Street trees and me: a separate peace


Looking north.

This is one subject I can’t let drop, though I agree with much of what’s been said. I found the picture Amy posted very disturbing; if that were happening on my street, I’d wouldn’t be too happy either. But here’s my street tree story.

I moved onto a street covered with mature maples interspersed with a few mature chestnuts and maybe one or two other varieties, as you see above. They are the city’s trees and cannot be removed or replaced, without their cooperation. The city is responsible for trimming them, but rarely does so. These are (mostly) Norway maples and their roots extend throughout the easeways and front yards to such an extent that, without rain, frequent watering is necessary and you practically have to have a jackhammer to get a bulb in. Not only that, but sometimes the red maples have some weird disease where they get these spots and don’t achieve their proper fall coloring. It’s not really a life-threatening condition; just unsightly.

Looking south.

I should hate these trees and be secretly girdling or otherwise sabotaging them so that the city would have to take them down. And yet. I would never consider doing any such thing and, at most, have had guys doing roof work surreptitiously trim off a branch or two. Every fall I manage to get close to 200 bulbs planted (species and hybrids) and have been pleased with how small bulbs have naturalized in the ground cover. The trees (and their shade) are unfriendly to grass and for me that’s great; I hate grass and have been experimenting with shade perennials and groundcovers. Hellebores do great in the front, as do hostas, hydrangeas, pulmonaria, aruncus, and, surprisingly Japanese anemone. I’ve taken the (semi) dry shade as a challenge and have been having fun with it. I’ve grown to appreciate impatiens, which probably seems a sad statement. Small raised beds (though the roots will find these) and containers are a godsend.

I do love looking up at the trees on an early spring, summer, or fall evening and covered with ice they are magnificent.

And I can’t imagine our street without them. But if something were to happen to one of them …

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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. Susan, I love your street trees. When I drove into your neighborhood earlier this summer, I could feel how much cooler it was because of them. But why oh why, do municipalities so often plant species that are hard to live with? Couldn’t they choose a wide variety of native trees that would add to the diversity? This way when something attacks one type of tree, like the elms or chestnuts, there would be many other trees that would still be standing afterwards.

  2. I know how you feel — street trees make such a difference in an urban environment and contribute greatly to the character of a neighborhood.

    But we have four-story-tall Japanese zelkovas on our street that have caused much damage to sidewalks, have invaded front gardens, and have caused homeowners to have to dig up root-infested sewer lines (and in Boston that’s no little expense, because they have to be buried so deep).

    I wouldn’t do a thing to harm the trees — and would really miss looking out into the branches from my third-story home office. It’s such a peaceful feeling.

    But I do think cities need to realize that maintenance is the real price of planting trees. There’s got to be an ongoing budget and regular care. And they do need to choose better species (Although I’ll have to admit that zelkova is on all the “good street trees” lists.)

    But how awful it would be without street trees!

  3. I agree, a good debate on the value of street trees. Municipalities can make some lousy choices when it comes to street trees. But what about residential areas where no one bothers to consider any trees. Poor urban areas, suburban tracks of ticky tack and endless miles of strip malls. Florida has some of the ugliest examples of concreting over paradise imaginable. I would argue, sometimes a “bad” tree is better than no trees.
    Coming back to my house after driving past some of Tampa Bay’s treeless towns and byways, I am so relieved when I get back to my town. Tarpon Springs is a historic town with lovely old trees and grand old homes. Navigating tightly curved road alongside the Bayous one has to be careful, paying close attention to a few of oddly placed street trees. The Yellow Poinciana tree whose crown got shaved by a truck still sets out fabulous pendulous blooms in the heat of the summer. Unfortunately, this tree sands too close to the road along with some of the Melaleuca trees. It appears that the city planted Melaleuca trees years ago– a notorious weed tree, famous for being planted to help drain the Everglades of it “swampness”.
    I was on Elizabeth’s street and toured her garden during this past Garden Walk Buffalo tour and noticed how some of the street trees down a few houses down from her needed a good haircut. More importantly, I noticed, how deliciously cool it was under those untamed trees. Someone near me pointed the temperature change and all I could say was “Ahhh!” I live in Florida now and believe me, a street tree gives you a lot of protection from heat that could cook more than an egg. I used to live three blocks from Elizabeth’s house in a carriage house surrounded by parking lots and spent fourteen years nurturing an English style garden. I felt my two street trees were a gift. One less area I needed to beautify, in my relentless quest to make paradise out of pig’s ear (ahh… I mean lip).

  4. Be thankful the city isn’t into trimming the trees. We have one near the neighborhood school that is sheared off from top to bottom in a straight line on one side. The other side is curved as it should be. I have the feeling the tree trimmers were trained at the $5 hair cut place.

  5. I have a pink-flowering chestnut tree in my hellstrip out front. All the pink chestnuts on the street are slowly dying. Mines been slowly dying for the seven years I’ve lived here. The chestnut that died across the street was dead, without a single leaf, for three years before they took it down. It didn’t even come down during our horrific storm a few years back that damaged nearly every tree in Buffalo. They could have knocked it down then and had FEMA pick up the expense!

    I’m torn about having the city come and take it out. How long would it take? Will the stump get removed at the same time? Will it take another year for the stump to be removed, like others on the street? Will a tree get replanted? Last time, a group of my neighbors banded together and planted trees provided by a local re-treeing group, that had the city’s blessing.

    I know, I know, It’s up to me to call the city and start the process. I just dread the process.

    Siobhan, you have air conditioners, why do you need trees to cool things off? If you want to be cool, move back to Buffalo. I’m sure Bob, Bill or Doug would hire you back!

  6. Elizabeth- Yes, Tarpon Springs is an adorable little jewel, loaded with great Greek restaurants and last but not least, Tarpon is The Sponge Capital of the World.
    Jim- Too bad about your pink-flowering chestnut. Glorious when in bloom, nasty when ailing. Flowering ornamental trees don’t always make great street trees. When I was in Buffalo this summer I noticed many of the ornamental cherry street trees were ailing. Some were in the process of being replaced with hardier specimens.
    Move back to work for Bob, Bill or Doug. Hmmm… let me think about that one!
    Yes, we have air conditioners in FL, but garden nuts like me have get out of the house to commune with the dirt, no matter how sizzling it’s outside. Thankfully, my yard came with a canopy of dappled shade.

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