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A Lament—and a Lesson—on The Butchered Trees Facing The Bank of America

What's more important to the community—green trees or clear signs?

These are lean times not just for individuals but for governments as well. Personnel and the services they perform are being cut. Citizens are forced to fend for themselves.

Not all of this is a bad thing. We get a bit more exercise sweeping up our own streets and take a more proprietary interest in the community around us.

Sometimes, however, citizen action harms the community.

A case in point is the recent work done on the London Plane trees in front of the building on Colorado Boulevard, just a stone’s throw from the iconic .

In a way, the poor quality of work performed on the hapless London Plane is a godsend for this column—it gives its author an opportunity for what is called “a teachable moment.” True, the tree suffers, along with its admirers and those who were shaded by it. But its butchery does allow for a conversation about the proper trimming of trees—especially street trees—as well as the role of the public in this delicate matter.

So, what’s wrong with the work done on the London Plane by the Bank of America?

First of all, it was performed at the wrong time of the year. Spring is perhaps the worst time of year for tree pruning. That’s because a given plant is pushing growth at the very time pruning tries to limit it. Moreover, the energy the tree would have put into new growth is spent instead on sealing the wounds inflicted by pruning.

The pruning process itself, regardless of season, stimulates growth. And the more severely a tree is pruned the more growth is stimulated. Everyone has seen trees that have been topped and turned into poles. The unfortunate result is a great deal of wild growth as the tree protects itself.

The trees by the Bank of America were also topped—one of the cardinal sins of the trade. Trees do not heal themselves the way animals do; they seal off the wounded area encapsulating any rot that might develop in that wound. When a tree is topped, it has no anatomical defense against rot traveling down the main trunk into the heart of the tree.

The combination of the season and the severity of the pruning is one of the things that makes the Bank of America job so bad.

Good tree trimming mandates that no more than 30 percent of the leaf coverage be removed from the tree at any given time. Experienced professionals tend to take fewer branches because they know which ones are critical to the tree’s health and which ones should be removed to the tree’s benefit.

My final objection to the work done in front of the Bank of America is the style with which it was done. My first response on seeing it was, “What the—?” There was no attempt to address the natural symmetry of the tree, no attempt to balance the look of the tree.

Merchants along Colorado Boulevard have expressed frustration with trees that block their signs. It is not certain that signage was the motivation for the defoliation of the trees in front of the Bank of America, but it is difficult to imagine any other reason for such a radical bit of tree surgery.

When contacted, a spokesperson for the Bank of America declined to comment for this article.

The Urban Forestry Division in the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks was also contacted to determine if permits had been issued for this job and whether a follow-up inspection had been performed.

An Urban Forestry Division spokesperson, who did not wish to be identified by name, said that a permit had been issued and an inspection performed on the botched Bank of America job.  The inspection revealed that “the trees were over-trimmed,” the spokesperson went on to say. “But not bad enough to require their removal.”

Surely this is one of those cases in which the fact that it could have been worse just isn’t comforting.

“It’s a Catch-22,” the forestry source said. “The City does not have the money to trim all the trees that need work, so they [merchants and citizens] are helping us out—but then they over-trim the trees.” 

The source added that there had been other comments and complaints about the Bank of America job and that a letter would be sent to the bank branch, cautioning it against such work in the future.

We live in an era in which government services are limited and citizens have to take greater personal responsibility for matters that used to be handled by the government.

It seems, though, that taking this responsibility entails more than a casual approach to such work. Chopping away willy-nilly at a tree is not the same as pruning it.

Finally, this article is not an attempt to pick on the Bank of America, although as one of the largest corporations in the world it will probably survive this piece. There are worse tree jobs to be found right here in Eagle Rock. A photo of a horribly pruned elm tree on Townsend Avenue is included with this article.

These trees belong to all of us. They give us shade and beauty. Doing poor quality work reflects not just on the business or resident next to the tree—it reflects poorly on our community as a whole.

The City of Los Angeles provides tree-pruning guidelines online here.  Application for permits to prune street trees can be found here. Please know that the City of Los Angeles as well as citizens concerned about public property will inspect the work done.

Full disclosure: This writer was for many years a tree trimmer and has very definite opinions about the pruning of trees. He shares these opinions with the City of Los Angeles and the International Society of Arboriculture. Further, the author was involved in the original planting of the Bank of America trees as a volunteer with Northeast Trees. Finally, the writer has been a customer of the Bank of America for the past several decades and hates to see the money paid in fees wasted on bad work.

Mike Woodward May 26, 2011 at 11:46 PM
Hi Valerie, Rule of thumb on tree trimming is that good tree work goes unseen. Generally good tree trimmers look to take no more than twenty to thirty percent of the leaf coverage at any given time. Trees are not topped and branches are not stubbed off. There is more to it than that, but those are the basics. Perhaps an article on the whys and wherefores of arboriculture is in order. Mike
Haruki May 26, 2011 at 11:53 PM
Thank you for this Mike. Healthy street trees are so important to the quality of urban life. It is always a little depressing for me when I come back to Los Angeles from Japan where their street trees are treated with such care and so many of ours are just hacked at. Do you have a contact name at the Bank of America? I have banked with them for at least 20 years and I would like to send them a letter expressing my disgust with what they have done to our trees. I've been meaning to also write them a letter about how lax they are in graffiti removal. They just let the graffiti build up at that location. I've had to report the graffiti to the city for clean up many many times.
JenniferT May 27, 2011 at 06:38 PM
Thank you for this -- there are a hundred examples in Eagle Rock that would break an arborist's heart. People seem unaware of the fact that there's an art and a science to tree care and trimming. The trees and shrubs along the offramp side of the Colorado Blvd. on/off ramp to the 134 have just gotten similarly careless treatment -- have saw, will cut. They seem to think that's all there is too it. How are people this insensitive to the natural shape of a tree's canopy?
Mike Woodward May 28, 2011 at 04:10 PM
Hi Haruki, I don't have a contact name at the B of A. I went in person to talk with the manager, whose first name is Sosy, but when she declined to comment I did not get the last name. I have been with the B of A for a long time as well and one of the things that I resent about this tree work is that the fees and interest I've paid over the years went to pay for it. Mike
Mike Woodward May 28, 2011 at 04:16 PM
Hi Jennifer, I have often said that I can teach anyone the proper methods as well as the reasoning behind good tree trimming in a couple of hours. I don't know how to teach an aesthetic sense. Still, if you follow the principles of arboriculture, it's not hard to do a good job. Tree trimming is one of those places where less is more. The longer I did the work, the less I took off the trees. It's not how many branches you remove, it's which ones. Mike

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