Attack of the Pine Mountain Beetle

Credit: Barbara Rayment

The villain in this is the mountain pine beetle, not the nice men who felled 18 dying pines that were too close to the power pole and transformer. These are only a few of the many thousands of mature native pine that will have to be culled from yards and gardens in northern B.C. over the next couple of years as the impact of the beetle epidemic makes itself felt.

The contractors tell me I am being a lot calmer about this than many people, some of whom are apparently taking the loss of their trees as a personal insult, or perhaps a government conspiracy. This may be because I am more used to ripping gardens (my own and other people’s) apart and starting again from scratch, or maybe the magnitude of it hasn’t set in yet. Getting the trees down was the easy part.

There will be enough firewood for several winters and enough branches and twiggy stuff to make buying a chipper suddenly look like a good idea. Planted in the beds underneath the mess are some 65 shrubs and 125 different types of perennials, most of which will have to be moved in the spring if they survive. Thinking about it is only going to make me cry.

What I need is a plan, and that starts with convincing myself that this is an opportunity, not a disaster. There are always choices, and an evaluation of the site is the first step.

Fortunately, privacy screening isn’t an issue. If it were, or if I needed to replace the shade and shelter the pines created as quickly as possible, I would look at a number of possibilities in the birch (Betula) or poplar/aspen (Populus) genera. Native and introduced species of both are fast growing and provide the cover under which a new generation of evergreens can make a start. By the time young lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta var. latifolia ) are big enough to be attractive to the beetle, the epidemic will be long over.

What will be left after the cleanup is a half-circle roughly 30 m (100 ft.) across, nestled against the south toe of an old post-glacial esker. Without the trees there will be full sun for most of the day. It is in a central location in the yard, has irrigation in place, and also is one of the few spots on the property that has sandy soil and good drainage. The beds have been improved over the years with the addition of loads of compost, peat, partially rotted wood chips and other forms of organic matter. Although the shade is gone, it is still a fairly sheltered site thanks to other existing plantings, including the lilacs on the south edge, which may have survived.

This may be the perfect place to try some of the many hardy hydrangeas that are now available – new and reportedly improved selections of Hydrangea arborescens (‘Annabelle’ is the old standby), and H. paniculata (‘PeeGee’ is the most familiar).

These could make excellent companions for the half dozen or so ‘Northern Lights‘ azaleas that have been sulking out in the exposed main part of the garden, and as many kinds of mock orange (Philadelphus) that have never been happy in the clay soil there. The azaleas will give brilliant (almost gaudy) spring bloom, clashing gloriously with the lilacs, then the mock oranges will burst into fragrant flower, and finally the hydrangeas will take over and provide calmer bloom and interest right into winter. And – with luck – the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia and M. grandis) will have survived and will bloom with the hydrangeas.

The mental picture is enough to cheer me up and (almost) make me look forward to the labour of cleaning up the downed trees and preparing a new bed elsewhere for the rhodos. The beetle may have a silver lining after all!

Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery, in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants, and tries to be philosophical about the forces of nature. Garden Before the Beetles: