A 21st Century Treescape

Pictured: Acer japonicum

By Susan O’Brien

While walking along the neighbourhood streets in recent sunny days, I found myself actively seeking out the tree-lined side of the road. In an endeavour to keep cool my route was notably influenced by the welcome cooling effect from the leaf canopy above.

Whenever possible I choose to walk. Unaccompanied, my awareness of the surrounding environment and sense of place is heightened. When my route takes me in a treeless direction there is a clear lack of spatial rhythm ahead, no play of light or shadow, and limited colour, apart from grey. If I plug in my earphones, I do so reluctantly and above the advised sound level. I long for a turn onto a leafier lined path.

In principle, the urban landscape is a manmade, constructed environment with no place for components from a natural woodland setting. Indeed, it is a pretty hostile place for a tree with multiple challenges and constraints. Below ground, there is limited root space and competition with utilities, poor quality, compacted soils and fortuitous root mutilation.

Above ground, there is an uncomfortable microclimate, reflective glare, wind exposure, and damage from needless vandalism. Without a doubt, tree failure and premature decline has a negative impact on the look, feel and sense of place for any neighbourhood. 

Over the past 25 years astounding progress has been made by companies such as Greenleaf. They have researched these problems to provide practical solutions that stimulate integrated thinking, and allow two unlikely components to fit together throughout the life of a tree. 

Of course, there has to be a two-fold alignment in order to prevent the likelihood of any conflict. Above all, the objective is to create a place where tree species can thrive and deliver their full range of benefits, without causing harmful nuisance to people or property. This requires a collaborative appreciation of context, from a broad spectrum of stakeholders that include councillors, planners, developers, engineers, insurers, utilities, designers, nurseries, arborists, businesses and residents. 

It may seem like an oxymoron, but trees matter for 21st century living in built-up communities. Up to date research findings clearly identify the economic, social and environmental gains that include air pollution control, rain water management, noise abatement, reduced crime, traffic calming, economic potential and overall quality of place.

Together, collaborative forethought and integration bring wider returns. Successful case studies abroad in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Sheffield, demonstrate how grey and green infrastructure is combined to deliver this 21st century vision that looks, feels and works better for everyone. 

Closer to home, a finished example of a state of the art, tree pit design solution can be seen at the newly-planted site on Shelbourne road. At ground level the protective load-bearing grille has a built in irrigation/ventilation inlet and a removable inner section that allows for tree girth expansion. Even the biodegradable hessian tree tie reduces maintenance time and cost. It gives adequate support, without damaging or strangling the tree. 

For anyone considering a future career in horticulture and landscape design, this area presents a very challenging, varied and valuable role with lots of opportunity to travel! Plant knowledge is key.

As late autumn and early winter is synonymous with tree planting, now is the time to consider a suitable species. If you’re looking to select a tree for your space, there is plenty of local inspiration to be found amongst our neighbouring front gardens.

Here, you will clearly see an established tree in context. There are some beautiful specimens thriving throughout the locality. In particular, I adore the multi-stemmed trees, such as magnolia, lilac, myrtle, kousa dogwood, river birch and the larger-leaved Japanese maples. They bring such a defined character and flow to a space, with a subliminal sense of seasonal movement. All it takes is a little planning, patience and time.

If readers are looking for any guidance and tips with regard to composting, soil cultivation, indoor and outdoor, plant selection or plant care, please email your query to me at gardennewsfour@gmail.com I will happily answer your questions here in this column. 

Susan O’ Brien Dip. Hort (Kew)