Planting A Tree: Chionanthus virginicus

I went to the Morris Arboretum plant sale last Friday. As a member, I got a "bonus" plant for free. The "bonus" plant is a lure to bring you to the plant sale. You pick up your bonus plant at a special tent at the very back of the plant sale, so you have to walk past the tables of annuals and perennials, the dozens of herbs and scented geraniums, seedling tomatoes and peppers and swiss chard, the long aisles of potted shrubs and trees, the section showcasing the offerings of the Rhododendron Society, the little clump devoted to clematis and native the time you get to the bonus plant tent you are weak at the knees, all rational thought has left your brain, and you are certain - certain, I tell you! - that you could easily incorporate two dozen or so new plants into your landscape with ease. Ease! Despite the fact that you still have half a dozen or so potted critters languishing at home from the last plant sale you visited, desperately hoping you will, any day now, create a suitable earthly home for them.

Last year's bonus plant was a fothergilla, and I wince to think that it spent all summer hastily tucked into a container in the backyard while I dithered about where to plant it before even more hastily chucking it into a barely dug hole in a semi-suitable spot last September. It leafed out this spring, though, and who knows, it may thrive!

This year's bonus plant will not tolerate such neglect.

It is a fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus.

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I have to get that little dude in the ground asap, because fringe trees don't enjoy being transplanted. They like to set their roots and stay put. That means I have to pick a place NOW and be happy with it. I know where I want it, actually, though it's going to be a pain for the near future. Eventually it will dominate that square of lawn but for now it will need protected and have to be mowed around. My long term plan, of course, is near total elimination of the lawn.

Apparently I don't need to dig a giant hole, though. According to my newspaper, the latest guidelines for planting trees say that you really should not dig a huge hole and hugely enrich the soil. The tree has eventually got to put its roots into the nasty ol' plain dirt all around it. Make too nice a disturbed soil bed around it, and the roots will just coil round and round rather than going forth - you'll just get a potted root ball in the ground, rather than a truly rooted tree. Here's some advice on site preparation and other planting tips.

Of course, that is advice for a tree with an actual rootball. I will modify as appropriate for my tiny seedling.

I asked, but they could not tell me if my little seedling was a male or female. It matters, because the males get showier flowers. Time will tell, I suppose. The tree produces fruit that birds like. This is the only thing that makes me question my choice of putting it in the front lawn. I know it would look beautiful there but maybe I really should put it in the back, closer to the forest edge, where the birds might feel safer about dining on the berries. What do you think? There are trees across the street from the front of the house, too, but I seem to see more bird activity in the back yard, because of the woods.

That bonus plant got me into a world of planting trouble. I have a native wisteria sitting on my front porch right now, as well as a new witch hazel. I also bought a ninebark, which I am very excited about but not at all sure where I am going to plant, and then a bunch of miscellaneous herbs and two scented geraniums which I've never had before. I was lucky to get out of there without much else clinging to me.

The witch hazel is a replacement for the witch hazel gone bad in my yard. Several years ago I bought a flowering witch hazel so that I could enjoy its bright blooms in late January and February. Except it never bloomed - only on two little branches at the bottom. The shrub grew vigorously, looked healthy all the time. Just wouldn't bloom. The wise gardeners among you are nodding your heads, knowing what I just recently discovered. Winter flowering witch hazels are grafted onto a non-winter flowering stock that is more vigorous and, if not carefully pruned back, will take over the plant - as happened in my case. The shrub looks great - it just doesn't flower, which is what I wanted it for. So I'm digging that bastard out and putting in a new one.

I am agonizing over this, though, because it just seems so wrong to take a perfectly healthy plant out of the landscape. Not as wrong, I tell myself, as the practice I learned about at my PHS book club meeting last week. Apparently some people just feel that they REALLY need a change of landscape. Too many dandelions in the lawn, or something. Every few years, they have their entire lawns replaced. They have the sod ripped up, and fresh sod trucked in and laid down. That should just be illegal.

Well, Mr. Z is home, and perhaps we shall plant something together. Let me know what you think about the fringe tree - front yard showy? Back yard better for birds? Are you planting anything yourself this spring?

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Fringe trees are so pretty. I suspect that the birds will venture out when tempted with something so nice as a fringe tree regardless of whether it is in the front or the back yard. But the real question is: where do *you* spend more of your time?

Do the male fringe trees make fruit too?

Re: your witch hazel - I've had reasonably good luck with advertising "free healthy shrub first come first serve" on Craiglist. You don't even have to give your address or contact info just tell them which street corner it will be on and a day. This has worked for me and assuages my guilt over ripping out a perfectly good plant.

Been there, done that. I lost several native plants, still in pots, between hard drought and some medical problems. At least all my current non-planted, still in pots plants are cacti.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 May 2010 #permalink

Well, I spend more time in the back yard. As it turns out, we planted it in the back yard tonight, because Mr. Z pointed out that the spot I wanted to put it in the front yard would, when it got bigger, make it difficult to move off the front porch steps between the fringe tree on the one side and the other existing plants in the garden bed on the other side. So we planted it on the woodland edge and I sprayed it with Liquid Fence till I can get a little cage to put around it tomorrow to fend off the deer. Hope it makes it through the night - there was a deer in the backyard in DAYLIGHT observing us, like a placid cow, as we were planting.

Woodlands edge is an excellent place for Chionanthus and for Hamamelis as well.
Arnolds Promise is a cultivar that has such stunning fall foilage that the pale yellow spring flowers will make you look forward to the fall colors. Sorta.

By thebewilderness (not verified) on 12 May 2010 #permalink

Regarding plant sales and freebies: I have the same problem as you. I even have a hard time letting people throw away their own potted plants. For this reason, I have 3 palm trees growing in big pots at home - all of them rescued from other peoples' garbage - and 2 oak saplings, given as gifts from a guest at a party I hosted a year ago. No idea where to plant the oaks, yet. That has to be given special consideration because trees live so long and roots seem to cause a lot of problems for homes around here....

Currently, I'm working on a small herb garden, but have productive lemon, Mexican lime, and Mandarin orange trees, still in (large) pots. I want the citrus trees to grow a little more before they are placed in the ground to weather the weather on their own (in the event of the rare cold snap, they can be dragged inside when they're potted). An aunt is going to donate a green fig tree sapling at some point, and I'd like to try growing pomegranate and mango trees, if possible. The goal of my garden is to be functional but beautiful - whatever fruit (eventually hope to get some serious strawberries and black berries growing), vegetables, and herbs that grow well for this place, arranged artfully in the yard.

Your garden sounds beautiful, LadyDay!

We weren't able to salvage the Hamamelis, sadly. It was growing in amongst so many other plants we wanted to keep that digging it out was very tricky and we ended up having to cut back most of the branches in order to be able to get at the plant to dig it out. I feel awful for killing it. It is my own fault for being so ignorant when I first planted it. I need to be more aware of the needs of a plant I put into the ground.

With my fringe tree, I knew I was going to get it as a bonus plant and I did some research on it before getting it, so I knew it needed to be planted quickly, and that woodland edge was a likely site, though it is said it would thrive anywhere. Still, in the end, I think we chose the best setting for it. Just hoping it will live, grow, and not be eaten by deer.

Oh, I so understand about plant sales. I'm off to my local arboretum's this weekend - I got Saskatoons and Sea Buckthorn last year, and I'm dying to see what there is this year. I want some wooly thyme for my stone wall garden and... Oh, lordy, I just want it all. I'm trying to be restrained, though. Trying.

The fringe tree sounds wonderful and lovely! Congrats!


What a nice post!

My next planting will probably be a papaya, and we'll put it near the bananas. As you can guess, I'm in a different zone than the rest of you. But Chionanthus, ninebark, Hamamelis, and Fothergilla are all plants from home, and it just warms my heart to read about them. I have such a vivid memory of trying to smell the witchhazel in sub-zero weather.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

I love fringe trees - had a wild one in our back yard when I lived in North Carolina. Had to buy and plant one here in Blacksburg, and it has survived the deer so far. It looked wonderful last week, blooms are starting to fade now.

My mom and I did the same thing at the overwhelming "Friends School Plant Sale" last weekend. Went looking for a couple of currant bushes and a dwarf pear tree. Came back with 2 currants, a fourth blueberry bush, two small quince shrubs, and myriad herbs (including "Cook with Chicken, Makes Body Strong" from the local Hmong community. I don't know what it tastes like, but I couldn't pass it up!). We've never eaten quince. I guess we will now :)

That sounds so lovely. All my plants are indoors. I'd love to be able to plant trees.

For many years I had just a few indoor plants, and was not terribly good with them either. It is a great joy and privilege to have outdoor space that I can plant in. When I moved from my home in Kansas, leaving my garden was heartbreaking, maybe as much or more so as leaving the house.

There is another plant sale next weekend at Yellow Springs Farm...lots more lovely native plants, including blueberry bushes...oh my. I am aware every day of my good fortune in having this place of mine to plant in. And to be able to buy some new plants each year to add to the yard.

Do any of you have septic systems or is most everyone on public sewer? I'm about to close on a house with just under and acre of land which is unfortunately 99% grass. The neighboring lots are quite wooded and I would like to eventually extend that into my yard in addition to some vegetable gardens. However I don't know what you can do with the septic drain fields. I would think you can't plant anything with deep roots but what CAN you plant over or near a drain field?

When I finally get the house I'll have to talk to the neighbors about how they manage their yard. I'm just curious and trying to plan what I can do in the next few years.

Here is a link to some general info on planting a drain field.…

Setting markers for the caps so it isn't a hassle to find them when you need to have it pumped is very important.
I plant bulbs in the septic area that need to be dug and divided at pump time. Otherwise I'd never do my dig and divide duty for the poor blighters.

By thebewilderness (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

That sounds awesome Zuska! My parents have some rose-scented geraniums (what's the point of a flower that smells like another flower?) and I have a recipe somewhere for scented-geranium pound cake, although I'll admit I've never tried it.

I wish I could grow anything. I have some herbs and a few veggies in pots on a balcony, but they don't due well due to the lack of light. Being on 0.025 acres (yes that zero is there on purpose) I don't have a lot of space to play with. What plants we do have are due to the efforts of our 3rd landscaper. The first didn't listen, the second disappeared halfway through, and the third (who is very good) was pushed on us by our kind neighbors who were trying to sell their home, and felt buyers were being turned off by walking through our dead plants/empty space.

I think that landscaping is one of those things that, unless you do it for a living, you have to age into. Maybe in my next house, or the one after that, I'll be able to plan something other than herb and vegetable gardens.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

How did I get so lucky as to stumble into this blog? Itâs awesome â so many intelligent comments, so much useful information! And I relate to so much of it. For starters: zak, I just bought a house with a septic system, which I had never dealt with before. I too have worried about what the surrounding trees might bode for the health/viability of my system. I have 2 or 3 large trees bordering my septic tank, and low-growing shrubs filling in the gaps (camellias, acuba, mahonia); beyond them is my neighborâs concrete driveway/parking pad. My own sense is that the major issues with the septic system are the same as with a sewer system: you have to worry about the drainage pipes from your house. My last house, in midtown Atlanta, was built in the late 1930s, with terracotta sewer drainage pipes. As you can imagine, after 70+ years, these pipes had cracked and the massive old trees in the neighborhood had put down roots and blocked those pipes. Many neighbors had to go through the ordeal of replacing them. I myself escaped with no problems, but I still worry about the young woman who bought my house, and whether she will have problems in the near term.
Next: thank you all for your comments about Chionanthes virginicus. I only discovered this plant after buying my house in north Georgia 1 1/2 years ago. The single specimen I have didnât bloom the first two summers (indeed, I didnât even know it was there), presumably because of the awful drought those years. Then this year, after vast amounts of rain last fall and over the winter, it bloomed! I was blown away, and have been ordering fringe trees for the last few weeks. I love the âGrancy Greybeardsâ (as they are known here in Georgia). What I did not realize is that they donât like to be transplanted, which a comment in this blog points out. My plan with my purchases was to grow them on in one gallon and three gallon pots, then plant them out. Sounds like thatâs not going to be a good plan???? (Anyone who knows differently, please advise???)
After years of focussing on pricey perennials, esp. those which grow so beautifully in England (Godâs own country for plants but not necessarily for my part of the world, Georgia), I am now learning about the incredible beauty of the native plants of the Southeastern U.S. â not just the Grancy Greybeard, but also the amazing Bottlebrush Buckeye (canât find these anywhere to buy, locally or on line â if anyone knows of a source, please let me know).
And our partners in all our planting endeavors â those pesky critters out there! How charming they are, and how much a part of why we all do this in our gardens! I have deer, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, and each has his or her own special way of DRIVING ME CRAZY! But they have as much right to be here as I do, so I keep trying to âwork aroundâ their many ways.............. (P.S. I have learned that birds too create problems in my growing efforts. Iâve just seen birds swoop down into my 1-gallon pots, planted with bareroot perennials, and peck around for grit, then sit there squashing the poor incipient sprouts!)
Last issue: digging up plant material, and what to do with it!? The last owners of my house had big bucks to spend and bought way more plant material than actually made sense to plant in this 1.5 acres. So now I am having to deal with digging up and âdisposingâ of the cramped things that need to find a new home. I refuse to âthrowâ these plants away â they need to find a new home somewhere else. But finding a good way to relocate them isnât so easy, especially when theyâre pretty large.
Anyway, many thanks to all of you for your great comments and helpful information!

By Sharon Ferguson (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

Sharon, you might also like another blog on this ScienceBlog network, Sharon Astyk's Casaubon's Book. You should check around your area - ask in arboretums, public gardens, etc., try googling - for native plant nurseries, which are better sources for the plants you are looking for than regular nurseries or big box stores. The latter generally carry a poor selection of native plants. With native plant nurseries you get a wide range of plants specific for your area and can be sure they have been propagated ethically - not dug up from the wild. This is something to be very careful about with native plants. You want your source to provide "nursery propagated", not "nursery grown" plants. The distinction is meaningful. "Nursery grown" can mean that they dug some rare native plant out of the wild, stuck it in a pot for a week or so and "grew" it in the nursery, then sold it to an unsuspecting consumer. This happens a lot with bulbs, trilliums, but also other plants.

Good luck with your gardening!

Thanks, Zuska! I hadn't thought of native plant specialists -- that's a great idea, and I will browse them. And your comments about ethical propagation are very important. The plants I'm looking for thrived in the wild here 50+ years ago. My next-door neighbor, who's lived in NE Georgia for close to 70 years, said after seeing my fringe tree: "Oh, the Grancy Greybeard! When we were children we saw them all through the woods -- now you never see a one." Thanks again!

By Sharon Ferguson (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink