Volume 79, Number 26 | December 2 - 8 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Villager photo by Sharon Woolums

Planting trees in sunken pits like this isn’t fair to the root flares, according to a tree specialist.

The root of the matter at Washington Square Park

By Sharon Woolums

Two down and six to go. Those Zelkova elms around the — “Tsk Tsk” — Tisch Fountain of the new Washington Square Park may go the way of the two recently replaced that didn’t make the transplant — a very expensive proposition. Chopping down trees costs mucho dinero and even more to transplant. I found out this and more after a walking tour in early September with a tree expert, Richard Hawthorne of Hawthorne Bros. Tree Service, Inc., of Bedford Hills, N.Y. He said it costs $3,000 to 4,000 for replacement of a tree that size and $1,500 for removal of the tree. Prices would be much higher with the installation of walls and drains. He marveled that any of these trees survived this long for any number of reasons:

First, the tree pits they were planted in were a huge mistake because there appears to be no drainage capability! Hawthorne surmised it was a design detail that won, over advice from any certified arborist.

“Instead of planting them in a pit,” Hawthorne explained, “they should have been planted at ground level with a small retaining wall built around them, the same diameter as the pits, preferably larger, making sure holes are built at the base of the walls to allow excess water to drain off. The walls would even offer a bench for people to sit on while listening to bluegrass music.”

I said, “Isn’t that what we used to have?”

Second, Hawthorne maintains that some of the trees around the fountain were not properly planted. Too much dirt was piled over the “root flair,” which Hawthorne maintains can smother and kill them. A tree bought in a nursery, balled or burlapped, has only 15 percent of its required root system: That’s why it’s so important to make sure they are planted correctly. The worst and most common mistake is planting a tree too deep. Healthy trees have root flair at ground level — not higher or lower — where you can see the trunk flair out. Too much dirt around the trunk predetermines a tree’s death at anywhere from a few months to a number of years. 

Hawthorne noticed the tips of all the trees around the fountain were “dying back,” an indication they are in the process of dying. The tips are the farthest from the feeder roots, meaning the tree does not have enough strength to send nutrients to the end of the branches, which are therefore the first to show the effects of stress. A profusion of sucker growth (small offshoots near a tree’s base), which Hawthorne noticed on all the fountain trees, is another indication of the same problem.

Also the bark of these trees had the telltale cracks in them — signs the trees are in an advanced state of decline. The buds of the trees were not healthy. And, of course, the bark and roots of a dying tree are more susceptible to being invaded by insects and disease than are healthy trees.

Hawthorne’s dire prediction is that the tree on the other side of the arch will die in another year and that all the newly planted trees in the pits will die within two years, depending on the weather.

With a large percentage of the population on meds these days, lack of shade this summer was a huge problem for them, due to their increased skin sensitivity. Never mind that sitting on the granite, mausoleum-style benches around the fountain was akin to putting yourself on the hot seat.

We have noticed the “clear-cutting” of the phase-two section of the park’s destruction. Peering through the construction fence, it is clear the character of our park has already been drastically altered by the absence of myriad gorgeous trees. We hope all manner of care will be taken to preserve the few trees we have left.

We do know that digging deep for the redesign’s wide new pathways is dangerous to trees. The cutting of buttress roots (roots closest to the tree) should be avoided, since this severely weakens the trees’ stability and limits the amount of nutrients they can absorb from the soil. A tree’s root system extends three times the length of the radius of the drip line (the tree’s outermost leaves), where roots have the freedom to grow without any constrictions or impediments.

Hawthorne noticed that stakes surrounding the new trees, placed there in order to stabilize them, are too tight around the trunks.

“These stakes, overused in recent years, in most cases are not needed,” he observed. “But if used, they should have slack in the wires, so the tree can have the normal movement it needs to form support roots to develop its own strength.”

Hawthorne was hoping the black locust with the burls would not be cut down, since it was not a threat to pedestrian traffic and is unusual, beautiful. A burl is a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk. You’ve seen that tree — gnarly and magnificent — a favorite — by the big playground. Sadly, I was told it was one of many that would be cut down for a redesign of a beloved park for which nobody I know had asked. Burls can be sold, though, as they are considered very valuable! This could perhaps defer a tiny fraction of the soaring costs this excessively expensive new design is incurring at a time when social services are being cut back all over the city.

Yet another concern for the trees is the massive dewatering that will be required for New York University’s new interfaith center being built on the park across from Judson Church. When the Kimmel Center and the Law School were built, many surmised that trees died as a result of the lowered water table; tons of water day in and day out were removed for a year, taken all together, to build the foundations.

The upshot of the efforts in 2001 of the Washington Square Environmental Committee — which I formed to address this issue and which I chaired — was that N.Y.U. did contribute $10,000 for deep feeding the trees and for extra care. Hopefully, that did help to save some of them. Many wonder, though, if the once-bubbling underground Minetta Creek has survived the assault.

The critics understood there is much more to a park redesign than meets the eye. “Cynics” think the Parks Department cares more about construction contracts than care of trees or concern for those folks who actually use the park. Even non-“cynics” have to wonder why the budget for the Parks Department allows much more dinero for capital projects than maintenance.

Woolums is a public member, Community Board 2 Parks Committee

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