Trees – Think before you plant.

Posted: January 30, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Wow.  We had some sunshine this weekend.  Can spring be too far off?  Before we know it, it will be time to start thinking about new plantings.  Is tree planting in your future?

You don’t need me to tell you that trees are important in public spaces.  Their benefits are pretty obvious.   But too often we think we can dig a hole, drop in a tree, and enjoy the shade for years to come.  A walk downtown reveals that trees have a tough time in an urban environment.  Stumps and empty tree wells tell the truth.  If we want the trees in our public spaces to look good after the ribbon-cutting, we need to be more aware of what trees need to survive.  That’s why I asked arborist Jeffrey Ling to talk about what it takes to create and maintain a healthy environment for trees.

Tree in a planter at the United Bank Plaza in Charleston, WV.


I first “met” Jeff in a LinkedIn discussion group.  I had been kicking around an idea to create an en pleine air studio for a local museum in a grove of tightly spaced trees.  I was concerned about overcrowding, so I posted a question about it in the discussion group.  Jeff’s responses so impressed me that I knew at some point I should pass along his thoughts.  Yeah, it’s a little technical, but you guys can handle it.  It’s stuff that people who are interested in public spaces need to know.

Here are Jeff’s thoughts…

Nearly every urban site has trees as a part of the design.  Trees provide form and function for a location.  They can be an inhibitor for visual trespass, a blocker of unwanted vistas, and produce valuable shade along with aesthetic interest.  As we all know, trees are a contributor to the overall statement and value of the public space.

What sets trees apart from all other plant selections is the wood.  Trees are unique in this regard.  It is the wood which produces the opportunities and risks for tree planting and tree longevity on a cultured site.

Above the ground, the wood is both descriptive of the species and directive of its character.  Wood is ‘tree engineering’.  Its genetic predetermination is the template to build the organism, yet trees are responsive growers and the shape, texture and plant vigor will be altered by orientation, competition and site management (or mismanagement).

Wood under the ground is even more critical for growth and support.  It is here where we can fall short.  There is no greater disregard for a tree’s potential than when the design places a tree in a space which can not accommodate the needed root zone development.  A general rule is 54 cubic feet of root zone per inch of trunk caliper.  Projecting this out; to grow an 18-inch shade tree one must prescribe a 1,000 cubic foot root zone.  Root zone volume is the first and primary variable for tree size and longevity.

Soil temperature is another constrictor to tree growth and size.  We know that urban landscapes are hotter than suburban or woodland sites.  As soil temperatures rise root function diminishes, and stresses, especially drought stress, increase.  William Graves of Iowa State University reports that when urban soil temperatures are over 90oF, tissue damage follows.

Finally, there’s the issue of water. Nearly all negative effects on urban trees are in one way or another based on water deficiency. While there are drought-tolerant species, in the end, it is a site, not a species issue.

As one who has worked on scores (maybe hundreds) of legacy and historical trees, let me strongly recommend that every designer have an arborist on call who can first assess the condition of existing trees on a given site, both in structure and entropy.  The arborist, as a specialist, can assist the designer in site directed issues with regard to tree growth.  It is a liaison which can produce greater value for the client.

Jeffrey Ling is a registered consulting arborist practicing out of Fort Wayne, Indiana and is the President of Arborwise, Ltd.  Learn more about Jeff and his company at

  1. Nelle Chilton says:

    Excellent article…with warm weather on the horizon, did you see this in today’s NYTimes?

    The Dutchman Flies Right Off the Wall

    MIAMI BEACH — On Friday night at the New World Center here the New World Symphony, a top-notch training orchestra, presented its first free Wallcast concert. Remember that name, Wallcast, because it is going to catch on.

    Inside the center the orchestra, conducted by its founder and artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, played works by Wagner, Thomas Adès and Copland: the same program with which it officially inaugurated its handsome, intimate new 756-seat concert hall on Wednesday. But outside the center, which was designed by Frank Gehry, in a new adjacent 2.5-acre park called Miami Beach SoundScape, a much larger audience watched the concert as the video was relayed live on the 7,000-square-foot white wall next to the center’s inviting glass entryway. The typical shortcoming of every outdoor concert, whether it’s the New York Philharmonic or a hyperamplified rock band, is the sound system.

    But at the New World Center a rectangular area of the park near the wall screen is surrounded by 167 high-quality speakers tucked neatly into a rectangular network of horizontal and vertical tubes. It looks more like an enormous tubular sculpture than an array of speakers.

    The big news here is the high quality of the sound, the best outdoor amplification I have ever heard. During Mr. Thomas’s performance of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” Overture, the orchestra came through with remarkable presence, body and clarity. Sitting in the park watching the broadcast you do not detect the music coming from any particular set of speakers. Rather, it permeates the space.

    The good sound quality combined with the terrific live videos to make this a memorable musical experience. The cameras imaginatively segued from images of the entire orchestra to close-ups of individual players, zoom shots and fanciful overhead views. And on this huge screen, Mr. Thomas and his musicians looked larger than life.

    The New World Symphony must have done good advance work for this first Wallcast. With crisp, almost balmy weather, every bit of the viewing area was filled with people reclining on the grass or sitting on folding chairs brought from home. And most concertgoers listened attentively. The outdoor audience applauded eagerly, giving Mr. Thomas and the orchestra a cheering ovation at the end of Copland’s Third Symphony, which concluded the program.

    In many ways I enjoyed the music making as much as I had in the hall on Wednesday. Hearing Mr. Adès’s new 15-minute oceanic piece “Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra” (which incorporates a film by Tal Rosner) a second time, I got much more out of it and was impressed by its relentless sweep and organic structure. It was touching to see close-ups of Mr. Thomas’s face during the performance of the Copland, a work he clearly reveres, and a populist score that was especially fitting for this outdoor concert.

    Inevitably there are amusing aspects of live video broadcasts that cannot be controlled. Some of the close-ups of Mr. Thomas showed a few audience members right behind him in the front row who looked sleepy, including a woman who dozed right through the exhilarating “Fanfare for the Common Man” when it burst forth in the Copland symphony.

    Mr. Thomas, smiling and looking gigantic, appeared in a charming recorded introduction to the Wallcast concert. But nothing happened during the intermission. Ideally the New World Symphony should fill that time with features. Live or recorded interviews with the players would be perfect. Thanks to these Wallcast concerts the young musicians of the orchestra could well become local celebrities.

    Every orchestra in America should check out the Wallcast concerts at SoundScape, which set a new standard for the outdoor relaying of indoor musical performances.

  2. The EDG says:

    This reminds me, any thoughts on why outdoor dining options in Charleston are so limited? You may have posted on this before, but if not would you? Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s