Rot, decay, more life


Behind the house, a very old Japanese weeping cherry has reached the end of its life. Flowering has declined dramatically over the past few years and limbs have begun to rot and fall.

We’ve lost many trees over the almost ten years I’ve been gardening at Federal Twist. The soil is shallow and wet, with layered rock near the surface, so many simply fall over in heavy wind. Woodpeckers and sapsuckers drill thousands of  holes, causing direct damage to some trees, which weaken, then die. Rot is commonplace.

At the same time, life is everywhere. The rotting timber all around provides home and sustenance for many invertebrate life forms, homes for solitary bees and wasps and beetles. The woodpeckers that thrive on aging snags and dead limbs are emblematic of the processes silently at work here. This is not so much a place defined by decay, as it is a place in which the beginnings and endings of life are in closer acquaintance than elsewhere. Or so it seems.

A local tree care company proposed to do the work I needed. Top on the list was the almost dead weeping cherry planted in 1965 when the house was built.


I’m keeping the main trunk and limbs as a tree sculpture, for a while at least, until it’s so far gone I have to plant a replacement. Virginia creeper is growing up one side and I hope to get it to quickly cover the entire structure. For a few years, it will be glorious in the autumn, covered in brilliant red Parthenocissus quinquefolia fluttering in the sunlight.


And it will make the woodpeckers happy.

The other major problem was a large Blue Atlas Cedar near the front entrance to the house. (You can see it in the background of the photos above and below.) I attributed the dying crown and loss of foliage to the hundreds of holes drilled into the bark by sapsuckers. Now the dead leader has been cut (there’s a replacement leader) and soon the root zone will be treated with nutrient solution, as we try to revive it, or at least extend its life.


The tree specialists also removed dead limbs from the three massive Sycamores just outside the house. These are a singular garden feature. I’m pleased they show no signs of decay … yet.


They tower above everything else in the garden, shelter and cool the house in summer, offer the only shade for sitting outside on hot afternoons, and their mottled bark is a constant wabi-sabi pleasure in all seasons.


Looking out over the flat, clean plate of the garden, it’s hard to imagine the voluminous life that will rise from that dreary earth. But it will, fulfilling the promise hidden deeply in the paradox of life in death, death in life.

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

I’ve always felt conflict when I read the opening lines of Eliot’s The Wasteland. The words are about loss of faith and hopelessness, about endings, in the spring, a time that usually awakens other emotions, while the passage as a poetic object, with its precise language, powerfully emotional verbals (breeding, mixing, stirring), and cinematic imagery is a beautiful poetic object that awakes emotions of admiration and aesthetic pleasure, contradicting the very the sense of the passage. A paradox, then–like the landscape of my garden, giving both death and life.

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16 thoughts on “Rot, decay, more life

  1. I love the tree sculpture/woodpecker tree. I’m planning to do the same with a tree of heaven and a mulberry in unfortunate locations. Your tree, however, has a much more beautiful sihouette. Please share some photos as the Virginia creeper extends up into the crown.

    1. If I could have it trimmed, I’d probably do a little reshaping. I hope the Virginia creeper grows quickly, but I find it comes up where I don’t particularly want it, but it resists growing where I most want it. I keep my fingers crossed.

  2. Inspired by a local gardener/landscaper who advocates every garden having something that evokes death, we left the sculptural stubs of an anthracnose-killed dogwood in place for quite a few years (also because it was what made the curve we’d added to that corner of the border make sense). Eventually it came down on its own, but it was a graceful dancing presence while it lasted. Virginia creeper ablaze in a tree top is one of my favorite September sights here — long may yours wave!

    An an ash planted out back in the center of a sunny mowed area has succumbed to the emerald ash borer, and I’m trying to persuade the s.o. that growing something up it would be equally fabulous. I’m thinking of native clematis (C. virginiana), which has been planted by birds in the perennial border. Virginia creeper seems to like our shadier and more sheltered spots. A climbing rose would be wonderful, but would also be stricken with rose rosette virus after the first hot, dry spell (the virus is spread by wind-born mites, and the vast reservoir of R. multiflora here and westward assures that it will be with us for a long, long time). Not sure I want quite *that* much of the motif of death…

    1. Boston ivy would be a good choice too. I’ve thought of trying the gold cultivar ‘Fenway Park’ but it’s probably too bright. And the Virginia creeper is ready to hand, being resident here already. Who is “the s.o.”?

      1. s.o. = significant other.

        Virginia creeper is an excellent ground cover here under a big magnolia and an American beech, where little else would succeed, and its nativeness, supporting other life, is a bonus. Oddly, it shows little enthusiasm for trying to climb either of those trees, but clearly would like to scale the house walls. No way! The old brickwork is fragile enough without holdfasts piling on. It does seem to be an almost magnetic attraction, and when pulling it back I’m always reminded of an old Geo. Price New Yorker cartoon of a man entangled in Virginia creeper while pulling it off the house, with another tendril headed around the corner at him. Wife leaning out the window: “Look out, George, here it comes again!”

          1. In a number of spots locally, road cuts and quarry walls have left a sheer cliff of dark grey limestone (high levels of magnesium give it the darkness, apparently). Some of these are sheeted with Virginia creeper, and the red is gorgeous against the stone in fall.

            There can’t be many such places in nature, but I can sort of see why going up a flat vertical surface lets it make such rapid, even progress: every leaf gets pretty much the same chance at sun. Going up an inherently irregular, “fractal” tree, some sections get shaded while others bask, leading to areas of sparse vs. congested growth.

  3. The final photo of this essay shows more clearly than any I remember seeing the structure of the garden and how the various pieces relate to one another. The upright evergreens at the far back right of the photo are wonderfully placed.

    I’m working on a sculpture now incorporating the still-standing trunk of a maple tree whose top was blown off last fall in a heavy wind storm. I want to recognize the long life of the tree by calling attention to what happened during its life span. Perhaps the sculpture will be finished by mid summer. Life and death in constantly changing relations — a big part of any garden.

    1. I’ve been seeking an affordable wide angle lens, which I need to show the garden space in one image. I haven’t been successful yet. Several people have expressed mixed feelings about those evergreens.

      When you come for the Garden Conservancy Open Day, you might want to visit Paxson Hill Farm across the Delaware. It’s very close by and is open the same day. There are two sculpted trees there you might find of interest.

      1. Love the idea of visiting Paxson Hill Farm. Planning is proceeding but timing is tight, especially since I leave in a week for a month in Italy. (Yes, I know that isn’t something to complain about.)

  4. Hi James
    I wonder why you keep the rotten skeleton of your dead tree? Will it not be a dead body anyway in the nearest future all though you decorate it with cover like Hedera, virginia creeper, roses or whatever?
    I´ve had such dead-tree-installations my self, in several of my gardens years ago, and each time when finished planting the cover at the base I´ve said to my self: ” Weel in some years it will probably grow beautiful, when the climbers are up”. But it never happened. 5-7 years later when it reached it´s goal, the tree collapsed, and I regret that I did not chop it down to the ground from the beginning and started all over with a new tree instead.
    But perhaps you can do this trick much better! – I´d like to follow you and the dead tree in the nearest future.

    Have a nice day and a lovely trip to Britain.

    Kind regards

    1. Hi, Kjeld –

      I understand what you mean, but I want to create a rather melancholy feeling in the garden (at least at times), and the dead tree to me is one very effective way to achieve that. It’s also appropriate to my place (genus loci), where dead trees (we call them “snags”) are common because of soil and climatic conditions. There are many of them both on my property and in the surrounding woods. Our area is a haven for woodpeckers, too, and dead trees provide a sustainable supply of food for them, particularly the very large and rather rare pileated woodpecker. So I have many reasons for trying this experiment (and my garden is certainly experimental). Fortunately, Virginia creeper has already started growing up the tree in years past, so I hope it will cover much of the tree quickly. If this does not work–as your experience has proven for you–I will certainly cut it down. But it will have to be replaced with a much smaller tree. So, for me, it’s worth the risk to wait and see. My response raises a question: Do you have woodpeckers in Denmark?

      Thanks much for commenting. It’s good to hear from you.

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