The standard (and good) advice is to plan your garden first, and then plant the woodies, the trees and shrubs, before anything else. This advice is rarely followed. Why? Because most gardeners don’t plan on being gardeners. It sneaks up on them. And what usually snookers them in is not a tree, but some ravishing blooming plant under ten bucks. Before you know it, they’ve planted lots of plants pretty much wherever it was most convenient. Two or three years down the road, they somehow come to the realization that their garden doesn’t form a cohesive whole, it needs structure–the whole song-and-dance. Or they visit someone else’s garden and actually do fall in love with a tree or shrub. And that’s when they start thinking about design, and what trees and shrubs they want in their garden.
In my humble opinion, it is even more important to consider cold hardiness with trees and shrubs than it is with herbaceous perennials. For one thing, they don’t die to the ground in winter. Whatever’s going on in the frigid months, they have to deal with it. Also, they take longer to mature. Who wants to wait five years for a tree’s first bloom, only to have it die the winter before it was to have been spectacular? And, these plants are more expensive, so if you gamble, there’s more at risk. Enter Growing Shrubs and Small Trees in Cold Climates by Nancy Rose, Don Selinger, and John Whitman. This book will save the cold climate gardener a lot of heartache, grief, and money, for the reasons I outlined above. It will also save you time, because your list is whittled down for you ahead of time. This is especially valuable with genera such as rhododendrons or magnolias, where considerably more of the plants available are not hardy enough for USDA Zones 5 and colder.
This book is from the same series as the perennial book I reviewed last week, with the same thorough treatment of each genus. After a brief introduction, the general growth habit of the shrub or tree is described. You’ll learn about the genus’s root structure, single or multi-stem, foliage texture and color, flower structure, color, and season, notable attributes of the bark and seeds, and whether or not it self-sows, which is as close as you’ll get to suspecting if it’s invasive or not. After the plant’s habit, sections on where to plant, landscape use, planting techniques, transplanting advisability, general care, problems, propagation, special uses, and sources follow. A list of cultivars and their particular hardiness and other quirks ends the entry for a given genus. In the planting techniques section for each genus, you’ll be told which forms (bareroot, container, or ball-and-burlap) the plant is usually available in, which form or forms is most likely to grow successfully, and how to vary your planting technique depending on what form you’ve got. In the transplanting section (and sooner or later, we all decide to move the furniture) you’ll learn not only when to transplant, but whether it’s even possible with that particular plant. Under problems, you’ll learn whether the genus in question is especially tasty to deer, or if it’s vulnerable to winter burn or snow damage. When discussing cultivars, they tell you which of them are more fragrant, or hardier, or more floriferous or whatever it is that makes you smack your head later, when you find out that x is better than y, and, you, of course, bought y.
After we’ve gone through all the plants, we come to the second part of the book, where various principles and techniques in growing woody plants are elaborated on, things like what to consider when choosing them, what to look for when you go shopping, the best time and way to plant, selecting and preparing a site, and best care practices, including staking, deadheading, and pruning. They go into greater depth as to how to prevent problems and how to deal with them if they happen anyway. (“Humans often do more damage than animals, diseases, and insects combined.” Can you believe it?) There is a thorough section on propagation and another on special uses for shrubs and small trees, which primarily covers using them decoratively in the home.
A couple of things worth noting: the title says small trees, so when discussing conifers, they only deal with the dwarf ones, and you won’t find sugar maples in the Acer section. When discussing fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, you’ll know if the fruit is good for eating as well as ornament, though the discussion of apples, pears, and plums for eating is necessarily superficial. One thing that made me uneasy is they include a few genera that are “iffy” in my book. They leave Cornus florida, the flowering dogwood, out of their Cornus section, as well they should, but they include a section on Cercis, redbud, which I don’t think is any hardier. And they come right out and say “Wisteria has a reputation for being very difficult to grow in cold climates. The keys to success are simple: choose one of the five plants in the varietal chart and grow it exactly as indicated.” I guess they figure if crazy cold climate gardeners are going to try, they might as well give them their best chance for success, but to me, we’re getting into gambling territory here . . . not for the faint of heart.
Whether you’re a gambler or a nervous Nellie, this book will enable you to make a well-informed choice for your garden. So before you reach for your credit card, reach for this book.