Are We Tired of Doing Parking Lots Dumb Yet?


The car was invented 135 years ago, and all that time we have needed a place to put them when we run into the grocery or the bank. Trouble is, we discovered that early on that parking lots are inherently ugly, gray, bleak, depressing, hard, dirty, blazing-hot-in-summer, bitterly-cold-in winter, soul-sucking, wind-swept plains of human misery. To mitigate this, some time ago, people began planting trees in them.


Was this a good idea? Sure. Why not? Everyone loves trees. They’re wonderful. They’re pretty to look at, and, among a zillion other things, they shade our cars, clean our air and water, mitigate stormwater runoff, provide for wildlife, and sequester carbon. Socially, they support our well-being, create a feeling of community, and, believe it or not, they even make us behave better. That’s the power they have, and all because they connect us urbanized, home-to-Starbuck’s-to-office-and-back-again hominids, albeit briefly, to our long-ago, natural, better selves.

A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago found that city dwellers with just ten trees on their block reported a quality of living $10,000 richer and seven years younger than those without trees on their block. (Like the Lorax’s neighbors had stars upon thars). If ten trees along a street can do that, then why not put them in parking lots? We should. Problem is we’ve been doing it dumb, almost always, since the beginning.


This has been the trees in parking lot instruction manual has looked forever:

  1. Make the lot two times bigger than the most frothing-at-the-mouth, giant ass Black Friday mob could ever possibly need.
  2. Chisel into this lot the smallest planting spaces possible.
  3. Carefully locate these planting beds where trucks are sure to run over them, and where people are all but forced to compact the soil by walking through them.
  4. Don’t improve the soil. Plant trees directly into post-construction, subsoil, liberally infused with high pH concrete leach, and then later with salt, oil, anti-freeze, and other unimaginable pollutants.
  5. Be sure to choose a poorly suited tree species because you don’t know there’s a difference or simply because it’s a favorite of the developer’s oldest daughter
  6. Choose not to install irrigation. Or, if it breaks when a truck runs over it, choose not to fix it. Or, better yet, forget to turn it on in the spring.
  7. By all means, hire the least qualified mow and blow landscape wrecking crew to wound the trunks with string trimmers and volcano mulch halfway up the tree.
  8. Allow snow removal contractors to encase your trees and other landscaping in sarcophaguses of grimy, salty, snow and ice five or six times every winter.
Not even a prayer this bed will ever see any success. So why even bother?

Over many years of diligently following these practices, the results are remarkably consistent:

  1. No tree ever looks as good as the day it went in the ground.
  2. Every visit to Verizon or Great Clips from that day on, is made worse by seeing the trees struggling to survive.
  3. By and by, mercifully, one by one, the trees goes to that great forest in the sky.
  4. When they do, they are at some expense replaced. Invariably with the same unsuitable species that had just demonstrated no sense of humor about trying to live in that place.
  5. The replacement trees are then planted too deep and mulched too high.
I want to say someone should teach truck drivers how to steer, but I suspect they are not to blame. Trucks must navigate parking lots. That’s a given. So why aren’t parking lots designed so trucks can make their turns?

I apologize for the dark and cynical tone here, but seeing this over and over again is driving me nuts! Each of the millions of times this cycle has been repeated, all the time, money, and effort invested yielded nary any of the many potential benefits of trees. Just as bad, maybe even worse, in this time when it is more and more important for all homeowners and landowners to raise their horticultural game for the sake of ourselves and our planet, the typical person’s daily exposure to cultivated plants are these abysmal, failing, ugly, parking lot plantings, brought to them, supposedly, by people who should know and do better. What message does that send?

And this has been going on for the entirety of my long, strange, trip of my 59 & 1/2 year life.

My friend, Dr. Tom Kimmerer, from the University of Kentucky, heard me voice frustration over this at a recent presentation, and, riffing on an old comedy routine by Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke, said, “Have we learned from our mistakes?” “Yes, and we’re repeating them exactly.”

It’s time to get it together and stop the dumb!

I would suggest we start by re-accessing what we really want from our parking lot plantings and commit to making them succeed. Do we want shade? If so, without exception create much larger planting beds and use species suitable for these sites. If that’s not an option, forget trees and put up solar panels. They shade just as well and are also quite clever with what they do with sunlight. Do we want biomass? If so, plant these beds with grasses, bamboo, suckering shrubs like sumac, or other plants that will respond to foot traffic, trucks, and other abuse by sending up new shoots. Or, take the sum total square footage of fifty tiny beds and make one central big one and plant a grove of suitable trees.

A parking lot island bed with a good chance of success. Large enough. Raised with good soil. Curb for protection. Wisely chosen species.
Even though the landscaping in the foreground is abysmal and all but forces people to walk through it, the dedicated space in the background is actually functioning and somewhat attractive. Why not more of this?

There are other answers too. Some easier and cheaper. Others more expensive and difficult. But solutions like these won’t see the light of day as long as people who don’t know the basics of horticulture and arboriculture are making the decisions. Gardeners, other generally sensible citizens who care, and, especially, certified, knowledgeable green industry professionals need to demand better. Go to council meetings or zoning meetings and make your voice heard. Landscape architects and quality landscaping companies should refuse to do work they know is destined to fail, or at the very least, lose the argument swinging. It is in no one’s interest—from the developer’s to the shopper’s—to continually invest in repeated failure. Especially when the benefits of doing it right are so great.






  1. I once saw a company pave a parking lot with blacktop, pour concrete curbing over the blacktop, and fill soil into traffic islands behind the curbing and on top of the blacktop! Needless to say, that didn’t work. Many years later that same shopping center installed new planting islands, minus the blacktop, added real soil, and planted, serviceberries, Autumn Blaze maples, and London planetrees. This time around things are going much better. To my knowledge, there is no irrigation but the tree species are drought tolerant and, in fact, likely prefer drier soils to non-stop irrigation, a common problem with having irrigation. Good rant, Scott.

  2. Hear! Hear! Though you forgot to mention staking all trees with fence posts from two directions to immobilize newly planted victims, then walk away from the landscape, never to return and remove the now constricting tethers.
    Thanks for a great piece–it should be spread to all parking lot construction engineers!

  3. You are absolutely on target. Repeatedly, I’ve seen sad little parking lot trees in the blazing Texas sun struggling to survive. They never seem to grow and as you mentioned, their roots are stepped on by shoppers or parked on by the shopping carts. Several ubiquitous Texas supermarkets come to mind as I type. The landscaping crews, if there are any, are clueless. I once witnessed a crew in Austin planting begonias in a strip center that held well-known national restaurant chains and a grocery store. As our car parked, I noticed the crew pulling the earthworms from the mulch they were digging in and throwing them onto the hot asphalt where they wiggled madly in the sun. But where I live in Texas now, the parking lots are entirely devoid of trees, grass, greenery, etc. Nada.–Just lots of hot concrete.

  4. Garden Rants….thought provoking, inspirational, entertaining, and educational. You folks do it all!
    Thank you

  5. Amen!! Last year I posted a photo in the Wild Ones Facebook group of the incredibly ubiquitous Stella d’oro day lilies in a planting at our local Costco and quipped that it was the law in the Midwest that big box stores had to plant them in their parking lots. Thanks for this article.

  6. It’s not just the replants that are planted wrong. The original planting is usually too deep and cut rate nursery containers that are cheap because they have been sitting in the pots too long. And do they do any root work? No of course not. That’s why they have to stake them so tightly, to cover up the fact that the garbage trees they planted are just going to be ball and socket joints until the tree fails some 3-5 years on.
    We could also do with a lot less parking in those lots. Research shows that parking requirements are about 40% too high.

  7. Parking are very much the most dreary places! The walkthrough garden next to the store is a great idea. The types of plants shouldn’t be a last thought, and definitely not plants that look like they came off the clearance rack at home depot. Thanks for posing this.

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