Phil Gulley: The Importance of a Good Shade Tree

We’ve planted 16 trees in our yard over the years, but I feel a special affinity for our Autumn Blaze.
When we bought our Danville house in 1998, the Realtor told us it had been built in 1991, which was technically true, if by “built” she meant the year the house was erected. But anyone who has ever owned a home knows it is never really completed so long as its occupants are bent on improving it.

One evening, after several summers in the house, I was sitting on the porch swing, wondering why the previous owner, who had planted a dozen trees in the yard, hadn’t planted one to shade the porch. (I spend a lot of time on my porch wondering why people don’t do what I think they should.) The next morning, I phoned a man down the road who sold trees, and I asked him to bring us one. He quoted two prices—a basic price that included delivery, and one that was $20 more to dig the hole and plant the tree himself. My wife was raised on a farm and learned to dig her own holes, while I was taught that the hole-digger also had a family to feed. Not wanting his children to starve, I opted to let him plant the tree.

He pulled up in the driveway that afternoon in his tractor, a maple tree in the front bucket. He eyeballed the porch, then considered the arc of the sun. Tree placement is a crucial matter. Plant a tree too close to a house and the roots will undermine the sidewalks and foundation, but plant it too far away and it won’t cast beneficial shade. I once knew a man who planted a tree right next to his house so in the event of a house fire he could open his bedroom window, leap into the branches, and make his escape. Thirty years later, lightning hit the tree and started a fire, which spread to the house, and he had to use the stairs like everyone else.

The tree man stepped off 10 paces from the porch, planted his shovel, stepped back to consider the overall effect, then subtracted a pace.

“That’ll be about right,” he said. “Puts it in line with that oak in your front yard. Next fall, we’ll drop another tree in between the two, and you’ll have a nice row of trees up your driveway.”

It’s a smooth tree man who, while selling you a tree one year, can make you see the need for further investment the next.

The tree was an Autumn Blaze, the offspring of a red maple and a silver maple, containing the best attributes of each: the sturdiness and color of the red, with the steady growth of the silver. It budded out nicely the next spring, but began shedding leaves in mid-summer. Then the bark curled and dropped, and when I inspected it more closely, I noticed bugs boiling out of a split in the trunk. It did the same thing the next year, the split widened, and I thought the tree was a goner, so I called the tree man to remove and replace it.

“Give it a chance,” he said. “Maples are a hardy tree.”

So I sprayed Raid on it, then tore some old T-shirts into strips and wrapped the trunk, which turned the tide. Now the tree is strong and radiant. If our house ever catches on fire, we’ll be able to leap into the branches and make our escape.

I can’t remember exactly what we paid for the tree, but it’s the best money we’ve ever spent, tree-wise. It now shades a good bit of the porch, though I do have to follow the shade from the rocking chair to the porch swing midway through the evening. My wife prefers the sun, so stays put, and sports a lovely glow by mid-May. I’ve dodged the sun my entire life, but have had chunks of skin cancer carved from my face. There is little justice in this world when a man as virtuous as I am is so cruelly afflicted.

Since then, we have planted 16 more trees—pines, hemlocks, redbuds, oaks, maples, and spruces—but I feel a special affinity for our Autumn Blaze, given the obstacles it has overcome. If bugs had chewed on me for two years, I would have thrown in the towel. But it soldiers on, growing more magnificent each year. It’s our granddaughter’s favorite tree—she flies to it like a moth to light, circling, then flopping on the ground beneath it to ponder life’s mysteries. At least I assume that’s what she’s doing, because that’s what I do whenever I recline beneath a tree.

I once saw a picture of lumberjacks standing on the stump of a giant redwood they’d just felled. I could no more cut down a redwood tree than I could cut off my own arm, which makes me a hypocrite since I have a house full of furniture made from trees every bit as glorious as the redwood. I’m like a man who, while enjoying a steak, demands everyone else be a vegetarian.

A year or so ago, I began noticing a truck slow as it passed our Southern Indiana farmhouse, until one day it stopped and a man climbed out, introduced himself, and told me he was in the logging business. He gestured up the hill toward a 30-acre stand of trees we own, and commented that timber prices were strong. “Now’s the time to harvest them,” he said.

The logging industry uses the word “harvest” to make you think the 100-year-old oak they cut down will grow back the next year.

My wife’s family has stood watch over the trees since the 1840s, money in the bank in case times ever got hard. I’d sooner rob a bank than cut down even one of them, though I might be persuaded, were it physically possible, to relocate one of the oaks from our farmhouse 100 miles north to our Danville home. There’s nothing like a sprawling oak tree to spruce up a place.

As long as I’m talking about the best trees in the world, I would be remiss not to mention the worst: the Bradford pear, a dense, weak variety prone to splitting in half during high winds. They are uniform in shape, with none of the diversity of form that makes a tree beautiful. Originally from China, they were imported in 1964 by the Department of Agriculture, and have become the kudzu of the tree world, choking out native trees across America. If Walmart designed a tree, the Bradford pear is what it would look like.

There are no tree planters near our farmhouse, only tree cutters. So it falls to my wife and me to hike up in the woods behind the house each fall, dig up a tree, and replant it in the yard. We’re still 10 years away from good porch shade there, so I’m stuck working until then. There’s no way I’m going to pass my golden years on an unshaded porch and keel over dead from skin cancer.