Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Trees, trees and more trees

By the time you read this, the leaves will probably be off the trees, and you might be out there with a rake in hand, cleaning up your yard and getting ready for winter. I find that I have a few less leaves to rake this fall, and I am not too happy about it.

Last month a tree that I loved had to be cut down. It was an old oak that sat right across the street from my house, and when they cut it down I wrote about it for the the Voice newspapers of Silver Spring and Takoma. I also asked readers and friends to tell me stories about trees they love in the Sligo Creek watershed of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Nancy Schulz of Takoma Park, MD wrote to tell me that the trees which stand in her yard are like family members. “Of the elder generation, of course,” she quipped in her email. Neither of her trees is actually an elder, though. She has one beech and one oak, and they are both more than sixty years old.

Two years ago, when the drought was so awful in our area, Nancy says she worried constantly that her trees wouldn’t make it. An arborist recommended using drip hoses to give the big giants a chance against the dry weather. Her stewardship seems to have paid off, and unlike the oak across the street from me, both of her trees still survive.

“Each spring,” she confessed, “I feel so excited when they gradually leaf out, and don’t mind at all the sap and tree debris which falls on our cars. They are at their finest in the fall, and honestly I never mind the raking as it is a small price to pay for their presence in our life.”

Some people go even farther when it comes to the raking. They don’t just enjoy doing it – they choose not to do it. The idea may be startling at first to some suburbanites, who think leaves left lying about are a bit untidy.

But Lauren Wheeler, a DC landscape designer (and arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture) advocates leaving the leaves where they fall and incorporating them into the designed landscape. If done right, they can become an integral and beautiful part of a well-designed garden. She talks about arbor care a lot as a part of her work with
Natural Resources Design, a company based in Takoma Park.

“The tree seems to make for itself what it needs,” she told me recently. Overtime, the leaves decay and feed the tree. The decay also feed the microbial life below, in the root zone. The leaves also provide insulation for the roots during cold weather, and help the soil break down and become more “fluffy.”

“It is fascinating to me,” Lauren continued, “how trees are used as metaphors by some of the leading environmental thinkers, like
William McDonough, who talks about trees as a perfect metaphor for recycling.”

For those that are aware of tree’s environmental importance, it is extremely hard to watch a lovely old specimen get mistreated. A lot of friends and readers last month mentioned trees on public property that they wished they could “save” from destruction.

One neighbor has been particularly dismayed this month to watch as the county’s tree crews have removed no less than 11 trees from the park closest to her house. Some of those trees were diseased, and dying. But others seemed relatively okay, which caused me to wonder about some overly-stringent liability policies floating around out there. I kept thinking: were all the trees they took down really dangerous, or was someone just really nervous they’d get sued if a branch fell? Either way, one of our favorite spots to play has gotten a lot hotter and a lot less pleasant since those chain saws went to work.

Joe Howard says it was concerns about trees being unnecessarily cut down that prompted the formation of the Tree Champion registry a couple of decades ago. It seemed to Joe and others that the only time trees ever made it into the news was when big ones were removed.

“We thought if we could give a positive reason to put trees in the news that we could possibly save them,” he said.

Joe serves as the coordinator of the county’s
Champion Tree Registry, although before retiring he was also a teacher and a school principal. He’s served on the Forestry Board since 1979 and each year in early October gives a tour of champion trees of the county through Brookside Gardens.

Interestingly, Joe says that “there are more champion trees in the suburban sprawl part of Montgomery County – the southern area where there are houses built right up next to each other -- than there are any where else.” He notes that over a dozen of them are located in the Sligo watershed.

When asked why, he speculates that lots weren’t always completely cleared years ago when much of housing in this area was being built. He also notes that homeowners in this immediate area are often extremely proud and fond of their big trees, and take great personal pride in them.

To be an official champion, a tree must meet strict guidelines involving measurements of circumference, height and the spread of the crown. Despite the fact that many trees are being cut down in the county, Joe notes with enthusiasm and optimism that there are new champions being added to the registry next year.

If you want to read about the Tree Registry and see a slide show of a walk Joe gave about Sligo’s champions last year, visit the Friends of Sligo Creek website at:
www.fosc.org/TerrificTreesOct2007-1.htm Be sure to link from there to the Champions homepage, where you can get details about how to register your own big tree.

Although large, old trees are great, almost everyone I talked to and emailed with this month seems to agree that planting trees for the future is a good idea. There is still a lot of time left to do planting in November, so if you are still thinking of planting, you can put away the rake and get out the shovel. Plant something native that will get nice and big one day. Someone seventy years from now will be glad you did.
(Thanks to Mike Wilpers for letting me use his awesome tree photo, which originally appeared on the Friends of Sligo Creek website in 2007.)

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