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Remember last fall? Plant a tree as thanks

When I was interviewing Tim Martz for a story about his retirement this week as the city's superintendent of park and recreation, he told me that his favorite plant is the Chinese pistache tree.

"I love that tree because of the texture and the fall color," Tim said. "We probably get as many calls on that as any."

That immediately took me back to last fall, when we had the ideal weather for spectacular color. I took walks every day through College Hill, taking photos of the changing kaleidoscope, drinking it in with other people, many of whom also had their cameras.

One Chinese pistache in particular stood out, on the south side of Douglas a few houses east of the sledding hill. I had to check on what hue of stained glass was shining out from the tree each day, watching it change from excellent to extraordinary, until the carpet of red-orange underneath it got thicker than the red-orange robe on the branches, tilting the balance one sad day from fall toward winter.

The fabulous fall also helped me remember the spectacular spring we had this year. Do you remember that the weather patterns were such that things that don't normally bloom at the same time were flowering simultaneously, giving us a rare show?

If you're one of the ones who gorged on this beauty, and then witnessed the scourge of a hot dry summer that threatened to erase our trees and our memories, consider planting some fresh trees and shrubs this fall. The new season officially begins Thursday. This is the time of year to shop for fall color, buying it when you actually see the plants ablaze at a garden center. Otherwise you'll have to take it on faith that the maple tree colors up or the deciduous holly bears berries as advertised.

Chinese pistaches often show up as red-orange around here, but you can find varieties that feature green, pink, bright red, dark red, yellow, purple and orange leaves in any combination or even all at the same time. Shopping for the tree at high color is your guarantee for how it will show up in your yard.

I didn't realize until Tim pointed it out that Chinese pistache is in the sumac family. Makes sense when you think not only of the same fiery color but the same type of fine, narrow, drooping leaf.

Chinese pistache flourishes in sandy areas such as O.J. Watson Park and in the opposite conditions, say, on Webb Road, Tim said. It does well downtown because the root system is fairly deep and doesn't tend to disrupt the pavement. It has a nice round head, and the eventual height reaches 30 to 35 feet. I even read online that this native of China is the first shade tree to receive the Earth Kind designation from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service for its resistance to insects and diseases.

"It's strong wooded. The female fruit can be a problem sometimes. I've got three males in my yard, so it's probably my favorite plant," Tim said.

We can take some other wisdom from how the park department handles city trees. Even with budget cuts, the city has a three-year establishment plan for trees. Because we're in the southern Great Plains and not in the northern forests, a tree needs at least three years of watering to establish a root system, Tim said. Many trees die in the second, third or fourth year if they don't get enough water.

"As we go through the extremes and these budget cuts, I think our focus should be on a word that's used way too often, but it's sustainability," Tim said.

Anytime we consider planting anything, we, like the city, should first determine what we have the time and resources to maintain. We also should select plants that fit the spot we're trying to fill, taking into account sun, water, soil and the presence or lack of any sheltering walls, trees, shrubs, buildings or other structures.

Extension agent Bob Neier pointed out that spruces and some arborvitaes got sunburned this summer. "When we get to 109, that is not northern weather. We're seeing a lot of damage to spruce so we need to be thinking: Should we be planting spruce?" He also had had high hopes for Green Giant arborvitae (aka thuja) being a good windbreak tree, but it burned in areas that were not watered — and windbreaks generally are not watered. That means Green Giant will be more of a landscape tree in our area. If parts of your evergreens have turned brown, remove those sections, Bob said.

One of the places Tim where plans to volunteer in retirement is the John C. Pair Horicultural Center in Haysville. The center is a K-State testing grounds where various varieties of trees, including new ones, are evaluated for their vigor.

"We can look at long-term tree health in that environment and start trying them out along our streets and in our parks," Tim said.

When Tim was a young horticulturist, he said, he was very interested in trying all the new stuff. John Firsching Sr., the superintendent of landscape and forestry when Tim was hired on at the city, told him that "really you need 20 years before you can say a tree is a good tree for Wichita because it has to go through drought and spikes in the weather."

Our experience this summer would illustrate that perfectly. Bob said that a lot of plants are trying to go dormant a little early.

"We're beginning to see fall color on some that are stressed," Bob said. "They try to shut down early."

Let's not let that happen to us.

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