June 4, 2010

Big Purple Trees

Acer platanoides 'Crimson King'

I don't know where to start.  There is so much that distresses me about this tree, about the way it was put in, and about how our whole community will look in a few years time.

Our town zoning requires two trees to be planted in every front yard when a new house or development goes in.  How progressive!  This is a town that is very aware of preserving its wetlands, controlling building growth, and using land in the best possible way.  Did I mention our town property taxes are very high?

So when our 70 home development was created in 2004, the builder complied, and had two shade trees... 140 total ... installed in every front yard.  These are lovely large homes, with beautiful surrounding natural areas, but it's a suburban development.  House lots are only 60 to 100 feet wide.  That's two trees per yard, every 30 to 50 feet.  Without question this will be a shady enclave in no time.  Very shady.

And what was planted?  Crimson King Norway maples.  No variation, no mix of trees, just row upon row, street upon street, of deepest dark maroon foliage, lined up to eventually become a forbidding, impenetrable rampart.

Norway maples have huge leaves, and they create very dense shade that eliminates grass or anything else growing under them.  They are way too large for residential landscapes; they're golf course or estate park trees.  Roots are shallow and they buckle sidewalks and driveways.  They seed freely and invade our natural woods.  And this variety is purple verging on black.  Fall color is a queasy brown-maroon that looks drought stricken.

You couldn't pick a more inappropriate tree for a densely built development, and we got hundreds of them.

There's perverse good news, though.  The landscaper who was contracted by the builder knew nothing about plants (he's a very nice local guy who loves his big machines and has a good business blowing grass clippings into the street).  He planted every one of these Crimson King maples far too deep, with the top of the root ball about 12 inches below the soil line, still completely bound in its metal cage and tightly wrapped burlap.  He then piled mulch volcanoes up around the trunks.  He was only contracted to plant, not water or tend them.  They were installed in mid summer.

They started dying off.  One by one, over that first year and the following two years they declined.  Some homes lost both maples, some lost only one.  Gaps began to form in the maroon wall lining our community streets.  None were replaced with the same tree.  Instead, other inappropriate trees were planted by the homeowners ... sugar maples (too big) and Bradford pears (well, at least they're pretty), and at the top of the hill, built later as a last phase, the landscaper put in sycamores instead (still way too big) after seeing how poorly the Norway maples were faring.  The unbroken line of maroon monsters was cracked.

To be fair, the town's requirement, seemingly so eco-friendly, is part of the problem, when you consider you must put two shade trees in, and all you have to work with is a small front lawn, and sometimes it's wet, or low lying, or simply unsuitable for a shade tree ... but plant you must, two trees per lot.
(In a side note, the landscaper, who really is a personable and nice guy, said "we leave the burlap and metal cages on when we plant because it's so much easier to pull them out when they die".  I know there are differing opinions about planting balled and burlapped trees with or without their wrappings, but his logic kind of stunned me.)

We lost one of our two, and replaced it with a linden, but the other Crimson King planted by our driveway thrives for some reason.  It was planted so far below grade that it sits in its metal cage inside a deep little well, but it lives.  It is next to our neighbor's remaining smaller, struggling Norway maple. 
Right now the color is a nice accent and the trees are a small size.  But come back in a few years......

They'll mature to something like this, dense and big and purple.  And even though only about half of them are left throughout the neighborhood, I fear it will make our streets gloomy and dark with patchy no-grow zones in the deep shade below each one.
Photo from Dave's Garden forum

And yet, I haven't removed the one that remains at the foot of my driveway.  Would you?


  1. "we leave the burlap and metal cages on when we plant because it's so much easier to pull them out when they die" -- ok this made me laugh.

    You have a much more generous view of human nature than I do.

    What's silly is that -- at least for this climate -- there are trees that can go into low-lying areas and not even get big.

    I guess a little imagination is way too much to ask for when dealing with builders. (You must excuse me, I am extremely jaded from having lived in Johnston County, NC.)

    I must congratulate you on the death of those trees though!

  2. One of those here and there is ok. I like the look of them but two in one garden is one too many. If you want a different tree you could remove it. If you don't have anything in mind you can leave it until something else catches your eye. I figured you were going to say the contractor got a good deal on a lot of these trees. It is like trying to sell a home. You hate to put in good flooring because the next occupant will want to change it. So it goes.

  3. No doubt the contractor had no idea what he was doing, but he must have liked that tree! I can't imagine an entire neighborhood filled with them. I was horrified at the ignorance, but I had a good chuckle over the landscaper leaving the wire cage and burlap because that made it easier to pull them out when they died!

  4. Hi Laurrie: It's too bad the city doesn't provide guidelines on which trees can be planted. (And have someone follow up to see if the developer knows how to plant them.) :)

    I would take it out for all the reasons you mentioned, and for this reason: http://communities.canada.com/calgaryherald/blogs/gardenbuzz/archive/2010/05/07/friday-may-7-2010-upended-when-trees-lie-down.aspx

    We had to take a tree out on this property when we moved in because it was planted 4 ft right in front of a window and was going to get a whole lot bigger. When we took it out we discovered it was still caged and burlaped - a cruel thing to do to a tree, really. Your nice guy developer didn't know any better and that's a shame.

  5. Sweet bay, I don't think I've ever been congratulated on the death of trees, but in this case it's appropriate. Thanks for your outrage!

    Lisa, I agree that one big purple Norway maple is ok, but you really have to see the scope of what we have here, even with half of them dead.... yikes.

    Deborah, I think the landscaper got a good price deal, Norway maples must be cheap. They propagate easily (they're invasive here in CT), so growers must offer them at lower cost.

    Garden Ms. S, That link of the fallen tree with its tiny root ball was disturbing. I still don't understand why improper planting is so pervasive when info on how to plant is so available and so easy to do. sigh.

  6. I wouldn't feel bad about taking your remaining maple out, and planting something a lot more fitting. Your neighbourhood may being going to hell in a treebasket, but you don't have to let your property share the shady fate. Do it now, while the tree is still relatively small. I can't believe that guy actually said that. My jaw would be on the ground if I heard that...

  7. What a bizarre story! At first I was going to ask if there was any way you could keep your tree trimmed to a smaller size Laurrie, but then I imagined the big purple line of sun blocking trees all along your street. I think you'll want respite from that scene in the future, so maybe it's time for that poor ill fated tree to get mulched :(

  8. That's a very interesting story. It could be titled, "Good Intentions Run Amok" or something like that. I would write or email the commissioners responsible for this and suggest, as another person responding said, they come up with a list of suitable trees.

    I had a Norway maple on my property cut down around the time I dug up most of the barberries. I instructed the tree guy to leave a snag about 20 feet high (for woodpeckers). My neighbors wondered, I'm sure, why the heck I left that there, but unlike you, I don't live in a subdivision bound by rules, plus it was in my backyard.

  9. Kyna, the tree is still small, so I could take it out.... and I do have so many possibilities in mind to replant. Hmmm

    Heidi, I'm increasingly thinking of letting the Norway maple go.

    Fern, I agree: good intentions run totally amok!!

  10. I prefer to think of this as good intentions run a-maple.

    I would pull the remaining one out before it gets too large. I would also plant something non-maple. Sounds like you have enough elsewhere in the neighborhood.

    Just because someone is able to plant plants doesn't mean they know what they are doing. The term landscaper seems to cover far too many levels of 'expertise' right now. Your neighborhood appears to be a good example of this fact.

    Love your tale.

  11. Joene, "Landscaper" is almost a negative title now. People who know plants seem to prefer Garden Designer or Plantsman. (Our neighborhood really has run a-maple. Love the term!)

  12. Our 'burb has similarly good intentions, but the city plants the trees. Our 100X100 foot corner lot has 3 city trees on the parking strip on the west side, one on the SW corner, and two on the south side. (We had three trees on the south side, but a passing motorist jumped the curb and hit the tree when it was still a sapling.) The two on the south side, a linden and an ash, were planted all of 8 feet apart at the base (I've measured).

    I detest the linden tree: it throws deep shade over much of my garden, sucks water, is messy, and looks terrible because passing trucks knock off the branches. When I called the city to see if I could remove it -- at my expense -- to give the rare ash breathing room (and, of course, cast less shade on my garden), the city refused. They admitted that the trees were inappropriately spaced, but said that the city needed the trees to make the street beautiful. What is my garden, then, chopped liver?

    Enough of the rant. Love your blog, Laurrie!


  13. Kim, Ah, the frustrations of dealing with city hall. Your story is a classic I'm afraid. Lindens can be beautiful trees but not crammed into the wrong space and hovering over a suburban garden.

  14. Fall color is a queasy brown-maroon that looks drought stricken.
    Ha! That cracked me up! Very descriptive...!


Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.