As a Seattle residential landscape architect and garden designer, I am always consulting with homeowners about whether to remove or preserve large trees on their property. Many times on a first visit to their garden, people will tell me, “That Cedar is going. I’ve already called to have it removed.” Among the candidates for removal, large specimens of our native Western Red Cedar and the exotic Deodar Cedar seem to top the list. And the motivations for the planned removal are certainly understandable. Mainly, they boil down to four basic reasons:
- I’m afraid that tree is going to fall on my house and power lines.
- It’s so messy, I’m always cleaning my gutters and it drops leaves and seeds all over my car.
- My back yard is too shady – I just want a sunny garden.
- Those trees are blocking my view.
But should a towering Cedar automatically be removed because one of its limbs fell in the last wind storm or should a giant Oak tree be removed because grass won’t grow under it? I have often counseled people to remove a tree or trees due to crowding or disease – none more so than mature Cherry trees, which are highly susceptible to many diseases — or to open up views. But unless that Cherry tree looks like it’s rotting from 30 feet away, I also encourage them to consider the other option, to preserve the tree.
Why should you think twice before removing a large tree? For three main reasons: First, because Seattle has lost over 30% of its tree canopy since the 1970’s, and you can clearly see the effects of this change by comparing current and past aerial photos of the city. Second, because there is enormous value to individuals and society in the urban forest that we are losing. The evidence is overwhelming that trees moderate heat gain on hot summer days, mitigate climate change by storing carbon dioxide, and provide desperately needed wildlife habitat.
But if these two reasons seem abstract and altruistic to you, consider the third reason: as I always put it, trees are a gift to the neighborhood. What attracted you to your neighborhood in the first place? Wasn’t it at least partly the leafy streets and the tall backdrop of greenery surrounding the houses? Sometimes a giant tree can even be a neighborhood landmark. Seattle’s most attractive neighborhoods feature lush front gardens and towering mature trees. Neighborhoods in surrounding communities such as Mercer Island,Bellevue and Redmond are appealing because they still feel like they are nestled in the native forest. When too many of these urban trees are cut down to make way for larger houses that “maximize the lot,” the net effect is to lose the landscape appeal of the entire neighborhood.
With that in mind, I often encourage people to consider four reasons to preserve their tree(s), each corresponding to one of the four legitimate reasons for considering removal:
- The entire tree is much less likely to fall than one or more of the limbs. Why not hire a consulting arborist to assess the tree’s hazard and consider removing a few limbs rather than the entire tree?
- Trees can be messy. I know, because I live under Bigleaf Maple trees, and you can’t convince me that there is any messier tree in existence. But why not park your car in the garage and hire someone to clean out the gutters on a regular basis?
- Sometimes the only way to obtain a nice sunny patch for your morning coffee or afternoon wine is to remove a tall tree, but many times there is another part of your property, say in the front yard, that is sunny and with new landscaping can be converted into a private sanctuary. Meanwhile, ground covers can be planted under that Oak or Cedar to create a beautiful shade garden.
- Views are actually enhanced by trees, which provide the foreground interest and framing for the most beautiful Pacific Northwest vistas. Panoramic views without foreground trees can feel somewhat bland and two-dimensional, like a painted theater backdrop. Often to create or enhance a view, it is enough to open a “window” in a tree by removing a few key limbs that block Puget Sound or Lake Washington and the mountains.
Cass Turnbull of Plant Amnesty (www.plantamnesty.org) has made a career out of tree preservation and teaching proper pruning techniques. Currently, Plant Amnesty is lobbying city officials to pass a stronger Seattle tree protection ordinance which would make it illegal to remove residential trees in many instances. However, voluntary tree preservation can go a long way toward protecting the landscape beauty and value of our Pacific Northwest homes and neighborhoods. If everybody did it, we wouldn’t need that pesky ordinance.