Magazine article American Forests

Vestpocket Forests ... in Unusual Places

Magazine article American Forests

Vestpocket Forests ... in Unusual Places

Article excerpt

Urban trees can be found high and low in penthouse terraces, postage-stamp gardens, even alleys.

Before I began living aboard a sailboat on the Potomac river, I owned a condominium in a high-rise apartment building, the Richmond, six blocks from the White House. Flanking the building's entrance is a pair of junipers, now four feet tall, growing in concrete planters. One day, word spread that the Richmond's building manager, John Blizzard, had discovered a sparrow's nest tucked deep in the foliage of one of the trees.

"I didn't realize the chicks were there until I went to trim the branches," Blizzard recalls. "Those sparrows are industrious creatures, and they have an ideal camouflaged spot. The first year, they raised three broods. This year they moved to the other juniper, and so far they've had two broods."

When Blizzard planted the trees four years ago, he was told to purchase poodle-cut junipers. The trees have a tuft of branches toward the crown, then a section of trunk pruned bare, then another tuft of greenery. Those two junipers are card-carrying members of the urban forest, even though they don't provide the same level of benefits that more traditional trees do. Urban forest trees are doing their part to shelter wildlife, sequester carbon dioxide, scrub pollutants from the air, and soften the streetscape with soothing green.

Fig trees, cherries, honey locusts, ornamental pears, Indian hawthorns, Japanese yew pines, palms, European olives, crape-myrtles - almost any species can be found in cities, depending on the local climate. These miniature urban forests can be created next to pots of geraniums on the balconies of high-rise apartment buildings, alongside wisteria on penthouse terraces, next to morning glories along the edges of rooftop gardens above banks and restaurants, and, down at street level, in postage-stamp-sized gardens in front of or behind townhouses, and in back alleys transformed into pedestrian promenades.

There are many ways to bring trees into the urban environment - some more successful than others - depending on available space, water, drainage, structural integrity of the building, and microclimatic conditions. Potted trees are usually the least successful because of limited space for root growth.

Why do people plant trees and gardens in such unconventional places? One reason is to utilize land that can't be developed. In San Francisco, for example, many alleys and stairways are too steep for building streets but are perfect for planting.

But most importantly, these city gardens satisfy the need for a natural environment. In any area where buildings and concrete dominate, these small patches of green go a long way in providing city dwellers with a link to nature.

The urban forest has even sprouted at the marina I now call home. My neighbors on houseboats find that the decks fore and aft are ideal sunny places for growing flowers, herbs, tomatoes, leaf lettuce, and an occasional juniper or dwarf pine. Liveaboards Betty and Jerry Wesley place their prize hibiscus - a shrub on its way to becoming a tree - on the starboard side to help balance their 57-foot houseboat, which has a tendency to list to port. During a visit, they offered me a wild strawberry from one of their planters. In a pot next to the strawberries were chives they clip to dress up their scrambled eggs for Sunday brunch.

Sherry O'Connor, another boating gardener, asks, "Why should I bother about all that fertilizing and weeding? One reason is that if you grow it yourself, it tastes better."

Blizzard has his own postage-stamp garden at the house he rents, and the Richmond's residents appreciate the fresh flowers he places in the lobby every day. His garden, which has raised planting beds and an underground irrigation system, is less than one-fourth the size of a tennis court. He has a fig tree espaliered (trained to grow flat) against a south-facing brick wall, and radiant heat from the wall keeps the tree so hardy and vigorous that it produces hundreds of figs every year. …

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