Category Archives: Urban gardening

Visit from the Tree Fairy(ies)

The Lot is located under 2 miles from the center of our little city. Our neighborhood is older than the Burbs, with our home being built in 1923. At some point the entire street was planted with norway and silver maples, all of which are at their mature height now.

Since we’ve lived on the Lot, we have had a norway maple in the easement at the South side of the house. The tree helped to shade the porch and home during the hot summer months. In the winter, its absence of leaves allowed the sunlight to help warm the south side. The maple would also keep a gardener cool when she wanted to work in the south bed midday. It was a pretty sweet deal.

However, also during the time we have lived here, a wound in the trunk of the tree has grown progressively worse. The best guess we can make is it was backed into by some past neighbor. We really, REALLY didn’t want to send in a request for its removal until it had to go. This spring was the season.

As all other trees on the street were leafing out this past spring, the norway maple on the front of the Lot was not. Also, the wound on the tree had be weakening the middle of the trunk and the tree was beginning to lean toward the house. All signs pointed to a phone call to the city and a request for the maple’s removal.

Monocultures in Urban Neighborhoods

During our time with the Urban Forest Project, the Other Half and I learned this approach of planting a street as a monoculture (a single type or family) is not the best idea. This became evident to city planners when Dutch Elm Disease in the 1950s and then Emerald Ash Borer in the early 2000s caused entire streets of those trees to be removed at a time.

The city now selects trees that can withstand the harsh urban conditions, chooses trees with the correct height as to not grow into power lines, and aims for a variety of species for the neighborhood. With a diverse population lining a street, the chances of a future tree disease or pest causing the removal of all the trees at once is slim.

A Gift of Gingko

The Other Half and I had been exchanging ideas for a replacement tree for the majority of the season. After removal, it would be another 18 months before the city would plant a new tree (with no charge to us) to replace the norway maple. However, I’m impatient, so we were going to offer to purchase and plant a replacement. We’d simply select a tree from the city’s list of approved trees.

But this morning the universe had a different plan as a Citizen Forester volunteer knocked on our door. A neighbor a block or two down had applied to and received a mini-grant to have trees planted in our neighborhood. There was a lone ginkgo which had been passed over by a neighbor who did not want trees in his/her property’s easement. The Citizen Forester had noticed the white mark on the dying maple (city code for “remove this tree”), and wondered if we wanted the ginkgo. Um, yes please!!

The Maidenhair Tree

Ginkgo biloba, or the Ginkgo, is the sole surviving genus of the order Ginkgoales and is considered a living fossil. This ancient order of plants, believed to have been present 150 million years ago, have characteristics of both ferns and conifers. The fan-shaped leaves of the Ginkgo resemble fronds of the plant genus Adiantum, or the maidenhair ferns. The leaves are also often in two lobes, which is how it picks up the “biloba” or “two-lobed” in its name. The tree was cultivated in China and Japan because of its religious significance, but no natural stands of Ginkgo are thought to exist.

The cultivar ‘Autumn Gold’ is the one now situated in the easement on the Lot. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden website, this ginkgo grows up to 40 or 50′ and makes a great shade tree. It will have green flowers (all current ginkgo cultivars are male) in the spring and gold leaves in the autumn. It requires full sun so the south side of the Lot is an excellent location for it. Due to the low maintenance required and the tree’s ability to tolerate air pollution, the Ginkgo makes a great tree for an urban environment.

Ginkgo Guardians

So now it is up to the Other Half and I to care for our new sapling. It was delivered as a ball and burlap tree, so I’ve already been out there a few times to fuss over untangling its branches. Those are often squished a bit from being bound against the leader with twine before being stacked on delivery trucks. This whole weekend we are supposed to finally get some seasonal rainfall, so the tree should get a good drink. The leader, or vertical stem on top of the trunk of the tree, is a bit crooked. However, the trunk is straight, and I’ve seen leaders straighten out over a few years once the tree is growing in its new location. Next year we’ll make sure it gets watered well throughout its first summer. I’m looking forward to helping it get settled and integrating it into the crazy garden that is the Lot.

Fall Tree Planting Stats

An email from Margaret, our Urban Forest Project Coordinator (and amazingly awesome forester), arrived this week with a tally of volunteer work for fall 2015. It’s pretty exciting. Here are the stats.

UFP Fall 2015 Planting Season

  • Logged over 400+ volunteer fall planting hours
  • Total of 106 trees planted
  • Planted at 5 city parks
  • Planted at our first dog park!
  • Planted at 2 Grand Rapids Public Schools campuses

Urban Forest Project Planting

The above is a photo snapped at an October 25th tree planting at Congress Elementary. This little one (the girl, not the sapling) is one of our youngest participants yet. However, she was able to ID trees from their leaves more accurately than most of us there. Here she is zipping up a Treegator® bag so we can fill it with water for the tree.

Planting For Our Future

Margaret also sent along info on a new program called Planting for our Future. She says “this is a collaborative effort between Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and the Grand Rapids Public Schools to help raise awareness, increase understanding of Urban Forest issues, and further grow the City’s canopy all while using trees to teach students important cross-curricular lessons.

As a part of this project, we are offering teachers and school administrators and/or collaborating GRPS/parents the funding, technical assistance, trees, or support to host an urban forest project or event within the schools.”

Interested parties can contact Margaret through the Urban Forest Project website.

Corner Garden Creation

During a recent extended family fishing trip, Mom and Dad L chatted with me about wanting to revive bits of their backyard landscape. Being globetrotters and full-time grandparents, these two had handed over the management of the area to nature. Now they wanted to introduce a bit more order and color, but still provide pollinators and birds with food.

The Site

The little, sunny area they had their eye on sits at the southeast edge of their urban, corner lot. Viewers would see the flower bed from the sidewalk, the backyard, and from within the house at the kitchen window. That section of the backyard had been overrun by bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) for several years, so the plants had built up quite the dense colony. The soil was also heavily compacted, so it was tilled and a lot of compost was worked into the bed to begin restoring structure to the soil. Good soil structure allows water to drain down through the soil and gives plants the ability to stretch out those roots without hinderance.

The Plants

When making suggestions for the new bed, I wanted to make sure the plants:

  1. were magnets for birds, bees, and butterflies
  2. were tough and didn’t require much maintenance beyond their first year
  3. were colorful through different parts of the season
  4. were sizes from very tall (seen from the house) to shorter (seen from the edges of the bed)

Final Plant Selection for a Sunny Bed

Here is the final roundup to begin with for this bed, in the order of bloom time. The blooming period of the plants overlap each other so there is always more than one plant in bloom at once. Some of these plants were volunteers from The Lot (it’s a great way to thin out overcrowded beds in your own garden) and some were already in Mom and Dad L.’s backyard.

  • Existing Random Tulips
  • 3 Bee Balm (Monarda)
  • 2 Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • 3 Asiatic Lilies
  • 3 Hybrid Tea Roses
  • 5 Daylilies
  • 2 Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
  • 5 Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)
  • 3 Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • 3 Sedum

The Placement

Stepping stones and plants were placed in the bed. We didn’t plant right away to allow for an adequate amount of shuffling, changing our minds, and reorganizing yet again. The stones allow Mom and Dad L. a way to access the plants without stepping directly onto the bed and compacting the soil again. Here is the preliminary layout for the flower bed as it is view directly from the backyard.


Here is the same bed viewed from the sidewalk at the edge of the property. The roses were placed at the edges of the bed and not next to the path where a gardener would get scratched up. The coneflowers at the back will provide a tall backdrop for the bed.082315-layoutfence

And here is the bed once again, this time viewed across the backyard from the kitchen window. That same backdrop of purple coneflowers will create a large enough stand to be admired from this angle as well.


Finally we planted and watered the plants into the bed.

Planted Sunny Flower Bed

Finishing Touches

To help keep moisture in the soil for the new plants and block sunlight from the thistles more than likely beneath surface, we mulched the bed. Cypress mulch was applied 3 inches thick throughout, even under the stepping stones. Here is the finished bed from the backyard.


And here it is from the sidewalk. 082315-layoutmulchedfence

It was really, really, REALLY hard for me not to place the plants closer together. However, I had learned it is better to allow the plants room to grow toward each other over the years rather than on top of each other during the second season.

Hopefully our winter is kind to the garden and all these transplants make it through to spring. In our Zone 6, if we plant by the end of summer, fall allows an adequate amount of time for the plants to settle in before the snow flies. I’m excited to see this bed next spring.