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Brussels is your garden

Wednesday, 20 January 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

For two years running now my son and I have been hauling away other people’s refuse.

We do this for a few days in January, right after the New Year. We always try to beat our friends the garbage collectors, who pass by our street on Tuesdays. They are on the lookout for bags of a certain color. Our job is to look for plastic pots and soil and roots growing in that soil. Only when the refuse meets all these conditions do we haul it away.

Throwaway Christmas trees are the refuse I am talking about, the ones still growing in their plastic pots and left in the wake of Santa’s bacchanalia. These potted trees are not refuse at all, despite what some city authorities might tell you, but they might seem like it when you see them on the street in front of your house or apartment building.

My son and I get very excited when we find these trees. A few days ago he made me the proudest papa in the world when he noted that jaybirds and squirrels must feel the same way when they hit upon a cache of acorns or sweet chestnuts. I looked the budding ecologist in the eye and said: Exactly!

Most of the trees that we find almost always show signs of abuse and neglect. Distracted by Santa’s season of excess, the people who buy these trees forget that they’re real. And so, by January, many of these trees are hanging by a thread.

I admit that when we first started with this line of work, I used to feel a bit self-conscious. I imagined the neighbors standing behind their floral curtains, a scornful grin on their face. There they go again, the tree thief and his little urchin!  

I am no longer handicapped by this bogus bourgeois decorum. Neither is my young scientist, with his good cheer. If we see a potted tree in need of help, we simply haul it away like a squirrel would a pecan or jaybird an acorn.

Experience has taught us how to fit four medium-sized trees into our small car. But such a haul always requires a thorough vacuuming job when the business is finished. The throwaways will be happy for the duration of the trip if you say a few words to them, whatever comes to mind. Trees, I read somewhere, can sense sound waves.

It also helps if you stroke the leaves once or twice, just to let the tree know that you’re a friend who will not tie it up with Christmas lights. It’s a good idea to examine the leaves anyway, because this will help you determine what kind of tree it is. (Alas, many are hybrids, and thus hard to determine their parentage.)

My son and I know of several re-planting sites in and around Brussels that are top secret. Places no one would suspect, not least the foresters, groundskeepers, gardeners or wealthy owners who manage or mismanage these places. Finding these sites requires long hours of scouting work.

The site chosen for the tree needs to meet certain conditions. It must be out of the reach of municipal mowers and their ignorant bosses, and it must have good soil. A tree, of course, needs a family, and so we take a careful look at the trees growing in situ to see if they have anything like parenting skills, which, in this case, almost always means will they give the kid some light?

Scouting a Wezembeek-Oppem site one day (or thereabouts), an aphorism occurred to me which could serve as a rule of thumb for successful scouting work in general: Don’t sow acorns in a beech forest. (No plantes bellotas en bosque de hayas.)

Stick to this general rule, and the throwaways will thrive.

It’s a good idea to water the hole before you plant your tree. Five or six liters should do, so you’ll need a large container. Many of these trees have spent their entire lives in a pot, so it will take a bit of skill (and a heavy-duty utility knife) to pry the roots out without harming the tree. It’s a bit like trying to tease a hermit crab out of its adopted shell. Some people throw out their trees without the 69-cent pot, a far more valuable object to them than the tree, so your job will be easier.

Most of the throwaways that we find are grown in plantation stands that are detrimental to wildlife. On average these trees grow for nine to ten years before the guy with the chainsaw comes around. But this depends on the fertilizers and pesticides that the trees are exposed to. One of these pesticides is glyphosate, a weapon of choice for Christmas tree growers all over the world. A popular insecticide is bifenthrin, a bee exterminator that is also harmful to fish. 

My heart sinks every time we cut off a plastic pot only to discover a gnarled and weakened root ball that makes you think of those Chinese ladies who used to bind their feet to assert their status.

One of our firs growing near Tervuren had been so neglected by the planters and its Père Noël captors, that its root ball resembled a large cancerous potato with a few stringy hairs coiled around it. My son recoiled when he saw this thing emerge out the pot. One year later, this tree is still struggling to survive. We visit the poor fellow at least twice a year to remove the bindweed that creeps all over it during the spring.

We have three firs near La Hulpe. Two near Tervuren, and a number of spruces in different public and private gardens in and around Brussels. These are all our gardens now.

My son has what American gardeners, my compatriots, call a “green thumb”, and I am glad to say that most of the trees we’ve planted are thriving.

I was alone when I planted our first tree. I drove across town to a chosen spot in Garden Y. Once there, I carried the tree down a path that runs alongside a meadow and up a steep slope to a spot colonized by vigorous Scots pine saplings.

An orphan left to die beside a dumpster, a hybrid tree of the genus Picea (that much was certain), I felt this tree needed vigorous competition by its side. I wanted to challenge the fellow to see if it could hold its own beside the Pinus sylvestris thoroughbreds, the cavalry of the European forests.

I was in the middle of a pie-in-the-sky work project at the time, feeling a bit dispirited and not very optimistic about the future. But once the tree was safely in the ground, my hands aching with cold, I felt something welling up inside of me, a life-affirming energy passing through me and back into the surrounding forest, and I remembered a verse by the poet Czesław Miłosz: ‘Wherever you are, you could never be an alien.’

I love this line of verse, but I wish the poet had chosen the word stranger instead of alien. Alien alludes to a migratory status, and that has to do with the nation-state and its laws. Taking poetic license, I switch these words in my head, get rid of the nation altogether, and what is left, then, is nature as we experience it.

Wherever you are, you can never be a stranger. Especially if one of your trees is growing by your side.

Throwaway Christmas trees are not all we plant. My son and I have expanded our botanical ops considerably and have even crossed national borders. We’ve planted Red oak near Etterbeek, Balkan pine near Kraainem and Cunninghamia, a beautiful Chinese conifer, in a place neglected by neighbors, authorities and all. We flung apples down a hill in rural Bulgaria to seed a future orchard, and scattered seeds in a corner of Paris which needed some help. We’ve planted hollyhocks, poppies and geraniums. Our acanthus in a busy Brussels street is the queen of all flowering plants growing in the city. And our work is just beginning.

Brussels is our garden, and it’s your garden too.

Note to the reader: As reported by The Brussels Times in January 2020, Bûûmplanters, a citizen’s collective from the municipality of Schaerbeek, will care for your potted tree throughout the year and you can pick it up again when Christmas arrives.