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A Place for a Tree

June 17, 2024

Christina Brown

The Cultivating Gardener is a column designed to engage all garden lovers, regardless of skill or experience, as we glimpse, together, the deep tenderness of God hidden in our own backyards. In this column you will find reflections, resources and tips designed to help you expand your vision of what it means to cultivate your own plot of land. As you pursue this good and holy work of garden-tending, my hope is that you will find your own heart lovingly tended by the Great Gardener of both our soils and our souls.

I call her my li’l lollipop, and she is absolutely divine. Her real name is Salix integra, commonly known as a dappled willow. 

If you’ve been reading my column since its first issue, you may remember that the weeping willow tree is deeply symbolic to me. I planted my first willow at age thirteen. Twenty-two years later, I planted one of her sisters in my own garden: the dappled willow. She grows her limbs with cotton candy–pink leaf shoots, each branch lengthening in feathered tufts before fading into a speckled mix of creamy white and soft green leaves. If pruned well, this ornamental tree-shrub grows straight up until she fluffs out her branches like a little pink and green cloud perched on a slender trunk.

Planting this sweet beauty was a great risk—willow trees don’t thrive in my Colorado climate without the perfect conditions. But I needed to make a choice, and it was my husband’s mysterious chronic illness that compelled me at all.

When we moved in four years ago, there was a neglected portion of our yard near the back porch. Ringed sloppily by old slate pavers, it encircled a massive, rotting old tree stump. This was not the fairy-land kind of stump. No, this was the kind that leaves sunken holes under weedy turf and forces you to stifle a scream when you pull apart a piece of sodden wood to find it crawling with massive beetles and buried egg sacks from strange insects.

Each year, we thought about removing it but didn’t know where to start. I told myself it’s decomposition was good for the environment, and it was certainly a source of endless entertainment for my young son, who was convinced he was “chopping wood” with his child-sized spade in the hours he spent whacking the damp wood fiber into crumbles. 

However, by the spring of the third year in this house, it was clearly time to make a change. So my precious sister-in-law hauled her tools and three small children (indomitable woman!) to our backyard and we removed the entirety of the old stump. 

But the vacant plot sat empty; I couldn’t decide what to do. I wanted to put a birdbath in its center and surround it with wildflowers (a cutting garden for pollinators around a birdbath—how charming would that be?) but couldn’t decide. Of course, we had talked about planting a tree, but that scared me. It felt permanent; we were only renting this beautiful home after all, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to plant a tree only to abandon it a few short months or years later. Planting trees always felt so “important,” and I wasn’t ready. Besides, I reasoned, a tree would block most of the sunlight from all the beautiful perennials I’d cultivated carefully over the last three years that only grew in full sun. A leafy shade tree? Well, that might condemn all my other plants to a stunted life and even death. What did I do? Nothing. My courage failed me, and another fall, winter, and early spring passed in the company of the bare patch. 

When I think of trees, I think of stability. But I also think of immobility. There is a season when transplanting a young sapling is a viable undertaking, but trees by their nature are designed to remain, and as such, they are symbols of endurance, life, growth, permanence, and hope. A tree cannot self-select its habitat. A seed will not grow without some basic conditions, no matter where it takes root. But it commits to propagation wherever it lands. Once sprouted, the sapling has no choice; it will take root and work to survive regardless of the conditions it is placed in. But I am not a tree. I can choose to remain or to run. And the courage to put down roots in uncertain soils is hard. 

In her book Placemaker, Christie Purifoy writes, “Many of us long to put down roots in some particular place, but we guard ourselves against heartbreak by waiting for the perfect place.” [1] Whether I like to admit it or not, I didn’t want to plant a tree because I didn’t want to risk heartbreak. I’d always told myself, Yes, but when you aren’t renting and actually own a home, you can start thinking about it more seriously. Don’t waste your emotional real-estate (or your money!) on a tree before you know what your future will hold. Of course, I was fooling myself. A “perfect” time and place for planting a tree doesn’t exist.

Placemaking is inherently difficult. But the dividends of place-making have eternal repercussions: We are exiles from a Garden. Once rooted, we now wander.

Yet putting down roots in our homes and our gardens re-grounds us, grows us, returns us to our place, and returns our restless hearts to their maiden home. It shapes us into the likeness of Christ.

I yearn to make a home that sings of the permanence of belonging. To welcome strangers, to nourish beauty-starved hearts within its walls—to be a place of peace, shelter, and a harbinger of heaven on earth. So why do I resist making a place for a tree? J. R. R. Tolkien said, “Every tree has its enemy—few have an advocate.” [2] When I remember my call as steward to all creation, refusing the hospitality of my heart and my home to a tree seems to contradict my own longings.

Christie Purifoy writes, “Home is never a threshold you cross. It is a place you make and a place that might make—or unmake—you.” [3]

By the beginning of this spring, I realized that I was being made—or unmade—whether I liked it or not, and my inaction on that ugly weed-filled patch was serving no one. My husband and I were deep in the throes of uncertainty, fear, unemployment, and depression, and we needed to ground ourselves in hope. 

While we sat on the porch together one day, struggling to process our situation, he asked me if I was certain I didn’t want to plant a tree. I gave him my feeble reasons, but my words didn’t convince even me. He listened, then looked out longingly over our yard in a way I’ve never seen before. “I’d love to have a tree,” he said. I turned to look too, and I knew it was time. I needed to call upon all my courage in this season of uncertainty and plant a tree. 

I researched, prayed, and tried to envision the barren place teeming with leafy life. I knew it wasn’t as simple as buying a “favorite” tree—considering the conditions of the soil it would inhabit and the native climate’s impact on its survival were imperative. 

One day, while browsing a nursery for flowers for my planter boxes, I came across the dappled willow standing tall in the back of a row of shrubs. I fell in love. Though I wanted to whisk her right off the sales floor, I didn’t. I wanted to be responsible, so I took several days to research, pray, and consult several gardening and soil experts (who just happen to be dear friends, lucky me!) before making a decision. Though we knew Salix species weren’t prolific in this part of America, we eventually concluded that my particular yard, soil, and water source offered a small willow tree a good chance for survival. 

And so it was that my li’l lollipop came to live with us. 

It’s very likely that my heart will break over this tree in one way or another. But in God’s strange economy, being wounded means being mended in His likeness—the One for whom all of creation gladly sings. God is shaping us for the kingdom home for which we long. In making space in my yard and my heart for a tree, I made a space for God to graft my roots to His … for after all, He is preparing a place for me (John 14:2–3).

Christie Purifoy so aptly says, “We prune limbs, and we tend the soil. We do not make the trees, but we make a place for them. Like the God to whom we belong, we are placemakers.” [4]

If you’re interested in further learning on all things trees and placemaking, allow me to leave you with encouragement for your own home and garden:

  1. Plant a tree. If your yard doesn’t have space for a tree or you don’t have your own yard, consider donating one to a local park or HOA. I’ve found that there’s never a shortage of need for replacing old trees or reforesting a local habitat. 
  2. If you are interested in further study on the nature of trees and their relationship to place-making, I highly recommend both Christie Purifoy’s Placemaker and Matthew Sleeth’s Reforesting the Faith
  3. For practical resources on how to plant a tree, I recommend these two video tutorials: 1 and 2
  4. Ironically, spring and summer are NOT the best times to plant a tree. Autumn is the best time to plant deciduous trees. This video tells you why in more details (and graphics!) than I can fit here!
  5. Before planting a favorite tree, be sure to check its growing zones and compare it with yours. (Google your zip code to find your growing zone!) If a tree (or any plant) is outside your zone, it will not survive.
  6. Though it seems obvious, the state of your soil plays an integral part in a plant’s life. Before planting anything, you should have at least a basic knowledge of what kind of soil you’ll be working with. If you’re really curious, you can send a sample of your soil to a lab and they can perform tests to break down the percentage of organic chemicals in the soil. But in general, different plants perform differently in different kinds of soil. Often local plant nurseries can provide you with resources to determine what kind of soil you have and how to amend it (if necessary) or give you suggestions for what to plant.

[1] Christie Purifoy, Placemaker (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 2019), 37.

[2] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, (George Allen and Unwin, UK Houghton Mifflin, US, 1981) letter 241, recipient Jane Neave, 1962.

[3] Christie Purifoy, Placemaker (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 2019), 46.

[4] Purifoy, 9.

The featured image, “Kilns Window into the Gardens,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Ariel says:

    Beautifully expressed thoughts, Christina!

  2. Thank you so very much, Ariel!

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