Trees vs. lawns



During the course of some emails regarding our local Re-Tree
effort, in which I and other volunteers have been discussing our spring
planting, I came across this statement by one of the consultants who is
managing the project:

The American love affair with lawns which began in the
industrial revolution is probably the largest detriment to trees.  The
invention of the lawn mower and more recently string trimmer has more than
likely caused the premature death of more trees than any disease or insect.

He went on to advise planting the trees around the perimeter
of the small park we are re-treeing and surrounding them with perennials to
reduce the amount of human traffic they will endure.

It has been difficult ensuring the survival of the bareroot
trees we’ve been planting since 2006—when an unexpected October storm damaged
and killed thousands of trees across Western New York. We’re dealing with
heavily trafficked, relatively small spaces.  The nice part is that we can choose our own trees from a list
that includes a lot of great native varieties and ensures that the neighborhood
plantings will be diverse. But many of the newly-planted trees along medians
and easeways have been hit by snowplows, cars, or vandalized in other ways.
It’s a tough life for a small tree in the city.

I had not really thought much about mowers and trimmers, as
there is hardly any grass on the easeways on my street, or throughout the
neighborhood. But of course it can be a big problem. Grass and trees like
different soils; lawns around root systems compact the soil, and yes, lawn
equipment will whack hell out of a tree.

Sadly, in suburban commercial areas, newly-planted trees are
“protected” by hills of mulch, while on private property owners will either
mimic this practice, thinking it must be the thing to do, or just leave the
tree surrounded by lawn to fend for itself.

In the two urban parks I am involved with, I hope we can set
somewhat of an example by offering some layered plantings with trees, shrubs,
perennials, and ground cover that will hopefully please all the living things
that use the park. But the process is much more fraught with hazards than I would have expected!

Previous articleHow to judge “expert” advice
Next articleTwo Degrees Celsius=A Cloud of Perfume
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Perhaps if you surround your trees with thorny shrubs… 😉

    I’m glad that lawns are becoming less of a requirement in a manicured landscape. I think your layered plantings sound much more interesting and beautiful!

  2. I live near a nice large city park. I go there twice a day to walk the trail with the dog. The main drive through the place is lined with Bradford Pear. One winter after an ice storm damaged some of them I was amazed to see them replacing them with the same type of tree. As I walked past I stopped and asked the guy doing the planting why replace a damage prone tree with another one just like it. He pointed out that they grow very fast and within a few years you won’t be able to pick the newly planted trees from the older ones and that Bradfords are extremely cheap. With limited budgets and staff they have to use what they can afford and replace easily. As a visitor I think we forget all the hard work and money that goes on behind the scenes. They are squeezing blood out of turnips every day.

  3. @John – I agree about the hard work and costs, but that’s not to say that lawns aren’t hard work and cost. It’s a trade-off.

    I think if they planted edible trees and shrubs, and allowed community volunteer groups to care for the trees and take some of the harvest to food banks, they might solve a few problems at once.

  4. The park I’m talking about occupies land that was a busy pick-your-own fruit orchard up until the mid 90’s. The only trees on the site that provide any sort of food are a small group of pecans. The disease issues in the area caused them to remove all the others. It would be very difficult to manage any sort of food growing in that area with a huge amount of chemicals or a large staff.

  5. I have had to call our local city arborist’s office each autumn for the last few years to ask them to connect the dots with the parks department that, each fall, creates mulch volcanoes at the base of the park trees near my home. Sadly, I think the crew thinks they’re doing a good thing.

  6. The invention of the lawn mower and more recently string trimmer has more than likely caused the premature death of more trees than any disease or insect.
    Where’s the science ?

  7. I have a 1910 book on fruit growing for the home gardener. In it they stressed NOT planting grass in your apple orchard because it competed for nutrients. Way before the anti-lawn movement.

    It is not the lawn that causes the trees death, it is people usiing the weed eaters and mowers like madmen and destroying the bark and causing the tree to die. Our pioneer ancestors used a method caused “griddling” to remove trees so they could have fields for planting crops. Cut the bark all around a tree and it dies. But on the other hand, every tree I have ever planted has been used by the felines as a sharpening post. They all have deep scratches to about 2′ above ground and they all are still alive. The trees. And the cats.

  8. My lawn is easier to care for than my flower beds. Just pushing that mower over it has me walking in little circles.
    Easier than packing around a weed sprayer.
    Trees planted properly look grand with a band of mulch in a lawn setting.

  9. The few trees in my ‘garden’ are planted in mixed beds and so are safe from mowers and string trimmers. I think it is mostly the string trimmers that are a danger – as are mulch volcanoes. How about highbush blueberries for a carefree edible hedge? Nice autumn color as well.

  10. commonweeder, I would like to replace some arbor vitae that were overgrown and had to be removed after successive years of heavy snow damaged them beyond hope of recovery. We are looking at highbush blueberries. Is there one in particular you could recommend? We’d like something that would get fairly tall to help replace the privacy we had with the AVs.

  11. Pedinska,

    If you want berries, you will need more than at least two varieties that bloom at the same time for cross polination. You’d need to talk to a local nursery to recommend something that will do well in your area.

  12. Alas, the dozens and dozens of rabbits that move onto my property each winter are doing a fine job of killing all my trees, long before the lawn or mowers or string trimmers have a chance. Rabbits *invented* girdling and no matter what I do (tree sleeves, wire cages, dogs) I lose half my baby trees ever winter we have have snow cover, here in Iowa.

    (this has little to do with anything. I just needed to vent, having lost three pears, two heirloom apple trees, three peaches, and a couple of ornamental crabs to these voracious rodents over the past three years.)

Comments are closed.