The Optimism of Tiny Trees


I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core.

I asked my dad if I planted one of the seeds would we get apples on our own tree next year?  No, he said.  Not next year.

Then when?

Dad guessed it would take about seven years.

I would love the next part of the story to be that I planted a seed that very afternoon, that I grew up with the sapling that emerged, that I was married under that tree twenty years later and that I make pies from the fruit every fall.

But what I actually thought when my dad told me that was: seven years — that’s forever!  I would be fourteen before the tree got big enough to produce apples (never mind that its apples would probably be more like sour golf balls since it wouldn’t come true from seed).  The idea of waiting so long for the payoff of planting an apple seed was inconceivable.  I couldn’t even conceive of myself seven years into the future.

To plant a tree from seed, even a modest one like an apple, is no small thing.  To plant the seed of a grand shade tree, like a white oak, now that is a real leap of faith. Knowing you’ll never see its ultimate grandeur, knowing that it will outlive you, your children, maybe even your grandchildren — to plant that seed is a gift, an act of sheer optimism.

To this day, I’ve never planted a tree from seed, though I’ve planted many small saplings, and I’ve found that even the saplings require an abundance of patience, an ability to delay gratification that I’ve only acquired in mid-life.

I’ve had a tiny paw-paw, a volunteer transplanted from a client’s garden, growing in my backyard for the last three years. I’ve got it planted in the shade and it’s taking its time. Each year it puts out about five pretty green leaves. This year there might be six. I’m losing patience, but I really want those Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, whose larva feast on paw-paw leaves. For now it stays.

Last summer I planted another baby tree, a wee ‘Cherokee Brave’ dogwood that’s now about thigh-high.  It leans a little, and its broad leaves are way out of proportion to its spindly trunk.  It has the same comical look as those skinny teenage boys you see who have huge feet and hands.  It hasn’t grown into itself yet.

One day it will reach fifteen, maybe twenty feet, with rosy blooms arrayed along its stretching limbs. I can see it.  One day I will look up at it instead of down.  Will that take longer than seven years?

In seven years I will be forty-nine.

No sweat.

*I meant to have this post written in time for this month’s Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Trees, but alas, I was tardy.  But please take some time to read more about Trees from my fellow garden writers:

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN


15 thoughts on “The Optimism of Tiny Trees

  1. Ok. You win the prize for the best post in this round of this Designer’s Roundtable thing. Lovely writing.

    • Thank you, Carolyn. I had been so busy at work I was just going to skip this round altogether, but there is so much to say about trees, I figured better late than never.

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  3. I have never had a problem understanding this concept and thought everyone else was the odd duck. Now I realize that I’m that guy. I’m also the guy who took my kids, my friends kids and even a few full grown adults, off to the side of main-stream life, and started a tree. 20 years later the jokes & ridicule have stopped and beem replaced with praise & amazement.
    What continues to confuse me however, is that even after proving that time passes without being noticed, most of these students STILL feel they don’t have the time to waiste starting a tree from seed or seedling.
    From my perspective this is even more confusing. If you give time to everyday, it slows the passage of time and allows one to enjoy it. When you rush it and dont put time into everyday it speeds by. Try growing a seed & relish in the fact that it does take forever, learn to enjoy it. Or is everyone one in such a hurry to get to the end of thier life and not have anything to look back on and remember.

    • Well, I wish we had more folks like you in the world who takes things slow. I’m getting there. I’m less impatient than I used to be. I can honestly say that my increase in patience has evolved from two things: 1) being around lots of kids (both my own and my students) and measuring time by watching their growth, and 2) starting a garden of my own, in which success is very much dependent on the gardener’s patience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kurt.

  4. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: “Trees”, an Important Element in Landscape Design! | Blue Heron Landscapes

  5. I plant tiny trees. The big ones I want usually come with price tags I can’t afford. The big ones I can afford, I don’t want. I don’t have a problem waiting for my tiny, prized trees. It’s my husband who gets impatient. We’ve had many a fight because I won’t put in English Laurels or Arborvitae, but some day, that Stewartia sinensis will have bark like alabaster (according to Dirr). Some day, that varigated Giant Pagoda Dogwood will be the pride of the neighborhood. Some (winter’s) day, people will stop me to ask what that tree with the golden bark is (Acer palamatum ‘Bihou’). Some day, my circle of Himalayan White Birches will look like a sylvan temple against an amphitheater of dark evergreens (also babies at this time).

    Every spring I weed out countless tree seedlings. I feel positively godlike, Deirdre Destroyer of (Baby) Forests. Or maybe, that’s more monsterlike than godlike.

    • I love this Dierdre! I, too, plant small because it’s affordable, and I, too, have an impatient husband. The only large tree I have ever planted (a Heritage River Birch) has been a big disappointment (it’s not fully alive but it won’t quite die, either) whereas most of my small trees have flourished and actually grown at a pretty good clip. And I, too, have a Pagoda Dogwood and I am eagerly awaiting its layered majesty. Right now it’s about up to my nose — progress!

  6. Thank you for that. I too believe in that optimism. When my husband and I were in Costa Rica and Panama for awhile, we saw them cutting down huge cinnamon trees..said it was no good. I couldn’t stand it, so I pruned bananas and plantain so they would thrive. Replanted every seed and sapling that I could find. Taught the neighbors about what they had that was so valuable.. Some of them got it, some not. To his day, and I am 62 I have trouble cutting anything down. I would rather work around it and watch it grow. Trees are my love. Patience is indeed a virtue.

  7. I just found a little avocado tree coming up from seed in a flower bed. You have inspired me to move it to a better place. I’ll see what it comes to in the next year or so that we have here. (By the time it has avocados, I will be . . . oh, never mind.)

  8. I have never intentionally planted a tree from seed, but trees seed themselves (or are planted by squirrels) in my garden in the woods all the time. Gardening in the most heavily forested state in the US is mostly a matter of constantly beating back the forest that wants to reclaim the land. In the past week, I have dug up at least two dozen little white oaks, each with its acorn still attached, and every day I see one or two more that I missed. And then there are the white pine trees. These are fast-growing trees, so if I neglect a seedling for a couple of years, it gets remarkably large. About 8 years ago, I dug up one of the white pine yearlings from my garden and took it down to Massachusetts to plant for my mother in place of a large blue spruce that had blown down in a winter storm. This past weekend, I visited that planting (now my sister’s garden) and was startled at just how big that pine tree had gotten in a few short years. But, you’re right, when I was 7 I wouldn’t have thought 8 years was the blink of an eye!

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