Don’t plant trees!

It is too dangerous and may ruin your life!

“Really?” I hear you say. Why that, in a time when planting new trees is fast becoming a prime directive for us humans.

Take the Trillion Tree Campaign, “Plant with us!” they say. “No matter when or where you are, it’s never been easier to save the climate and do something good.” Today, in March 2020, they have reached 13.6 billion new trees, and aim to reach their trillion tree goal by 2050. I vigorously support this effort.

So why am I telling you not to plant trees? Actually I am telling you not to plant any in your garden. And there is a frightening reason why.

Let me tell you what happens when you do. Just over twenty years ago we moved from a home in a forest-filled area outside of Hamburg — children need to grow up surrounded by trees and animals — back into the city. We bought a narrow three-storied house, ideally suited for our retirement years. It has buses and a subway close by, supermarkets, a big shopping mall, doctors and even a local hospital just down the street. It also has one of North Germany’s largest forests just ten minutes walking distance away. Everything perfect.

Except that the garden behind the house is quite small, and the one in front had no substantial foliage. Unbearable, especially for wife Ingrid, who is a gardener at heart.

So we went to the local gardening centre and looked around for something to spruce up the front garden. We decided to go for Calocedrus decurrens, an aromatic evergreen conifer also known as “incense cedar”. The two trees we brought were really very beautiful, with lustrous dark green foliage, interspaced with bright yellow sprays. They were 1.5 meters tall, and we planted one in each corner of the tiny plot in front of the house.

The previous image is from Google Maps and was taken about ten years after we had planted the trees. As you can see they were thriving and now reached up to the first floor of the house. What we had failed to do, when we bought and planted them, was to check out the maximum size to which they can grow. The garden centre had failed to warn us that the cute little trees, (like the ones at the bottom left in the drawing by Matt Strieby, of Newleaf Design) can grow up to 30 metres or 100 feet in height! Which our trees show every intention of doing.

There is a slight problem. In recent years, probably due to climate change, we have been experiencing fairly violent storms that periodically disrupt life in northern Germany.

This is what it looked like when storm Xavier hit in 2017 (report in RT Germany).

After seeing our two Calocedrus sway precariously in storm winds, with heavy hearts we decided we had to abandon them. One was not a problem: the diameter at a height of 1.30 metres was less than 25 cm. That allowed us to do what we wanted with it. We contacted a local tree felling team. Thaddeus climbed up and, in half an hour, very adeptly cut down the tree. Who would have thought: a real lumberjack in Hamburg!

That was in February 2019. What about the second cedar on the other side? It was already wider than 25 cm at the crucial height, so we had to seek permission from local authorities before we could fell it. Such permission is not easy to come by, and we put it off for a year.

Then in early February 2020 Storm Sabine hit northern Germany, with hurricane-speed winds of over 170 kilometers (106 miles) per hour. It disrupted long-distance and regional train services, and generally caused tremendous damage, including power cuts to tens of thousands of houses. One week later the offshoot Storm Victoria swept across the country, causing more accidents and general chaos.

During Sabine we watched the remaining giant Calocedrus sway in our front garden. The tree has now reached almost ten metres in height, and bent calamitously in the storm. We were terrified and afraid to go out. And this tree is projected to triple its height. This picture shows what it is like today (March 2020), imagine what it will look like when it is three times as tall.

So unfortunately this tree, we decided, must go. And now comes the horror story: our application to the local authorities was rejected! They said that after a visual inspection they had decided that the tree must stay. They also chided us for having cut some branches at the bottom (we did it some year ago so that cyclists, passers-by and visitors were not obstructed). So their decision was: you may not cut it down. We filed an explanatory note: when we planted the tree we had no idea it would grow to this size. Now it was a real danger to the house and the street, where it could kill people in a storm. We are in our mid seventies and the thing terrifies us.

We also wanted to know: what happens if it causes substantial damage in the next storm? Would the city be responsible for that. The answer came some days later. We would be personally liable for any damage to people or property which the falling tree may cause. And no, we were not allowed to cut it down. For this decision process we were charged €110.

This is my warning to everyone: do not plant trees in your garden. If you do you relinquish all rights to it and the grounds on which it stands. You have donated that part of your garden it to the city bureaucracy. You may not remove the tree, but remain fully responsible for any damage it may cause. So we must live our remaining years with this giant growing in front of our house. The city authorities have so decided.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.