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In Praise of Shade

This is our first blog post by Betsy Dudash, a recent transplant from the Midwest. A self-described plant nut, she is a landscape horticulturist and designer and Wenatchee Naturalist-in-training. Betsy reached out to me after hearing my presentation at the Our Valley, Our Future event in August and wanted to get involved with Sustainable Wenatchee because she's a passionate environmentalist.

As you'll read below, Betsy gets irked by shade trees that have been so over-pruned that they no longer even provide shade. We all have these things that just get to us! For me, it's idling vehicles. At my daughter's preschool parking lot, sitting in drive-thru lines, cars started far too early than necessary... it drives me nuts! What's your "eco-pet peeve?" - Jana


In the heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer, I would drive from a client’s house in Indianapolis back home to my little house in the woods. As I got closer to home, after pulling off the highway and entering the forest that covered my hill, I would watch the temperature on my Jeep’s thermometer fall—5, 7, sometimes 10 degrees by the time I pulled into the driveway.

Thousands of trees were responsible for this cooling effect, of course. The asphalt and concrete that cover cities make them hotter than rural areas. Green spaces, like parks and lawns, help cool them down, and shade trees can make a measurable difference. Over time, newly-planted trees will transform a housing development into a real neighborhood with shady streets where pedestrians and cyclists and animals find refuge from the blistering sun. Mature shade trees create their own microclimates that are cooler than surrounding areas in the summer and protect plants from summer sun. Shade also reduces the need for irrigation, which is especially important in an arid climate.

Shade trees also play an important role in providing oases of cool shade in blistering-hot parking lots. Landscape architects and site planners carefully design planting islands to provide enough room for selected species to thrive and provide shade for decades. I for one always look for a nice shady spot (preferably near a cart corral!) when I’m out running errands in hot weather.

So, imagine my surprise when I noticed, soon after moving to the area three months ago, that the shade trees that had been planted in some parking lots were being systematically butchered. No, butchered isn’t too strong a word for what I’ve seen. The trees in question are honeylocusts, a popular species for parking lots because they provide dappled shade, are tolerant of urban conditions, and have tiny leaflets that don’t have to be raked or vacuumed up—they just shrivel up and blow away! In general, shade trees require very little pruning. The lower limbs should be pruned off when they’re young, to 6 ft. or a bit higher to allow for foot or vehicular traffic. Aside from that, pruning is generally only needed to remove dead, damaged, or crossing limbs, but the honeylocusts I’m talking about have had all of their limbs chopped back so much that they don’t provide any shade at all. In fact, trees that should almost never be pruned appear to have been cut twice in three months. The photos compare a poorly pruned honeylocust with one that’s been allowed to mature gracefully.

An overly pruned honeylocust compared to one that’s been

allowed to grow without unnecessary pruning.

At this point I can hear you wondering, “What does this have to do with me?” If you are a homeowner, a business owner, or a property manager, please be sure to educate yourself before hiring someone to take care of the trees in your care. You can search for proper pruning techniques in a book or online, call the local WSU extension office for advice, or hire a certified arborist or a reputable company that provides references. Well-maintained shade trees add beauty and value to a property; trees that have been improperly maintained do not, and they can end up costing you money if they have to be replaced.

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