So yesterday I talked about looking at plant photos as a way to relax. Today, I’m going to offer an easy way to relax with trees. First, we need to refer back to the benefits of looking at fractal patterns, which I explored the other day. These are the patterns that our eyes are naturally in sync with, where a simple design repeats itself over and over to form a complex whole. That complex whole can exist in several ways in nature. One of the most common is in tree branch formations.
The Beauty of a Leafless Tree?
In the Northwest, we’re blessed with conifers that hang onto their needles all year. But in much of the U.S. winter brings leafless trees, turning our horizons brown and making things feel a bit depressing. But in those leafless tree skeletons, nature has created an elegant network of a main thick trunk dividing into thinner trunks that divide into thinner branches and thinner branches until the tips gracefully end in a motif of little points. That elegant design is the beauty of nature’s work.
Ever notice a poorly pruned or topped tree that grows in a strange abrupt tangle of trunks and branches? How do you feel when you see it? Maybe a bit sad. Or if it’s Halloween, like it captures a dark mood. The perfection of a naturally grown tree actually pleases us (despite a lack of leaves in winter). We know it’s form to be “right” or “whole” because the fractal pattern fits with the natural way it needs to grow.
Relaxing Within the Elegance
Every day, my husband and I take a walk after lunch. It’s only about a twenty-minute walk up the gentle hill of our street and back. But because we live in a forested suburb, we’re immersed in a cathedral of fir, cedar, and pine trees. We usually chat about what we’re up to that day or our kids or the latest news, but as we do we’re unconsciously taking in the fractal patterns of our trees. They rise before us as we walk, both presenting themselves close to us and on our view’s horizon.
A Double Benefit
Because we’re taking a walk “in the woods,” we’re getting a double benefit: we’re looking at fractal patterns and we’re mildly exercising. Of course, I don’t need to go over the benefits of walking, but I do want to emphasize how refreshed and vibrant I feel afterward. My mind is clear, my body’s warm, my ability to tend to complex issues restored.
The bottom line is if you can go for a walk among trees, even down a busy city street with leafless trees, you’ll engage in a relaxation break exercise on steroids. You’ll gain the relaxation benefit of the branches’ fractal patterns and you’ll give your body the exercise it needs to renew your system.
It turns out taking a walk down a leafy street isn’t just a nice break from the work day but also a scientifically proven way to relax with trees and lower your stress. How awesome is that?!
Photo by Craig Vodnick
Yesterday, I talked about fractal patterns and how they can reduce stress. Today, I want to share a few of those relaxing plant images. We know from research that constantly switching our attention back and forth, which we usually do during stressful times, creates mental exhaustion. So if you can allow yourself to sit and gaze at a fractal pattern, you’ll refuel your brain’s tank.
The hardest part is switching your attention away from the worrisome task at hand. And the more stressed you are, the harder it is. I know that feeling firsthand. You feel anxious at the mere idea of taking a few minutes off. But I urge you to let the anxiety go. This time is for you.
Whenever I take a few minutes out to look at plant fractals, I don’t regret it. Sometimes it’s only for 20 seconds. But that still helps. It’s like pushing a reset button for me. I feel calmer and focused and like my feet are actually on the earth. Then I jump into the fray, feeling renewed.
My Favorite Fractals
I really love these three relaxing images. To get the best results, try to deeply breathe for three minutes while gazing at each image. Let your eyes wander as they like. Check out the details. You might find surprises.
The above leaf pattern was brought to us by David Clode. He’s a nature photographer based in Australia. Notice how the veination continues to subdivide and and subdivide into smaller tributaries. That those little vascular tubes keep a plant alive is astonishing to me. Nature is so cool!
I love love love this photo. It captures the majesty of a tree so well. The branches gradually thin and thin before giving way to tiny green leaves. I couldn’t locate a tree name on the photo but the craggy bark points to a walnut. The photo’s by Dutch photographer Lucas van Oort.
These fern fiddleheads show the concept of the infinite spiral. The new leaves emerge curled up inside themselves, protected from the elements. Then the stems straighten and big beautiful leaves open to take in the light. I can’t believe people eat fiddleheads. They’re so delicate and lovely. Year after year, they give me a thrill. The photo is by Pitsch.
If you have favorite relaxing plant images, share with me in the comments below.
These past couple of years, I’ve wondered whether a fake or real Christmas tree is better for the environment. Being a gardener, I want to do what’s right for our planet. Initially, I used real trees but then thought cutting down a live tree removed an oxygen-producing plant from our ecosystem. So, I bought a plastic tree and have re-used it for years. But then I thought about how plastic is made from oil. I don’t want to support oil companies.
I considered all of the angles, read a bunch of articles, and tied myself up into a ball of general confusion. However, in all of that, I learned a few things, which helped me decide what kind of tree to decorate during the Christmas season. Here are my thoughts on real versus fake Christmas trees.
Fake Christmas Trees Are Made From PVC
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a chemically created compound that’s great for pipes and windows, but not so great for inside the home. PVC contains phthalates, which release dangerous VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and inhaling those can be hazardous to one’s health.
Also, artificial Christmas trees, especially older ones, contain lead, which, as the trees age, can degrade and get onto people’s hands as the tree or ornaments are handled. Lastly, the trees are sprayed with fire-retardant chemicals, which are also unhealthy to inhale or absorb through the skin.
Fake Christmas Trees Require a Lot of Resources
Apparently, 90% of fake trees are made in China. The factories that produce the trees often do not adhere to any carbon emission laws or provide decent working conditions for their employees. Workers often live in dormitories and don’t make a living wage.
Then the ships that carry the trees use a large amount of fuel, emitting an immense amount of carbon in the air. From there, trucks transport the trees to stores. And the trees are packaged in cardboard boxes, made from, what else, trees?
Fake Christmas Trees Can Be Re-Used
According to what I’ve read, if you use your artificial Christmas tree for six to nine years, you’re neutralizing the amount of carbon emissions used to create that tree. That’s a solid upshot. If you buy one artificial tree and then use it for a decade or more, that’s good for the environment.
But what happens when you no longer need or want that specific tree? You can donate it to a charity shop like Goodwill and it may have a new life at someone else’s house via that sale, but what if it doesn’t? Or what if it breaks while being transported? It will end up in a landfill. And we all know that plastic does not fully degrade for hundreds of years.
Real Christmas Trees Create Oxygen and Absorb Carbon Dioxide
I’ve read that, every year, one acre of real Christmas trees absorbs almost 500 pounds of carbon dioxide. Similarly, that same acre will create about 1000 pounds of oxygen. That’s amazing!
But if you buy a real Christmas tree, aren’t you supporting the end of that environmentally friendly tree? Not really. On tree farms across the U.S., there are 350-500 million trees growing but only 30 million are cut down annually. That still leaves a huge surplus of live trees to clean the air and produce oxygen. So overall, buying real Christmas trees helps clean the air and support a healthier environment.
Real Christmas Trees Support Local Tree Farmers
If you buy a live Christmas tree, you’re supporting a local farmer who may otherwise sell his or her land for development. So, keeping farmers in business not only helps the environment but also the local economy. The money stays local or at least within a region instead of going to China.
Real Christmas Trees That Are Sold Are Usually Replaced
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, tree farmers usually plant 1-3 seedlings for every tree cut and sold. That actually ensures the cut tree is not only replaced, but the farm itself may expand with more trees grown.
Real Christmas Trees Are Compostable
While many cities offer Christmas tree pick up and composting services, some cities don’t. Regardless, real Christmas trees can still be composted in one’s backyard. The branches can be cut off and laid over dormant perennial beds to protect plants. Trunks can be cut up and used for firewood or chipped and used for mulch. Or they can be left whole to edge garden beds.
Some folks worry that the needles will acidify their soil, but from what I’ve read, the pH of the needles neutralizes once in the soil. They just have a waxy coating that prevents them from breaking down quickly.
So after doing this research, I’ve realized the best thing for the environment, hands down, is to buy a real Christmas tree every year. There may be a risk of pesticide residue on the cut trees, but I think that’s a small price to pay compared to the positives. Plus, I’m sure there are organic tree choices if not entirely organic farms. Even though they can be expensive, real trees support local farmers and a cleaner earth. And that idea makes me merrier during the holiday season.
I’ve been thinking about how to be resilient this weekend, how to bounce back from challenges and setbacks. On one day, you encounter obstacles and the stresses of life. Stuff that’s important that may not work out. Important stuff. So what helps us recover? Talking with friends. The support of a loving spouse. Even a neighbor’s kind words can change one’s whole outlook. When I noticed this quote from Robert Jordan, I realized I needed to be more like a willow tree and not an oak so that I could bend with the wind when life gets stormy.
The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.–Robert Jordan
Along the back fence of my garden I have a tricky spot. A dry woodland border of sun that’s tucked under fir trees. The ravine behind the fence slopes up and the fence intersects where the wild woodland ends and my cultivated area begins. So it’s the edge of a woodland, but sunny, and hot. Very very hot. The soil is sandy and drains instantly. Growing plants there has been difficult.
Sandy Acidic Soil in Full Sun
Normally, we Northwest gardeners don’t mind soil that’s sandy or acidic. It’s better than clay or heavy silt. Sand means well draining, acidic means we can grow the usual native rhododendrons, pieris, and camellias. Even hydrangeas. But those shrubs are usually tucked into the woodland and receive some shade. Not this border. It’s on the edge of a native woodland but facing full-on southern sun all day.
A False Start
At first, years ago, I started off thinking I’d plant a tropical woodland. I wanted big leaved plants that I could see from far away on my patio. So I planted a ‘Teddy Bear’ magnolia, acanthus, and cannas. They loved the sun but the problem was the soil dried out too soon. I added compost and amended the soil. But, when it rained, because they were canopied by fir trees, they received little natural water. The compost didn’t hold enough moisture, even in rainy winter. The border was a problem. A big problem.
So I took a different approach. I planted a more California-type of garden, what grew in the dry areas of sunny zone 9. Cistus, lavender, ceanothus, sedum, even penstemon. I tried redtwig dogwood and boxwood hebe for structure. It was a mild success. But moles moved in and created a huge network of tunnels around the shrubs and perennials, creating air pockets and weakening the plants. The cistus died from those air pockets, the penstemons leaned and reached for the light. Some plants lost foliage.
How to Garden Despite the Wildlife
I let the moles be. Well, that’s not totally true. I put poison worms in some of their tunnels. Some died and I think one has moved to my sunny island bed, I’m not sure. Regardless, I try to garden on despite it all, despite these little creatures working against me. Not long after the moles moved in, I noticed a rabbit constantly near or in the bed. It was adorable, true. But I’m sorry, the little rabbit, while cute, was a pain. It chewed on some plants and the destruction sometimes depressed me.
For instance, when a new purple-leafed ninebark (physocarpus) established itself, a mole came in, tunneled around, and weakened it. There was sudden leaf die off at the branch tips. It struggled. I’ve since pruned and have rearranged the soil around it. One thing, maybe good or bad, was one of my dogs got to the rabbit and it perished.
So this year, I’m going to add more compost and put in replacement plants that died. Someone on a plant group mentioned manzanita (arctostaphylos) and that coastal native might be a good addition. I’m also thinking salvia, I’m thinking more sedums. We’ll see how my little dry woodland border does this summer. I hope for the best. It would be satisfying, after all of this effort and thinking, to see a healthy, happy collection of plants from my patio.