On one side of the street was a many-decades-old pecan tree. It was a spectacular specimen, approximately 50 feet tall with an equal spread. On the other side was a much more recently planted sweetshade tree (Hymenosproum flavum), a 20-foot-tall column that was covered with fragrant white and yellow flowers.
Once upon a time, when that pecan tree was planted, people believed in growing large trees in urban areas. The idea of the big trees was to distract attention from the fact that you were living in a densely populated metropolis where nature had been paved over. Large trees represented the natural world, the countryside, and they allowed you to persist in the fantasy that, despite the noise, grime and hectic pace of urban-suburban life, you had still not left the farm.
Enter the second half of the 20th century. Fantasy living came to an end. No more would anyone have the illusion that human beings were the center of the urban universe; the automobile became king and, with it, urban trees shrunk in size. You simply could not have large trees growing in parkways next to the street. The potential hazard to cars parked or stuck in traffic underneath them was too great and the very idea of stopping traffic to prune them was ridiculous.
As the 20th century came to an end, a decision was made that the age-old reason for planting trees – that they provided shade – no longer adhered. As budgets were squeezed, trees would be evaluated for economy and decorative traits alone. Big trees were simply too expensive to maintain; they were replaced with ornamental pear, gold medallion and, mostly, crepe myrtle trees.
As I looked at the columnar sweetshade tree, I thought to myself that this was truly an interesting species. While in bloom, standing alone, it was wonderful to behold. Yet, in the shadow of the breathtaking pecan tree across the way, it had a paltry look. Pecan trees grow well in the Valley. You must, however, plant two different varieties to get the cross-pollination necessary for a large crops of nuts.
ZOYSIA ALERT: Sooner or later, you are going to open a magazine and see a full-page advertisement for zoysia grass, but this is definitely a product that should have a “buyer beware” label attached. It is promoted as tolerant of sun, shade and inferior soil but, at least in the Valley, rarely lives up to expectations.
Jeanne Winesburg of Northridge e-mailed her dismay at having planted plugs of zoysia grass in a 200-square-foot area shaded by 50-year-old pine and palm trees. The zoysia is not doing well in the shade of the pines, weeds are spreading and she does not know what to do next – other than paint the ground green.
Zoysia is a slow-growing grass and is difficult to establish before weeds conquer the territory. You might want to consider patching in sod of St. Augustine grass or redoing the entire area in St. Augustine, which does grow in shade. However, the shade cast by 50-year-old trees could be so deep that no grass will grow there. You might consider planting periwinkle (Vinca major) or sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia) in lieu of a lawn. These ground covers are virtually indestructible, spread quickly, can be cut to the ground for rejuvenation and hide pine needles that fall between their leaves so that, as a bonus, you can forget about raking up any more needles.