Landscape, Old and New

Now that spring has sprung, it’s time to say a few words about landscaping. When you buy an old house, spring can be a series of surprises. Bulbs start popping out of the ground in unexpected places. My old favorites, like daffodils, bleeding heart, and lily of the valley, make me smile. Sometimes the landscape surrounding an old house can look positively dramatic. Plantings from the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s look like that. As the exterior of houses became more dramatic with the popularity of the Victorian style, so did the trees and shrubs planted to complement the house. The architectural style accounts for the weeping varieties of trees like willows and cherries, or the odd difference of the smoke tree.

Here in New England, it is all about the maple trees, especially the sugar maples. There were two huge, old sugar maples in front and one in the back yard of our house when we bought it. They provided an elegance and leafy shade for our outdoor living. The two in front dated from early in the last century. Sadly they are gone, replaced by two October Glory red maples. In the fall, the October Glory maples show off by turning the brightest, most electric shade of red imaginable. I think of them as the sassy teenagers. I find myself missing the two old ones, though, with their fall color changing from yellow to bright orange.

The third sugar maple still graces our back yard. It sits about twenty feet off the back of the house and provides a wondrous canopy of foliage that cools our back deck and creates the effect of a room for our outdoor living space. We treasure this tree as much as anything in our house that reminds us of the past.

Two old fashioned lilacs, one purple and one white, came with the house. They bloom in the spring with a pretty display of old fashioned elegance. Their intoxicating scent smells of nostalgia to me. These little things are sometimes missed when you plant a modern cultivar of a tree or shrub to replace an old-fashioned variety. The newer plants may have been bred for characteristics like showier flowers at the expense of scent or other characteristics.

To keep up the tradition of planting beloved plants, we planted a couple of our favorites shortly after we moved in. Needless to say, there will be no spiral or pom-pom junipers for the foundation of this old house! In the backyard, we now have a flat-out gorgeous Cut-leaf Japanese maple and a Korean Spice viburnum, whose heady scent really has no rival. I like the idea that, as in the house, we have tried to work with what remains from the past, while adding our particular imprint on the sense of place here.

For more information on landscape plantings, old and new, I recommend the best. Dr. Michael Dirr’s books on hardy trees and shrubs have been the standard for many years. They are the definitive guide and discuss the merits of a plant in a straightforward manner. Try Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. I have this book and my thirty-year-old copy of Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses , both still in heavy use in my reference library. Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs will be my third Dirr book. There is also an app called Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder, which I am sure is the excellent resource that all of his other works are. As one reviewer wrote, it’s “tree”mendous!

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