Rethinking Urban & Suburban Trees

It is said that Buddha found his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The tree is an ancient symbol and that has been highly symbolized as bringer of life to the planet. “For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers.” said Hermann Hesse. If that’s true, then I’d hate to hear some of the sermons my trees are giving me.

In one of my horticulture classes in college, we learned about a lot of tree species and their characteristics. We were taught that Pin Oaks are water loving trees and a characteristic of their branches is that they hang down at 45 degree angles. Another thing we learned is that pear trees, the ornamental varieties, are poor trees because of their structure and soft wood. This is why so many of them break off when the weather becomes windy or icy. If you notice, two branches will grow side by side and often at a tight V with one another. That force will eventually cause one of them to break.

About a year ago, the electric company came and topped out one of my pear trees because it was near the power lines. I didn’t mind, because I knew eventually I would have this tree cut down. But how has it grown out bushy this past year horizontally.

IMG_0068There is another pear tree near the house. My dad really liked the pear trees, even though he discovered their burdensome nature. Every year he would top out the tree himself or hired someone to do it. Since this tree is too near the house, it had to be trimmed back. This caused all sorts of stubby limbs and an immensely bushy tree, that is now touching the house anyway. It is a very stressed out tree and has fungus growing on its truck.

IMG_0070That’s not even the last of it. There is another ugly pear in the front. This particular tree decided it was going to produce tiny, pea sized things of fruit. Every year they fall from the tree and create new pear trees, which grow super fast and the front yard is covered with them. Even if the grass isn’t tall, I find myself having to mow because of them. Yet even will all these problems, the Bradford pear and other pear varieties still remain a popular American favorite. They are chosen for their quick growth, white (and stinky) spring time flowers that last about a week.

IMG_0071In my front easement are two Pin Oak trees. These were planted when the neighborhood was built to create a streetscape. Nearly all the trees on my street are doing reasonably well for being 25 years old. Pin Oaks are actually water loving trees, but these were chosen for a site that is a few feet wide, next to dry and hot pavement. But that’s not all, Pin Oaks also have branches that hang down at 45 degree angles. This means even if the limb unions are high up on the tree, the branches will hang down to get swiped by cars or to swat you in the head while on the sidewalk. Last summer, I received a notice by the city that my limbs must be pruned for clearance. These trees had been limbed up several times over the years, but yet it had to be done again. It is not my doing that the best type of tree wasn’t planted there. I could not afford a tree service, so I did what I could with a long handled saw and a step stool.

Many street trees only have a 5 to 7 year life expectancy because of the conditions an urban tree will go through. Car pollution, poor soils, low amounts of water and polluted water, heat from concrete, and small amounts of soil area. Honey Locust is a popular street tree and so often are on their last leg even after a few years. Ginkos are slow growing trees, and wouldn’t provide shade for many years. Who is to know if they will last that long. It is also time, money, and inconvenience to plant new trees.Pin Oak Street TreeTopping Out Trees: When the electric company came to top out the tree, they only asked if they could top out the pear. However, I soon found them also topping out my black maple. I love this tree and ran out as soon as possible and told them to quit. They were chopping it to pieces and the tree would have been ruined if they had completed it. The front part of the photo is where they topped one main branch. Topping out trees creates bad structure, can stress it out inviting disease, and make it weaker since it will send out all kinds of new growth on the stubs. It is a necessity to hire tree services that know what they’re doing. The limbs should have been pruned out to concentrate its growth on producing a tree with great structure. This can be done by a company who knows what they are doing.

IMG_0069Planting trees in an area is a big investment. It is imperative that great thought is put into tree selection and site selection. Here are some questions to ask:

How big is the tree going to get? Where is the space in my yard it can grow without getting into other trees, power lines, the neighbor’s yard?

What conditions does this tree grow? Soil type? Water? Sun? Temperature? If it likes ample water, then maybe a lower part in the yard will be best.

Does it flower, produce fruit, or lots of viable seeds? Don’t plant trees with large fruit near sidewalks for example. Also, trees like mimosas, the honeysuckle shrub, tree of heaven, are all trees that are big seed producers and take root easily. Take in consideration your neighbors because they do not want to take care of pulling tree seedlings out of their yard.

How fast does this tree grow? Fast growing trees may not be the best because they may create soft wood. Slower growing trees may take longer to look mature, but can be worth it.

If my dad had 15 years ago planted some better trees than these pears, there could have some really nice shade trees by now. Be aware that large garden centers may not have the best trees for your yard. Many trees are sold in mass to the public because of merchandising strategies. Some trees are just fads. If you are able to find trees native to your area, these are most likely good trees to plant. They can be picked up at local nurseries or community plant sales. It is important to do your research, call an arborist, a horticulturist with a university, the county extension office, and find a field guide to trees before selecting a tree for your area. It’s also vital the trees are planted and staked well, and maintained by an accredited tree service that knows what they are doing. An accredited tree service will have the expertise to take care of your trees and should be covered by insurance for liability and safety issues. If you are in the Lexington, KY area, I recommend Town Branch Tree Experts.


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