This would have been an ideal time for a seasonal update on the little Memorial Tree in Felton Covered Bridge Park. Until recently, it had been healthier and growing more vigorously than it had since it was installed a few years ago. It had survived major accidental damage, and was just beginning to thrive. Sadly […]
Since I began posting my gardening column articles here, and supplementing with blog posts, I have deviated from horticultural topics only a few times. I will now do it again. I had earlier selected a horticultural topic for this post. It will wait for now.
Brent Green, my colleague down south, called me on the telephone to tell me to watch the news. I did so, but only briefly. It was just too crazy. So far, I have made a point of saying nothing about Coronavirus. I said nothing about those who protest the violation of their right to spread disease that will kill others. I mentioned nothing about the racist murderers in Minneapolis.
Now I see that people are senselessly rioting and looting in several cities in America.
The office building of the Canyon News, one of the newspapers that I write for, was clearly visible in the background as police helicopters showed looting of stores on the historic Rodeo Drive in Downtown Beverly Hills, in the region of Los Angeles. Police cars and palm trees were burning. From three hundred and fifty miles away, I can see it online.
This is not demonstration or protest. It is looting. It is mere opportunistic thievery. Those involved are not at all concerned about social justice, their own Communities, or that Black Lives Matter. They are exploiting an already bad situation to plunder what they can get away with.
This is happening in the Community where Brent Green has been planting his Birthday Trees (in quantities that corresponds to his age at the time) in public spaces for the past twenty two years. This is near where Brent Green saved several Canary Island date palms on the Santa Monica Freeway from poachers. This is a region that many people care about.
There really is no such thing as a perfect tree. Some are not quite as messy as others. Some have better structural integrity than others. Some have gentle roots; and some stay proportionate to tight spots. However, without exception, all trees grow, drop leaves, and disperse roots.
This is an important consideration when selecting any tree, and especially when selecting a street tree for the narrow space between the curb and the sidewalk (which is commonly known as a park strip). Even where there is no sidewalk, or where the sidewalk is at the curb, most of the obstacles are the same.
Street trees should have reasonably complaisant roots that should not be likely to damage curbs, sidewalks or roadways, at least for several years. They should naturally develop reasonably high branches. They will need to be pruned higher than trucks that may park at the curb. Street trees must also tolerate harsh exposure.
Wider park strips can of course accommodate larger trees. Those that are only two feet wide or narrower are probably not wide enough for any tree larger than photinia, purple-leaf plum or English hawthorn, which are difficult to prune for clearance over roadways and sidewalks.
Messy leaves, flowers or fruit that might not be a problem within the garden might be more of a problem at the curb. It is not so easy to rake such debris if cars park over it. Trees that are commonly infested with scale or aphid are likely to drop sticky honeydew (scale and aphid poop) onto parked cars.
Unfortunately, those who get street trees do not always get to select them. Many municipalities assign specific trees to specific streets. Some streets have a few trees to choose from. Others have only one option. Home Owners’ Associations (HOAs) decide if and where new trees get planted.
Crape myrtle is probably the most common choice for a new street tree because the roots do not get big enough to damage pavement. However, the canopies are not very big either. They stay too low to be pruned above trucks. Crape myrtle is susceptible to scale infestation that can get bad enough to make sidewalks sticky.
For many years, London plane (sycamore) had been another popular street tree. Unfortunately, the voracious roots can damage pavement within only a few years. The messy foliage discolors and starts to fall before autumn.
Much of my work involves street trees. They need more of my kind of attention than most other trees. They must conform to more restrictive limitations. They endure more abuse. They are the most prominent trees on urban properties. Because some are assets of their respective municipalities, they are more stringently protected by local ordinances than other trees are.
I planted quite a few street trees too. While selecting trees for the medians of San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles, we considered the clearance of the lowest limbs above the highest truck traffic, the docility of roots under curbs and pavement, the potential for foliar debris, the resiliency to neglect, and the resistance to pathogens. Those were just some of the major concerns.
We sort of wanted them to look good too.
Ginkgoes, at least modern (fruitless) cultivars, work well as street trees. They are tall and slender, and can be pruned for clearance above streets and sidewalks. Their roots are reasonably complaisant, and take many years to displace concrete. ginkgoes defoliate neatly in autumn, with no debris for the rest of the year. They are resistant to pathogens and tolerant of neglect.
They also look great in their monochromatic but brilliant yellow fall color. (Try to not notice all those utility cables.)
This pair of ginkgoes is in front of an old home in town that was formerly the office of the Los Gatos Weekly Times, before it expanded into the larger Silicon Valley Community Newspapers group. Two decades and one year ago, this was where I dropped off the first of my weekly gardening columns, first as hard copy on paper, then on floppy discs. The trees were smaller then.
One day back in about 1999 or so, I stopped by on my way back from delivering rhododendrons and other horticultural commodities from the farm. I was driving the big delivery box truck. I realized how important adequate clearance is when the truck tore a significant limb from the tree on the left. The tree and I both can attest to the resiliency of the species to such abuse.
Just to be clear, I earned the title of Johnny Appleseed before my colleague Brent Green did. While Brent was secretive about our tree planting projects in Los Angeles, I was not so about our similar projects in Los Gatos. While Brent’s neighbors wondered where their new street trees were coming from, mine read about their new park trees in the Los Gatos Weekly Times.
In fact, the exposure from that article is how I started my weekly gardening column in the same newspaper just a few months later, in October of 1998. Los Gatos is a smaller town than Los Angeles is. Secrecy was not an option. Sadly, our projects in Los Gatos, and then in Scott’s Valley, did not continue. We concentrated our urban tree planting efforts in Mid City Los Angeles.
The tree planting projects that I am referring to are our Birthday Trees that I wrote about last January. As I explain in that article, Brent had been wanting to plant trees in the formerly blank and broad medians of San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles. I just happened to be able to supply such trees from those at the farm that got a bit too past their prime to be marketable.
I do not intend to be redundant to that article, but want to share this video, Johnny Appleseed. As much as I hate to admit it, Brent is much more entertaining than I am. (I should later share one of my old videos from Gardening By The Yard, so you can compare.) I should probably look through more of Brent’s old videos to see if there are others that would be interesting.
If I had more time, I would write more about Brent’s work to improve the urban forests of the Los Angeles Region.
This grand sycamore has likely been here since the third day of Genesis. A few of the top branches got broken off when Noah’s Ark floated over. When I was a little kid, it was on the edge of a vacant field where road debris was dumped, and older kids rode their dirt bikes. Now it is on the western edge of the parking lot of Felton Covered Bridge Park. I write about it sometimes.
‘California Sycamore‘, ‘Hanging Gardens Of Babylon‘, ‘Nature Is Messy‘ and ‘Tufts‘ are some of the articles that feature this exquisite specimen. The last three of these examples describe some of the difficulties of old age for sycamores. Something that I may not have mentioned in these article though, is that such mature sycamores eventually develop root suckers.
I use the term ‘suckers’ loosely. For those of us who grow grafted trees, ‘suckers’ are stems that develop from below the graft unions of grafted trees, even if above the roots. They are from the understock below, so are genetically different from the scions above. Unusually vigorous stems above graft unions or on ungrafted trees, including the roots, are known as ‘watersprouts’.
For all other intents and purposes, ‘suckers’ really are just vigorous stems that emerge from roots, which is what we have here. Because no one was here to graft this grand sycamore on the third day of Genesis, these ‘suckers’ are genetically identical to the main tree. Unfortunately, their appearance indicates that the tree is finally acknowledging that it is slowly deteriorating.
Many trees do it, especially old riparian trees. When they know that they will not be around much longer, but still have some time to do so, they divert resources into their own replacement. Suckers are expected to mature into new trees after the original is gone. They recycle the mature original root system until they eventually replace it with younger and more vigorous roots.
Arborists may try to interfere with this process by removing suckers and watersprouts, and diverting resources back into older stems. This is actually helpful for trees that are distressed, but not yet decaying. For trees as mature as this sycamore, removal of vigorous suckers and watersprouts is mostly cosmetic, because thickets of such rampant growth becomes unsightly.
As violent as it sounds, it is best to abscise suckers like these when they first appear, and any that appear afterward. That involves literally tearing them from their roots to remove some of the callus growth from which they emerged. Cutting them at the ground not only leaves the callus growth to develop into distended burls, but also stimulates more vigorous sucker growth!
Now that these suckers have been cut down repeatedly over the past several years, simple abscision is no longer possible. Callus grown has expanded and fused into broad subterranean burl growth. Removal of such extensive burl would severely distress and possibly contribute to the destabilization of the already distressed tree. Suckers can now only be cut down to the ground.
Several years ago, when the first of the suckers started to appear, they were much easier to abscise. The process was delayed until winter dormancy. The small defoliated suckers were then abscised along with much of their associated callus. It did not accomplish much for the massive tree, and only delayed the inevitable for a few years, but generated an interesting byproduct.
The bare suckers with their bit of callus were ideal for growing into copies of the same tree. Most were plugged back into the riparian area nearby, but later killed by necessary vegetation management. A few others were canned (potted), and grew into small sycamore trees that were planted, with other sycamores, into broad medians and parkstrips in Mid City Los Angeles.
It is a long story about how those few trees ended up in Los Angeles, and were added to the fifty or so Birthday Trees that we plant annually on January 18. Sadly, their identities were lost in the process. If the other sycamores are genetically identical clones of each other, it may eventually be possible to distinguish genetic variations of those that were once root suckers here.
We arborists happen to like trees. That is why we are arborists. Most of us also understand that trees are not appropriate for every situation, or where they are not appreciated. There is no point in planting a tree where it will just get cut down by someone else who does not like it. We want trees to be happy. We also want those who live with them to be happy with their trees.
Trees are ‘generally’ desirable over parking lots and roadways. They provide shade that cools the pavement during hot summer weather. Arborists naturally prefer trees that get big enough to make substantial shadows. It is also important for such trees to get high enough to be pruned for minimal clearance above the biggest vehicles to use the roadways or paring lots. They should also be pruned above streetlamps and signs.
Clearance of signs is a serious problem in strip malls and commercial districts, where trees are regularly disfigured by those wanting to keep them below their signs rather than above. It takes a few years to prune trees upward, and many merchants do not want to wait that long. There is also a concern that substantial trees will make substantial messes, and damage concrete curbs, gutters and sidewalks.
Microtrees are not always the answer! They are a cop out! For many situations, it is better to contend with the problems of larger trees than to pretend that microtrees are somehow better.
These dinky crape myrtles will never be proportionate to the roadway to the left or the parking lot to the right. They will not get high enough to be pruned for adequate clearance, so will instead be mutilated for confinement. They will likely get shorn into nondescript globs that rarely get a chance to bloom, and that pedestrians will need to duck under.
Crape myrtle is the most common of the microtrees that so commonly end up where other trees would be better. That is why so many arborists sometimes misspell ‘crape myrtle’ without the first ‘e’.
Many municipalities enforce tree preservation ordinances. Whether we agree with them or not, these ordinances are designed to preserve significant trees that are assets to the community. For the greater good, local governments have made it their business to limit what we can do with our own trees on our own properties. There are many advantages. There are many disadvantages. We arborists see it all.
Street trees, by general definition, are those that are close enough to a curb to shade a roadway and parked cars. In suburban and urban neighborhoods, many street trees are within parkstrips, which are the narrow spaces between curbs and sidewalks.
Neighborhoods of tract homes are typically outfitted with uniform trees of only one or two cultivars, that were all installed at the same time, as the homes were completed. Some neighborhoods of homes that were built individually are also outfitted with conforming street trees that were installed as parcels were subdivided. Most of such trees were installed as contingencies to development of the sites.
Since such trees were required by the associated municipality, they used to be maintained as such, just like any other trees in parks, medians or other public spaces. Municipalities that lacked tree preservation ordinances protected street trees as the public property that they were considered to be. Those who owned homes that were outfitted with such trees were not allowed to cut them down or even prune them without permission.
In some ways that sounds like a pretty good deal. The problem was that for many municipalities, it did not last. As the maintenance of maturing trees continually became more expensive, resources that used to be allocated for the maintenance of street trees were diverted to other projects. Although they do not like to talk about it, many municipalities no longer maintain their street trees, or do so selectively.
The aging trees remain. Many get cut down secretly by property owners who get frustrated by the lack of maintenance. Most are well maintained, but at the expense of those who own the properties where such trees live.
Most of us probably do not mind paying to have our street trees pruned when necessary. However, it is frustrating for those of us who must contend with some of the more problematic trees, and trees that are unusually expensive to maintain. Furthermore, property owners must assume the expense of repairing sidewalks, curbs and driveways that are damaged by roots, as well as damage to anything that limbs fall onto.
Municipalities that once required the installation of street trees, and that should still be encouraging residents to protect and appreciate their urban forests, are no longer able to assume the liability associated with street trees.
These pictures show two large limbs that fell from a big Canary Island pine onto two parked cars in Leimert Park of Los Angeles. A concerned citizen had contacted the Los Angeles Department of Public Works a few times about the tree, because one of the two fallen limbs had broken off quite some time ago, and was entangled with the other limb that broke and fell shortly before these pictures were taken on Sunday morning.
It does not grow fast, but by the time it gets old, mayten, Maytenus boaria, might be tall enough to reach upstairs eaves, and nearly as broad. The main trunk and limbs are nicely outfitted with uniformly checked grayish bark. Smaller stems are so very limber that it is a wonder that trees are able to gain any height at all. These stems arch gracefully, with their wiry tips hanging vertically.
Almost all modern maytens are of the cultivar ‘Green Showers’, which has slightly larger leaves. Yet, the evergreen leaves are so small that it is not easy to discern much difference from the slightly yellower leaves of older trees. Ironically, older trees seem to be more resilient. Newer trees seem to be more sensitive to rot if watered too frequently, particularly if soil does not drain adequately.
Pruning and grooming is not as simple as it might seem to be from the outside. If the very pendulous stems around the edges get cut like bangs, bunched stems accumulate and lose their softly pendulous texture. They need to be thinned too, so that they can hang more softly. Dead stems should be groomed from within. Main stems are not likely to regenerate if cut back too severely.
It seems that I have been negligent about writing about my colleague Brent Green and some of our crazy adventures in horticulture. I said I would do so when I started writing my articles here way back two Septembers ago. It is easy to get distracted from such topics, particularly since we do such different types of work. Brent is a renowned landscape designer and proprietor of GreenArt Landscape Design in Southern California. I am just a horticulturist and arborist who really should get back to growing horticultural commodities in Northern California. For all of our similarities, there just might be as many differences.
After posting that old video of the Birthday Trees yesterday https://tonytomeo.com/2019/01/19/birthday-trees/, I thought that I should also write more about what Brent does for the urban Forest of Los Angeles, which is probably more interesting than our crazy adventures. I really want to find the old news article about how he busted tree rustlers who were stealing mature Canary Island palms from the embankments of the Santa Monica Freeway, which is pictured above. It is still a sore subject because we know that it continues, and that the trees that were stolen were not returned as promised.
I could write a separate blog about the work that GreenArt does if I were more involved with it. I just do not enjoy design like Brent does. Actually, I am no good at it. I just work with the horticultural aspects of it, and growing material for it. In the future, I will probably be more involved with projects that are not directly affiliated with GreenArt, such as initiatives to maintain and protect trees in public spaces of Los Angeles.
For now I have only this brief and outdated video of the landscaping of Brent’s home, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2IwcuU3KEo .