Planting the future, one tree at a time

Times Staff Writer

IT is a wistful event when a wildflower fades, and distressing when a shrub punks out, but it is hard to capture the sense of loss when a good tree finally quits. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we time our lives in sympathy with trees. We know our streets by the fluttering soldiers that line them. A blue haze of jacarandas declares summer on one block, while the flashing of a jay from an oak announces autumn on the next.

The older the tree, the deeper the associations. So it seems unthinkable that an old tree might die, or in the case of our frontyard parkway trees, entire stretches of them at a time.

Yet this is just the event that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was asking us to address when, the first day after his inauguration, he was out planting street trees for the cameras. Behind the helium-issue buoyancy of that packaged moment, there is an elegiac truth and a man who is asking us to consider the future. L.A.'s postwar tree canopy is aging. Many of those trees have the life span of the World War II generation who planted them.

For those of us lucky enough to have old trees around our properties, long may they live. Yet persisting in the assumption that they will live forever risks leaving future generations without any cover. Looking back, it's clear that the baby boomers among us should have been planting successive generations of trees, every five to 10 years, for the last three decades. Instead, we basked in the shade left by our parents and grandparents. Now, as our mayor recognizes, is the moment to make up for lost time.

The saplings that we plant will be our legacy. So before planting, we need to ask ourselves: What do we want the city to look and feel like for generations to come? What are the best choices? And how are we going to ensure that they are made?

The mayor, like us, knows that the questions have complex answers. Behind the scenes, he and his people aren't out digging holes and popping saplings in the ground willy-nilly. They are putting together a strategic plan. At this early stage, the mayor's Million Trees LA initiative calls for 500,000 saplings to go along streets and in parks, while the other half a million will occupy residential ground.

Homeowners, they're talking about our gardens. The mayor won't have time to consult every owner of the city's 540,000 single-family homes. He only seems that hyperactive. However, he has formed a coalition that conceivably can reach everyone.

The first step was rounding up the neighborhood greening groups, urban planners, park-keepers, utility companies and other practically minded sorts who admire trees as "infrastructure." This group is now so on-message about the importance and virtues of trees that they could go out caroling. Trees sequester air pollution, prevent erosion and absorb rain that would otherwise become storm-water runoff. Their leaves become soil conditioner. Trees reduce summer electricity bills by 30%, muffle bad sounds and fill up with enchanting song birds. Trees beautify communities. They are the only city assets that increase with value with age.

The most basic step has been to look at where new trees are most badly needed. The city commissioned a satellite study from Greg McPherson of the Center for Urban Forest Research at UC Davis to identify the baldest of bald spots. According to McPherson, this should be complete by March.

In the meantime, the canopy-cover estimates used by the mayor and the city's street tree division make stark reading. Across the 15 City Council districts, only two -- the 4th and 5th, which include Griffith Park, Sherman Oaks, Encino and Brentwood -- exceed the national average for tree canopy coverage. Most are well below the average, and conditions in swaths of south Los Angeles are regarded as "desert-like."

THE challenges of greening those areas extend far beyond horticulture. As an urgent step to bring relief to the hottest patches of the city, Michael O'Brien of the planning department urged planting crews to avoid our traditional skyline tree, the palm, and is calling instead for cooling broad-leaf shade trees. Last week, the City Council passed the proposal unanimously.

While most of L.A. is still shade-poor, around town the streets and gardens are not such a blank sheet. Here succession planting comes with what can feel like heartbreaking choices, especially in the most private of private property, our backyards. Do you sacrifice a 50-foot-tall acacia and put a 6-foot-tall box tree in its stead?

Unless it's threatening your house, leave it be. The art to succession planting is creating a multilayered generation of trees so when a grand old specimen reaches the end of its life, there is a strong family line behind it. What we need to do now isn't fire up buzz saws, but look at where else succession trees might go, consider timing by five-, 10- and 15-year intervals, what the space will allow, and how the property will feel when the biggest tree eventually comes out.

There are obvious rules -- the most basic being to not plant under the canopy of an existing tree and to give a generous distance from the most outreaching limb. Oddly enough, L.A.'s Department of Water and Power is one of the best sources of advice on choosing and placing trees. Yes, the electricity company. Its ulterior motive is to persuade us to plant shade trees along the south sides of our homes to help the power grid cope with electricity demands during the fiercest days of summer.

The DWP has been so determined to protect the grid that in 2001, it began giving as many as seven free trees to any homeowner with room to plant them. The program has given away almost 43,000 trees. All it requires of recipients is that they take a short workshop, and online applicants must pass a quiz as proof that they've read and understood the instructions.

Anyone who doubts that they need schooling should think of the most common tree problems: redwoods planted under power lines, ficus abutting foundations, and that unnaturally happy bay tree whose roots have broken through a sewer line.

Go to the DWP website and you'll see 40 species of trees displayed with pictures and growth profiles. The DWP recommends small trees such as crape myrtles, ornamental plums and pears for beneath power lines, and bigger specimens where they have room to soar.

For south-facing gardens, the department suggests deciduous trees such as sycamores, which offer shade in the summer but allow sun through in the winter.

A utility will not, cannot and should not be everyone's final shopping destination. Those who believe that California should look like California and not Australia or China would be well advised to make stops at the native plant nerve centers and nonprofit nurseries: Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants in Sun Valley and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

Although the DWP list does have iconic staples such as the coast live oak and California sycamore, the utility betrays no understanding that our flora is the most diverse in the world. Where are the valley oaks, California bays, Santa Cruz ironwoods, redwoods, desert willows and pinion pines? Planting a tree is so much more than bequeathing an electricity-saving device. Our fauna depends on its native flora. Natives provide not only shade, but also a future for warblers, butterflies and nightchorusing crickets.

Planting the frontyard is where the line between city and residential trees blurs and the mayor's initiative becomes the most challenging. As far as the trees are concerned, and the quality they lend our gardens and streetscapes as they mature, ownership is immaterial. Does anyone love a silk floss tree full of capering parrots on the parkway less than an anemic orange tree in the backyard? The city can seem indifferent, for good reason.

L.A. has 700,000 street trees spread over 468 square miles, and the Bureau of Street Services is stretched to the max. Some would say well beyond that. Chief Forester George Gonzalez is circumspect about the unholy pressures on his department. But Walter Warriner, community forest and public land superintendent for Santa Monica, wastes no opportunity to shout across the city line that his friend George needs help. "Mayor Villaraigosa needs to increase his tree maintenance budget by 200% or better," Warriner says.

As Gonzalez goes forward replacing aging street trees with what everyone agrees are too few resources, the method cannot be accused of beauty. Every couple of years, on any given street, a couple of old specimens come out and saplings go in the old tree wells. As three aging camphors come out, three puny oaks might go in. Years later, three more aging camphors will be felled, and magnolias might replace them this time. Once gracious and symmetrically planted avenues become stands of mixed sizes and mixed species.

All too often, the succession trees do not look happy; all over town, plants are grown into their stakes, dead from drought, choked by Bermuda grass or snapped in half by vandals.

AS painful as it is to watch, there is logic. Our urban canopy is so vital in cooling the intensifying heat of the asphalt-gilded city that urban foresters are no longer willing to risk losing entire stands of trees at one time to age, pestilence or disease. Warriner points to national devastation wrought by Dutch elm disease, the calamitous loss of 14,000 ash trees in Ann Arbor, Mich., because of emerald ash borer, and the fusarium fungus causing sudden "crown drop" among the stateliest Canary Island palms of Beverly Hills.

Some critics, such as Brian Helgoe of Estate Gardens by ValleyCrest, don't buy it. "Oh, come on!" he declares. "If a tree is that susceptible to disease, it shouldn't be in the street tree category." Yet James Folsom, director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, and Bart O'Brien, director of horticulture at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, are among the horticulturists who suspect that days may be passing for the stately progression of trees called allees.

If this is the case, then we have a choice. Do we want our urban foresters to keep cutting down beloved, perfectly healthy old trees and dropping in young ones and leaving them to hardships of urban elements? It ignores the most basic principle of garden design: Stately beauty engenders care and civic pride.

There are surely more serene solutions, such as residents working with the city to alternate existing older trees with young trees on front lawns in symmetrical A-B patterns.

In Claremont, O'Brien is thinking even further out of the tree well: If the allee is a thing of the past, why we are still planting in evenly spaced wells originally put in to accommodate the old design? He wonders if it's time to abandon the practice of using stand-alone trees and to create more meaningful grouped, planted areas. "If one was looking at it creating little blocks that would be at least 10 by 10 feet," he says, "you could actually have a tree that would get some size, some other plants that would go with it. Then you could really bring a much greener feel to the city."

Under the mayor's plan, the support allowing private homeowners to plant half a million trees is supposed to come from the DWP and nonprofits including TreePeople, North East Trees and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople and a revered leader of the urban foresting movement, says the most important step in frontyard and street tree planting is for block clubs and neighborhood councils to create a coherent vision together.

Community needs are taken into account during the planting stages, and a sense of ownership ensures that newly planted trees will receive long-term care.

All those wishing to be part of the vision better get their act together, because succession planting can't wait. (Cue the tree benefit song from the mayor's Million Tree LA choir.) Climate change modeling suggests that unless we start counteracting global warming now, the deadly 10 days of record heat last July might be more like a deadly three months by 2070.

"In urban forestry you have to think in decades, in generations," says Santa Monica's Warriner. "Then when you're done reforesting, start reforesting again."

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Learn more

For more information about succession planting, the free tree program for city of Los Angeles residents and other community programs, try these resources:

Million Trees LA: www.milliontreesla.org/mtabout.htm.

Department of Water and Power: (800) 473-3652 or www.ladwp.com/ladwp/cms/ladwp000744.jsp.

Community organizing: TreePeople, www.treepeople.org, or North East Trees, www.northeasttrees.org.

-- Emily Green

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