Roots and Shoots: Planting in Public

current office tree pit

Keep an eye on this space. (Photo by Michael Turton)

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Of course, I said yes when I was asked if I wanted to plant a “tree pit” on Main Street in Cold Spring in front of The Current offices. 

While most home gardens and yards are at least partially on public view, a sidewalk garden is intended only for people I probably don’t know. I would need to apply my personal aesthetic as a filter to create something others can appreciate. 

This means that the Eastern prickly pear cactus is not a good choice. (See The Plant Has a Point for more on Opuntia humifusa.)  And maybe not one of the 7-foot perennials that I like to unleash in my own gardens. And probably not anything too aggressive that will seed itself into all the other sidewalk gardens in the village over time. 

This is the list I built about the criteria for the planting: 

Easy to maintain
I don’t work at the office on a regular basis and can’t expect my colleagues to spend time weeding, watering and tending plants. This garden needs to be able to survive without a lot of care, which makes the cactus seem useful — but, no, too hazardous. 

Hardy
This situation calls for generalist plants that tolerate a range of growing conditions. There will be trash, trampling and dogs, among other challenges. The stormwater will collect sidewalk residue and ice-melt chemicals in the winter. The soil is compacted and needs a few years of organic amendments to improve. 

Drought-tolerant
The watering schedule will be uneven and, while there is a nice amount of shade from the tree, these plants need to stay upright on the hottest days. Using high-input plants on any level is out of the question. 

Budget
A future tree pit planter might tear it all out and start anew. While I will plant a mini-garden that endures, the first year’s investment should be modest.

Compatibility
At this stage, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coherence among the sidewalk gardens. I strolled up and down Main Street but didn’t notice any themes or colors. Each tree pit planting seems to be up to the unique tastes of the gardener. Still, I’d like it to complement the village’s sensibility. 

All the usual considerations also apply. Ideally, the pit would have something to look at in all seasons: Spring bulbs, bright summer colors, a fall glow and an interesting array of dried foliage and something evergreen for the winter. 

Since it’s me that was asked and not someone else, my personal touch is to make it a showcase for native perennials and grasses that make butterflies and other pollinators happy. Would plant labels last or be carried off, I wonder? 

A few plants that meet these criteria: 

White Beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri)
While found in environments in Texas and Louisiana, it will grow in our zone. It tolerates poor soil and part shade, blooms from spring through summer, and doesn’t like a lot of water, making it a good candidate for this purpose. I added one to a Beacon garden last summer and the owner was delighted with it, causing me to give it more attention. 

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
This milkweed species, a host plant for monarch butterflies, is a favorite of mine. In a public setting, it can get exposure as a friendly landscape flower that can be incorporated into any garden. Many gardeners only think of Asclepias purpurascens, aka the purple milkweed, which is taller and considered weedier. Butterflyweed’s bright orange flowers pop in every setting. 

Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
There’s quite a bit of shade in this spot cast by the tree and parked cars. This yellow flower will tolerate part shade and flower in late summer and early fall. Goldenrods are important pollinator plants for that time period and I promise this one is well-behaved and won’t colonize the village like some other goldenrod species. It is also not ragweed, the plant notorious for causing allergies. 

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
This fern will tolerate dry shade and its common name refers to its evergreen nature. In winter, it will still look like a fern. With a few other foliage plants, the fern can add shape to the winter garden. 

Check out Tree Pit No. 70 in front of The Current office for updates in coming weeks. And send suggestions for a better name than “tree pit” — I’ll pass them on to the Tree Advisory Board. 

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