The car was invented 135 years ago, and all that time we have needed a place to put them when we run into the grocery or the bank. Trouble is, we discovered that early on that parking lots are inherently ugly, gray, bleak, depressing, hard, dirty, blazing-hot-in-summer, bitterly-cold-in winter, soul-sucking, wind-swept plains of human misery. To mitigate this, some time ago, people began planting trees in them.
Was this a good idea? Sure. Why not? Everyone loves trees. They’re wonderful. They’re pretty to look at, and, among a zillion other things, they shade our cars, clean our air and water, mitigate stormwater runoff, provide for wildlife, and sequester carbon. Socially, they support our well-being, create a feeling of community, and, believe it or not, they even make us behave better. That’s the power they have, and all because they connect us urbanized, home-to-Starbuck’s-to-office-and-back-again hominids, albeit briefly, to our long-ago, natural, better selves.
A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago found that city dwellers with just ten trees on their block reported a quality of living $10,000 richer and seven years younger than those without trees on their block. (Like the Lorax’s neighbors had stars upon thars). If ten trees along a street can do that, then why not put them in parking lots? We should. Problem is we’ve been doing it dumb, almost always, since the beginning.
This has been the trees in parking lot instruction manual has looked forever:
- Make the lot two times bigger than the most frothing-at-the-mouth, giant ass Black Friday mob could ever possibly need.
- Chisel into this lot the smallest planting spaces possible.
- Carefully locate these planting beds where trucks are sure to run over them, and where people are all but forced to compact the soil by walking through them.
- Don’t improve the soil. Plant trees directly into post-construction, subsoil, liberally infused with high pH concrete leach, and then later with salt, oil, anti-freeze, and other unimaginable pollutants.
- Be sure to choose a poorly suited tree species because you don’t know there’s a difference or simply because it’s a favorite of the developer’s oldest daughter
- Choose not to install irrigation. Or, if it breaks when a truck runs over it, choose not to fix it. Or, better yet, forget to turn it on in the spring.
- By all means, hire the least qualified mow and blow landscape wrecking crew to wound the trunks with string trimmers and volcano mulch halfway up the tree.
- Allow snow removal contractors to encase your trees and other landscaping in sarcophaguses of grimy, salty, snow and ice five or six times every winter.
Over many years of diligently following these practices, the results are remarkably consistent:
- No tree ever looks as good as the day it went in the ground.
- Every visit to Verizon or Great Clips from that day on, is made worse by seeing the trees struggling to survive.
- By and by, mercifully, one by one, the trees goes to that great forest in the sky.
- When they do, they are at some expense replaced. Invariably with the same unsuitable species that had just demonstrated no sense of humor about trying to live in that place.
- The replacement trees are then planted too deep and mulched too high.
I apologize for the dark and cynical tone here, but seeing this over and over again is driving me nuts! Each of the millions of times this cycle has been repeated, all the time, money, and effort invested yielded nary any of the many potential benefits of trees. Just as bad, maybe even worse, in this time when it is more and more important for all homeowners and landowners to raise their horticultural game for the sake of ourselves and our planet, the typical person’s daily exposure to cultivated plants are these abysmal, failing, ugly, parking lot plantings, brought to them, supposedly, by people who should know and do better. What message does that send?
And this has been going on for the entirety of my long, strange, trip of my 59 & 1/2 year life.
My friend, Dr. Tom Kimmerer, from the University of Kentucky, heard me voice frustration over this at a recent presentation, and, riffing on an old comedy routine by Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke, said, “Have we learned from our mistakes?” “Yes, and we’re repeating them exactly.”
It’s time to get it together and stop the dumb!
I would suggest we start by re-accessing what we really want from our parking lot plantings and commit to making them succeed. Do we want shade? If so, without exception create much larger planting beds and use species suitable for these sites. If that’s not an option, forget trees and put up solar panels. They shade just as well and are also quite clever with what they do with sunlight. Do we want biomass? If so, plant these beds with grasses, bamboo, suckering shrubs like sumac, or other plants that will respond to foot traffic, trucks, and other abuse by sending up new shoots. Or, take the sum total square footage of fifty tiny beds and make one central big one and plant a grove of suitable trees.
There are other answers too. Some easier and cheaper. Others more expensive and difficult. But solutions like these won’t see the light of day as long as people who don’t know the basics of horticulture and arboriculture are making the decisions. Gardeners, other generally sensible citizens who care, and, especially, certified, knowledgeable green industry professionals need to demand better. Go to council meetings or zoning meetings and make your voice heard. Landscape architects and quality landscaping companies should refuse to do work they know is destined to fail, or at the very least, lose the argument swinging. It is in no one’s interest—from the developer’s to the shopper’s—to continually invest in repeated failure. Especially when the benefits of doing it right are so great.