and stones seen in the above photo — they are there temporarily to help protect the border from some upcoming construction.  There are 2 columnar apples here (Scarlet Sentinel), replacing two awful apple trees we took down in the front, 3 Italian cypress, a ‘Little Gem’ magnolia, an Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ (Strawberry tree), and a Picea pungens ‘Fastigiata’ (Columnar blue spruce).

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Magnolia & cypress – this is the view outside my office window, so very familiar to me.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Strawberry tree.  This tree has been a standout for me — it’s easy, beautiful, and despite being evergreen its flowers, fruits and bark provide year-round interest.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Columnar apple.Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Blue spruce (with hydrangea leaves).

Salix eleagnos 'Angustifolia'

Once we move into the back garden, starting from the south side we have a Salix eleagnos ‘Angustifolia’ (Rosemary willow), which is really a shrub, but I’m training it like a tree.

Betula 'Crimson Frost'

And a tiny, baby Betula ‘Crimson Frost’ (Purple-leaved birch).  Neither of these will stay in these spots because a shed will be built here in the next couple of years — but both will remain in the garden.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Further along we have two evergreens, a Juniperus communis ‘Gold Cone’, and a Pinus flexilis ‘Tiny Temple’.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Then we come to our white birch — currently the biggest tree in our garden.  I’m doing a mini white garden over here (a la Vita Sackville-West) and I’m hopeful that the white bark of the birch and the white variegation on the next tree will be great together.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

This next tree is still small (and you can see it in the photo above with the birch – on the left – for scale) — a Clerodendrum trichotomum ‘Carnival’ (Harlequin glorybower) — they have a large one in the hellstrip at the Portland Nursery on Stark, and it’s outstanding.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Along the back of our garden, the east fence, there’s another evergreen privacy screen — it’s made up of 1 Italian cypress, 5 arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’ (some consider these shrubs, I consider them trees), 1 Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’, 1 Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’, and 1 Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’.  In front of those we also have a dwarf golden juniper (noid) and a Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Curly Tops’ that I’m trimming into a small tree despite it being a shrub.

This whole section is one that can’t grow fast enough for me — the window you see of the aqua house looks right down into our garden like a fish bowl, and it’s a rental.  There have been a couple of conscientious renters who put up curtains and generally keep to themselves (including the current one), but we’ve also had those who refused to get curtains and had sex in front of the window regularly (including while we were entertaining), those who sat on the roof outside their window and liked to chat to us while we were relaxing, those who put their tv in the window with the speaker facing out, and those who liked to share their music with everyone.  It seems to turn over every year & we never know what we’re going to get.  Again, these trees cannot grow fast enough!

Acer pseudoplatanus 'Esk Sunset'

Because of our upcoming construction, we have trees in temporary containers, but also two trees that will remain in containers. The first is an Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ — in a container because of verticillium wilt in our soil that would kill it in the ground.  Not many trees have better foliage than this.

Arbequina Olive Tree

And the second is an Arbequina olive tree which I purchased in the San Francisco ferry building many years ago from an olive oil purveyor when we lived down there.

Pine & Fig Trees

Temporarily in stock-tank holding containers are a pinus and a fig tree — they are theoretically there to remove them from the construction zone, but I’m not positive I want to keep them in the long run, so this allows me to focus on them up close to make up my mind. Also in the container with them is a Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’ (Weeping Serbian spruce) that I definitely want to keep.

Vine Maple

In what we call the “bumpout,” which divides the back garden into two distinct spaces, we have a native Acer circinatum (vine maple) as part of our Backyard Habitat.  Will this make it despite the verticillium wilt that plagues us?  Only time will tell.  We did give it a fighting chance by using new soil & compost for that whole area.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

When we move over to the north fence, in the northeast corner, we have a Kousa dogwood.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

It’s currently hosting two bird feeders because one of them is destined for a tree that is so-far too small to hold it.  I’m trying some strategic pruning with this tree to attempt to get it to grow with more pronounced layers — I’ve been removing inward-facing branches, and also thinning branches after it flowers.  So far, so good.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

In between the dogwood and the next cypress we have a Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ (Weeping white spruce).

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Then we have a gold Italian cypress, which is especially wonderful in the winter with that colored foliage against our neighbor’s magnolia.  The tall cypress throughout the garden remind me of some wonderful travels in Europe.

stewartia pseudocamellia

And a little farther along is a Stewartia pseudocamellia. Which is experiencing some browning of the leaves, and I can’t figure out why.

stewartia pseudocamellia

Moving into the shade of the house on the north side we have a containerized Taxus baccata fastigiata, and I noticed earlier some babies have sprouted underneath it.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Then an Azara microphylla, which provides some evergreen screening outside our kitchen window as the neighbors have a bay window just across.  You’ll also notice the GIANT trunk behind the Azara — this is another 60+ foot cherry tree belonging to our other neighbor.  It too is ailing and will likely have to come out in the next 5 years (or so), and I will rejoice because this tree has resulted in roof repairs (failing shingles), gutter replacement & repairs (multiple), and thousands of dollars in trimming to keep it from going too far over the roof.  Not to mention the stuff this tree drops on us — so much so that we don’t use this side of the house for most of July because you’re walking in a sea of sticky cherries that get all over your feet/shoes.  It also sounds like a tiny invasion from above when the cherries fall on the roof.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

And just before the gate on this side, a Trachycarpus fortunei (Windmill palm).  I look forward to when this is taller and I can see it from inside the house.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

In front of the gate, heading to the front garden again, we have a Hamamelis ‘Diane’ (Witch hazel).  This is one slow-growing tree!  The idea was that it will give us that hit of winter color with its red flowers just outside of our bay window, but even after 5+ years in the ground we can just barely see the top of it from inside the house.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

And a little further along is a native subalpine fir (in front of the trellis) from Bosky Dell.  The large shrub that acts as the transition between the side and front gardens (and looks vaguely like a tree) is a Ceanothus.  It’s one of two plants left that were here when we got here – everything else was mostly weeds and irises.  The other is a Pieris that’s just across the path — we don’t know if it’ll be able to stay because it’s potentially in the path of the construction project.  You can also see in this photo the extent of the dried stems and sepals the cherry tree drops on us this time of year — the path is actually grey gravel — all the warm brown stuff is detritus from the tree.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

Once we get back to the front garden we have the one remaining Japanese maple in the ground that hasn’t been killed by verticillium wilt: Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ (see also above on the left just after the path turns).

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

And below, a Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata Aurea’.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

And once we’re facing the house we can see one of the newest trees we’ve added, a Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’ (Crepe myrtle).  When we moved here there were two terrible (diseased & not tasty) apple trees planted up here, and we slowly removed both.  This is the third season for ‘Natchez’ in our garden and we look forward to seeing how he turns out.

Garden Trees Portland Oregon

If I count these up I actually get 43 trees!  That seems like so many trees, but here we are.  I’m sure a few can be disqualified because they’re shrubs – the Silex and the Taxus perhaps?  And what about dwarf trees?  I suppose they do count.  But at the end of the day, it’s still lots of trees.

It makes me feel better about taking out the 2 ailing apple trees that used to be in the front, and the volunteer cherry that was growing 2′ from the house, and the 2 junipers growing in the front of the house that had to be removed for our construction project.

Only time will tell if, as they mature, it feels like too many trees.  Will they all get to stay?  Will they all live through the ravages of life in our garden?  Will they get too big for the space we have available?  Stay tuned!

Kate McMillan

Author Kate McMillan

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