Man vs. tree

My house with trees
My house with trees

Why do people hate and fear trees?  It seems incredible, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support such a bizarre conclusion.

During a recent afternoon at my regular salon, the owner told me about an encounter with a neighbor. She has a large elm tree in the back of her property that overhangs—as is very common—the property next door. Apparently, the tree is dropping plenty of leaves and other debris in her neighbor’s backyard.  During a discussion with her neighbor, my friend suggested that the tree could be trimmed so that no branches intruded on his property. In response, her neighbor bluntly suggested—“Why don’t you just take it down?”

Another friend of mine moved to the city from the suburbs about ten years ago. She drove by her old house recently and couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the twenty-plus trees on her former property were gone. I remember when we visited her there years ago. The house was modest, but there were acres of wooded yard behind it—perfect for disc golf and kids’ adventures. It’s all gone now—just a few meatball shrubs and lots of mulch.

The garden columnist for the magazine I edit can confirm the paranoid attitude that many homeowners seem to have toward trees. She relates that one of her clients had an issue with the height of a certain tree. “Can’t we trim that back?” he asked. His concern was—yes—that the tree was intruding too far into the sky.

As for me, I have more reason to resent trees than most gardeners. There are three (3) maples—two Norway—within a twenty-foot area in front of my house, not to mention a big cherry planted in my front yard. The roots are visible above the ground in many spots; the dry shade these trees produce severely limits what I can plant here. Indeed, this is why I’m such a bulb freak; early spring is the only time I can have color.

Yet. I wouldn’t even begin to consider getting rid of these trees. They’re not the best choices (I didn’t pick them), but they’re beautiful in their way. They’re trees. They do all the things that trees are supposed to do: absorb CO2, cool the house, provide oxygen, decorate the street.  They’re part of the reason I’d never dream of living in a denuded suburb. Long live trees—with all their problems.

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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. The lack of regard for the proper way to plant, mulch or maintain large trees seems to also support this conclusion. Lack of education only adds to the issues. Like you, I have a variety of ‘not nice’ trees (black walnut, silver maple, boxelder maple, black cherry, Norway maple), but the shade they provide (somewhat) makes up for the issues these species can have.

    I do feel, however, that if we are going to plant something that can live 500+ years in a 2′ x 2′ planting square in the middle of the sidewalk, it’s really not the tree’s fault if there are problems in 10 years!

  2. The remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through Louisville in September 2008, packing winds in excess of 65 mph that knocked-out power for a week and left scattered fallen limbs and trees in its wake.

    And then trees got ripped apart by a burdensome half-inch of ice a few months later in January 2009.

    University of Louisville biologist Margaret Carreiro, and graduate student Shannon Scoggins, did a random survey of 10 of Louisville’s 26 Metro Council districts and found that 7.9% of our trees disappeared in the storms of 2008 and 2009.

    Emerald ash borer is now making its way across town, only furthering the loss of our tree canopy.

    We’ve got our work cutout to replace these trees.

  3. It appears that people forget how big a tree might get and how long it will live. The former owners of my home planted a Japanese maple only a few feet from the house and the septic tank. The tree is now taller than the house, provides wonderful shade and gorgeous color in the fall. I’m paying my arborist to cut it down and kill the roots/stump. The reason? The roots found a way into the septic tank. I just had the septic tank pumped, and must get rid of this beautiful tree (and possibly a second tree) to avoid future stinky, messy situations. I visit this tree daily, and in my heart apologize to it for the anticipated execution day. The tree has done nothing wrong, but because of a lack of foresight, it must go.

    Anticipate growth patterns and future needs before planting anything!

    If anyone has a better solution that might save this tree (moving the septic isn’t an option–too pricey), I’m open to suggestions.

    • It’s hard to say without seeing the tree, but it might be possible to dig the tree out with an air spade and move it.

        • An air spade is a device that blasts compressed air at the ground blowing the dirt away from the roots. It enables much more root mass to be maintained than a tree spade and also allows the relocation of large trees more easily because you aren’t moving all the soil with the tree. I have even heard of hobbyists making their own and just renting the compressor to move 30′ trees.

          Here is a link to a university transplant usingan air spade.

  4. The neighbor in the first paragraph probably can’t understand why the salon owner would want to keep a tree that dumps debris after every windstorm, making unnecessary work for the salon owner, and was simply expressing surprise at the proposal, not hatred or fear of trees in general.

    Perhaps if we think people should value trees more, we (perhaps in volunteer groups going door to door) should work to let people know about the advantages that trees can have for homeowners: lower cooling bills from shade, etc. — although these advantages only accrue if the trees are sited appropriately (and not planted a foot away from the foundation so that they destroy the foundation as they grow, as the large tree growing into the garage foundation at my last house was doing, necessitating expensive removal — I suspect it was a volunteer tree that no one ever did anything about).

    But in the end, a person’s property is hers to do with as she wants. If she wants to grow a sunny garden, we shouldn’t fault her for removing enough trees so that she is able to have the kind of garden she wants. Perhaps the only property the homeowner could afford was one in an older neighborhood with trees that have outgrown their setting. Nor should we fault her for removing problem trees or ones that were poor choices of previous owners. There are certainly great trees that are worth saving, but not all are.

    I think we need to be careful that we don’t become overly judgmental of other people’s choices, although again, we can certainly try to influence their choices with positive information.

  5. I run into the opposite problem, people that love trees soo much that they won’t even let me take out diseased and dying trees.

    I do however have two trees on my property whose days are numbered. A medium sized ash tree next to the house foundation is a big problem waiting to happen.

  6. I took four silver maples out of my backyard and have not regretted it at all. I miss the shade but do not miss the mess plus they probably would have come down a few years ago when we experienced a wind shear (which twisted the neighbors elm, splitting the trunk). BUT I have replaced those maples with a tulip and three redbuds, and plan to add another tulip, to recover some of that shade. I have a Crimson King in the front yard (the S-L-O-W-E-S-T growing tree in the world, it seems), and would like to add some English walnuts and maybe an almond. And that sunny backyard is just screaming for an orchard. At least, that is what I hear.

  7. I appreciate trees, but have neighbors who maybe appreciate them a bit too much. Like, some trees grow really fast and are essentially weeds and maybe don’t belong right next to the foundation of their historic home. But NOOO, you can’t cut it down it’s a TRRREEEE!

    Sorry. If I had more space, I’d happily have some trees. But I haven’t planted any because I like my veggie garden, and I pull up all those maple seedlings.

  8. I tend to agree with you personally, Elizabeth. My house is ringed by sycamore and liquidambar – 7 in total on a small corner lot. They make planting many things difficult, but I won’t think about removing them. They are a huge pain in my ass, but I honor them.
    However, in my business, I have to step away from my personal treehugger feelings and advocate for what is best for the landscape in question, and often this includes removing trees. And the fuss and hubbub I get is extreme! Even when a 40′ ficus is lifting a foundation, I get blowback. It shades the house? Yes – but that house has a compromised foundation from a badly chosen and sited tree.
    So many trees are put in willy nilly, with no thought to what happens years down the road. Contractors shoehorn large trees into what are essentially patio gardens. Homeowners want fast solutions to screening issues. Designers fall in love with a tree for its aesthetics, and practical matters be damned!
    Sometimes a tree has to come out.

  9. Here in suburban Maryland the State Highway Administration is spending $3 million to remove non native trees along i95 and they will replant with natives. I think this is rather ridiculous as they removed well established non natives with deep root systems. There were few animals and pollinators that benefited because the extreme noise and exhaust kept them away any way. They were healthy despite the drought over the previous years and acted as a carbon sink. Many are now gone. Newly planted trees are never tended to adequately despite contracting out to landscape companies, so the trees die.

    Now, I am all for removing non-natives in healthier habitats. The 5200 acre agricultural center here, the largest agricultural center in the world, is being overtaken by Russian olive and Norway maple. Last year I requested they remove an entire grove of Russian olive which they did and will continue this pursuit. I am merely a volunteer with a nestbox trail, but they do listen. Also, hundreds of natives have been planted in the last two years for local mitigation at the ag ctr.

    My yard is filled shrubs and trees and birds. I want the birds to poop my berries and seeds a distance from my house so the natives can take root outside my home base. That way I can have an influence long after I am gone.

    So, there is a place for non-natives if they take root. For me, just not in areas where natives are preferred.

  10. Natives? Shall we talk about quaking aspen, the hell-tree of city/suburban gardens in the west? Oooh, they are so beautiful, with their leaves quaking in the breeze, their spectacular fall color, so say the innocent homeowners when shopping for trees………. but most do not realize their capacity to send out suckers 50 feet long in every direction. It’s not uncommon to see yards where entire front lawns are composed of 50% (struggling) grass and 50% six inch high aspen seedlings.

    I have watched through the years as enthusiastic new residents spend a summer installing a beautiful naturalistic landscape, with huge boulders, walkways, water features …. and aspen trees. Within a few years, the aspen seedlings have appeared and invaded every square inch. The only solution is to take everything out and start completely over.

    I live in fear of any nearby neighbors drinking the local nursery/landscaper kool-aid about how wonderful aspen trees look in the ‘natural’ landscapes so popular in our area (central Oregon high desert). Noooooooooooo. Make no mistake: I absolutely love aspens — out in the wild. Aspen groves are some of the largest living organisms on the planet, due to their extremely effective reproductive system (entire swatches of Colorado are one giant aspen grove clone).

    But I swear, the minute I see any of my neighbors with aspens in hand, I have a three-tier plan.
    1. Diplomacy — ask neighbors NOT to plant aspens
    2. Bribery — if they insist, I offer to buy the trees from them
    3. Commando — if they go ahead and plant them, I start night-time raids…….

    So far I haven’t had to resort to any of these steps. But I am every watchful!

    • I am a nursery worker in the Denver area. We almost _never_ recommend aspens to homeowners because of what a pain they are. We explain over and over and over about the suckers and the diseases and the insects and the short life span … and yet aspens are consistently among our top 5 trees sold. We in the nursery (more than one ISA certified arborist and at least 2 others waiting to take the test) would be happy to take aspens out of the inventory … but management sees how much money they bring in and won’t let us. And there are some customers who are set on having a huge blue spruce and a clump of aspen in their postage stamp front yard, regardless of how hard we try to talk them out of it. “They remind us of the mountains!”

      My experience with (some, not all) landscape companies is that they go for the quick and easy – which often includes aspens. But my experience with nursery workers is that we know good and well that aspens don’t belong in a city yard.

  11. I’ll never forget my astonishment from a visit to my grandmother’s apartment in Portland, Ore., over a decade ago. Outside her modest unit in the retirement community was a beautiful, mature magnolia in full bloom. I commented on how pretty it was and she responded with a comment about how messy it was. I was so stunned that it was only later that I remembered that she wasn’t even responsible for cleaning up after it. The grounds crew took care of that. I guess her Great Plains roots ran deep.

  12. The neighbor behind me has cut down every single one of the trees on that property. That included at least on plum tree, a large cedar tree, and many more.

    This is why I am very glad that the bay laurel that was just three feet high when I planted it fifteen years ago is now over twenty feet tall which effectively blocks the view of her property. I did prune out a couple of large leader branches to open it up, but it still an effective block.

    I have a small garden and some of the trees do get a bit larger than expected. The semi-dwarf apricot is a bit too ambitious, so I need to keep it from engulfing the driveway and entering the house, along with keeping it open enough to reduce the fungus that loves our maritime climate.

    Though I do like pruning, it is nice to be able to have control over something. I do think at certain time of year my trees start to shiver when they see me with the loppers.

  13. I grew up on a 7-acre lot, of which 6 1/2 acres were wooded. This, in an area where similar-sized lots were usually all lawn, maybe a small garden or swimming pool behind the house. I felt very fortunate to be surrounded by tall trees … and much cooler in our steamy Southern summers.

    Where I live now, I have over twenty trees on my suburban lot. Granted, almost all are semi-dwarf or smaller fruit trees, but still I have far more than any of my neighbors. Oddly, the one tree that I truly detest & wish to take out is the biggest. This is not why I detest it, however. I detest it because it is supposed to be a “flowering” variety of plum planted by the builder. The fruit should be small and easily swept away. Instead it is the size of a very large cherry, and the exact purple of the leaves which makes it nearly impossible to pick off the tree. Instead, we must wait until it splats on the driveway & sidewalk to clean it up. Not an easy task with water restrictions being what they are.

    Of course the one tree I do wish to see grow large is the live oak in the front yard. Though I could chart its growth easily, it is still a snail’s pace compared to the plum tree. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will see it at maturity.

  14. It is interesting to me how strongly people feel about trees, especially after reading the comments. And I’ve heard many stories about trees making enemies of neighbors. People should definitely be thoughtful about what trees they plant where, but if a tree has been somewhere for a long time, why complain about it – it was probably there when the person built/bought the house, so they knew what they were getting, even if it is in a neighbor’s yard. Rather than getting angry I would feel free to trim the part that is in my yard if it needed to be trimmed. Sometimes, alas, a tree must go because it is sick or diseased, but for the most part I would think one could find a way to accept and enjoy the trees rather than fret about create enmity with one’s neighbors over them!

  15. OMIGOD replacing healthy, well-adapted non-native trees with natives makes my ears bleed! What a foolhardy thing to do. If there is no problem with a tree, if it thrives and does its job well, to remove it for socio- political reasons is so wonky that I can’t even get my brain back on track after hearing about it. The Natives-only Lobby is doing some real damage, unfortunately. What is the road to hell paved with? Best intentions, right? Sigh.

  16. Sorry, I am one of the guilty ones who just cannot cut down trees. I look at homes that are just desolate with no shade trees and wonder what is wrong with the owners? I just visited my hometown in CT and walked by my old house that I grew up in and the current owner has cut down and dug out every living thing except some grass in the front yard and paved the ground right up to the house. My mother had huge Rhododendrons, Laurels and Andromeda along with a White Birch, Dogwoods, Daffodils, Tulips, Oriental Poppies, Rose of Sharon, Euonymous, Periwinkle, Lily of the Valley, etc etc in that space. a neighbor told me that someone had told the current owner that it is bad to have plants near the house so she got rid of everything. She owns it now and it was her privilege to do as she pleased with it but I wish she had never bought the place if she didn’t like it. It is a small yard and not much yard work involved really (due to the ground covers under the bushes), except mow the small lawn. My senior citizen mother did it with a hand mower. It is hard to see. We have a black and white photo of the house when it was built in 1923 and it looks just like it did then with no landscaping at all, after all these years. It reminds me of Richard Shindell’s beautiful song “Wisteria” which has a similar lament to mine.

  17. Growing up on a farm in Illinois in the 1960s, I cried as I watch neighbors pulling out hedgerows of Maclura pomifera (aka Osage Orange, Hedge Apple.) They were following advice from Extension agents who urged farmers to increase yields by plowing up every potential square foot of land. Hedges reduced soil erosion, served as windbreaks, provided wildlife habitat and absorbed excess groundwater. My wise farmer father had us planting trees as others cut down and pulled up their living fences.
    Years later, living in various towns and cities across the US, I’ve been stunned to meet people who value shiny cars and carpet-like lawns more than trees, complaining about leaves and sap and pollen. I patiently explain the value of seasonal shade, air filtration & water retention, wildlife habitat, etc. Some people can hear some of this information, the others expect their world to resemble what they see in ads for new cars and weed-n-feed.

  18. In my work, I’ve had to also make some tough decisions about trees, but I see crazy thinking from both sides, including a public park project I was involved with that had the local business owners requesting that we don’t plant any trees in this middle-of-the-intersection inferno of a space because they didn’t want to have to sweep the sidewalk in the fall when the leaves drop! Forget that its about 700 degrees on that street in the summertime…
    But among the biggest consistent issue I see is that the landscape architects responsible for much of the tree planting in parks and public spaces and even residential lots don’t seem to know anything at all about trees! In Atlanta the most common shade tree specified by LAs is red maple. Red maple is a swamp plant that grows in mud in the wild. It hates being planted in a high and dry site and carpets the ground with roots that are completely impossible to get through for other plantings.
    The trend toward planting only native trees in urban and completely non-natural spaces is arbitrary and thoughtless.

  19. There was an exhibit at the COSI museum in Columbus, Ohio about living a “greener” life. I was pleased by one of the activities, which was a model of a home. Children could place objects in/around the house, and depending on that object, their “green points” would go up and down. It was a great illustration when they put trees around the house, they would save energy, so they would put a lot of trees nearby.

    I am a tree fan, but I suspect that trees cause so many problems because you can’t just move them around when they become inconvenient.

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