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The Planting of Streets and Avenues

The villages of New England, looking at their sylvan charms, are as beautiful as any in the world. Their architecture is simple and unpretending,—often, indeed, meager and unworthy of notice. The houses are surrounded by inclosures full of trees and shrubs, with space enough to afford comfort, and ornament enough to denote taste. But the main street of the village is an avenue of elms, positively delightful to behold. Always wide, the overreaching boughs form an aisle more grand and beautiful than that of any old Gothic cathedral.

— A. J. Downing.

We have already alluded to the treatment of streets, saying that streets and avenues, since they manifestly follow geometrical lines, demand a formal treatment. And this formality ought to go further than the mere alignment of the trees. It is still more important that the various trees should be of the same species and of the same age and uniformly developed. Not enough pains is commonly taken to secure these desiderata. One can easily satisfy himself by his own observations anywhere in the United States that, while street trees are nearly always planted in orderly rows, it is the somewhat rare exception to find a row of really good and uniform specimens. Such uniformity is not easy to secure, especially when its importance is not understood at the outset. The only advice which can be given is to exercise great care in planting and the utmost vigilance during the early years of development.

An explanation of frequent cases of unsatisfactory growth of young street trees is to be sought in the inadequate feeding given them. If they grow close to the street on one side and to a paved walk or row of buildings on the other, their roots must of course ramify for many feet underneath these surface obstructions. Aside from this the soil is apt to be of the poorest. It is hardly to be expected, in such circumstances, that a thrifty growth can be secured without something being done to offset these drawbacks. Liberal supplies of fertilizers, especially potash salts and nitrates, ought to be worked into the soil whenever the surface is accessible.

It is a good plan to set street trees rather close together in the beginning, and to thin them as they grow and begin to crowd. This plan, however, demands very conscientious attention to the thinning, for sometimes it is a matter of considerable heroism to cut out strong, thrifty trees along the avenue when they are only beginning to crowd their neighbors just a little. But any undue procrastination is sure to damage the survivors very seriously.

The distance between trees in the row will be influenced somewhat by the width of the street. In a wide street, where there is room enough for the full development of each tree, they will be planted farther apart. If the street is wide enough, the trees should always stand between the walk and the curb. It is wide enough if, from curb to curb, the width is one and a half times the distance recommended for the trees in the rows. On a narrower street, trees should stand between the walk and the buildings or should be dispensed with. There are many beautiful streets in this country which support four rows of trees. Such streets should have the central avenue twice as wide as the distance between trees in the row; and the distance between the two rows on either side should be somewhat less than that between trees.

If, now, we are seeking a formal effect in our rows of street trees, it follows that this effect will be emphasized by trees which naturally assume somewhat formal shapes. It will not do to press this point too far, but it should have careful thought. We have all seen strikingly beautiful rows of the very formal Lombardy poplar, and the effect of dignity given by an avenue of palms leaves an impression not to be forgotten.

The American elm was doubtless the commonest street tree in America. It had many undeniably good qualities to recommend it. The grounds about Harvard and Yale could not possibly spare their rows of elms, and there were hundreds of other streets in all parts of the country which would have been desolate indeed if all the elms had to go. And yet, even then, there were serious objections to the elm as a street tree, besides the fact that it was often defoliated by caterpillars of various species, as, indeed, are many other trees. The elm varied greatly in size and form, and it was almost impossible to find a long street of old elms which did not suffer from the sad lack of uniformity which this variability introduced. The elm was, also, one of the least formal of our trees, and so detracted from the unity of the geometrical idea in street planting. It would have been silly to advise planters to discard the elm altogether; but it would not have been too much to suggest that some other species should have been duly considered.

The maples are excellent street trees, especially the sugar maple, and many admirable examples of their effectiveness are to be found in the northern states. The sugar maple is a strong, healthy grower, with a regular, clear-cut outline, and has the advantage of a very tidy appearance through the winter months. In southwestern states the soft maple, or silver maple (Acer dasycarpum), takes the place of the sugar maple, but is not so good a tree.

The American sycamore is one of our finest street trees in many situations. Anyone who does not know how beautiful this species is should study the effects produced by it in Washington, especially in the magnificent avenues just west of the Capitol. The sycamore does not succeed north of Massachusetts and central New York, but for the greater part of the United States it is worth careful consideration.

Other species which are sometimes used with happy results are honey locust, Kentucky coffee tree, pines and spruces. There is a most striking and beautiful avenue of ginkgo trees in Washington leading to the Department of Agriculture; and there are some pretty rows of ailanthus about the Temple square in Salt Lake City. Occasionally one will find an avenue of oaks, and if it is a good one there are few trees more satisfactory. Poplars, especially the cottonwood, are used in the trans-Mississippi states, but they are usually a poor makeshift. It is always very gratifying to find a good street of trees of an unusual species, and this is a thing which the street makers might well hold in remembrance.

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