Giving back to trees

Think long-term when planting, tending

Most of us have had a relationship with trees in one form or another. There’s the tree you climbed (and perhaps fell from) as a child, the tree on campus whose trunk fit your back just right as you studied, the tree you planted in memory of someone special.

Trees have important benefits for people and communities. There are plenty of statistics that show how trees properly placed around homes can lower energy bills by providing shade in the summer and blocking cold winds in the winter. Mature trees bring beauty and character to a neighborhood that nothing else can, and there is evidence they increase property value and decrease crime.

Trees clean the air, shelter wildlife, slow rainfall runoff and muffle noise. They feed
us with their fruit and make the earth a livable place.

“Trees have tremendous environmental service value,” said Chad Tinkel, city arborist and superintendent of urban forestry for Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation. In fact, he said, trees benefit the city to the tune of $5.8 million a year – and that just counts the street trees. Imagine how much more the trees in our yards contribute.

Trees give us everything and then some, as painfully illustrated in Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” A young boy and an apple tree are great friends, but as he grows older he wants money (for which she gives him her apples to sell), then a house (she gives him her branches to build it) and then a boat (she gives him her trunk). The next time he comes back, there is nothing left of her but a stump. That’s OK with the boy, now an old man, because all he wants is a place to sit and rest.

I hope that old dude thought long and hard about friendship, gratitude and replenishing natural resources while he sat on that stump. If not, I hope she left a splinter in his tuchas.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, an old Chinese proverb says; the second best time is now. However, it’s important to be educated about trees, site them carefully and think long-term.

“I usually ask (homeowners): What do you want to do? What is the focus of your yard?” Tinkel said. One homeowner may want a tree to shade part of the yard or decrease the home’s energy costs. Another may want color.

“In most cases, there are presets in the mind of the homeowner,” said arborist Jeff Ling, co-owner of TreeMasters, Inc. “They have some idea of the kind of tree they want.”

Tinkel said this is where the “right tree, right place” mantra comes in. One of the biggest problems he sees with tree placement is their proximity to power lines.

Ling sees many landscapes with trees planted too close to the house. A spruce tree planted 6 to 10 feet from the house will be rubbing the house in six to 10 years, he said. If the homeowners don’t anticipate staying that long, they may be happy to let it be someone else’s problem.

Both arborists said it’s important to choose trees that will work in this area and within the homeowner’s budget.

One of Ling’s clients wanted to plant crape myrtles for his wife, a South Carolina native. The wife may have adapted to northern Indiana, but crape myrtles would not, at least not without painstaking maintenance. Ling ran the numbers and found it would be cheaper for the homeowner to pull out and replace the crape myrtles every year than to keep and maintain them.

Other times, a tree can adapt even if the “right place” part fell a bit short at planting time. Urban trees often must assume asymmetry, Ling said. Another client in a high-end subdivision had a pear tree that had grown to obscure the view of the front door, a central part of the architecture. Ling worked to educate the homeowners on how the tree should be trimmed and maintained to preserve both the tree and the view. “Their choice was: Don’t kill the tree,” he said.

That would certainly be my choice, too. Everything has a life cycle, and sadly, sometimes a tree will be too diseased or damaged to save. It could also pose a safety hazard, possibly because it wasn’t sited properly in the first place.

Still, I have to wonder how many trees are cut down because their owners didn’t know there were other options. This is where doing your own research, talking with Master Gardeners and consulting an arborist can make a difference, not only for your landscape but for the community’s well-being.

If you want, you can even put a dollar value on what the trees in your yard or on your street do for us. Tinkel pointed out a website, www.treebenefits.com, that will let you plug in the ZIP code, species, diameter and location of a particular tree and calculate its benefits in terms of property value, air and water quality and energy. Still, that only begins to measure what trees do for us.

So go ahead and hug a tree – and never underestimate its worth.

First appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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