Ecological Design Blog
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What Not to Do
- Category: What Not to Do
- Written by Sue Reed
When planting a shade tree, most of us imagine that it will grow up into a big majestic specimen, one that casts its friendly shadow across the yard and maybe even holds a swing for the kids. Nobody imagines a chopped and mangled thing. No-one starts out planning to cut the head off the tree they are so tenderly setting into the ground.
When deciding where to plant a tree, however, many people forget to consider two huge realities:
- We (for now, anyway) live in a time when overhead wires line one side of most streets.
- Every city and town owns some amount of land beyond the edge of a street’s pavement – called the “Right of Way” – and the town can do ANYthing it chooses in this strip of land, including erecting overhead wires where none existed before.
Too often, trees get planted in a location that will eventually kill them.
Now, granted, sometimes it is the town itself that plants these trees, with no thought of future overhead wires. And the extreme pruning may be the unavoidable result of a town needing to provide services in new places.
Sometimes it is a matter of regular folks just trying to fix up the front yard, putting the tree out near the edge where it’ll look nice and not take up too much space, and not crowd the house. These sad situations are not unavoidable. They can be anticipated. And as usual, part of the solution lies in thinking beyond just how something will look.
But wait a minute. Is it really true that removing a tree’s central trunk - called the “leader” - will kill it?? Nearly always, the answer is yes. Perhaps not right away, but eventually.
Here’s why. The leader is the upright stem of the tree. When it gets chopped off, the resulting wound is a surface that faces straight up toward the sky, a nice flat place to catch the falling rain.
To make matters worse, it is not cut at a branch “collar,” where trees have specialized tissue that helps grow a distinct kind of bark over a wound. The leader doesn't have such a collar. So the cut doesn’t heal well. And then:
- Rainwater seeps into the exposed stub.
- The wood slowly rots.
- Insects find this nice soft wood, and make it their home.
- Fungi arrive, and spread their tiny roots.
- The rot goes deeper and deeper.
- The tree hollows out.
- The tree eventually splits.
- The end.
What to do instead
To prevent this harm and disappointment, we need only keep in mind a couple of basic things when planting a tree:
- Know how big this particular type of tree will become (this is easy to learn with a quick internet search).
- Look UP above where the tree is to be planted… and make sure there are no power lines already up there within reach of the future branches of an eventually much bigger tree.
- Know exactly where a boundary line is (i.e. the edge of the Right of Way), and be aware that any town might, at any time, without needing permission, widen the road, or install new utility lines, or decapitate/mangle any trees growing in the way of "infrastructure improvements."
- As a good rule of thumb: never plant a large tree within 10-20’ of the edge of the road, unless power lines have already been erected...on the other side of the street!
Majestic shade trees are so wonderful and important, in so many ways. There’s really no excuse for planting a large tree in a place where it will eventually die a slow death from decapitation.