Trees: The Bigger The Better

By Teo Spengler | August 7, 2021
Image by Lana2011
by Teo Spengler
August 7, 2021

Every gardener loves every plant, every landscaping feature, just like parents love each of their children equally. But there are always firsts among equals, the ones we check first when we get home from vacation, the ones whose photos feature on our landing pages. These are the ones we imagine for years before we manage to get them installed.

What is my holy grail landscaping feature? Anyone who knows me, knows that trees are closest to my heart. Big trees. Shade trees. But good luck with that in San Francisco.

Favorite Landscaping Feature

I like water features well enough, a babbling brook, a sparkling fountain. My herb garden is a favorite too, as is my pollinator garden. But for me, now and forever, the soul of a backyard is its big trees. 

I’ve always loved tall, spreading shade trees. Maybe that’s because I was raised in central Alaska and only had access to short trees. These were largely spruce, but mix into that a few aspen, a few birch. Not one escaped the curse of permafrost, the ground that froze in winter and never thawed, despite the long hours of sunshine in our brief summers. Trees were never taller than 9 or 10 feet (3 or 3.5 meters.)

Shade Trees 

It’s the shade trees I love, the trees with broad, leaf-like leaves, not needles. I love the way they dance in the breeze, singing the same low song that the brook sings as it ambles through the forest. The trunks are strong, the canopies wide enough to cast cool shade below.

These types of trees I never saw in central Alaska. All the spruce were pyramid shaped, as is typical for conifers. And shade trees were hardly a priority in a land that slept away most of the year in the darkness of winter. But when I moved to California, there they were: the oaks, the beeches, the hickory trees, and I fell hard and permanently into their spell.

Sand and Big Trees

When I first moved to my little bergerie house in the foothills of Basque Country, shade trees were on my mind. The mountain where my bergerie stood had once held a beech forest, and the beauty of the image haunted me. But Basque raise sheep and needed grazing land, so the forests were sacrificed a century before I arrived. Still, I planted big trees on my 10 acres, 250 or so all told. And they grew and thrived and provide nurture and serenity for birds and other wildlife, including myself.

But, sadly, this has not been the case in San Francisco where I live on land recovered from the Pacific dunes. My back yard, large for a city apartment, has ample space for one or two shade trees, but the sandy soil limits my landscaping features. Big trees need deep soil for roots to stabilize them. So I have to settle for fruit trees and climbing vines.

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