“Mommy, why is that man putting a fence around a dead tree?”
“I don’t know, honey, but please don’t stare at him. When people let their lawns go like that, it usually means that they’re sick and they need help.”
“But Mommy, he just waved!”
“He probably wants us to stop so he can hurt us. Remember, honey, you should never talk to strangers.”
Fortunately, my only direct neighbors are my parents, right across the road, and we generally agree on lawn care. Still, I rather imagine that if we were to switch houses, they’d probably want to cut down this ornamental cherry. Most of the time, it’s not terribly ornamental, being all dead and stuff.
Though it does have its days to shine. It’s flirted with death for years now, actually. I planted it some twenty years ago, a not terribly gainly but very, very cheap sapling from that high-end nursery known as Walmart. Like all the trees I plant around here, I had to fence it for several years until it got out of deer browse range. Then it had a few good years, and I would look forward all winter to its brief, blowsy flowering. Then about ten years ago it contracted black knot — think gangrene for trees — and parts of it began to die. I pruned the dead limbs, but more appeared. By the spring of 2008, the whole top half was dead, and I began to think it was time to cut it down and put it out of my misery. Fortunately, my mother dissuaded me — “It’s so pretty when it blooms.” (Mom’s an easy mark for any kind of blossoming tree.)
It was about that time that the elm on the other side of my yard next to the French lilac succumbed to Dutch elm disease. I’ve heard about some ecologically conscious birdwatchers who actually pay to have dead snags planted in their backyard to attract woodpeckers and the insects they feed on, but I was in luck: I had a picturesque snag already in place at no cost whatsoever! But did I really need a second dead tree in the yard?
Jerry Hassinger, biologist and former head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity section — the few cranks in the agency who concern themselves with critters that aren’t legal to shoot or trap — told me once that foresters were always asking him how many dead or hollow trees they should leave for wildlife when planning a timber cut. What was the optimal number per acre? And Jerry said he always told them, “As many trees as you can spare, wildlife will use.” If I had a yard full of dead trees, just imagine all the great woodpecker, nuthatch and brown creeper watching I’d get to do!
First I’d have to plant them, of course — I hear Walmart has really cheap trees — let them grow for a couple decades, and then girdle them. Or simply provide great porcupine habitat in the form of an unsealed crawl-space under my house, and let the porcupines girdle them. Either way, it could make an interesting long-term project.
Cherry trees wouldn’t necessarily be the best species for this: they don’t grow tall and straight as you’d want for a woodpecker tree, and they are incredibly tenacious. This tree lived for another year and a half after being completely girdled by a porcupine two winters ago. It took this summer’s drought to finish it off.
But having a small tree right beside the porch is great for birdwatching. I don’t have a feeder to draw birds in, but I don’t like using binoculars, either — especially when I’m waking up with my morning coffee and looking for something to write about for the world’s briefest and arguably least consequential daily newspaper, The Morning Porch. (Posts about the now-dead cherry are tagged “cherry tree.”) How to attract birds other than woodpeckers and their ilk to a dead tree, I wondered?
I got my answer when I was weeding the herb bed/butterfly garden around the side of my house (partly visible in the second photo in this post). A couple of wild grapes had shown up last year, and ’round about June I figured I’d better either pull them or let them take over the spicebush. The spicebush already produces a ton of bird-attracting fruit, though, so the dead cherry tree made a much better grape trellis candidate.
I had the feeling that the sprouts would be tough to transplant, but I figured it was worth a shot, so I pulled out the grass around the base of the tree, laid down some newspaper as a mulch, and put the grass rootballs on top of that to dry out (and hide the newspaper). I stuck in the grape sprouts on either side of the tree.
Their leaves promptly turned brown and fell off. But a couple weeks later, one of the two sprouts began to leaf out again. I watched it with some skepticism, but it obviously put down good roots because it has continued to prosper despite the deepening drought. I knew if I didn’t protect it, though, the deer that regularly parade through my yard en route to the trickle of water left in the stream would eventually notice it and finish it off with one bite. Very few wild grapevines anywhere on the mountain have leaves within the last four feet of the ground. Hence the fence.