Cherishing the urban canopy



Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but held off—it’s more fun writing about snow when it’s 80 out. Some of you may have heard about this. Last October, a storm officially called Lake Storm Aphid caused near-catastrophic tree damage throughout Western New York, leading to the removal of thousands of trees. The heavy, wet snow, though it disappeared in a couple days, hit the still-green canopy like tons of bricks, filling the roads, yards, and parks with broken branches. The necessity of many of the tree removals is still being hotly debated, notably in two excellent articles in our local alternative weekly, Artvoice: “Stumped” and “Timber”. It’s highly questionably whether the outside contractors who removed many trees had done proper evaluations. Certainly, none went by the allowable damage percentage recommended by the DEC, which is up to 75 percent. So now many residents are left with stumps in their easeways, sunny beds that had been shady, and missing privacy borders.

Worst of all, though FEMA provided plenty of money for tree removal, it did not include funds for stump removal. So I have one friend drilling a hole in her stump to use it as a planter until she can get rid of it. Another friend is spending a fortune on junipers to replace one large tree that had effectively blocked the view of her neighbor’s yard. Others are still fighting with the city and county to save the publicly owned trees outside their properties. The Olmsted Conservancy is now using all its fundraising clout to replace the many trees it lost in the six parks and several parkways Olmsted designed here. One attempt I can’t quite get on board with involves making sculptures of Buffalo historic figures from the bigger trunks. These are heavily shellacked and kind of dumb-looking, IMO, but if it works, then fine.

I have to guiltily admit that I regretted (just a bit) that the trees lining the street in front of my house escaped with little or no damage—I have 3 tightly-placed Norway maples, and they make gardening there a challenge. But all this has made everyone here more aware of the urban canopy then ever before. Many of the gardeners of Garden Walk have had to redo their yards as a result, and it’s led to a reconsideration of which trees are best to plant. American elms? Kouza dogwoods? Cherrys? Redbuds?

I have one old maple in back—a birdseye, I’ve been told—that I cherish and was most relieved that it survived. It defines the garden, or at least that part of it. Do trees define your garden? Have you lost a favorite tree? I know that nobody in WNY—gardener or not—will ever take trees for granted again.

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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 regular 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. I still have a hard time believing a city the size of Buffalo doesn’t have a forestry department. Portland is 1/10 the population but after the nor’easter we had in April when a lot of big trees went down the tree men worked really hard removing and replacing the fallen. Stumps came out and young trees were planted, especially in the park near me. They’ve been slower at the trees on hell strips in various neighborhoods, but it’s city policy to replant, so eventually all that will be redone.

    After hearing about your storm and experiencing the April one here, I’ve been looking at the trees the city plants, and I think they do an excellent job selecting different varieties and maintaining our urban canopy.

    Private yards are another matter. My back yard garden is defined by trees that are in places that don’t really make sense and I’m pretty sure weren’t intended to be where they are — they snuck in and got too big to take down easily before anyone really noticed.

    There are also not a lot of understory trees like dogwood or fruit trees, which means one level of the vertical plane isn’t being put to much use in this neighborhood.

  2. My current meager garden is a small corner of my in-laws yard in mid-Michigan. Most of their lawn is dominated by sugar maples and one huge, majestic black walnut, right in the middle of the yard. My corner is the only spot with enough sun to plant vegetables.

  3. It’s very similar to what happens following a hurricane. You’re entire environment changes in a single day and it takes a lot of time to adjust. Our extension office did many grants to provide free trees to people to replace what they lost. We lost 15 of 17 trees in our property, including a 40 year old Magnolia. But since the storm (Ivan – 2004), I’ve planted 9 new trees and lots of sun loving perennials. I can’t even remember what my gardens looked like with all the mature trees in it.

  4. It’s amazing what impact losing a tree can have on the quality of your outdoor space. I have a corner lot, so my back yard has one side that borders a road. There used to be a lovely paper birch there, with plenty of low branches that formed a beautiful screen. But last year I lost it to bronze birch borer. And now when I go outside, I feel like I’m going out into a room where one entire wall has come down. It’s been nearly a year now, and I’m still not accustomed to it. I planted a sugar maple in the space. The sugar maple is a fast-growing teee, but I’ll be an old lady before it fills in like the birch did.

    I’d had an earlier experience like this, when the neighbor behind me cut down a row of arborvitae that made a screen between her elevated porch and my yard. What was worse was that she hadn’t intended it, but some yard workers had misunderstood her instructions to shear them. I planted a lovely tree and shrub border along my back fence, losing a segment of my vegetable garden. But now I have lilac, pink dogwood, mountain laurel, tupelo, and viburnum in place of a row of arborvitae. Definitely an improvement, but it took years before the dogwood grew tall enough to block the porch.

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