Archive for October, 2008

Some Thoughts on Trees

by Frank Robinson, Executive Director, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

You may have noticed an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 28, about a moratorium on cutting down trees in the City while City Council reviews its current policy on tree removal.

I stepped into this issue last week when I was asked to assist in saving an old Willow Oak on Seminary Avenue. It is a stately tree, but is has a problem – a crack down its trunk. I spoke with some passionate folks who want to save the tree, and I spoke with the City arborists, who were professional, informed and patient in answering my questions. I went home feeling there were no bad guys in this, but that something was amiss.

Much of the explanation about the tree’s removal was about lack of adequate funds and the liability a compromised tree is, once identified, to the City and its taxpayers. Basically, if a tree is compromised – in this case by maturity, a full canopy and the weight of an abundant acorn crop – it becomes a hazard. And, even if treated, should it fall and do property damage or kill someone, the City clearly has a problem. The tree needed to go because of risk management. Inadequate funds will be an issue we are all going to deal with in the near future, but the impact here is that the City arborists are stretched too thin to go back to monitor a doctored tree to see if it is improving or getting worse. Thus, once recognized as a potential risk, it has to go.

What I have been stewing about is the conflict of values between the risk management argument, which has merit, and the tree lovers, who are doing the City a favor by advocating for the trees.

The problem is that there is no discussion about the benefits trees bring to our environment. The policies are about removing trees, not about keeping them. This is the challenge to City leadership – to articulate and measure the value of trees to the City, and to communicate to the community why we want to keep as many as we can, and plant more.

A quick review – trees are important because:
1. They save utility costs and the use of fossil fuels. The air temperature within the shade of a tree can be 10 degrees cooler than ambient air temperature. The shade cast by a mature tree saves air conditioning costs and the demands on the power company to provide electricity. Shade also reduces the amount of absorbed heat on the earth’s surface, thus reducing overall temperature, and re-radiation of the absorbed heat after the sun sets.
2. Trees clean our air. They absorb carbon dioxide (greenhouse gases) and other air pollutants and expel clean oxygen – oxygen we need to breath.
3. Trees save water. They absorb rain water through their roots, and transpire water vapor through their leaves. They are a critical part of the rain cycle, and the creation of rain clouds. Where trees disappear, rain disappears as well. Moreover, the soils under trees are generally more permeable than lawns, and certainly pavement, allowing water to percolate into the local water table, thus restoring our wells, streams, lakes and rivers. Water not percolated into the soil is flushed through storm sewers into our major rivers, full of pollutants, and bypassing the critical process of filling local aquifers.
4. Trees clean our environment. They absorb and metabolize excess nutrients we spread on our lawns and gardens, and they mitigate other chemicals we routinely spread on our lawns, gardens and public spaces.
5. Trees save soils. Their root systems stabilize soils, preventing erosion and particle pollutants in our rivers and bays.
6. Trees are habitats and food supply for entire ecosystems we barely see – birds, insects, mammals, and amphibians.
7. Trees are ecologically efficient. They return their biomass to the earth each fall as they shed their leaves, (and older needles and leaves on evergreens). This material has values in restoring the tilth and nutrient of soils, though we generally fail to use these well.
8. Trees humanize the built environment.
9. Trees are beautiful, and we need beauty in our lives.

I hope there is someone who has measured the output and positive impact of trees, because if we could calculate the oxygen production of the oak on Seminary Avenue, we would probably be stunned.

Risks! Ah, we have so many risks we need to manage! We have all seen the damage caused by trees falling in hurricanes and ice storms. However, this is really the result of another causal agent – wind and heavy ice – rather than caused by trees themselves. And, such storms take both the compromised trees and the apparent healthy ones.

I couldn’t help but do a little research. According to the CDC and the National Vital Statistics Report the leading cause of death in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease – 650,000 people a year – a reflection on our diet and life styles. Influenza kills 65,000 people. Motor vehicle accidents kill 43,000. Firearms kill 28,000. Falls kill about 13,000. Aspirin, ibuprofen, etc. kill 7,600 people and hospitalize 76,000. Deer cause 1.5 million accidents per year, killing 150 people and injuring 10,000.

When it comes to trees, there is almost no data cited. Apparently trees are most dangerous to the arborists who care for them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there were 156 fatal accidents in the ornamental shrub and tree service industry in 2003. These were three major – parts of trees falling on coworkers as trees were being removed, workers falling from tree canopies, and contact with electrical current. I found a citation stating 150 people are killed annually around the globe by falling coconuts. Luckily, coconut trees don’t survive in Richmond.

Like everything else, trees age and die – they have a limited life span. They can be hazardous when they are weakened by weather, infested with insects, diseased or genetically inferior, and they should be removed. However, whenever possible, if they can be cabled, have their crowns thinned out, or treated with chemicals, they should be saved, for all the good things they provide.

I found the tree on Seminary to be particularly significant, as just a few blocks to the east we have the lower part of Chamberlayne Avenue, where all the trees have been lost. It is a subjective observation, but I can’t imagine most people wouldn’t prefer the environment on Seminary.

I know if a tree fell and injured someone I love, or crushed my car, I would be asking why. But, I also know that we expose ourselves to much greater risk everyday by driving, overeating, and using firearms.

I hope we will never perceive trees as terrorists lurking along a shaded lane ready to take us out. And, I hope even more that we can objectively identify why we want trees in our environment, and how we can afford and join together to keep them healthy and strong.


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I love modern technology. How can you not love it when you can listen to a podcast on  Lawn and Leaf Managment: “Leave” Them Alone, from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.  Plus get added tips on how to make compost from yard waste. Tidbits such as this might just change your perspective on how to manage your leaves this fall, so go ahead and give a listen. And if you don’t do podcasts, don’t worry, they’ve got it in PDF form too.  I mean, who knew that you could just mow instead of rake and bag?

A Purdue University research report entitled “Leaf Mulching Effects on Turf Performance” showed that up to 4,000 lbs of maple leaves per acre could be mulched with no negative effects on turf quality, color, thatch accumulation, soil pH change, weed populations or disease.

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Adrian Higgins, over at the Washington Post, wrote a nice piece earlier this month on Marc Cathey, former director of the U.S. National Arboretum, who died Oct. 8th at the age of 79.
I have to admit, before reading Mr. Higgin’s piece, I had not heard of Mr. Cathey. But he sounds like a man who was far ahead of his time, thinking about sustainable gardens well before anyone else. The Washington Post article says,

He coined the phrase “tough plants for tough times” to convey the need for lower-maintenance landscapes that were kinder to the environment than the former lawn- and chemical-dominated model.

Plus, this man had character. Here is a taste of the article:

Tall, dapper, and with ties and handkerchiefs as colorful as his persona, Dr. Cathey gave hundreds of lectures during his career that combined scientific authority with sheer showmanship. He was sometimes called Dr. Purple, after his favorite hue.

Before the dawn of PowerPoint, he would extol the virtues of plants using multiple slide projectors, soundtracks and, on occasion, smoke machines, confetti and other special effects.

“He got people wowed up because of his ability to tell stories and to bring life and drama to everything,” said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. “There was no one else like him in horticulture.”

Sounds like someone I would have loved to have known. Thanks for the wonderful tribute. And thanks to the ladies at Garden Rant for sharing it.

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With Lewis Ginter gearing up to host “Gardening in an Era of Climate Change: Is the Sky Really Falling?(Feb. 4, 5, and 6), I’ve been thinking about educating myself on how much has actually changed with the climate. I’m finding some good resources. The New York Botanical Garden, like Lewis Ginter is trying to stay at the forefront of the discussion, and according to their website, is approaching the subject from a similar standpoint:

[The New York Botanical Garden] approaches this important topic in the positive spirit of promoting dialogue on the latest thinking and scientific research about climate change.

And, just as Lewis Ginter is hosting Gardening in an Era of Climate Change, the New York Botanical Garden has hosted similar events to get people thinking. That’s what we want to do. Start discussions, hatch ideas, and find solutions. What exactly is happening and why? Is our environment drastically changing? With weather being so cyclical can we even tell? What are the solutions?

There are some very interesting projects going on. The Union of Concerned Scientists is sponsoring a project, to encourage writers and photographers to share their stories of global warming in order to inspire others to make positive changes in their lives.

Some of my background reading on gardening during an era of climate change includes learning about sustainable gardening with “garden coach” Susan Harris and of course the revised hardiness map of the United States (illustrated above), and put out by the Arbor Day Foundation in 2006.

It looks like solutions based on both adapting to the temperature changes by planting different species, that are more heat tolerant and more draught resistant is part of the solution. But the other part may lie in finding ways individuals and industry alike can reduce their impact on the environment.

One of the best written pieces on the subject is actually from The New York Times, published in 2007. It makes a moving point:

Already, some states are facing the possibility that the cherished local flora that has helped define their identities — the Ohio buckeye, the Kansas sunflower or the Mississippi magnolia — may begin to disappear within their borders and move north.

By the end of the century, the climate will no longer be favorable for the official state tree or flower in 28 states, according to “The Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming,” a report released last month by the National Wildlife Federation.

Also, the article highlights some positive trends:

Nationally, the use of products like organic fertilizer, which requires less energy to produce than conventional fertilizer — and thus results in fewer emissions of heat-trapping gases — is ballooning, with some manufacturers reporting a doubling in demand each year.

Gardening and do-it-yourself magazines have begun to popularize rain gardens, which collect rainwater in barrels or shallow basins that are part of the landscaping. And mainstream publications like Martha Stewart Living and Better Homes and Gardens have advocated cutting back on gasoline-powered lawnmowers and blowers in favor of greener machines like rechargeable or push mowers, which come in sleek new lightweight designs.

I’m really looking forward to what author, plant expert and University of Georgia professor Allan Armitage, Ph.D., will say when he presents The Heat Is On: Helping Green Industries and Gardeners Adapt in a Period of Transition. I wonder what new innovations and challenges urban horticulture specialist and award-winning author Felder Rushing will discus during Challenges Facing “Garden Variety” Gardeners and Pros Alike.

But most of all, I’m interested to see how Armitage, Rushing, and other industry leaders, including James Urban, Richard Bir, Kennon Williams, will help us turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Registration for the Gardening in an Era of Climate Change symposium opens in November.

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Everyone knows that Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is full of green plants, but did you know that Lewis Ginter is also always trying to think of new ways that it can be green to the environment? Recently, I’ve found out Lewis Ginter is doing alot of things to help the earth.  

Did you know that we now have two new bike racks — one in the east parking lot and one in the west parking lot? Now, it is easier than ever for employees of Lewis Ginter and visitors to ride their bikes here.

What else are we doing that’s green?  Well, we’ve got a whole list of things!

Did you know that unlike many gardens that heat their greenhouses, here at Lewis Ginter we heat the soil in our Conservatory because it uses less energy?  Hot water circulates through rubber hoses that heat the soil so air temperatures can be held to moderate levels. 

Plus, in February, as part of our 25th Anniversary Celebration, we are hosting an entire 3-day symposium on green gardening and sustainablity. Gardening in an Era of Climate Change: Is the Sky Really Falling? will feature nationally-renowned speakers on sustainable practices in gardening and how horticulture is being transformed by environmental, societal, and technological changes in the 21st century. The symposium will address the how the impact of individual and institutional choices affects sustainability and the environment.

Registration will open in November.


Here are some of my other favorite things we are doing at the Garden to stay green:

Water Management Plan: The Garden recently had a water management plan designed for the purpose of developing and demonstrating best practices and sustainable strategies for water usage. Some good practices are already in place — the Garden collects rainwater from the roofs of its buildings and funnels it into an irrigation lake; the Children’s Garden uses rain barrels. Horticulture carefully monitors and controls water usage. Gardens are being designed with water usage in mind, for instance the new Rose Garden uses underground drip irrigation and includes a constructed wetland at its base for filtration. As part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Garden is poised to set an example and be an educational resource.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM): Already practiced in the Children’s Garden, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is moving toward Integrated Pest Management or IPM. IPM is an effective, environmentally friendly approach to pest management that relies on a combination of commonsense practices. The goal of IPM is to see a reduction of pests to acceptable numbers with the least environmental impact.

Rose Garden: The new rose collection reflects some of the newest and most geneticallysuperior hybrids, bred for disease resistance, rebloom and fragrance. The majority of the cultivars are from nurseries in France, Italy, Germany and England, and most are new to the Virginia region. The selections have been carefully made with concern for environmental responsibility to minimize the need for chemicals to control disease and insects. The location of the Garden, on the hillside, should help in providing natural air movement, which will also aid in minimizing fungal diseases.

Children’s Garden: Staff and young visitor help grow herbs for use in the Café and Tea House. Fruits and vegetables are harvested for theCentral Virginia FoodBank.
The Children’s Garden also uses environmentally friendly materials that are long lasting and do not carry preservatives that would be harmful to children who come in contact with them. For example, the rampway to the Tree House is constructed of a WeatherBest, a recycled plastic product. The shingles on the Tree House are made of recycled rubber

GardenFest of Lights: In 2007, staff began replacing incandescent lights with LED holiday lights that are slightly more expensive,yet pay for themselves in the first yearthrough electricity savings. For example, the electrical cost to light a holiday tree with LEDs is 13 to 17 cents per season compared to $6 to $10 for incandescent lights. Already, more than 25 percent of theGardenFest lights have been converted – totaling more than nine miles of LED strands in a 500,000-light display.

Meriwether Godsey (the Garden’s caterer): For group events, the Garden’s caterer has substituted reusable tumblers for disposable plastic cups and uses fully compostable hot cups and napkins made of 100% recycled material. Food containers are made of a corn-based product.

Garden Shop: “Green” merchandise includes Rich Earth and Eco Pots, reusable tote bags and helpful gardening resources. Watch for new arrivals as they become available.

Lora M. Robins Library: Environmental stewardship is covered by a bounty of resources, including books for children.

In many cities, nearly a third of the volume hauled to the landfill is landscape refuse, such as lawn clippings, leaves, branches and wood chips. Homeowners who compost at home remove some burden off our landfills. The clippings are “free fertilizer”!
Identify bugs before you spray, squash or stomp – most bugs are good bugs, not pests.
Consider planting native trees and plants, especially ones with berries, fruits and flowers to invite birds, butterflies, and other wildlife into your yard.


When you are watering, focus on trees and shrubs – especially newly planted ones. Newly planted trees and shrubs are vulnerable to extremes in heat and moisture and can be expensive to replace if roots are damaged by drought.
It’s good to water established lawns and shrubs about one inch per week, but you can cut that to one quarter of an inch per week during times of extreme drought. (Use a rain gauge to track how much water you are using.)
For newly established plants, water when the root systems are dry.
The best way to tell is to put your finger in the soil about two to three inches deep around the young roots – if the ground feels dry, it is time to water.
Be sure to also look around your yard for signs of stress. If you see wilted leaves or leaves turning yellow, pay attention to these plants. Azaleas, which are shallow-rooted plants, show signs of stress quickly and are a great “indicator” plant.
It is better to water deeply and less frequently. For instance watering once a week, allowing water to drip slowly into the root systems for three to four hours, is more helpful than frequent shallow waterings. Watering deeply helps establish deeper root systems. Be sure to monitor weekly.
The best time to water is early in the morning just before dawn. It’s important to get the soil thoroughly wet. The morning sun will dry off the foliage, which lessens conditions for fungal diseases. Watering in the morning is also good because evaporation loss is minimal – the humidity is higher and the winds are calmer.
The best way to water is to allow water to drip through the hose right into the root system. Gushing water is not good because it washes the soil away and the water often runs into other areas instead of soaking in around the plant’s roots. One easy tip is to build a dam of soil around the base of the newly established plant. The dam holds the water in around the plant, allowing it to seep into the root system.

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Check out this great article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch about how Lewis Ginter is helping Virginia’s First Lady, Anne Holton, bring dried botanical decorations to an elaborate tree in the Governor’s Mansion.

Virginia first lady Anne Holton wanted this year’s official tree to replicate one Smith did last year for the Ginter library as part of the GardenFest of Lights celebration. The tree was covered with botanical ornaments Smith made out of materials gleaned from Ginter gardens and dried by the staff.

“I saw their all-natural tree at the botanical garden last year and was wowed by its beauty and creativity,” Holton said. “The natural materials were extraordinary and highlighted so well.”

If you’d like to see the tree yourself, the mansion will be open for holiday tours Dec. 6 from 1-4 p.m. Public tours also will be offered Dec. 9, 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18 from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m.

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Want to learn more about gardening?    If you have Tuesday and Thursday mornings free, here’s the perfect way to become an expert:

The Henrico County Extension Office is looking for gardeners interested in completeing the 2009 Master Gardener training program.  The Master Gardener training program is an extensive class that teaches in aspects of horticulture in detail.  Topics include  lawn care, tree and shrub
maintenance, vegetable gardening, pest management and more and include classroom training as well as a 50-hour internship helping conduct educational programs. 

The extension will accept applications through Monday, Nov. 17 and the classes will start Jan. 27, 2009 and continue through March 26.  Classes are 9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.  The class costs $120 and will be held in the Henrico  Human Services Building
demonstration kitchen, 8600 Dixon Powers Drive.
For more information contact Teddy Martin in the Extension Office,  501-5160.

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