The birches arrived a few weeks ago: two Betula albosinensis ‘Fascinations’ and two Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontiis’.
Four lovely, eagerly anticipated, mature specimens. Tall and high canopied with trunks the colour of seashells.
They arrived on a rusty old flatbed, their diagonal, slender trunks supported by a raised, horizontal bar. Their canopies riding the eddies, several feet behind the rear axle, giving the low truck the appearance of having grown a tail. Each of the canopies had been tied and bound into a narrow column in an attempt to reduce any chance of transport-damage to the barely leaved branches. The root balls, though very heavy to lift and manoeuvre, are proportionally very small to the height and width of the trees because they have been container-grown. At first sight they reminded me of those ridiculous, contemporary champagne flutes that, in a perfect example of form over function, have stems but no bases. I only know such things exist because I’ve seen them in magazines. I’m more of a Guinness girl myself. I prefer to take my alcohol from a rock-steady pint glass that I’m not afraid to put down.
Wind-rock was always going to be the most immediate threat to these trees. Heavy-duty wooden stakes had to be sledgehammered into the wide, shallow planting holes before the root balls could be levered and rolled into them.
I struggled with the angle and positioning of one of the stakes. The tree it was about to be married to was itself off-centred in its root ball and, once faced, stood somewhat shyly removed from its solid prop. I secured the tree to the stake as firmly as I could but the inevitable occurred only a week or so later. The ‘Fascination’ found itself on the diagonal once more following a full day and night of 40 mph winds. Happily (if a little bit surprisingly) the remaining three birches stood steadfastly vertical following the gales – as if they’d encountered nothing stronger than a gentle breeze. A second, heavy-duty stake, perpendicular to the first, was carefully hammered and screwed into the problem gap to create what now looks like an overly engineered A-frame scaffold for the otherwise graceful tree. I’m fairly confident that not even a 100 mph wind could now tilt this tree.
If the topography, hard landscaping and built structures constitute the spinal vertebrae of the garden’s bones then these four beautiful birches make up the ribcage. Collectively they describe the four corners of a rectangle with two corners either side of a central path, creating a mini avenue. Individually they each tell their own story. One of the ‘Jacquemontiis’ – the brightest, whitest and gnarliest of the birches – has a curved trunk and a particularly high, asymmetrical canopy. Whichever way I faced it, it threw off the visual balance of the collective whole and it seemed conscious of its own starkness. The addition of a young multi-stemmed Betula utilis ‘Snow Queen’ close by has restored the visual rhythm to the scene by ‘grounding’ the exposed ‘Jacquemontii’ and linking, through number, colour and placement, the four single stem Betulas to the multi-stemmed river birch I planted back in February. It is my hope that, in time, the canopies of the ‘Fascinations’ and ‘Jacquemontiis’ will merge overhead to create a living tunnel above the short walkway which, presently, leads absolutely nowhere. Except to the back fence – from where the old crab apple tree frames a pretty view back towards the house, especially when in blossom.
The uninteresting back corner, where the wall and fence meet and which has now been mostly cleared of empty pots, will soon become home to a fancy-pants-potting-she-shed! We all need a private space to call our own. Somewhere to think uninterrupted thoughts, think nothing at all or just store weird collections of random stuff. A shed, six birch trees and twenty or so British bluebells does not a woodland retreat make – especially in a suburban back garden, near a bus stop and a railway line, on the edge of town – but add a deck chair and that pint of Guinness and it definitely qualifies as a daydreamer’s den.