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Dragon Flower Farm: The First Trees and Shrubs

Dragon Flower Farm: A Natural, Native Privacy Screen

Junipers

I apologize for leaving you hanging - on the fence, so to speak, over the winter, when I mentioned we had another solution in the works to screen the view of the apartment building that looks down into our little 1/4-acre. But here it is: trees.

From the get-go, even before we made the decision to replace the zigzaggy chainlink fence, we knew we wanted to screen the apartments with a row of tall, skinny evergreens. We had a bit of a dilemma, though, as the usual recommendations for an evergreen privacy screen just weren't suitable. Arborvitae is often used - too often, as it turns out, and the plant is suffering opportunistic disease as a result. We considered for a moment the lovely 'bracken's brown' magnolia, with its velvety undercoat of brown fuzz on the leaves and distinctive cream blossoms, and we nearly got talked into it by folks at our local garden center. However, we really wanted to stick to our guns on the native plant mission, and neither magnolia nor arborvitae is native to Missouri.

Eastern red cedar close

A good native evergreen is eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), but unfortunately, it grows too tall and wide to work as a screen in our narrow strip. However, remember when I told you about the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program? Through that program, the Audubon Society gave our yard an assessment, and sharing our green screen wishes with them, they came up with a great solution: Juniperus virginiana 'Taylor.' That's the tree you see here.

The Missouri Botanical Garden designated 'Taylor' as a "Plant of Merit," and its history I'll quote directly from their plant finder listing:

‘Taylor’ is an upright narrow columnar eastern red cedar that typically grows to 15-20' tall but to only 3-4' feet wide. Silvery blue-green foliage is attractive throughout the growing season. Foliage may take on some bronze tones in winter. 'Taylor' was reportedly discovered in Taylor, Nebraska as a chance seedling and was released in 1992 to the nursery trade by the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum. Release information does not list a sex for this cultivar but it is believed to be male. 

I love that this "chance seedling" from the native eastern red cedar is the perfect narrowness and height to soften the fence line and help screen the view from the neighbors' balconies without overwhelming the yard. Here they are going in.

Trees in truck

Trees from above

I realize the Taylors might look dinky tiny from above like this, but late this spring three of them had already crested well over the top of the fence, and the others are right behind. In a few years' time they should provide a better sense of privacy as well as soften all the hardscape we've got with the tall apartment building and its parking strip of residents' cars.

They're already providing important habitat, shade, and food for birds and insects, and that was our goal number one.

I've always loved the look of juniper berries. What really sold my husband, Anthony, on the Taylors is the fact that juniper berries are not only good for the birds, but they're useful to humans as well. We've seen red cedar fronds laden with berries used to smoke salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and the berries have numerous culinary uses - from the obvious gin flavoring to the more obscure addition to fruitcake. 

Juniper berries

This is important to us because we want to accomplish two things with the Dragon Flower Farm project:

  1. rescue our 1/4-acre from exotic invasives and resource-intensive grass lawn and reframe it as an oasis for native pollinators and
  2. blend that mission with our need to become much more self-sufficient with homegrown food and other products.

There's an aesthetic benefit here as well. The trees smell good, feel good, look good.

And guess what? We managed to squeeze in a couple of true eastern red cedars as well, finds from a native plant sale in our neighborhood last fall. They're like miniature trees right now, they're so tiny, but eventually, they will grow to 65 feet!

Eastern red cedars

Note we planted all of these red cedars in the fall. It seems a lot of people don't know you can plant that time of year, but it's actually better to put in trees and shrubs in autumn because they can go dormant and rest all winter, and then by spring, they're already established and rarin' to go. 

While the row of juniper 'Taylors' were a great start on that native, natural privacy screen, our plan was to fill in around the house for even more privacy, not to mention the attractive aspect of shade. Our yard has exactly no tree shade at the moment, and this ain't the Pacific Northwest, people! It gets HOT.

So, nearer to the house, we added two more plants last fall: a persimmon and a serviceberry.

The persimmon is a special kind of fruit. I'm not talking about the Asian ones you get at the grocery store, but these yummy Midwestern natives. We pretty much gorged ourselves on persimmons from our neighborhood farmer's market last summer and knew we had to plant a persimmon tree at Dragon Flower Farm. The trick is that the trees are pretty dang tall, growing to 60 feet tall and as much as 35 feet wide. Plus, you need two, a male and a female, to ensure pollination and fruiting.

To the rescue: a grafted variety from Stark Bros. When we planted it last fall, it looked like a stick in the ground.

Persimmon stick

Seriously, I had to keep telling the fence guys when they came to install the other side that this was a tree and not to maul it. 

The serviceberry we picked up at the same neighborhood native plant sale where we got the two true eastern red cedars. We planted it where we'd be able to look out the kitchen window and see its snowy white shower of blooms in the spring. It has the added benefit of filling in the space to further screen the view of the apartment building, AND the berries are edible for both humans and critters! It had been around a bit longer than the persimmon graft, so it went in already with some leaves, looking more like a tree.

Serviceberry

Of course, it lost all its leaves come fall, but this spring, the serviceberry was the first to awaken, and it seemed triumphant!

Serviceberry buds

That's one of the other cool reasons to plant in fall - so you can watch this little gift to yourself and the world unwrap itself in spring. 

We were worried about the persimmon, though, as at first it didn't seem to understand it was springtime. But then it budded out as well, slowly and with more determination, it seemed, which is befitting for a tree that will take its time but eventually stretch up past 60 feet.

Persimmon buds

It will be a couple years, at least, before we get to reap the fruits of these labors, but in the meantime, the birds and bugs already seem pleased. 

And as for the green screen, we've got a succession of canopy layers that will do the job better than anything else. The serviceberry will fill in faster than the fence line trees, and it will give shade before the persimmon does. Where the juniper Taylors stop, the persimmon will eventually fill in, growing taller than the serviceberry and likely filling in to provide a remarkable tower of greenery, offering itself as a host for pollinators of many kinds, and providing valuable shade as well as a bounty of tasty fruit for us and all. 

We ask a lot of trees, and they give it.

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