Sunday, August 17, 2014

What to do with a dead tree

Garden (cropped)
Garden, this time last year (note fig at upper right)

What do you do with a dead fig tree?  Okay, it isn't actually dead, although for quite a while I feared it was; it took its sweet time but it's finally putting out strong new growth from the base.  Who knows, I might even get some figs next year!  But in the meantime, what to do with the dead trunk and branches?  I suppose I could have cut it to the ground, but I kept hoping it would finally leaf out, right up until that time of year when I pretty much stop working in the garden because it's too hot, too humid, and too buggy.  (At least that's my excuse for what is probably just plain laziness.)

Spring recovery
Garden, April 2014

Things looked pretty grim in my garden this spring.  Coming out of our coldest winter in 20 years, most figs in the Washington, DC area--including my own--were killed to the ground.  But figs are surprisingly resilient, and since the ground didn't freeze deeply, most are still alive and coming back from the roots.  Mine is an unknown fig that I got as cuttings from a friend in Beltsville, Maryland.  The fig had been growing on his property, in zone 7 but well outside DC's urban heat island, since before he bought the house over 20 years ago.  I had been nurturing this tree for several years and it was finally reaching a size to produce enough figs that the birds might leave one or two for me!  It's an excellent fig, pale brown and with a great figgy flavor, and also quite prolific with two heavy crops every year.  But alas, not quite as hardy as I had hoped!

Spring recovery
Garden, May 2014; still no signs of life

So what did I do with my (seemingly) dead fig?  A dead tree turns out to be the perfect place to grow vines.  This spring, while shopping at a local garden center, I glanced at the annual vine section--plants I don't normally look at, because I only have so much room in my tiny garden--and on a whim, picked up hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab a.k.a. Lablab purpurea; isn't either botanical name great?) and cardinal climber (Ipomoea × sloteri).  I've grown both plants in the past, and knew they were rampant, fast-growing vines.  I planted them both at the base of the fig to let them fight it out, hoping they would provide a bit of shade for some plants (mostly begonias) that would normally have been shaded by the now-leafless fig.  Both are also good hummingbird plants.

Spring recovery
Garden, July 2014

The hyacinth bean was a good idea in theory but all it has done so far is grow lots of leaves and no flowers.  I'm not sure why, because it seems otherwise healthy and is getting plenty of sun.  So while neither plant seems to have gotten the upper hand, the cardinal climber is the only one blooming so I pronounce it the winner by default.  And as I expected, it has proven popular with the local hummingbirds.  The only problem now is that they're both growing up into the phone and cable lines above the garage roof.  I guess I'll worry about that at the end of the growing season...

Garden, August 2014

Ipomoea sloteri
Cardinal climber and hyacinth bean

Ipomoea sloteri
Cardinal climber flowers

Speaking of dead trees, one of my windmill palms is dead, and I mean dead.  No coming back from the roots for this one.  So I allowed Parthenocissus henryana, the Chinese cousin of our native Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), to cover it while I figure out what to put in its place next year.  Any suggestions?

Dead palm
Dead windmill palm


  1. I don't know much about tropicals, but maybe a 'Chindo' viburnum trained as a tree would do well. It's foliage would fit right in with all your tropicals. Plus, they're tough plants. I'm also growing cardinal climber. What a great plant!

    1. Thanks, I do like viburnums but if I planted one, it would be one of those super-fragrant species or hybrids that bloom in the early spring. I love them but it's a bit too hot for most of them here; that's one thing I miss about upstate New York!