The Farmer Versus The Woods


So when the ancient sugar maple on my property line had to come down–it was growing into the neighbor’s house both top and tail, interrupting the plumbing and damaging a second-floor porch–I cried crocodile tears.  Admittedly, the felling itself was a sickeningly violent event that made me question my loyalties.  The thud when the body when it hit the ground was horrible, and the stump bled a flesh-colored sap for a full year.  But now I’m over the trauma and like the tree much better as a three-foot high plinth for a giant pot of cannas than I did as a round-crowned, thick-trunked beauty.  Because now, I’ve got sunshine in the yard!  Grapes, roses, a hundred perfumed lilies!

And when some great ancient sugar maples–victims of global warming–came down across from me on the street-facing side of my place, I grabbed the new sunlight and planted a pair of peach trees on my hell strip.  (The hell strip had been cleared of its giant maples before I arrived.  Sugar maples are really not doing well in my part of the world.)

In a mere 14 months in my sandy soil, the peach trees, on the other hand, have thrived, and up until two days ago, had half a dozen gorgeous ripening peaches apiece on them.   My neighbor Peggy warned me, “You’re going to lose those to the drunks.”  Saratoga is both a college town and a resort town, with a fantastic old thoroughbred track that draws loads of horsey rich Southerners, as well as degenerate gamblers, in the summertime.  In other words, a big drinking town, with a ruckus on the streets every night when the bars close.

Not that I mind!  Oh no, drunks are a happy sound.  In my last house, it was logging trucks waking me at 3:45 am, considerably less life-affirming and pleasant, because trust me, those trees were not being cleared for gardens.  But do NOT eat my very first homegrown peaches, you bourbon-addled Kentuckians, or next time you wake me, I may actually hang out of my bedroom window and grouse at you!

The loss of the peaches only doubles my animus against the Norway maple in my backyard, which unlike the poor sugar maples, doesn’t even have the excuse of being beautiful.  I want it to go, go, go–and make room for more peach trees, and even some sweet cherries, since neither is hardy enough for my country place.

Clearly, there is another point of view.  I recently got to tour some gardens in the Catskills with a lovely, smart woman–a knowledgeable gardener and an art history professor –who spends her spare time trying to save the old trees of Westchester County.  Needless to say, she looked askance at my streetside peach tree planting.  “You ought to plant shade trees for your children,” she said.  “They do so much to cool the street and beautify a neighborhood.  Nobody plants them any more.  And we are going to lose a lot of the ones we’ve got to global warming.”

Is she right?  My husband thinks she is and has been arguing for something more permanent streetside–maybe the disease-resistant American elms people are now propagating.

Stilgoe points out that European visitors to America in the early 19th century were appalled at the ugliness of the tree-clearing operations and the waste of wood.    He quotes an 18th century English writer named William Strickland who was traveling in Western New York:

The scene is truly savage.  Immense trees stripped of their foliage, and half-consumed by fire extend their sprawling limbs…the ground is strewn with immense stones, many of them of a size far too large to be movable, interspersed with the stumps of lesser trees, which have been cut off about a yard from the ground.

But Stilgoe also points out that censorious Europeans had forgotten about the necessity of clearing trees to make farmland, because for all intents and purposes, that was finished in Europe by the end of the sixteenth century.

To some extent, I think today’s tree defenders represent a similar forgetfulness.  They have no idea what it means to eat off their own land, which also represents an environmental good, even though it may bring down the tone in a stately urban landscape.

And to some extent, I think they are right–I ought to respect this stately urban landscape and grow my flowers and my food entirely in the country, where no one cares if you cut the trees out of your way.

What I mainly think, though, is that any landscape lucky enough to provoke this kind of argument–between tree lovers and gardeners–well, is a pretty lucky landscape indeed.


  1. I’ve been known to argue against shade trees (#$&@! Norway maples), even as I agree that in principle deciduous shade is perfect for the Northeast. The problem is (as usual) in the application: trees get planted not strategically, but by chance or public program for ‘looks’ — the beloved tree-lined street.

    The same thing goes on in my neighborhood — the hell strip is planted with maples and the occasional oak that so completely shade the street it’s like driving under an awning. The people on the other side of the street, whose houses face south, probably love it, but for this side, the trees are a bit of a waste. They don’t cool the house during the hottest part of the day (which is a mixed blessing because it lets me have sun-loving plants in the back yard beds) and they make it impossible to grow much besides rhodies and hostas in the front yard.

    It would be nice to find a balance between trees for shade and comfort, and sunshine for the garden, but I think even new developments don’t consider the placement of trees in that way.

    (Is that this year’s veggie garden in the photo? It’s beautiful! Congrats on besting the woodchucks.)

  2. My dear Firefly, bless you for noticing! That is my vegetable garden and it is AWESOME this year! Rabbit fencing stapled into the grass and a mulch of ground-up leaves have solved all my problems.

  3. yay! i’m glad to see such a balanced and grateful sort of view of the conversation. we are about to lose a large pine that currently shades our house nicely. it’s died and has to be removed, and i’m casting about for something to put in it’s stead. unfortunately, for the most part, california really wants to be desert instead of farms or forests.

  4. Water restrictions and increased prices for all utilities ,heat islands, these are all concerns that deserve at least as much consideration as growing your own food.Money usually wins out. Especially in local munincipalities
    Solar energy means more than panels to collect energy. Understanding how the tree canopy provides shade and cools the surrounding air through transpiration and directing air flow is part of the whole picture.
    Regulations enacted and enforced by those we elect to office will probably take the decisions out of the average gardeners hands someday as we use more water and energy than can be provided or many can afford.

  5. If you’re interested in urban trees that don’t have so many problems, check out Recommended Urban Trees, available online here: (Full disclosure: The author is a faculty member where I work.)

    The publication is meant for New York and the Northeast and stresses matching species that will thrive in particularly tough urban environments. There are many that top out under 30 feet so that they’ll fit in tight spaces and not interfere with utility lines.

    Other publications from our Urban Horticulture Institute (many of them free online) are found here:

    I’m always amazed at peoples ignorance of trees and basic ecology. I got an email this week asking for a recommendation for a clover or some other plant that could be sown in a field to keep the trees out. It takes more energy than that to halt succession in the Northeast.

  6. Nice list, Craig. I see Norway maple is second on it, but I also see locust and redbud, either of which I would prefer to my 3 maples. However, we homeowners seldom are offered any such choice. The city or some other official group puts the easeway trees in and we have to deal with them. Once they are in, they are not yours to remove. Unless … there happened to be … an accident.

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