God may make them, but city-dwellers need to help water trees

SATURDAY'S HERO

July 25, 1992|By ROB KASPER

When the call went out from city arborist Jim Dicker to water street trees, I responded with a trickle.

The combination of an unusually wet spring and a dry midsummer has left trees with lots of foliage but not enough moisture to support the new growth, Dicker said.

As the city's tree doctor he recommended a twice a week dose of 10 gallons of water taken very slowly. He even had a suggested way to administer the dose.

Take two empty 5-gallon plastic buckets, he said, the kind that building materials often come in. Wash the buckets out, and put a few very small holes, no bigger than 1/8 inch in diameter in the bottom. Then fill the buckets with water and place them at the base of the tree. Let the water seep into the ground.

Despite the rainfall that came late in the week, the trees still need their shot of 10 gallons of water twice a week, Dicker said. The surface of the ground may be wet, but tree-planting crews found 6 inches down from the surface, the earth was still dry.

Instead of a bucket I used a hose. One of the oddities of rowhouse living is watering the trees in the front of your house from a hose that runs out of the front basement window. It makes watering a tree look like a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie.

It begins with me pushing the hose through a 2-inch hole in a grate covering the front basement window. As the hose hits the front sidewalk, it curls and lurches startling any passers-by. I turn the water on at a basement spigot, and run up a set of stairs, down the front hallway and out the front door. I carry a sprinkler that won't fit through the hole in the basement window.

I put the sprinkler on the hose with the water running. To put the sprinkler on a "live" hose and not get wet you have to treat the hose like a mean snake. You hold the hose a respectful distance from your body, spin the sprinkler on the coupling, and jump any time a stream of water makes a move in your direction.

Once the sprinkler is subdued, I plop it down in the corner of the tree well and watch the water trickle out of it. Like many sprinklers, I seek the artful trickle. This is the happy state when the water bubbles out of the sprinkler at a pace that is neither too strong -- sending water running into the street -- nor too weak, making the job last forever.

The quest for the artful trickle is difficult, especially when your sprinkler is in front of your house, and the faucet that controls it is in your basement. But it is a noble endeavor. Sometimes when the sprinkler is trickling just right, I sit on the front steps and watch the sprinkler water the tree.

The tree is a Sophora japonica, or Japanese pagoda tree, one of a handful of trees that grow well in the 4-foot-by-4-foot squares of earth that sit next to city streets. The tree has withstood the usual urban assaults. It has been clipped by moving vans that parked on the sidewalk. Its branches have been battered by buses. One of its larger limbs was snapped off one morning by a large backhoe ripping up the street.

The tree still has the scar, but it is thriving. A Linden tree next

door that I also water is doing well, too. But a maple up the street that I water is dying. It appears to be dying of old age, losing limbs and leaves at a steady pace. I remember the dramatic demise of another maple down the street. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon the top half of the tree simply snapped off and came crashing to the street. Philosophy students may debate whether if a tree falls in a forest anyone hears it. But I can tell you that when a tree falls on a city street, it draws a crowd.

Eventually that old maple was pulled out and turned to mulch. A red maple sapling has been planted in its place. The other night I walked across the street and asked some neighbors who were watering the sapling about the new tree on the block. They reported the red maple was a good street tree, hardy, fast growing, with good color.

Dicker also gave the red maple good marks when I talked with him. The arborist spoke well of several street trees. The Zelkova, he said, has a lovely vase shape, similar but shorter than the tall but disease-ridden American elm. A good stand of Zelkovas can been seen on Gwynns Falls Parkway, he said. A new elm, a Liberty elm, is also in town and can be seen growing on Wabash Avenue, he said.

I have read that shade from city trees may cool city temperatures by 1 or 2 degrees, that they soak up water pollutants from the streets and cut down on smog by reducing the high temperatures that create haze.

I am happy to know this information about the practical benefits of growing trees. But I admit that I have a real weakness for tree aesthetics. I am a sucker for the sway of their leaves, the curve of their branches and, of course, for the trickle of their sprinklers.

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