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In the Garden

Beautifying Eureka -- carefully


KEEP EUREKA BEAUTIFUL AND THE CITY OF EUREKA recently worked together on a resolution to declare Eureka a "Tree-Lined City." The City Council directed staff to work on a policy, and now a task force has been convened, consisting of council members, city staff and local residents.

The wheels of government turn slowly, but that's OK. Trees are serious business. If I wanted to plant a tree in my own yard, I'd probably need to convene a similar committee, consisting of council members (that would be me and my husband), staff (the landscape company that would eventually be called upon to care for the tree), and local residents (neighbors, cats and area birds). The city is going about this decision the way any responsible homeowner would: slowly and carefully. Good for them.

Tree roots tearing up sidewalkThe city hopes to craft a policy that would result in the planting of street trees -- trees that grow out of little squares that have been cut out of the sidewalk -- anytime the streets and sidewalks have to be torn up for some other reason, such as road repair or the installation of underground utility lines. The city already has a program in place for planting street trees in commercial areas, but the new policy would apply to neighborhoods as well. These trees would be planted and cared for by the city, and for that reason they are proceeding cautiously. Street trees can interfere with power lines and lift sidewalks, a fact that Public Works Director Brent Siemer knows all too well.

"You have to plant the right kind of trees," he told me when I called to ask about the new policy.

There was a pause while I thought about the trees in downtown Eureka that had lifted up the sidewalk, such as the one pictured on this page. He seemed to know what I was about to say, so he added,

"Twenty years ago we thought we planted the right trees. Now we know we were wrong. You know, I've got the same problem at my house. My wife and I are about to remove a tree that we thought was a dwarf species. Turns out it wasn't."

A-ha. This gets at the heart of the matter. Trees are like puppies: when you first bring them home, they're small and cute, and you just know you'll love them forever. But then they get bigger and more demanding. They take up space, they shed, they knock things over, and sometimes they annoy the neighbors. Owning a dog is a long-term commitment, and so is planting a tree.

Maybe that's why I'm so interested in the city's process. They're making the same decisions, on a large scale, that gardeners have to make on a small scale. First of all, what kind of tree is most appropriate? It would probably not be helpful to look to Eureka's natural history for choices: Eureka was mostly a forest before settlers started building houses here. Coast redwoods are hardly an appropriate street tree.

Eureka's Victorian heritage might suggest a tree like the palm trees that now grace the parking lot of the Broadway Cinema. These trees were quite popular during the Victorian era and grow in front of many of Eureka's fine old homes. But palm trees are equally unsuited for sidewalk planting.

In some cities, shade trees are particularly valuable because they can cool the pavement and lower energy costs in the summer. But I challenge you to find a single Eureka resident who longs for more shade.

In fact, the various restrictions imposed upon a street tree tend to limit the options. The tree's roots have to be able to survive under concrete without lifting the pavement. The canopy cannot extend higher than about 30 feet so that it does not interfere with power lines. And the branches can't hang so low that they prevent pedestrians from walking down the street.

The outcome, sadly, is a set of constraints that result in lollipop-shaped trees that are a far cry from the lovely leafy canopies of tree-lined streets in the Midwest, the deep South, or even some of the older neighborhoods in the Bay Area.

"You know those big magnolias that meet in the middle of the street?" Siemer said to me. "We sure won't have anything like that."

Siemer is also quick to point out the costs involved in taking care of street trees, another consideration that is equally important to homeowners. "We've got trees that have to be replaced because they're diseased or they've gotten too large and they're pushing up the sidewalk," he said. "That's a cost. Then there's routine maintenance, like pruning and weeding around the bases of the trees. I told the council I'd be coming to them with a budget request to go along with this tree-planting program."

Finally, the newly formed task force has to consider the same kinds of design issues that any gardener would. Does it make sense to line Eureka's streets with trees that flower in spring, like dogwood or flowering plum? What about trees that produce fall color? And tree litter is surely a consideration when it comes to street trees as well as landscape trees -- any homeowner would think twice before planting a tree that drops flowers or sticky fruit all over the walkway.

There is one group of constituents in the urban tree debate whose interests must not be overlooked: birds. While a small street tree might not be the ideal nesting spot in spring, it can certainly provide temporary shelter and food in the form of berries and seeds. If you're thinking about a tree for your own garden, try to factor in the needs of birds in your area.

Pacific dogwood, for instance, is a California native that blooms in spring and sometimes again in late summer, then produces clusters of scarlet fruit in winter that birds love. And, of course, the very fact that birds and so many other creatures inhabit trees will make it important for the city -- as well as any gardener taking care of trees -- to look for organic, nontoxic means of controlling pests and diseases.

The city's task force has just been formed in the last couple of weeks, and Eureka is a long way from becoming the "Tree-Lined City" envisioned by the city council and Keep Eureka Beautiful. There are probably plenty of people who wish they would hurry up and get some trees in the ground to help beautify Eureka. While I'm certainly not opposed to planting trees, I'm glad to see that the city is taking time to think through all the issues -- and I encourage gardeners to do the same.

Still, the tree-planting process can move a little faster in your own garden. If you're thinking about planting a tree, fall is the time to do it. Nurseries are taking advance orders for bare root trees now, and the staff will be happy to help you choose a tree that's right for your landscape.

The city has published a booklet called "Urban Tree and Landscape Guidelines for the City of Eureka." While it is mostly aimed at developers and contractors, it has some useful information for homeowners too. Call the public works department at 441-4191 to request a copy.

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