Trees in a box

With mail-order, you can shop for a forest in your jammies.

Courtesy of Craig Summers Black
This is what four trees and shrubs in a box look like when they arrive from a mail-order nursery. They need to be unpacked carefully.
Courtesy of Craig Summers Black
This witch hazel named Kohankie arrived from the mail-order nursery in full flower. So it is the only shrub or tree in flower in my Iowa yard in early April.
Courtesy of Craig Summers Black
The UPS guy takes one look at my order for shrubs and trees from a mail-order nursery and yells at me: "More work for Craig!"

Ever since I got rid of the "livestock," I’ve been planting trees. In my mind, that three-acre patch is no longer a grassy (well, weedy) expanse of pasture. It is a veritable forest with mown paths, a place to promenade. Maybe even ride dirt bikes.

But to your eye – and everyone else’s – it’s a flat expanse of turf with little tiny orange and pink flags dotting it like so much litter. Because you can’t really see my 12-inch-tall trees from any particular distance.

Mail-ordering in the boonies

Well, if I could afford bigger trees, I would buy them. Then again, you can’t mail head-high, branched-out arboretum material. And I do get almost all of my trees, and pretty much everything else -- perennials, CDs, clothes, even my “new” guitar – from the Net and in the mail.

It’s not so much that I hate making the 55-mile round-trip to town to buy stuff. Nor the fact that if I did so, I’d have to pay sales tax. It’s that I live in the middle of Iowa. I live in the boonies. There is barely a there there, not to mention decent nurseries or record stores (well, that dates me, doesn’t it?).

So if I want to buy something even remotely adventurous, something besides a red maple or a tea rose, I pretty much have to do it by mail.

So here’s my latest shipment of oddball woodies:

• A Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Woodsman’: Multicolored! Blooms young! And it doesn’t flower until late, so the buds won’t get toasted if we get our usual late freezes.

• A Chionanthus virginicus: I’ve been putting off planting a Chinese fringe tree for years, mainly because the flowers are so small. But they are supposed to smell wonderful, so I hereby admit to submitting to peer pressure.

• A Hamamelis vernalis ‘Kohankie Red’: One of the finest gardens scenes I’ve ever seen was a small grove of flowering witch hazels during a picture-postcard snowfall at Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia. I’ve been planting them ever since. But Kohankie (sounds like a Kleenex time-share) is not the usual yellow, but a vivid burgundy (see second photo above; click on arrow at right base of first photo).

• And a Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘Sputnik’: I have no idea what this is. The nursery I bought them from (see links) doesn’t even have a photo of them – just a drawing. But it’s supposed to have "smell-nice" (as my grandmother’s husband referred to perfume), and it looks like it came from outer space. We’ll see …

The packaging can be a challenge

Now a word of caution about buying mail-order trees: The better the nursery, the better the packing. We are talking secure here. So when you go about opening the box, you are going to be prying industrial-sized staples, peeling cardboard, cutting tape, and slicing twine. [See photo above left.]

Get out your screwdrivers and knives and scissors and other implements of destruction (thank you, Arlo Guthrie) and do this up proper. Don’t go cutting corners at this point or you’ll snap limbs and break rootballs.

Then comes the fun part: You get to play in the dirt.

What else I’m into this week: OK, I know the name is off-putting, but Garden and Gun magazine is just about the best thing there is in perfect binding these days. It’s mostly a word-based archaeological dig of all things Southern. And their dog column makes me cry every time.

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Craig Summers Black, The Transplanted Gardener, is an award-winning garden writer and photographer who blogs regularly at Diggin' it. You can read more of what he's written by clicking here. You may also follow Craig’s further adventures in gardening, music, and rural life on Twitter.

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