More Trees, Less Turf

Posted on: June 24, 2011

My last blog was about the virtues of minimizing the amount of grass, to make your landscape more eco-friendly.  Even the New York Times recently reported on this topic, as the average lawn becomes smaller.

This time, I want to blog about the virtues of trees. My love of trees may make be biased – they are my favorite part of a landscape, and the older and craggier they are, the better I like them. Salon just posted a slide show about some of the world’s great ancient trees.

Fortunately, well-selected and sited trees are a key to designing an eco-friendly landscape that is also beautiful and functional.

(caption: This mastic tree in its prime frames the view of the house, anchors the front yard landscape, and creates a woodland-like setting for the understory plants.)

If you live in an older neighborhood, you may be fortunate to have the blessing of trees planted by someone wise enough to leave behind this legacy for you to enjoy. Full-grown trees, more than any other part of the softscape, announce that the landscape has come into maturity. If you are particularly fortunate, those trees will have been well cared for and properly selected and sited: growing to a desirable size, and providing the right about of shade at the right time of the year.

Often though, you are left to deal with a tree that has grown to overwhelm your landscape, takes too much water to thrive, is messy, hard to garden under, cracks concrete features with greedy surface roots, or invades the water and sewer lines with feeder roots. Reduction pruning and thinning can be done to alleviate some of these problems, and avoids the drastic solution of removing the entire tree and waiting for the replacement to grow and takes its place as a better citizen in your landscape.

(Caption: These pines were “threaded,’” opening up the view, and taking their part in a water-wise landscape.)

Owners of new homes in recently built developments face the challenge of a bare landscape and the time it will take for trees to grow, but also benefit from the opportunity to choose and site trees carefully. Designs must be done to account for the full-size tree: the space it will take up vertically and horizontally, and the shade it will eventually provide. Planting the biggest box size possible can help to achieve an “instant landscape,” but, with the exception of adult-size palms that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, it still takes time for even the fastest-growing tree to come into its full potential.

As the trees grow, your landscape will slowly evolve. Privacy will develop, unpleasant views will become filtered, and pleasant views will begin to be framed by the spreading canopy of branches. That canopy will also provide relief from the relentless sun. The trees will bring shade that will expand the livable areas in your landscape. The shade that develops over planting beds will also provide the opportunity to grow a wider array of shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and groundcovers.

The designers and horticulturalists at Eco Minded Solutions select trees for landscape plans with utmost care. The selected trees must be the right size for the site at maturity. It is tempting to plant that cute little conifer you see at the nursery, unaware that it will eventually grow to perhaps 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide. We avoid these problems by selecting trees for the size of the property and how they relate to the other design elements. Many old favorites and standard selections are simply too big for today’s lot sizes.

(Caption: This pine, planted too close, is already overtaking the house.)

The palette of trees for San Diego is changing, partly because of this issue. There are many small and medium sized trees that we make use of in our designs. A tree in a patio corner may be selected to be only 12-15’ tall, and a tree selected to provide a larger shade canopy may still only grow to 20-30’ tall. A properly selected tree will not require expensive reduction pruning.

(Caption: Crepe myrtle serves as a small-scale focal point for this front yard patio.)

We also keep in mind the amount of shade that a given tree will develop. Some species provide a dense cover and complete shade that may be desirable for effective screening. Others have more naturally open branching and/or smaller leaves that cast a more dappled shade. These lighter-textured trees will not require thinning that is often done on San Diego’s coastal trees, where dense canopies create cold spots and block desirable views.

(Caption: Pepper tree, introduced from Peru during California’s mission period, is delicate-looking, yet tough. )

Any tree must be considered for its strengths and faults, and how it will fit its desired role in a landscape. It must also be attractive to your eyes. All these considerations are important as the range of landscape styles diversifies, from formal and contemporary designs to rustic and cottage designs, from eastern-influenced zen gardens to western-influenced courtyard gardens, from edible landscapes to those that are strictly decorative, and from the tropical-themed landscapes that came to be standard in post WWII San Diego, to more water-wise landscapes that make use of a surprisingly wide array of plants from around the world.

We advocate choosing trees that are water-wise. San Diego’s water restrictions have been made permanent, and water prices are likely to keep going up. One strategy to use water wisely is to design a landscape with a mini-oasis: a spot that features the thirstier plants, including a favorite tree or two that you must have. This oasis should be where you spend the most time in your landscape: a lounging and dining area. Away from this oasis, the plant selections become less water-demanding. Such a landscape will be practical and affordable to maintain as water costs increase and availability becomes more limited. Water-wise trees can cut your water bill, as they shade they provide reduces evaporation from the soil. The protective canopy of trees becomes more important the farther you are from the coast, with its higher temperatures and lack of cloud cover.

With a thoughtful selection of trees and other plants, you can look forward to a shady, restful retreat, and not end up with a parched landscape that requires yet another makeover. Eco Minded Solutions is here to provide you to plan for the future by providing you with a landscape that will be beautiful and sustainable for a lifetime of enjoyment.

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