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Ashes to Ashes, Elm to Elm

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, says an ancient Chinese proverb. The next best time is now.

By PAM DITTMER MCKUEN
Midwesterners are planting trees by the grove these days. Their yards, parks and forests have been ravaged by a malevolent green beetle called the emerald ash borer. Its larvae burrow beneath the bark of ash trees, causing the trees to starve and gradually die. An Asian native, the pest was first detected in 2002 near Detroit. It has since killed more than 25 million ash trees, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
  
Due to urban developers’ propensity for uniformity, up to 30 percent of the tree stock in many communities is ash. Entire blocks, more than a few named Ash Street, have lost their trees.
  
Now found as far west as Colorado, the beetle—known as EAB in botanical circles—will continue to kill millions more. So far, it is immune to extermination.
  
“Dutch elm disease killed about 80 percent of the trees that were infected,” says Craig Jenkins-Sutton, co-owner and president of
Topiarius Urban Garden and Floral Design in Chicago. “EAB at this point is killing 100 percent of the trees it is infecting.”
  
“Treatments can help manage the devastation,” says Sherm Fields, regional vice president of Acres Group Landscaping in Plainfield. “However, a cost analysis of providing treatments for the life of the tree versus removal and replacement deliver a compelling argument for not treating ash. It’s better to replace them.”
   
He knows how hard it is to remove a beloved tree. “I cut down my own beautiful, mature ash trees, and I hated to do it.”
 EAB isn’t the only villain in these parts. Japanese beetles defoliate Littleleaf Lindens. Diplodia tip blight browns the needles of Austrian pines. Apple scab produces ugly lesions on the fruit and leaves of certain crab varieties.
  
What kind of tree should you plant? First consider the available space and the desired result.
  
Trees are phenomenal multi-taskers. They boost a property’s curb appeal and market value. Strategically placed deciduous trees shade a home in summer, thereby reducing cooling costs; they allow warming rays of sunshine to peek through barren branches in winter. A tightly plotted row of evergreens offers protection from wind and curious neighbors. In locales where tall houses often are built on narrow lots, a slim columnar-shaped tree in front can help reduce the scale and make the structure seem less imposing.
  
Some trees will happily absorb excess moisture that collects in low-lying areas. If space doesn’t permit a thirsty willow, others—like larch, bald cypress or swamp oak—will oblige, says Jenkins-Sutton.
  
Landscape architect Scott Mehaffey, executive vice president of Sage Vertical Garden Systems in Chicago, says trees offer myriad environmental benefits: They release oxygen into the atmosphere, reduce erosion and the urban heat island effect, and provide habitat for birds and small wildlife.
  
“All the increased storm activity we have had in recent years has put a lot of pressure, especially in Chicago and the older suburbs, on our aging and failing storm water and sewer systems,” he says. “Pavement runoff happens so quickly that we have been seeing very expensive washouts and sinkholes and blowouts. Trees help to hold storm water on site and release it more slowly.”

Trees for the Long-Term
  
Next, consider how the tree behaves during its lifetime, how much care it requires and which pests and diseases it is vulnerable to. Call an arborist or forester to recommend those that best endure the local climate and soil conditions. Mistakes are difficult to remedy, as in planting a sweet-looking 2-foot blue spruce next to your front door without calculating it can grow up to 50 feet high and 20 feet wide.
   
“People continue to buy crabapple trees and put them in the shade,” Mehaffey says of common blunders he sees. “Or they plant white pines by the side of the road, where they get clobbered by road salt.”
  
“I have four very large Norway maples in the parkway, and they are a weed to me,” said Jenkins-Sutton. “I don’t want them so die. pay a tree service company to come out and maintain them. But they suck up a lot of water. They don’t play nice with other plants. Their root systems are high, so you can’t get grass or any other ground cover to grow under them. They are also super messy.”
  
Fields’ recommendations for replacing EAB-infected trees include Marmo and State Street maple, catalpa, hackberry, white oak, alder and Kentucky coffee tree.
   
“To avoid apple scab, try resistant crabapple varieties such as purple prince and red jewel,” he says. “To avoid fungal and insect problems in evergreens, try varieties such as Norway, Black Hills and Serbian spruce.”
  
“Quite a few of the oak trees are able to sustain urban conditions and pollution,” says Jenkins-Sutton, who also likes horn beam and gingko. “Linden trees do well, a lot of the elms and some of the red maples.
  
Mehaffey suggests ornamentals, which tend to grow short and branch low, for smaller lots.

Tree-like Solutions
  
Some homeowners have special challenges, perhaps a fondness for a temperamental variety or an unconventional space for planting. There are solutions. Take Jenkins-Sutton, for one, and his obsession with tropical plants.
  
“We have four agaves,” he says. “We over-winter them in the office and put them outside in the summer. We have a six-foot cactus and two palm trees we do the same thing with.”
  
If your spot of earth is too small for forestry, a vertical garden wall creates the illusion of a tree while providing a lush green backdrop.  Vertical gardens can be built indoors or outdoors. They can be attached to a wall or constructed freestanding. The individual plants are selected for color and texture and arranged to make patterns or pictures.
  
“With a living wall, you get the benefits of intercepting the sun’s rays and dampening the ambient noise level,” says Mehaffey. “We even have songbirds nesting in them.”
  
“Think diversity not just in your yard but in your community,”  says Mehaffey. “If your neighbor plants crabapple and roses, that’sve been learned after the Dutch elm disease epidemic during the mid-20th Century—is diversify your tree life.

Diversification won’t stop the invasions, but it will stop them from destroying entire neighborhoods.
   
“Think diversity not just in your yard but in your community, says Mehaffey. If your neighbor plants crabapple and roses, that’s what not to plant in your yard.”
  
No single variety should make up more than 15 percent of your tree total, says Fields.

Innovative Ideas for Wood Re-use

   
But what happens to those millions of trees that are being removed from the landscape? Many are turned into mulch or firewood, and a large number are sent to landfills. But some communities, property owners and organizations are responding to a higher calling.
  
Among them is the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that creates and implements programs to build environmental sustainability and economic vitality in the Great Lakes region. One of its concerns is urban wood utilization, which is the practice of reclaiming and re-using wood that has been harvested from trees in urban and suburban areas and small towns rather than forests.
  
“One of our ideas is we should transform liabilities into assets,” says Delta director Eve Pytel.
  
Not all diseased wood is optimal for re-use, but EAB-infected wood is different. The pest bores into the bark and no further, leaving the heartwood intact and increasing the possibilities for the tree’s reincarnation. Delta creates relationships between municipalities and landowners who need to remove diseased trees and contractors and small-business owners who require wood.
  
The organization recently published a guide, “Wood Utilization Best Management Practices,” that showcases several model projects using EAB wood: In Michigan, lumber was used for support beams and columns in the Ann Arbor District Library. At the Illinois Institute of Technology, art students crafted fine furniture and gift items. The village of Homewood donated lumber to the industrial arts program at Homewood-Flossmoor High School; the students, in turn, built signs, tables and Adirondack chairs for the school.
 
Projects such as these and others minimize the loss of investment in the tree while continuing to add value to the community. In addition, disposal costs and consumption of virgin wood are reduced.
 
“If we do this right, it’s a home run for sustainability,” says Pytel.

Published: April 25, 2014
Issue: Spring 2014 Issue