“I’d love to garden, but I’ve got all these huge hackberries, see, and they shade everything…”
“Man, if I was going to put that acre into production, I’d have to get rid of all those laurel cherries and other trash trees…”
“We’ve got a gigantic oak in the middle of our front yard. It would be great to grow some fruit trees, but the sunlight is pretty thin…”
“Useless” trees are the ink smudge in the middle of many otherwise pristine gardening plans. I have relatives in Ft. Lauderdale who have multiple amazing live oak trees across their acre of land. The density of the canopy means that it’s very hard to more useful species anywhere in their yard. This is a shame, since South Florida has a year-round gardening climate that can support an incredibly diverse variety of tropical crops like cinnamon, star fruit, coffee, black pepper and even jackfruit.
Instead, the yard is filled with oaks. My mother-in-law loves the idea of growing fruit, but not the idea of taking out her mature (and beautiful) unproductive trees.
I think a lot of people fall into that category. It’s hard to kick.
After all, cutting down trees is RealSuperAwfulEvilBad, as we learned in school and in every single stupid kids show.
So, with that in mind, let me provide some options, starting with the simplest first.
1. Cut down your stupid worthless tree(s).
Yes, this is the easiest option. If a tree is hindering your ability to feed yourself, cut it down. Just make sure that it’s really a problem first. Mature trees, even non-edible ones, have some benefits we’ll get into later in this article. Sometimes it’s too easy to fire up the Stihl and go to town. That said, don’t be too fearful of taking one out. If you’ve weighed the options and found your gardening space wanting, do it. Just don’t let a tree company take away all the leftover chunks of tree. There’s a form of gardening called hugelkultur that is based on burying big chunks of wood. Look it up – it works well and keeps valuable biomass from going to waste.
2. Work around your stupid worthless tree(s).
This is another option. Sometimes having extra shade is a good thing, particularly in climates that have intense summers. By cutting a tree down, will you be turning that space into an oven, unprotected from the blazing sun? Can you use your tree as a shelter for tender plants such as lettuces? Near where I live there’s a farm that intercrops mustard and pecan trees. The mustard plants grow later in the season and can be harvested longer because they’re protected by shade. In a sunny location, they’d be gone a lot faster. Beyond the “sun protection” side of things, there’s also the cold to think about. Trees create microclimates that protect plants that are near them from the full force of a freezing night. Case in point: I planted two citrus trees. One was beneath the edge of an oak canopy, the other was out in the open. I forgot to cover them one frosty night. The one beneath the oak came through completely unscathed, whereas the other tree froze half-way to the ground. Microclimates are powerful things – that “worthless” tree may be useful to your yard’s environment in ways you don’t realize.
3. Let the stupid worthless tree(s) work for you
Trees do a lot of hard work. They add oxygen to the air, release moisture from the soil, help breezes form, and they produce a lot of compostable leaves. Those leaves contain minerals that your tree pulled from deep in the earth, below where your tomatoes and other annuals can reach. When they waft to the ground in Fall, they’re feeding and protecting the ground beneath. Are you raking them up and throwing them away? Don’t. And don’t burn them either. I hate to write that, because I love blazing leaf fires, but they’re better when turned into compost. Either let them lie on the ground in fall to feed the soil, or put them in a big “browns” bin next to your compost pile(s) so you can mix them in as you get “greens” from the kitchen and elsewhere. If you have an oak tree, you can feed the acorns to livestock, making the combined fall of leaves for the garden and acorns for the animals a pretty good pay-off for just letting that thing sit there.
4. Use the stupid worthless tree(s) as the start for a food forest plan
Plants and trees like to live in community. A nice big tree is a shelter for birds, animals and insects. Start planting smaller edible trees around it and work out from there. The shade, bit of wind protection, and falling leaves will benefit the young saplings around it, provided they’re not too close – all while providing shelter for insect-eating birds and other good guys. And you know, sometimes you don’t really need a “great” reason to leave a tree in place. I left a magnolia tree in my food forest because it was beautiful and because my kids like to climb it. In that sense, I suppose it’s a habitat for a beneficial species: Homo sapiens subsp. Goodmani.
Though this is by no means a complete list of options, it’s a good start. There’s really no such thing as a stupid worthless tree. There’s a value in any tree – it’s just up to you to find it. You may just decide if the value of growing something else is greater than the value of the tree that’s in the way – in that case, chop away. I won’t tell Captain Planet. Promise.