Monday, October 10, 2011

The Lies You Tell Your Trees

I have a big pine tree in my backyard. And a couple of small, ornamental crabapples. None of them belongs there. The pine, in fact, is sick and miserable. They're all products of the Big Lie.

As I learned from a botanist friend awhile back, the wooded land where I live was once open grassland sparsely dotted with trees. Then the farmers and townspeople came, turning the grasslands upside down, and felling the trees to build houses and shops. And then, because the land was made so barren, they planted trees. Thousands of trees, of countless species.

Strictly speaking, few of these transplants belong here.

Citizens of virtually every populated area of the country have worked hard at transforming Nature in some fashion. Water features and palm trees appear in desert neighborhoods. Trees by the millions are planted on the vast Great Plains. Wetlands are drained and replanted with species that don't like wet feet. Even the changes are changed, with pines and magnolias migrating to backyards that were once open prairie and then cultivated wheat fields before becoming housing developments.

And then, stinko weather happens.

A tree species grown in the same area where it originally evolved has adapted itself to the extreme-weather conditions common to its natural habitat. But species that come from elsewhere are, in effect, forced immigrants. They have no choice but to accept the Big Lie that says they can grow and thrive wherever we want them to.

Sometimes, it works. But more often than not, when extreme weather strikes, it is the non-native species that commonly suffer the most damage. The reasons are myriad. Perhaps they haven't developed strong branching habits better able to bear the weight of ice or high winds. Or they can't adapt to cyclic dry spells. Or their thin bark can't protect them from fast-moving wildfires.

So back when my friend told me about the open-grassland history of my property, I took myself straightaway to my local Conservation District office to find out more about this. There, I was given a local "Soil Survey," which contains aerial maps, an overview of development of the area, a rundown of soil types and plant communities...well, you get the picture: lots of important stuff about my tiny piece of the world. The friendly folks at the CD also gifted me with a copy of the "Ecological Site Description," which told me about the original state of my soil district.

(If you haven't visited your local Conservation District office, do so and report back here. To find the closest one, hop over to the USDA website at and click on "NRCS State Offices.")

Thanks to those two documents, I now know what trees and other plants grow naturally in my area. I know what my soil should be like, though development over the past century-plus has changed it. With an accurate awareness of the past, I can develop soil and planting strategies that can bring my landscape better in line with its ecological history, which will populate it with plants that are naturally more weatherproof.

After all, trees are remarkable works of Nature, evolved over thousands of years. Why wouldn't I want to take advantage of all that hard work by planting trees that are native to my locale?

Believe me, personal experience is the best teacher—and it taught me that the Big Lie will always come back to bite. Several years ago, we lost most of our "immigrant" trees to a catastrophic ice storm. Most native trees made it through the storm with survivable damage. Lesson learned

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