The Transplanted Gardener: When a Butterfly doesn’t emerge

Photos courtesy of Craig Summers Black.
Before: Butterflies magnolia was the focal point of the front landscape.

A very late fairly cold snap this spring spelled doom for far too many plants hereabouts – including my favorite tree, the yellow magnolia that the front landscape is built around. (See first photo above.)

Evergreens became everbrowns. Agastaches refused to reappear. And my 12-year-old, 20-foot-tall Magnolia 'Butterflies' – which is guaranteed winter hardy to at least - 20 F. (-29 C); some catalogs vow 30 below (-34 C) – shuffled off its mortal coil. And this cold blast was only in the minus teens.

I thought that maybe the leaves were just blasted;  it wouldn’t be the first time its flower buds got frosted. But this time the tree remained skeletal for far too long. Long about June (well, sometimes it takes me awhile) I knew something was definitely wrong.

I tested the twigs and, yup, they snapped right off. Same for the small limbs. And the medium-sized ones. Even the big ones. Snap, snap, snap.

So I took out my pocketknife and scraped off a bit of bark on the trunk up high: Nope. Then down about eye height. Eureka: Green. Life!

Next course of action: the chain saw.

I lopped off all the limbs and took the tree down by half, down to where I knew there was living tissue. (See second photo above.) In effect, what I did was top the poor thing – something you should never ever do, of course. But this was, literally, a matter of life and death. I was hoping to force sprouts and shoots to emerge from the trunk, which I could then edit down to train one as a leader.

No such luck.

Until … until …

I was wildly plucking that pesky tradescantia weed  from inside the horseshoe driveway (a more futile gesture there never was, but what are you going to do?), when I found new magnolia growth hidden under the gold juniper. (See Photo No. 3 at top.)

I am saved.

I’ve now removed a few of the lesser shoots and am leaving three or so of the more vigorous ones for now (for insurance). I’ll remove all but one next spring – after I am assured of seasonal renewal.

Meanwhile, I am leaving the trunk totem-pole as a snag. Hideous, I know, especially right in the middle of the front yard – but the clematis needs to grow up something and the birds seem to like perching there. I’ll cut this eyesore down to the ground in the spring.

But in the meantime, this ugly stick will act as a beacon, especially when the snow obscures the landscape. A beacon? Yes, because without it, with the yard under a blanket of white, something needs to say: "Don’t drive on the lawn. The driveway is here."

What else I’m into this week: splitting firewood.

Editor’s note: To read more by Craig, who writes the Transplanted Gardener posts for Diggin' It, see our blog archive. For more gardening at the Monitor, click on our main gardening page. Or our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Join the group (it’s free) and upload your garden photos — and possibly win a prize. (The next contest begins net week.)  Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.

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