After the Beetle, Revisited
Written in 2006, after the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic that destroyed the pine forests of northern B.C., this was my attempt to make some sense out of a catastrophe that devastated the public and private landscapes of our province, and spelled the doom of the forest industry as we knew it.
Yesterday I had a pine grove with lilacs bordering the south edge, a collection of hardy rhododendrons in their shelter, and a thriving understory of coral bells, wind flowers, bleeding hearts, astilbe and hardy geraniums. Today, there is a tangled mass of felled trees.
The villain in this is the Mountain Pine Beetle, not the nice men who felled 18 dying pines that were too close to the power pole and transformer. These are only a few of the many thousands of mature native pine which will have to be dealt with in yards and gardens in northern B.C. over the next couple of years as the impact of the beetle epidemic makes itself felt.
The contractors tell me that I am being a lot calmer about this than many people, some of whom are apparently taking the loss of their trees as a personal insult, or perhaps a government conspiracy. This may be because I am more used to ripping gardens (my own and other people’s) apart and starting again from scratch, or maybe because the magnitude of it hasn’t set in yet. Getting the trees down was the easy part.
There will be enough firewood for several winter’s supply, and enough branches and twiggy stuff to make buying a chipper suddenly look like a good idea. In the beds underneath the mess there are/were some 65 shrubs and 125 different species and varieties of perennials, most of which will have to be moved in the spring if they survive. Thinking about it is only going to make me cry.
What is needed is a plan, and that starts with convincing myself that this is an opportunity, not a disaster. There are always choices, and an evaluation of the site is the first step.
Fortunately, privacy screening isn’t an issue. If it were, or I needed to replace the shade and shelter the pines created as quickly as possible, I would look at a number of possibilities in the Birch or Poplar/Aspen genera. Native and introduced species of both are fast growing and provide the cover under which a new generation of evergreens can make a start. I wouldn’t hesitate to plant more pines. By the time young lodgepole pines are big enough to be attractive to the beetle, the epidemic will be long over, and there are also many non-native species of pine which don’t appear to be susceptible to the beetle.
What will be left after the clean-up is a half-circle roughly 100 feet across, nestled against the south toe of an old post-glacial esker. Without the trees there will be full sun for most of the day. It is in a central location in the yard, has irrigation in place, and also is one of the few spots on the property that has sandy soil and good drainage. The beds have been improved over the years with the addition of loads of compost, peat, partially rotted wood-chips and other forms of organic matter. Although the shade is gone, it is still a fairly sheltered site thanks to other existing plantings, including the lilacs on the south edge which may have survived the activities of the fellers.
This may be the perfect place to try some of the many new hardy Hydrangeas that are now available – new and reportedly improved selections of H. arborescens (‘Annabelle’ is the old stand-by), and H. paniculata (‘PeeGee’ is the most familiar). These could make excellent companions to the half dozen or so cultivars of “Northern Lights” series of azaleas which have been sulking out in the exposed main part of the garden, and as many varieties of mock-orange which have never been happy in the clay soil where I have insisted on trying to make them grow. The azaleas will give brilliant (almost gaudy) spring bloom, clashing gloriously with the lilacs, then the mock-oranges will burst into fragrant flower, and finally the hydrangeas will take over and provide calmer bloom and interest right into winter. And – with luck – the Himalayan blue poppies will have survived and will bloom with the hydrangeas…..
The mental picture is enough to cheer me up, and (almost) make me look forward to the labour of cleaning up the downed trees and preparing a new bed elsewhere for the Rhodos. The beetle may have a silver-lining after all!
2012 – A funny thing happened on the way to the garden renovation; the understory plants that survived the tree falling and clean-up all grew up and out to fill in the available space while I was thinking about it. Most of the rhodos died, as did the azaleas that I was planning on moving. The few remaining rhodos, and a dozen new ones, were planted out back of the shop, and are doing well. The hydrangea collection went in around the corner where the benched rows of shade perennials for sale used to be, on the north side of the esker. They are doing fairly well – not quite enough sun, I suspect, but they will have to cope. The lilacs all took off, without the competition from the pines, and provide enough shade for all the smaller plants that remain. In nature, it is the birch and aspen that take over, for a while, until the conifers grow back. There are already small pine and spruce seedlings in the lilac grove, which one year I will be too busy or tired to pull out. The great circle of life and death goes on, with or without the gardener. I never did get around to buying that chipper.
April 6, 2012