Gettysburg, PA Photo: Brian Cavan, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)
Every gardener knows it's a messy, dirty and challenging pastime, but with rewards that make it worth the effort. My tale of gardening in Gettysburg follows the course of true love, beginning with desire, including a bit of despair and loss, but ending happily.
My tale begins when my husband Gary and I moved to Gettysburg a year ago. Soon after arriving we began to consider how to turn a half-acre of turf with only five trees into a lush, shaded woodland. Quickly, because I'm always in a hurry, we planted trees. We planted a mix of trees, some native and some not, some suited to acidic soil and some suited to a high pH, some that would thrive in full sun and some that would not, and some that needed well drained soil and some that did not.
There were immediate casualties. First, three dogwoods succumbed and then we lost three eastern white pines. I was distraught over the loss and tried to understand what we had done wrong. The trees were from a good source and were balled and burlapped when they arrived for planting. They were planted properly with compost, holes dug twice as wide as the root ball, mulched around the tree but not up against the trunk. We watered weekly. What happened?
In August we lost another eastern white pine to the white pine weevil. It is described as the most destructive inset pest of this tree in North America. Why, I wondered, were my pines killed by this pest while other eastern white pines in the neighborhood thrived. It turns out the weevil preys on immature trees and they are particularly susceptible if they are stressed due to transplanting. My little tree farm was like a buffet for the weevils.
In September I was starting to breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe my remaining trees would make it. But soon I lost a Douglas fir followed by another white pine. I wanted to give up! Fortunately, I was accepted into the Master Gardener program in Adams County. Yippee, I thought. I will learn what I did wrong. The verdant, shade-dappled yard was once again within my grasp.
And I learned a lot. I found out that the first thing you do, before you plant, is get a soil test. In fact, get several - they are low cost and you learn all about your soil. Penn State analyzes the samples and sends you information that will guide your gardening whether it is turf, flowers or vegetables you are trying to grow. It is packed full of information about the soil including the pH and nutrient content. This is essential information to guide you. I know now that our soil has a relatively high pH. This means that acid loving plants like the magnolia tree I planted do not thrive without soil amendments.
I also learned about timing. We planted the trees in mid-May and within a very short time they were exposed to the full summer sun causing them heat and drought stress and making them vulnerable to pests. We should have waited until the fall, when the trees are dormant and the weather is more moderate, so we could give the trees the best start they could get.
Did I learn about the types of trees I should have planted? Yes, I did. I learned that the oaks, maples and white pines were good selections, because they are native to the area. I learned that placement should consider exposure to sun, wind, drainage and moisture. Some trees, like swamp white oak can tolerate low spots that stay wet, while dogwoods cannot.
I also learned not to plant too many of one type of tree. If the insects attack, having a diversity of trees that are not subject to the same pests gives you a fighting chance. Also, purchase varieties that are resistant to the local fungi, diseases, and insects. With better information in hand, we planted more trees in the fall. We considered the results of the soil test and exposure to wind, sun, drainage and moisture, and we selected native trees that will provide habitat for the birds, bees and butterflies we want to attract.
My tale has a happy ending. Our new trees survived the winter and they are prospering. I graduated from Master Gardener training along with five other great classmates. We are doing our volunteer work and continuing to learn, educate and help others. It is very rewarding.
The moral of the story? Consider this practical advice that is easy to remember; plant the right plant, in the right place, at the right time. And get a soil test before you plant.