You might think that February isn't be the best time to visit a nursery. But for me, hellebores in full glorious bloom are the starting gun that signals the opening of the garden season.
So when Nancy Buley e-mailed me photographs of witch hazels flowering in midwinter at her nursery, I had no trouble persuading a group of gardening friends to join me on a field trip.
Located in Sandy, Treephoria (www.Treephoria.com) is about an hour's drive from Portland.
Nancy and her son Neil were waiting to greet us as we arrived in a caravan of cars. Wearing waterproof boots and jackets, we were prepared for any weather, but luckily we enjoyed a mild Saturday morning as we toured the two-acre nursery and garden.
With a degree in journalism and horticulture, Nancy is perfect for her job as director of communications at J. Frank Schmidt and Son, a wholesale tree nursery. Over the years she's learned a lot about growing trees, especially how to train large-growing shrubs into tree forms. Treephoria's specialty is offering these smaller trees to homeowners who want unusual choices.
In bloom on February 12th were several varieties of witch hazel (Hamamelis) in shades of yellow, red and orange. Instead of their typical shrubby appearance, single sturdy trunks gave them the more stately presence of trees. My favorite was pastel yellow 'Primavera' with deliciously sweet perfume. 'Arnold's Promise,' with profuse bright yellow flowers, was also a big hit. For lovers of darker flowers, there was red 'Diane,' which also has deep red fall foliage.
These trees are shaped from infancy, staked when very young, and trained faithfully to one leader over time. Some are eight to ten years old. Their structures should be stable over time, with the usual need to remove crossing branches that all trees require. Once they're dug and transplanted to your garden, voila, instant gratification.
'When you're buying a tree, you're buying time,' Nancy said of her established trees. Many of our group could really relate-in our sixties and seventies now, we don't want to wait ten years for a tree to grow up, we want it now!
Other varieties even more surprising to find in tree form included wintersweet, which I love for its early fragrant flowers. In my garden, three wintersweets, placed in different parts of the garden especially for their scent, form dense twiggy shrubs, great for bird habitat. Treephoria's had become better-behaved trees.
There were also tree forms of flowering currant (Ribes) and forsythia, with spring flowers; Carolina allspice (Calycanthus) and summersweet (Clethra) for summer color; and seven-son flower (Heptacodium) for fragrant fall flowers. If only I'd known about tree training when I bought several seven-sons as young liners, mine would be as elegant as Nancy's. In my garden, the multi-trunked large shrubs they have become over the years are still very satisfying, just not as shapely.
Many more unusual trees that will become bigger specimens are offered at Treephoria-stewartia, parrottia, tupelo (Nyssa), 'Lion's Head' and several other select forms of Japanese maple, all skillfully pruned.
Nancy started Treephoria to help fund Neil's college education, and his years studying art and sculpture have in turn benefited the nursery. Neil works at the nursery during the week, sculpting the trees with an eye for beauty. He also delivers and plants the trees for customers who need help.
You may tour the nursery by appointment (503-360-8076) either with Nancy on Saturdays, or with Neil during the week. We were fortunate to enjoy them both as we strolled through the nursery and the landscaped garden beds.
Originally only five trees stood on the two-acre site when Nancy moved in. She pointed out a huge tree of heaven (Ailanthus) and some mature Norway maples. But with her job at a tree nursery, it didn't take long for the landscape to develop.
'Trees have followed me home for a lot of years,' Nancy said. 'A lot came home on top of the Subaru as 1-inch (caliper) bare root plants.' Now majestic oaks, Swedish columnar aspen, katsuras and ginkgos form the bones of the garden. She pointed out a 'Starlight' dogwood, a cross between our native Pacific dogwood and kousa dogwood, bearing the benefits of both-the Pacific dogwood's large white flowers, and the kousa's resistance to anthracnose disease.
As always, I was smitten with one tree, not yet available for sale. A snake bark maple with pink and orange bark that glowed in the winter landscape, Acer conspicuum 'Phoenix' made me crazed with desire. Hopefully one day, I will find it for my very own.