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Notes From a Tree Loving Gardener


My Halifax garden in spring ©Erna Buffie


My love affair with trees began when I was a child - an affair that embraced the stout branches of the Manitoba maple that adorned our backyard, the cathedral-like elms that graced the boulevard and the scruffy black spruce that grew in profusion at our summer cottage. Each tree offered a particular joy for a small child. In the heat of summer, the elms provided shade for play, the maple offered a ladder on which to climb to my favorite hideaway, high on the flattop roof of our garage, while the black spruce forest embodied both the delicious terror and mystery of the wild things hidden behind their branches.


Since then every house and garden I’ve owned has somehow incorporated trees. In Nova Scotia we were fortunate to live on a property that was surrounded by them, but the standout specimens were a massive oak that towered over the back of the house and a one hundred year old Hemlock situated on the sloping hill where I created a part-shade, pathway garden.


Crowded on either side with Grape Hyacinth and Euphorbia, Jack Frost Brunnera, Foxglove and Hosta, the showiest plants - the pale yellow and pink rhododendrons - were tucked in at the end of the path beside the Hemlock. Why? Because rhododendrons love shade and acidic soil and are happy to settle in next to pine or spruce trees, which provide all the acidity these glorious plants need to thrive.


Rhododendron ©Erna Buffie


So imagine my shock when I returned home from a visit to Montreal to discover that the house flipper, who had purchased the home next door had summarily despatched my precious hemlock with a chainsaw and no warning whatsoever. Turned out the property survey the owner did indicated that the tree was on his land, not mine. My poor husband, who delivered the news said that the arborist who cut it down was close to tears.


Turns out I wasn’t the only one in love with the hemlock tree.


The question is – why did the house flipper cut down a perfectly healthy and relatively rare tree? His motivation, I later discovered, was to reveal what could only be described as a tiny winking view of the ocean that lay beyond it. I was gobsmacked, and not for the first time.


I’d had a similar experience in Montreal, when my neighbours there cut down a spectacular weeping willow, arguing that it created too much shade.


Now admittedly I’d had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with that willow, because in addition to raining down a constant supply of leafy debris, it also shot its runner roots into every bed in my small yard. Yet, despite its water robbing tendencies, all of the more diminutive plants in my garden continued to thrive. Better still the mammoth-sized willow added a sense of grandeur to my colourful, if modest, perennial borders, a feature that immediately drew the eye across the beds to the furthest corner of the garden. As an added bonus, when its leafy whips swayed and shivered silver in the breeze, it softened the edges of the wooden fence that framed the yard.


When the neighbours cut it down, the fence suddenly looked old and shabby, the garden seemed paltry, and I was heartbroken.


The heartbreak continues to this day as I watch Winnipeg homeowners and developers indiscriminately mowing down trees to make way for everything from more lawn space and shopping malls to roads. Because the trees being cutting down are not just valuable from an aesthetic point of view.


Trees can actually reduce energy bills in summer by providing shade and cooling the surrounding air by as much as 9 degrees C. (1) They absorb the storm water runoff that might otherwise flood our basements. In fact, at a height of 100 feet, a mature tree can absorb almost 42,000 liters of water in a single year! (2)


Even more important, in addition to mitigating the worst effects of the extreme weather events associated with climate change, trees also absorb carbon dioxide and reduce our carbon emissions.


So why are so many homeowners and gardeners so reluctant to plant trees? And why, if they do have trees on our properties, are they so often intent on cutting them down?


To be fair trees do age out, and as they reach their maximum life span, they can become a hazard that needs to be removed. That said, for the most part, many of the trees I see getting mowed down in Winnipeg are still perfectly healthy and structurally sound.


So how can I convince you, as gardeners, to keep the trees you have and perhaps even plant more of them?


Well, just take a quick gander at any classic English border and you’ll see for yourself how trees can be used, not only to frame a perennial bed, but also as a feature that draws the viewer down a garden path to reveal something new and delightful.


In essence, trees provide structure in a garden, the kind of structure that creates interest in an otherwise flat expanse of lawn, interspersed with a few flower beds.


“But wait,” I hear you say. “I like my lawn and you tree huggers fail to comprehend that trees are messy and dangerous. A falling branch could kill my kid or wreck my roof. They can damage sidewalks and crack my house foundations. No way I’m planting trees in my yard.”



To which I would answer as follows: Trees are probably the friendliest, most beautiful and valuable living organisms you have on your property, and the dangers frequently associated with them are, more often than not, urban myths.


Take the “trees fall down and kill people” argument - if a tree is properly selected, planted, cared for and pruned, its roots won’t rise up to break your lawnmower nor will its branches fall down and smash things. (3) Same goes for claims that tree roots break into house foundations and sewer pipes and wreak havoc with sidewalks.


All three claims are urban legends. Tree roots may enter a crack in your foundation or sewer pipe in search of water, but the crack has to be there first, because they can’t break through concrete, stone or cast iron. Nor do they buckle sidewalks. In fact studies have shown that heaving walkways are generally the result of the wrong paving surface laid on the wrong foundation. (4)


If the above doesn’t convince you to plant some trees then you might want to consider this – trees have always been seen as magical beings. In almost every ancient tradition, trees are viewed as a symbol of life, associated with longevity, the peace that comes with stillness and the interconnectivity of all things. The Celts planted a variety of trees wherever they settled as a source of food, medicine and as shelter from both heat and cold. Many of us still plant trees to honor the dead.



Recently, scientists like Canada’s Suzanne Simard have discovered just how interconnected trees really are, using underground mycorrhizal networks to share resources and nurture their young. While other scientists are exploring how trees use chemical signals to communicate with insects, animals and each other.


And what could possibly be more magical for a child than a tree house? – a hideaway high up among the leafy branches of a great oak or elm.


So please, consider planting a tree or two in your yard, if not for yourself or your children then for the myriad species – from birds and tree toads to squirrels and insects - that depend on trees for their survival. You may not live long enough to see it fully grown, but it will stand as a precious gift for future generations.



This article was first published in The Prairie Garden, 2024. It’s available for purchase @ https://www.theprairiegarden.ca/order


1. “Using Trees and Vegetation to Reduce Heat Islands,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, October 2022. https://www.epa.gov/heatislands


2. “Purdue Landscape Report: How do trees use water?” Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University,Sept. 7, 2021


3.“Tree Care: Myths and Realities,” International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.siaq.org/en/about-arboriculture-and-tree-care/tree-care-myths-and-realities/

“Debunking Anti-Tree Myths,” James Brasuell,” Plantizen, August 8, 2019. https://www.planetizen.com/news/2019/08/105634-debunking-anti-tree-myths


4."Tree Care: Myths and Realities,” International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.siaq.org/en/about-arboriculture-and-tree-care/tree-care-myths-and-realities/


This article was first published in The Prairie Garden 2024. It’s available for purchase @ https://www.theprairiegarden.ca/order

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