Backyard planting looks to the future, honors the past


The old red spruce is the only tree of any size on our property.

The old red spruce is the only tree of any size on our property.

Last Saturday, with a light drizzle falling from the sky, Douglas and I transplanted a little white pine tree, moving it from the steep hillside behind the barn to the top of the gentler slope that runs from the rhubarb patch down toward the road.

Our goal was very forward-looking: to establish a replacement for the venerable red spruce that’s been standing windswept sentinel beside the house for many decades. I truly love this magnificent old tree and wish it many long years of life. Its beauty lies not in its outward appearance, which is gnarled, scraggly and — since loosing one of its three main trunks in a wild, early-November storm two years ago — lopsided. Its loveliness lies instead in its steadfast presence through countless seasons of harsh Maine weather and the witness it has borne to the history of our circa 1872 house, which has served over time as a shipyard boarding house, a commercial duck farm and a private home.

But the red spruce cannot last forever. Eventually it will lose more of its wizened parts to the wind or begin to die off, one brittle, twisted, misshapen branch at a time. At some point, assuming Douglas and I are still living here, we’ll know it’s time to cut the proud old thing down. And when that happens — 10, 20, 30 years from now (note: we’ll be really, really old in 30 years) — we’ll want another tree already well established and ready to take over.

We considered planting a nursery specimen of some sort — another tough evergreen, perhaps, or a shade tree like a maple or an oak. But when Douglas espied the waist-high, volunteer pine clinging to its improbably steep hillside, we knew it was it was the right choice, already in training and adapted to the sandy soil, high winds and beating sun of our exposed yard.

This little white pine, transplanted from behind the barn to a prominent spot in the side yard, has big shoes to fill.

This little white pine, transplanted from behind the barn to a prominent spot nearer the house, has big shoes to fill.

This isn’t the best time of year to move a tree, but we decided to forge ahead while our motivation was high. First, we used a round-point shovel and a digging fork to loosen a three-foot circle of sod and soil around the pine. We rolled the grassy sod up like a fat little rug and set it aside. Then we dug deeper around the edge of the circle and under the tree, cutting through small rootlets and working around a few stones, rocking the root ball back and forth as we lifted it and freed it from the surrounding earth.

Finally, with a grunt and a heave, we slid the pine and its heavy root ball into our waiting recycling bin — the slope was too steep for the wheelbarrow. We hoisted the blue plastic bin between us and crab-walked it over to its new location. We dug a deep, new hole, leaving a couple inches of loose soil in the bottom. We mixed in a batch of sweet compost from the bin behind the barn, and then we set the little tree in the hole. We filled in the soil, watered it generously, patted down the sod and watered everything some more.

As a final touch, Douglas drove a metal rod into the ground beside the tree and used a bit of twine to tie the spindly trunk up straight. The poor thing looked a little traumatized and overwhelmed when we were done, but I feel confident it will recover and thrive.

Maybe it’s silly to put so much work into a project we’re unlikely to see come to maturity. But it pleased us to anticipate the future of the property we love and to take this small step of stewardship for the next owner. We’ll tend the pine carefully until it’s well established, then trust it to develop naturally into a hardy companion and eventual successor to the spruce. I like to think of it a hundred years from now, 80 feet tall and standing watch over this fine old house and the windy hillside it’s built upon.


Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at