Tree or not to tree?


Susan's recent post about street trees being offered in her neighborhood inspired me to seek out this photo:


This is my street, in around 1905, I'm guessing from the mutton-chop sleeves on the women on the porches.  My house is the one with the hammock on the porch.  We don't have a hammock there now.  We'd have to listen to the sound of the air conditioner next door while swinging. It hardly seems relaxing.

Caroline Street circa 1905 is lovely, though shady.  The trees enforce a kind of consistency on the neighborhood, which is nice.  I'm guessing that they are elms, which would explain why we don't have giant street trees today.  Of course, we do have some old surviving sugar maples on this street, which are struggling in a warming climate, so it's possible that they were all maples, though their crowns don't seem quite round enough for maples.

The street doesn't look like that today:

Too bad we've replaced dirt with asphalt.  Many times uglier.

And many of the trees are gone.  A neighbor convinced the city to take an old one down just last year.  The city agreed that the tree was sick, but I'm not so sure local officials aren't just eager to get everything out from under the power lines.

Here is the front of my house last spring:

Where there were once large street trees, there are now young peach trees.

I think that's okay.  I think times change, and real food is more important at the moment than a consistent, verdant look for the neighborhood.

I like the old photo.  But if you gave me a choice, I'd never give up the bit of sun I've got here today. The front of my house faces south, and it represents a rare chance to grow a rose or a food crop.  

I'm in the Henry Mitchell school: Trees belong in forests, not tiny city yards.  


  1. I like tree lined streets. What I would like not to see are power lines! I’ve been imagining how pretty our city would look without powerlines, billboards and those darn flashing advertisements. gail ps I do appreciate your wanting a sunny garden.

  2. I’m on the other side. I like trees. But, I also live in an even hotter place, so shade from the trees is a gift.

    There are some pretty and small street trees, or trees that grow tall and thin without huge canopies. They would add a bit of green without shading everything in site.

    For the DC area:

    -Ginkgo (male)
    -Black gum

  3. I live out in what some might call Deep Country, in a town of 800 with nearly as small towns all aaround. When I look at photos from the early twentieth centure all I see are open fields. People were farming then. As the farms have disappeared we now have trees. Lots of trees. But I still don’t support a tree-burning biomass plant proposed for our area.
    Don’t forget my Giveaway. Leave a comment by midnight tonight. Drawing tomorrow am.

  4. Susan, I think my house is officially Stick Style–though not painted property to emphasize that.
    Once you get past Italianate and Second Empire, Victorian house styles are pretty much of a jumble.

    The detail inside is basically Eastlake-influenced.

  5. I like trees in neighborhoods – within reason. The closer the houses are & the smaller the yards, the smaller the trees should be. In tight urban & suburban areas like yours ( and mine ), I think they should mostly be relegated to public spaces if they will get taller than the homes.

    When I first moved to Sacramento, I remember thinking I’d found Paradise. Especially in the older areas of town, orange & lemon trees were planted in front yards. And that was my introduction to edible landscaping :~D

  6. obviously, depends on the tree as well.

    there are still a few neighborhoods where i live (portland) that have full elm canopies. very pleasant to visit, especially in the summer, but i wouldn’t want to live there.

    i personally like small to medium trees out in that spot. cornelian cherry being my current favorite. early flowers, tasty fruit. drought resistant.

    but in terms of civic policy, i would support planting a wide range of trees and tree types. large/small/messy/neat/edible/flowering variety is what cities need.

  7. My neighborhood was originally platted about a hundred years ago. One section still has hundred year old chestnut trees. They’re wonderful, gnarly things like something out of Tolkien. One homeowner obviously doesn’t agree with me. They cut off the bark all the way around several times until it gave up the ghost. They left it standing to break my heart every time I walk by. If you’re going to kill a tree, at least cut it down, and get it over with quickly. It took a couple of years before the tree completely died. They probably killed it because it was shading their lawn.

    My house came with a big maple. It bears the scars of some drunk taking the turn too fast. If the tree hadn’t stopped it, the car would have ended up on my porch. The tree stays.

  8. “Too bad we’ve replaced dirt with asphalt.”??!!

    Oh, you really don’t mean that. Do you know how much housework dirt roads cause? Dust in the summer, everywhere, can’t open windows, can’t hang out clothes. They use to spread an oil mixture to keep the dust down, hardly environmentally friendly. And then when it rains…. mud mud mud that you cannot keep out of your house. Give me paved streets any day. Of course brick would be much nicer looking.

  9. I love my trees, and although I would sometimes like a bit more sun, I will happily accommodate myself and my garden to their kindly shade. As for Henry Mitchell — he also thought English ivy was the perfect ground cover. And the person who ringbarked the chestnut tree should have a gentle aministration of weedkiller in his morning coffee.

  10. I grew up on a street that had a beautiful tree arch very much like what is in the picture of your street in 1905. Then the 70’s came along with a senseless topping craze and every tree that made up that beautiful arch died. Nothing in this world can replace the feeling you get from strolling under such a cool shady canopy, playing hide and seek among the trees or learning the freedom of your first real bike ride while under the protection of a green sentinel that watches you with pride and protection.

  11. So, I agree with the sentiment that big trees in little yards or streets are a problem. People here plant redwoods or even groves of redwoods in their backyard and then discover the true implications of redwoods being the tallest trees in the world. My landlord planted one in our three-foot-wide hellstrip underneath power lines. Right plant, right place, eh.
    But I do think we should try to plan our cities to make space for large trees. They have so many environmental benefits — reduced heat-island effect, cleaner air, better stormwater infiltration (which so many cities have problems with and get sued over), habitat amongst all the buildings, etc… Deciding about having trees shouldn’t only be up to the homeowner, because it impacts the entire community. I don’t have a link, but planting a tree is one of those single best cost/gain things you can do. Cities pay for street trees because it brings huge, proven economic and environmental benefits. I think we have an obligation to fit trees into our cities. Even if there weren’t trees there before, the effect of putting all of these roofs and all of this asphalt onto the earth needs to be remediated and trees are the single best way to do it.
    Very cool that you have a photo of your street back in the day. Your garden looks very nice and is no doubt an improvement on what was there before, but old school black and white does have a certain panache…

  12. [Hijack: The house can either be called Queen Anne or Arts and Crafts (take this with a grain of salt because one architecture buff will argue one way and another will argue the other). These two categories are very, very broad and can be broken down. However, since Michele’s house has details from a variety of sources or styles, it’s safer to put it under a broader name. I wouldn’t call it Stick because Stick must have a lot of half-timbering on the facade. If you’re interested in historic architecture, A Field Guide to American Houses is a good first text.]

    In regards to street trees and large trees in city lots, I’m all for them. The overall benefits to humans are well documented and undeniable.

    Who wants to live in a city without trees? Very few. Studies have shown over and over again that people are healthier and happier in cities with trees and will pay more to live there. You might not like a big old tree in your yard, but can you imagine if all the trees on your block were gone?

    Oh, you got me started. I wrote a graduate thesis on city trees and why they should be preserved. I had better stop now before I really begin to rant!

  13. Some garden rhetoric is better than none.
    Some old houses are looking good even though snobs come walking in complaining about the lack of stainless steel.
    In the old continent homes are preserved.
    It’s still a small world.
    Garden’s are frozen more than normal.
    The big wigs need to rough it.
    Throw them out into the snow.

  14. I am all for trees. I live in Katy, Texas. Any extra shade is a wonderful thing when temps hit over 100(we did that often in 2009). I live on a corner in a neighborhood that was pasture and rice fields 30 years ago. I have three live oaks that are just beginning to reach the height of the roof and I welcome their shade.

    Trees have always held a special place in heart. I grew up in southern Louisiana where there are streets lined with 100 year old oaks and magnolias. Their branches were our playgrounds and hiding places. They let us use our imaginations to turn them into anything we wanted.

    My parents moved to Houston and bought a corner lot in the “burbs” in 1976. They promptly planted 7 trees around the front and side of the house, 2 crepe myrtles in the back. All of the trees are huge and shade most of her yard now. They also offer her the chance to grow a number of plants that would die in the heat otherwise. Her yard is the envy of everyone who passes by.

    When I go back to Louisiana, which is often, I find myself wistfully admiring the trees and walking down memory lanes. Trees and plants have the ability to transport me back to certain times and places in my memory. I couldn’t imagine my little corner in Katy without them.

  15. One good thing about asphalt streets instead of dirt is that we don’t have as much dust, and our clothes aren’t dirty all the time. I’m not in love with asphalt (in spite of hubby being a contractor), but it does have a few attributes. I actually like concrete better, but it isn’t always practical I guess. We had gravel in our neighborhood for years, and it was always needing maintenance and dusty too. No easy solution. Your street is very pretty now.~~Dee

  16. GenY, I think you are wrong about the house style. During the end of the 19th century, urban houses were built rather long and boxy on narrow lots. The front of the houses (or sides facing a street such as on a corner) usually were the only side where any amount of detail was placed. Basicly, they were all Victorian homes with very simular interiors, with different stylized facades, much like the homes built during any style period from the 1850’s forward. If you look at the top third of this house, it appears as though the facade has been altered, as has the pitch of the porch roof and the upper trim under the eves of porch. The house probably sported shingle releaf in two different patterns with horizontal boards or beams framing the bottom of the shingles forming a slight curve which would give it a Jabobean flavor. This was probably removed during a remodel which was very commonly done during the teens through thirties of the 20th century. I used to live in a neighborhood that had several surviving examples of homes like this one. The style would be referred to as Stick, but without the original detail, it would be hard to determine what it was decorated to be. The major styles of Victorian architechture were designed as large homes usually 3500 square feet and up. The medium size homes, which this one appears to be, were usually only decorated on the facade to suggest a style. Arts & Crafts architecture on the other hand was a Style period movement, much like Victorian, Art Decco, Post War Modernism. Many of the older homes where changed to look like Arts and Craft’s style but were in effect something else. I have a homestead cottage that was built in 1830’s but was rebuilt around the 1910 to look like an Arts & Crafts Bungalow, complete with brick porch and Sears cataloge doors. But inside, it is not a Bungiloo… Patrick

  17. Patrick: What I wrote is based on what I learned in grad school architecture classes. My professors would argue your determination. But, they probably wouldn’t be able to reach a consensus amongst themselves. If they did reach a consensus, they would probably label it “Folk Victorian” since it is a mishmash of details from different styles from the Victorian Era and not a high style house.

    If you want to keep on arguing, we should probably take this off the blog because everyone else will get bored with us.

  18. We said no to the free tree offer when they came around 2-3 years ago. Rather than plunking 1 species of tree up and down the street, they were giving people options of 30-some species, from little 10-footers to some massive 80-footers. At least that was a more reasonable way to go about it. Planting just one kind of tree in front of established landscapes would have destroyed the individual garden choices people had made.

  19. I prefer a street with a canopy of beautiful trees providing welcome shade and cooling, decreasing the need for the neighbors’ air conditioner and cleaning the air a bit too. That said, leave the large trees at the street, and plant dwarf trees closer to the house. It’s all about proportion there.

  20. GenY Gardener, I’ve been obsessed with A Field Guide to American Houses since before there was a GenY. My house does have some half-timbering. It’s just not painted out. I’ll fix that once I can come up with the cash required for a paint job.

    But labels are definitely problematic in Victorian houses like mine. It was a great era of mass customization, so the houses could be total style stews.

    I don’t think my house has had any substantial alteration to the facade, other than the loss of some spindles on the porch. I’ll put those back, too, when I get the chance.

    I had some trouble adjusting to this house–my first house was a very large, rational, light, and beautiful Georgian masterpiece with incredible woodwork and seven fireplaces. My husband and I bought it for $100,000 in 1991 because nobody else wanted to pay the heating bills.

    But after seven years of living in this much smaller and less rational Victorian place, I have come to appreciate the jewel-box quality of the rooms here. And I really, really, really like hunting for kerosene fixtures on eBay.

  21. Hi Michelle, I was thinking early 1880’s myself. I have restored a couple of homes from this era and have help my neighbors work on their Historic homes. I have seen alot of these homes up close and in various stages of restoration and decay. I find the angled bay off what is probably the parlor very interesting. Is the decorative trim intact inside the main rooms? Nice to have the upper porch!
    So Geny, having been built so much earlier, this house is not Arts & Crafts, seeing as the movement didn’t even begin in the U.S. until 1897. And, although an interesting conclusion, the term ‘Folk Victorian’ was never intended to be a broad sweeping term to cover the style blending of the Victorian period, rather the often haphazzard embellishment added to usually boxy plain homes after railroads made the availablity of machine made trim reasonable in more rural areas. Homes built in neighborhoods in town, like Michelle’s, were generally intentionally trimed out to effect a certain style. Finally, for what its worth, I couldn’t care less what your professors told you, even if you were impressed. Possibly you didn’t understand them completely or they need to spend more time in the field. Whatever, without being too offensive, i never intended to “argue with you and still don’t. But I do find the amount of misinformaton about styles and periods being flaunted as fact by people of your generation a bit flip…
    As for trees, I love tree lined streets, grew up in a town whose streets were all lined with Elms and Maples. What a shame when the Elms all died. It was an end to an era, a horrible time when DDT was sprayed on everything from planes, killing all the birds and insects, and making animals and people sick. Very sad times…

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