I'm crazy about trees. I love their twisty winter skeletons, their kelly green spring Afros and the way they suddenly burst into bright fuchsia or neon yellow blooms.
Sadly, my garden is tree poor. About 20 years ago, my husband borrowed a chain saw for some chore neither of us can remember and ended up mowing down everything in sight until I threw myself over the gas can.
I've been planting replacements ever since. The survivors: a deformed jacaranda crippled by annual frostbite; a stunted chaste tree I thought could thrive in the desert of my side yard; and a beautiful desert cassia that immediately drops to the ground when the wind says, "Jump."
Thank goodness a couple of weeks ago the Arbor Day Foundation shipped out its packages of 12 bare-root tree seedlings to Floridians who donated at least $10 in recent months. Twelve trees being about 11 more than the average local yard can accommodate, I was the beneficiary of leftovers.
I was familiar with the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Nebraska that says it's dedicated to planting and celebrating trees. But I've never donated to it nor become a member — which costs $10 and buys you a "free" package of seedlings.
So I was curious. Why are all the little trees shipping now? Are they varieties that will thrive in the Tampa Bay area, and are they all clearly identified? Has anyone actually successfully grown one of these little guys? Heck, they look like sticks!
I ask these questions because planting and establishing a tree requires effort. And planting the wrong tree in the wrong place can be a huge mistake. You don't want to put a tree that can grow 40 feet tall under your eaves. Some trees grow fast and die young, which means limbs start dropping — on your cat, your car, your roof. Invasive types can be a colossal headache; just ask anyone with Brazilian peppers in their yard.
Removing a mistake can be costly, especially if you don't trust your spouse with a chain saw.
Here are some answers:
"We send the trees at the right time for planting," says Sean Barry, the Arbor Day Foundation's spokesman.
Last year, Sean says, the foundation shipped out 6.5 million "free" seedlings. Sixty percent went to renewing members; the rest to new members and those who filled out its Tree Survey and returned it with at least $10.
(Florida's survey has 15 questions, including whether you can identify the trees near your home and if you think the cabbage palm is an appropriate state tree for Florida. Interesting! I asked about the results. Apparently, they're not tallied. Sean says they're just a tool to gauge the recipient's interest in joining the foundation or visiting its nursery. Hmmm.)
Tampa Bay's tree bundles are identified as three Eastern redbuds; four white flowering dogwoods; three golden raintrees; and two crape myrtles. Paint splashes are supposed to help you tell them apart (which wasn't so easy with all of my seedlings).
I found a couple of locals who've grown trees from Arbor Day Foundation seedlings. One family got two dogwoods, a red maple and a redbud nine years ago. The redbud and a dogwood are still thriving. (Important note: They live north of Tampa, in Wesley Chapel.) A gardener in Lutz grew his slash pine for five years before giving it up to a fundraiser plant sale.
So, yes, it can be done!
How will the varieties in this shipment do here? I asked Scott Bailey, owner of Treemart, 12505 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. By the way, he concurs. Now is a good time to plant trees; Florida celebrated Arbor Day on Jan. 18.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and white dogwood (Cornus florida)
Not great choices for Tampa and points south, Scott says. It's too hot.
"But in Lutz, Land O'Lakes and Dade City, they bloom beautifully," he says.
Eastern redbuds and white dogwoods are Florida natives, but neither can take the full-on blaze of a summer afternoon. Plant them where they'll get morning sun and afternoon shade.
They need well-drained soil; somewhat sandy is good.
For the record, Scott says don't even think of planting a pink dogwood here.
Golden raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata)
Easy to grow and a beautiful, non-native tree, Scott says. It takes full sun.
"It has yellow blooms in fall and then pink seeds that people think are blooms," he says, adding, "It grows like a weed."
That can be a negative; golden raintree drops a lot of seeds! If your yard can't accommodate many trees that grow to 30 feet with a canopy that's 30 feet, you'll be pulling up volunteers.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
A wonderful tree for Florida! It's tolerant of sun, freeze and drought, it's easy to grow and blooms from May to September.
There are a lot of varieties, though, and Scott says there's not enough information to know which is included in our bundle. Some are shrubs; others good-sized trees. They also have different colored blooms.
Plant crape myrtle in well-drained soil and full sun, Scott says. In the winter, prune lightly.
Penny Carnathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more on her blog, digginfladirt.com, or join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow @DigginPenny on Twitter.