Opinion: Village matters

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Too Late Smart

I was hoping I was wrong. Maybe that beautiful coast live oak tree in our neighborhood would survive a new owner who did everything not recommended for keeping that tree healthy.

We often saw the previous owner on our walks. He was a retired antiques dealer who had fascinating garage sales of all the pottery, paintings and other collectibles that hadn’t sold before. Some are now in my array of treasures. The beautiful oak provided a dark green canopy over the driveway and the main entrance to the house. There were a couple of cracks in the concrete driveway. “Should I take that paving out and put in a new driveway?” he wondered. “No,” I advised. “Don’t do anything to change where the oak is growing. It’s doing well now, and they are so sensitive. Repaving the driveway could really harm its roots.”

He left it as it was, and the oak continued to thrive. But he put the house up for sale, and the first thing the new owner did was to repave the driveway. I shuddered as I walked by and saw the dirt exposed and the concrete already gone. The workers thought they were doing such a good job. A pile of cut roots was off to the side, and they were compacting the soil. Some trees might be able to tolerate that, but not coast live oaks. An arborist explained to me that their branches and root systems work together. The branches are designed to spread out and balance the tree and shelter the roots. The branches even touch the ground and support the tree when they are growing in the wild. The root system is a network close to the surface that collects the moisture that drips from the canopy. Disturb that network of roots, and the tree is cut off from its water and nutrients.

The project has made for a very smooth driveway that will last a long time, but it was a death sentence for that beautiful tree. I left a brochure on the proper care of oaks, but it seems to have gone unheeded. The next disturbance was to the remaining planting area around the tree–irrigation was installed and ornamental plants were dug in. More damage to the roots, and of course, watering this tree, which is adapted to hot, dry summers, is just a way to promote oak root fungus. The new owners must have liked the tree because there’s a swing installed from one branch, and the trunk is wrapped in holiday lights. But they didn’t realize those things were not the way to show their appreciation. Now, the tree is dead.

Lest I sound too preachy, I have to own up to having presided over the death of nearly all the mature trees in my own yard. Even though I tried to keep irrigation away from the native Toyon, adding watering where there had been none before contributed to oak root fungus.

The Toyon was the first to go. Once that fungus got started, it took the Olive and eventually the Cedar. Fill produced when the utilities were undergrounded was piled around the trunk of the Avocado. I didn’t notice it. That tree died, too. There are so many things to do wrong, and it takes way too long to learn.

Now we’ve discovered a new way to harm trees—put in artificial turf. That plastic grass is not just a carpet laid on the surface of the ground; there’s the preparation of the subgrade.

First, we must kill the existing lawn with Roundup—maybe two to three applications. Then, excavate and remove two to three inches of existing soil and tree roots. A new sub-base of granular material is installed and on top of that is a “weed blanket”, a fabric with herbicides embedded in it. It’s only then that the green imitation turf is installed. Now that any trees surrounding the area have had their roots damaged, they get to suffer the change in the horticultural environment—no watering at all and dealing with the leaching herbicides from the weed blanket.

Guess what? We start to see stress in the leaves and a decline in the health of the trees. It turns out that that’s what may have happened to the Eucalyptus tree at the roundabout at El Camino del Mar. Here’s what the consulting arborist pointed out in their report to City Council on Tuesday.

“We were also informed that in 2021, the owners of the home at 387 El Camino del Mar removed the living grass in their front yard and replaced it with artificial turf, which likely led to the loss of numerous surface feeder roots during the grading activities necessary for the turf installation.”

We hope the damage is not significant enough to warrant cutting down the tree. The council will decide, with the evaluation of arborists to guide them. For now, it has a temporary reprieve because of the canceled council meeting on Tuesday night. Removing that lemon-scented gum would be another human-caused loss of life and beauty, another unnecessary sadness.

Ann is a landscape architect and was Laguna Beach’s mayor from 1993 to 1994. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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