No Man is an Island

That’s a title that begs discussion. From Socrates to the present, men have stared into space, pondering the essence of their existence. As a college freshman I studied under a most interesting professor. He held a Masters in humanities but taught English literature. He was brilliant and well versed in “Existentialism”. We spent a semester studying Sarte, Camus, and Hemingway and to this day I can picture Sisyphus rolling his rock up life’s hill of frustration. It was a clear lesson as to the importance in keeping life’s gravity well in focus. Fables have their own subtle way of summoning reality now and then.

Just as man, the urban forest leads a certain existence. The quality of that existence, within urban boundaries, has everything to do with man’s knowledge and treatment of trees and their connected environments. How trees are planted in preparation for an urban forest’s future has everything to do with the success of that community. Not only what trees are planted, but where and how it is done is equally critical.

When studying how and where woody plants grow naturally, questions arise concerning planting and maintenance techniques. Questions: Where do trees grow naturally? Do they grow as individuals or members of a contiguous community? Try not to think of your backyard or lawn, but instead, the wooded area behind your backyard, not disturbed during construction. How often do you see a single tree growing by itself in a field, and if this were the case, what advantages would that growing medium provide? A tree finds itself alone in an open field when its neighbors have been mechanically removed. When a field is left fallow, does one black locust or Eastern red cedar appear within one or two years? Survival depends upon species adaptability. When a particular part of an individual, such as a limb, does not contribute to the survivability of larger organism, it is removed or dropped and new ones evolve that do contribute. An example would be trees in a dense forest. Look closely at the lower branches on these trees. They are in the dark of the forest due to tree proximity, and without photosynthesis, lower limbs cannot produce leaves which manufacture the tree’s food, therefore, the tree sheds its non-usable or better put, non-functioning parts. For this reason, forest grown trees are, less broad and lack lower limbs.

Certain genetic wiring has assured tree survivability through adaptation for sixty-five million years? The natural forest seems to be a near-perfect, self perpetuating system, a system that does not need us. On the other hand, the urban forest is a totally unprotected entity, unable to perform to our standards without our help. In other words, we have taken trees out of their natural setting and asked them to do things they would not do in the forest. For too long we have worked on our trees because we thought it was right or made us feel good. Now, thanks to science, and diligent work within our industry, we are responding differently to what trees are telling us.

Trees react with distinct response to stimuli. The stimulus can be good or bad depending upon our methods, with the tree’s reaction being a direct manifestation of those activities. This can be seen in our trees during pruning or planting. Is it possible for us to look at trees, during the planting stage, as a social group? Do trees have similar tendencies as humans when growing together or alone? I cannot think of many cases where trees or humans mature and grow as individuals. When we talk of both we speak in such terms as communities, societies and forests, which means many individuals, members and more. I believe the more organisms an individual connects with, the more successful that particular individual becomes. The whole is greater than any of its parts.

Our company is in the process of building a new landscape. We are going to plant a community of plants rather than an individual and treat the group as a natural forest. We will still have foundation hollies and grass as part of the design but where there were individuals in the proverbial donut of mulch we now have a diversity of trees in a connected, unfragmented, mulched environment. Is it possible to design with less grass and more mulch and still have both? We know that tree roots of different individuals graft with each other, and share elements such as carbon through these grafts. Just as elms contract Dutch elm disease through root grafts, they also share things positively. Placing trees in situations where this root activity can occur could change the entire face of our landscape. By planting the right species of trees in the same “trench”, back filling with the existing soil and mulching the entire system as one, just as our native forests do, has already proven itself to be positive. Dr. Bonnie Appleton states, and I paraphrase; plant to match the species with the environment, considering future size and maintenance, then work on aesthetic needs and desires. Should we force plants into the wrong shaped hole, or can we read the environment, figure out what fits and then make our selections harmoniously as dictated by that environment? A prime example of harmonious planting comes when working within a riparian environment. When we plant with correct species according to where the water flows, rather than changing the path of the water to accommodate our own desires, we build success and adaptability with that environment. Clients tell me they want a maintenance free garden. How maintenance free would it be to change the entire course of that water?

Assimilate, copy, mimic, and what’s the phrase, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. All these words can guide us throughout selection, design and maintenance. Do as the forest does, plant as the native woody’s plant themselves, and take care of things just as the forest coddles her own, which may not always be our favorite choice. We run into many maintenance problems throughout a plant’s life because of earlier decisions. This seems to be a familiar ring when thinking about humans as well. Someone told me when my children were born that I had from their birth to age four to help them build the foundation upon which they would live their entire lives. Looking at my kids now, that was sound advice. From my experience… the same goes for our trees. And that’s the truth! Happy Planting!! Peter.

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

Back to Articles
The Pruning School 16 Berkeley Court Sterling, Virginia 20165