By Neal Lemery
Leap Day. It only shows up on the calendar every four years, and sometimes not even then, being quirky and a human invention to try to define and measure a celestial phenomenon that defies the precision of those of us who love to measure things.
This year, though, it is mine to enjoy and celebrate. Conveniently showing up on the day after my birthday, the day seems like a day to celebrate, and take advantage of, a nice little bonus to birthday celebrations. I’ve entered the last third of my own century, so these celebratory events need to be seized and enjoyed.
What to do? There was a tree seedling sale in the next county, and a presentation on unusual perennial plants for the garden at one of my favorite public gardens, one I seem to seldom visit. The garden was on the way back from the tree sale, and I was sure I could work in a stop for coffee and another for lunch.
The bonus was driving along the ocean, wild and crazy from a series of late winter storms that have been rolling in. The weather couldn’t figure out its day, so there was a continual onslaught of drizzle, rain, hail, sunbreaks, wind, and then several repeats of the cycle, with even a promise of a thunderstorm.
Trees! Not that I need more trees! Our two acres is now more than well-planted with a variety of evergreens and an abundance of shrubs, vegetables, and herbs. I try to grow trees now for the annual plant sale of the master gardeners, and an occasional gift to friends needing some native trees.
Already this year, my greenhouse has seven baby coastal redwoods that are getting an early start on spring, destined for the plant sale. But, surely, there’s room for more seedlings to nurture, preparing them for new homes. I just couldn’t resist the invitation for a tree seedling sale.
I arrived to find the parking lot full and a line of tree lovers queuing up outside the door of a building at the fairgrounds. We all had that look in our eyes, a hunger, nearly a lust, for the opportunity to get a bag or two of tree seedlings. The uniform of the day was a full array of flannel shirts, work boots, and worn jeans. It was like we all had been out tending our trees and gardens and took a collective break to come into town to get our trees. Of course, we all came in our pickups. This is Oregon, you know.
We crowded through the door, the cashier handing each of us an order form, and being directed down to a number of tables stacked with several dozen kinds of trees, wrapped in wet cardboard and stuffed into large plastic bags.
I made my way to the front of the lines for the two kinds of trees I really wanted, the crowd loud and pushy. The clerk filled a sack with my newly acquired treasures, giant sequoia and western red cedar. The sequoias are hard to find around here, and the cedar trees were a special treat. Cedars are hardy natives. Finding a good supply of cedar seedlings has been a challenge until a few years ago, when estuary restorationists began stirring up a heavy demand for them.
I order my coastal redwood seedlings from a nursery in Redwood Country, and I already have enough young starts this year for the plant sale. Their cousins, healthy giant sequoias, natives of the Sierra Nevada, were a surprise and I eagerly added five to my treasure bag. These trees do well in the Northwest, with trees as old as one hundred fifty years thriving throughout western Oregon. My neighbor’s row of these little giants add a special beauty to the neighborhood.
On my way to check out, I spotted some healthy nine-bark saplings, natives that have startling purple leaves and multi-colored bark, and grow well around my trees and other shrubs. A good supply is hard to find, so I snapped up some of them, too. I’d make room for them in my almost filled up young forest.
The price was a steal, only $2 for each little seedling, about a third of what my regular suppliers charge. I was going to look around some more, but there was a small yet noisy crowd behind me and I didn’t want to hold things up. I quickly paid my modest bill for trees and headed back out through the maze of pickups, in various stages of mud-splattered late winter gunk, my hands clutching my treasures.
I knew I needed to get them potted up soon, their roots bare and freshly liberated from their plastic tubes and trays of the tree propagators’ world. And, I needed more pots and some good potting soil, too. On the way out of town, I stopped for those essentials, spending more for pots and soil than I paid for the trees. Money well spent, of course, looking at the long term. Cedars can live for over a thousand years, and giant sequoias can be around for three times as long, my purchases being a modest investment in creating a legacy.
There are all the newly trendy reasons to plant trees, of course: trees are great carbons sinks; they filter the air, produce oxygen, improve water and soil quality in the forest; provide habitat for forest creatures, etc. Those are all great things, but ultimately, they are beautiful. Adding trees to our corner of the earth is simply good for its own sake. And, a good thing to be doing on this “extra day”.
After my promised lunch, I rolled up to the public garden, nicely manicured and neatened after last week’s sunny days. The other people gathering for the talk arrived in their neat suburban sedans and nattily attired in “formal garden casual” — the only one clad in flannel and slightly dirty denim is me. My work boots still had traces of the mud from the messy tree sale. I was sure the two groups wouldn’t blend in well with each other.
The “rare and unusual perennial” crowd was, however, equally rowdy when it came to picking out our treasures to take home. After the lecture and slide show, we noisily crowded around the plants, on the verge of shoving and pushing to the point of getting out of control. Finally, realizing there were enough plants for all of us, we settled down and lined up quietly as the program speaker took our money and handed out environmentally correct paper bags for our loot. Just like the tree crowd, we could eventually shape up to be somewhat orderly and respectable, though there was that fundamental difference between paper and plastic.
I drove home, eager to get to work before the end of daylight, and quickly planted my ninebarks and potted up my trees. I even lightly mulched them in fir bark, simulating the forest environment that will eventually be their new home.
All that work in the chill of the late afternoon brought me to brew a cup of tea, and I kicked back, slipping off my work boots, contemplating the wonders and satisfactions of this “extra day”, and the long-term benefits of more trees to give out into the world.