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April 23: For brilliance, plant a sugar maple

Snippets April 23 2015
I looked down as the plane bringing me back from a visit to Europe descended in the final approach to Ottawa. It was early October and the surrounding hills and valleys were alight in breathtaking colours of flame. I’d travelled through beautiful countryside while I was away, but nothing I had seen rivalled the splendour of a bird’s eye view of Ontario decked out for fall.
If I had to start over creating a garden and I had the space to accommodate one magnificent specimen tree, I would choose the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). There is no better ornamental for those of us lucky enough to live within its home range. “Horticulturalists and garden designers have never fully exploited the autumnal incandescence in North America,” writes Diana Beresford-Kroeger in Arboretum America. “These colour changes are more vivid and striking in the various native maple species than anywhere else in the world. Their brilliance is the hallmark of a north temperate garden.”
Some 30 years ago, I did choose a maple, actually two of them, to anchor my front yard. “Red” maples. Only years later did I learn that they are Norway Maples (Acer platanoides), an invasive alien species that is of concern because it can hybridize with the Sugar Maple and degrade the native sugar-producing populations. Other native maples are the actual Red Maple (Acer rubrum), which displays an even more eye-popping red than that of the Sugar Maple (which varies from gold through orange to red) or, for smaller spaces, the Moosewood Maple (Acer pensylvanicum).
Musical plants If consulted, a plant would generally prefer to stay in the same place. But sometimes, the plant might agree that yes, it would welcome a little more shade, or moisture, or that full sun would permit it to flower to its fullest potential. Sometimes, the plant is quite happy where it is but you, the gardener, have other ideas, to create a prettier picture, or change the way you use the space. Whatever the reason, if you want to play musical chairs with your plants, now’s the time, before active growing has started. Water the plant well ahead of time and dig out the hole where it’s going before you dig it up. Get as much of the plant’s root as you can, and after it’s planted, spread a little compost on the soil surface. Top off with mulch. Water again. If the day you choose to do the work is brilliantly sunny, use a few boards to create a shade shelter over the plant. Water daily until the plant looks fully recovered in its new location. Shrubs, small trees and perennials can be moved - and now is also the time to divide a perennial that has grown too big for its space, creating extra plants so you can extend your beds. Next chance to do any of this safely is late fall, when the plant is going into dormancy.
Working the soil When is the soil ready to work? You don’t want to be messing around when it’s wet, you will compact it and destroy its structure. Dig out a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it sticks together in a ball, it’s still to early. If it crumbles in your hand, it’s looking good. What does working the soil mean? New (old) approaches suggest minimal disturbance rather than the hearty digging that used to herald spring for all of us. Instead, create conditions (mainly by mulching) that will encourage the soil organisms that increase fertility. In the last column, I mentioned a number of vegetable seeds that can be started when the soil is ready. There are many more that could have been added, I will just mention that carrots also can be seeded soon.