The Value of Trees
By Diann Dirks
Here in Georgia, in the NE section, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we are surrounded by trees. When my husband and I first arrived here over 12 years ago, from drought ridden California, I was enthralled by the green of everything, and of all the trees. When I saw our area begin to be developed and they took down whole areas of those trees, many of them valuable hardwood trees, I was so saddened. I was told by a lot of the local people that they were just ‘weeds’. But as the subdivisions and strip malls went in, with only a random tree to replace what was lost, the air quality has diminished.
Somehow the value of vast green lawns surrounding McMansions is a kind of status symbol here. And when landscaping is put in, it’s the usual pretty or ornamental with no real other value. So much of the HOAs around this area keep one from having vegetable gardens, and people are busy so they don’t want to have to take care of things other than install watering and hiring the landscapers to come in now and then to touch up or fertilize. The big thing is the green lawns.
Now I am a Permaculture Designer and an Organic Gardener. In our design science, which follows the laws of nature in how the environment continues to thrive without man, taking out whole areas that keep air full of oxygen, and trees that make it possible for rainclouds to form, having a couple of acres of green lawn that doesn’t do anything but look green is a total waste. Not only that, but to keep out the ‘weeds’ (which are really nature’s band-aids to hold in the top soil and restore the nutrients in it, plus prevent erosion), people use vast amounts of very toxic chemicals that end up in your water. Plus usually the water used to keep it green uses up valuable water from the aquifer or from the running water that needs to be used for other things. It’s a loose-loose just for some status.
I have a better idea. And this has been implemented in our own subdivision .7 acre lot on a rather steep hillside. We surrounded the lawn on one side of the drive way with landscape timber held in place by metal spikes, to hold in the wood chips that cover most of the space. In that space we have built rock surrounded beds and put in deep top soil. These beds hold plants that take up the 7 layers of vertical space. Lawns are one layer and the space above it is wasted. In the configuration we used which is called a “Food Forest”, each layer of vertical space is made use of.
We have ground cover such as wild strawberry, ground ivy, cleavers (a wild medicinal herb), cinquefoil (also medicinal wild), and others which form a carpet.
Herbaceous plants which are mostly soft bodied self seeding, or perennial small stature plants are placed in families of plants which help each other, using what is called “Companion Planting” or in Permaculture “Guilds”. These are plants which help each other by bug repelling, pest killing, nitrogen capturing (which fertilizes the soil naturally), bee and butterfly pollinating friendly insect attracting, and medicinal and edibles for people. In this class are included myriad flowering bulbs and plants such as Iris, Daffodil, Texas Bluebell, tulips, daisy, lilies, and other ornamental bee attracting plants. And in this are also some perennial herbs such as fennel, lemon verbena, lemon balm, mints, yarrow, and others. Also included are perennial plants, some woody in nature, such as roses, hellebores, winter savory, rosemary, sage, thyme, Russian sage, grow in amongst the flowers and herbs.
Small shrubs and dwarf trees grow over these plants to capture sunshine and create some shade. In this category are bush cherry, blueberry, aronia berry, Mexican sage (loaded with flowers in the late summer), butterfly bush, Witch Hazel, Rose of Sharon, Bay leaf, Beauty berry, Elderberry bush, Sweet Olive bush, dwarf fruit trees and others. There are in this category some under-story trees which are larger than bushes such as dogwood. All of them either provide food for the bees and butterflies, or grow fruit for people, or are medicinal. The herbs and ground covers are chosen for their beneficial groupings to help the ‘anchor’ trees or bushes. It’s like a giant jig saw puzzle with everything fitting together.
Canopy trees including regular sized fruit trees, nut trees, and forest sized trees grow tall and create areas of tall shade and animal habitat. In this category here at Hillside Gardens are included Apple, Peach, Pear, Plum, almond, curly willow, straight willow, and larger trees such as Green Ash, many kinds of oaks, pine, hickory, pecan, walnut, etc. These provide a vast network of leaves which are busily making oxygen, and in the fall their leaves cover the ground with topsoil renewing minerals brought up from deep in the earth.
These tall trees provide habitat for the critters that help in the whole natural intertwining functions such as birds and squirrels. Bird’s song opens the pores on the underside of the leaves which let in air – from which 80% of the tree’s food comes – so they drink in nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The squirrels collect the tree’s seeds, and bury them in the fall for winter. But they never retrieve all of them, and this is how the tree gets their seeds planted in the soil for future trees. It all works together.
But there are two other layers that are part of this composite. There is a layer of roots that are in themselves a use of the vertical space. Many plants use the soil as their habitat and are in themselves plants – especially fungi which connect all the roots of all the plants – transferring nutrients and information – and in the process decompose dying plant matter to keep the land clear of debris, and to provide their fruiting bodies – mushrooms.
Lastly vines weave it all together by their long growing nature. In our space we have smilax aka Greenbriar, Japanese honeysuckle, and a host of other vines which can be used for basket making, cording, building wattle fencing, used to tie together fencing and other uses.
One other use I don’t use here is the water feature such as a pond or stream, with its own set of water plants and marsh dwelling plants. Our land is too steep but downhill from us is the creek which draws from the surrounding land.
Tying together all these layers of growth are trees. The root system of trees holds in the topsoil, and in company with the fungi pass nutrients across the substructure of the soil so needed food is spread out among this bio-diverse natural mix. Fungi is the transport system under the surface we never see, but without which the plant world could not exist.
Trees can be planted independently of the understory plants or all layers can be used in a landscape. But rather than waste all the resources putting in grasses, it’s so much more beautiful and productive to set out trees that have all the various uses their species provides. I love going out at various times of the year to pick a basket of blueberries, peaches, pears and others. There is something satisfying about eating a bowl of fruit picked minutes before out of your own garden. And being a basket maker, I enjoy gathering vines and making creations at the times of year when they are most flexible and fresh.
Rather than fill a landscape and a yard with only ornamentals which provide no product for pleasure other than a certain visual display, I have chosen to get multiple uses out of the things I plant. I even collect some plants to make dye for coloring the yarn I spin. I also make insect repellent from Beauty Berry bushes and peppermint to keep away the mosquitoes.
Another wonderful effect having trees in the lawn is the cooling effect these trees provide, and the increase in bird music as they nest in the branches. Using bushes that draw beneficial insects adds the pleasure of seeing the butterflies flittering around or hearing the cheerful sound of bees eating their pollen. This to me is the sound of nature working in harmony, all things helping each other, and that includes people.
I would love to see the subdivisions and estates around here planted carefully and beautifully with fruit and nut trees, medicinal trees like Witch Hazel, and bushes producing fruit like blueberry and aronia berry. If there is no possibility of a vegetable garden on a given property, having trees that produce food goes unnoticed by these harmful regulations of HOAs. Having a hedge of blueberry instead of holly is so much more beneficial. Planting a large tree in a vast lawn which shades and holds in moisture helps the atmosphere produce rain, and gives us oxygen. Inter-planting beneficial bushes among the flower garden areas, and adding kitchen and medicinal herbs among the hedges and bushes adds use and benefit where none existed before.
I have seen information that says to give one human enough oxygen to breathe we need about 18 trees. When we cut them all down to make parking lots, what produces our oxygen? It isn’t a machine. It isn’t a freeway, or a vast lawn that produces a tiny fraction of it we need. We need our trees.
Without trees rain doesn’t form. A big lake doesn’t produce rain. It takes the trees doing something called transpiration, where the moisture comes off the leaves and enters the air thus to form clouds. Without trees we loose streams because without the transpiration, enough water isn’t drawn into the atmosphere to cause rain.
To my way of thinking, in nature the percentage of open non-tree growing spaces such as meadows is out of wack when we cut down the trees to make open space. There is a natural ratio which requires a certain percentage of our land to be filled with leaf growing branches in vast numbers to support the rest of our needs to survive as a race of people, and to support the animals and other life forms which support it all.
Bio-diversity is a concept that is crucial to the survival of life on earth. Each different kind of life form fills a certain knitch in the overall plan – there is such an inter-relationship going on. When we loose a certain species of tree, a whole ecological strata is often lost. Loosing the vast hickory groves from disease and over-harvest lost us food for whole kinds of animals which have gone extinct or their numbers so greatly lessened that they are on the endangered list. If we can restore some of these tree species we can help to rebalance the earth’s systems. We are now loosing the Hemlock to disease brought on by another imbalance in the natural order. This is another crucial species that supports a whole strata of life forms. We are fighting its extinction.
It is my dream that vast grass lawns be a thing of the past and only created in small areas for playgrounds or sports functions, but the rest of that land be repopulated by trees that help the environment, so we stop having droughts and the fires they spawn. So we restore the cleanliness of our air from pollution that doesn’t get the cleansing of that rain, so we can breathe without our children being plagued with asthma and other respiratory diseases that are amplified by smog and bad air.
I would like to see every space that isn’t needed for pasture or specific functions of human life, to be planted with trees in vast numbers. It is my dream that people somehow change their considerations about land use to regrow forests and that we stop this heedless slaughter of our forests. Our trees are treasures, not weeds. If we don’t like kind of trees we have, then cut them down and replace them with ones that are more to our liking, but just cutting them down and leaving it at that is irresponsible. It takes years to grow a big tree. When we value trees they become treated with respect. In Japan when a forester cuts down a tree for lumber, he replants 3 trees to cover that loss. This is the greatest wisdom.
We need our trees. In Oregon, they come in with their huge deforesting machines, disturb the soil, leave the topsoil open to erosion (which it takes a hundred years to create one inch of in nature), then if they bother to replant, do so with single plant mono-cropping that destroys the natural bio-diversity. We need to get wiser with our resources because when they are gone, it takes so much more effort to replace it or restore it to life friendly condition.
But I don’t agree that these kinds of ideas be enforced by government regulations. No, we need to enlighten people so they understand their relationship with the planet, with nature, and to understand they are part of it, not that nature is something other than themselves. We need cooperation, not enforcement. A kind heart that grows a tree is worth ten government regulations.
Please, join with me, and plant trees as often as possible. It’s a grand and noble investment in our future.