I returned late last Friday night from a 19-day, 10 state, 2,600 mile journey with 8 teaching gigs, one radio interview, and 6 coppice research visits--and requiring two new tires and an alignment from hitting a serious pothole at high speed on I-95 in New Jersey. I'm rejuvenated after spending most of Sunday sleeping, so I'm finally reporting to "y'all" from my trip to the southlands. I'll start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start . . .
I left early for the trip to avoid the Feb 1 snowpocalypse and to make sure I met my scheduled coppice visits at the beginning of my itinerary. I headed first to Kennett Square, PA for a slippery tour of Longwood Gardens on forbidden, icy paths. I had heard through the grapevine that this former estate of Pierre DuPont had some coppicing and pollarding going on. Email contacts had lowered my expectations of what I would find, but Rodney Eason of the Longwood staff was more than willing to take me on a tour despite most of the place being closed from the storm, so I agreed.
Rodney and I met along one of the main paths to the Conservatory at Longwood. He told me that back in 2001 or so, they had planted an allee of Paulownia tomentosa trees (princess tree) along this path. However, the trees grew crooked and misshapen, so they cut them all to the ground, allowed them to coppice, and thinned each to one stem. Now, 8 or 9 years after coppicing, the trees are all at least 30-35 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter! Granted, they get pretty much the best possible care and feeding a plant can get (Longwood reportedly has a $40 million annual budget), but still, Paulownia is known for its rapid growth, and these trees are certainly evidence of that. While Longwood grows them for ornamental use, Paulownia wood has a multitude of practical uses, including for boxes, crates, and palettes, charcoal, furniture, cabinetry and woodworking, joinery, gunpowder, musical instruments, and shoe or clog soles. The species has long been touted as one of those savior plants in tabloid gardening rags--earning my skepticism and scorn--and raising other people's ire as a potential "invasive." The growth rate is awe-inspiring, though, and leaves one pondering the possibilities, as well as the potential problems. This species certainly deserves further research and consideration, which Mark and I will definitely give it!
Two of the other examples Rodney and I slipped and slid our way to see were again allees--one of Norway maples (Acer platanoides) around a European-style courtyard, and one of littleleaf lindens (Tilia cordata) encircling an Italian water garden. Both of these were intended to create tall "green walls" of vegetation to enhance the drama of visual experience. By heavily pruning the trees at upwards of 30 feet high, they created a flat-topped, vertical-sided hedge of what were essentially pollarded trees, sometimes complete with developing "clubs" of callous tissue from which new adventitious buds grew. Looking more closely at some of the cut branches, I wondered at the biophysical impact the ongoing pruning was having on these trees, with long stubs left on branches providing openings for pests and diseases. But given the scale of the job and the resulting time crunch involved, it is hard to imagine more care being taken to prune in a way that would harm the trees less. This became a theme throughout my mid-Atlantic journey, as we will see.
Rodney also showed me some Arctic blue willows against one wall of the Conservatory building that get cut every year and regrow from the stumps to reveal beautiful bluish foliage and stems. A stunning display in the growing season, they did not look like much in winter, under snow and gray skies.
After tense-legged wanderings on the frozen water covering Longwood's pathways, it was a relief to ease my bodymind meandering on walks with plenty of useful friction underfoot through the FOUR-ACRES (!) of covered Conservatory gardens in 19th century style and tropical warmth and humidity with orchids flowering, a piano playing in the library, coppiced forsythia blooming, waterfalls rumbling, and the continent's largest green wall--nourishment for the eyes and the winter-time soul. While not the most useful visit for coppicing research, it was still a good place to see, and my conversation with Rodney may have nudged this eminent gardening institution into some new directions. Only time will tell!