Tree today, tree tomorrow

Even before Mountain Xpress received distress calls from readers about city crews cutting down two trees on Patton Avenue, the city’s Tree Response Committee was on the scene.

What they found were two sweet gums that were wounded beyond saving: In trying to remove one ailing tree — whose bark had been severely scarred in a previous injury, and which had outgrown its root pit — crew members inadvertently damaged the one next to it. When the crews tied a strap to the healthier tree so they could use is as an anchor, “The friction got so great, it just stripped the [second] tree,” reports Public Works Director Mark Combs. “It was a fluke. It’s very rare that this happens, and the guys feel real bad about it.”

Tree Response Committee member (and vice chair of the Asheville Tree Commission) Peter Gentling put it a little more scientifically: “The westernmost tree was declining because of [the] restriction of its root pit, and the heavy equipment [which had been] used to pick up the pavement [for a new Urban Trail installation] had injured about 30 percent of its trunk. The second tree suffered an even greater loss of bark and cambium [from the strap]. … There was nothing to do but remove and replace them.”

City Arborist Bill Hill, who is part of the response team, had to agree. “I was called in to take a look at [the trees]. One needed to come out anyway, and the other was damaged so bad, it was best to take it out, too. … I do not like to take trees down. When I do, it’s a have-to case,” says this ardent tree advocate. When an Oteen property owner wanted to deforest his lot recently — for fear of trees falling, although there was no immediate risk, says Hill — Hill fought for the trees; in the end, he was able to save the ones within the public right of way — which is the extent of the city’s jurisdiction, in most cases.

“There are a lot of good things trees do,” Hill says, mentioning how urban trees fight air pollution, provide shade, and keep direct sunlight off sidewalks and asphalt (thus slowing their deterioration). “I do try to save them when we can.”

But the Patton Avenue sweet gums were beyond help.

The first tree “was not in good shape, anyway,” says Gentling, noting that, even before the accident, “it had a scar on its bark, with about one-third missing. And both trees had outgrown their pits.” The crew’s decision to attach an anchor strap to the second tree, “was unfortunate. These city trees won’t survive much additional stress,” he says, because they’re environmentally challenged, at best: The size of the root pit housing them curtails their growth, kids climb on them, passing trucks whack off their limbs — and then there’s air and other pollution to contend with. “The lifetime of street trees is considerably shorter than trees out in the wild,” Gentling says.

One-third shorter, according to Hill. The typical street tree has a life span of 35 to 50 years, at best, he says; out in the wild, 100-150 years is more common. Worse yet, many of the trees planted in downtown Asheville years ago were not the best choices for an urban environment: The sycamores on Haywood Street grow too large and are prone to anthraxnose (a disease that denudes the trees of their leaves in the spring); the Bradford pear trees on Battery Park grow too fast, and their limbs are weak; and the sweet gums drop spiny fruit all over the sidewalk, Hill notes.

Even with the right tree, its growth is limited by the size of the root pit, Gentling emphasizes, and city trees need far more tender loving care than those in the wild, requiring regular pruning, watering, fertilizing and pesticide treatments.

When Hill first came to work for the city a few years ago, he noticed that many downtown trees were afflicted with scales — a pest that feeds on the leaves, weakening the tree’s overall health. It took a dose of emergency funding from the city’s landscaping budget to deal with that problem. “I’ve doubled my budget since I’ve been here [to $20,000], but that’s barely enough to cover the [trees in the parks]. City trees take a lot of TLC,” Hill says.

With almost no budget, Hill will rely on Quality Forward — a local nonprofit organization — to supply replacement trees for the two lost sweet gums. And, in order to complete a survey of the existing city trees in Asheville, he’s relying on funding from the Urban and Community Forestry Grant program — worth about $10,000 per year. Already, Hill and teen volunteers have surveyed central Asheville, cataloguing 2,500 trees. He estimates that there are about 18,000 trees in all, on city-owned property and in public rights of way.

Two new trees should be planted by Thanksgiving, to replace the lost Patton Avenue sweet gums. Gentling recommends that the city (or Quality Forward, to be more exact), plant littleleaf lindens — a hardier species when it comes to urban environments, and one whose leaves turns a pretty yellow in the fall.

Combs is all for that idea, noting that his crew enlarged the existing root-pit and put in a good foundation of compost and dirt for the new trees. And new grates have already been added, to provide extra protection over the pit (both for the trees and for pedestrians). That’s an improvement over the other sweet gums along that section of Patton Avenue (near the Wachovia Bank), which have exposed tree pits.

Hill, meanwhile, is working on ways to better educate people about trees. “There are 250 topped trees in the central area, and that’s really bad for the trees,” he notes, as an example. “We’re trying to take care of what we’ve got as best we can.”

Incidentally, with the recent division of the Asheville Tree and Greenway Commission into two separate entities, there are current openings for board members. Call the city clerk at 259-5601, if you’re interested in serving on either body.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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