I spent much of my childhood in a house with two huge trees dominating the backyard garden and spreading into neighboring properties – an english oak (quercus robur) and a peppercorn tree (schinus molle) each with trunks 3 to 4 feet across and which must have been around for several generations. They were very different, the oak of course being as tidy and formal on the yard’s north edge as the peppercorn was informal and messy on the east side. The peppercorn was made for boys like me to scramble, the oak was for serious climbing. The oak’s acorns provided a plentiful supply of ammunition for slingshots, or just pelting the visiting boy from a few doors down and dodging the retaliation in kind.
Blossoms were provided by a cherry and a dogwood my mother had planted when we first moved in – tiny trees by comparison with the huge oak and peppercorn. You don’t think of big trees as producing flowers, though of course every tree must flower to reproduce. The grand oak’s ‘flowers’ are so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them. There are scores in each trail of a ‘catkin,’ the polar opposite of the large flowers of the deciduous magnolia soulangiana. One of the attractions of my present house (102W3rd), something I probably paid $20k extra for, was the presence of a huge magnolia just back of the house. With a trunk about 30 inches diameter it must be 60 or 70 years old. Complementing it beautifully is another similar specimen next door at 104W3rd. The two must have been planted at much the same time. They have grown together into a single canopy.
Previous owners of 102W3rd were able in the 1980s to build a pair of sunrooms south and very close to the magnolia, one above the other for the first and second floor apartments. They add enormously to the quality of the building’s livingspace and outlook south over the back yard. Being all glass they are bright and open places in the winter when the huge magnolia is leafless but they are nicely sheltered for the rest of the year by the magnolias’ huge green canopy.
Historic preservation has no interest in good architecture
Unfortunately such a beautiful addition is now difficult to build in downtown Frederick under the extremist historic preservation rules (‘Design Guidelines’) sadly adopted by the City government in 2009. These give the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC,) a branch of city government, the power to declare even a portion of a building a “contributing resource” – jargon for historically important. The pair of sunrooms were added to the end of the ‘el’ or back wing of the main house which was constructed in the 1870s. Then under the extremist interpretation by the HPC the ‘ell’ cannot be altered, obscured, or added to.
It matters not a whit to the HPC that an addition adds to the enjoyment or utility of the inhabitants and the resale value of a building, or to the City’s taxbase.
If the HPC had been around in the 1980s wielding their present restrictive powers the house would still end in an old bedroom well short of the magnolia, and there would be no way to enjoy it via the pair of sunrooms.
Bigger than normal
Most of the horticultural reference pieces say these magnolias grow to a height of 20 to 30 feet. Ours at 102 and 104W3rd are far taller, and so are a number of others in Frederick City’s downtown. One theory I’ve heard is that they do much better in their later years in a downtown of 2, 3 and 4 story buildings than they do in more open suburbs or parks. The thinking is that by the time they’re prone to losing major limbs in storms they are more protected in among buildings of their height and so live longer and grow taller than in an open setting.
In any case in the mid-Atlantic states we’re an ideal place to grow the species. Their range is wide, most of the US: California to Maine, Illinois to northern Texas and northern Florida. We’re in exactly the middle of that range.
They have various common names – tulip magnolia, saucer magnolia and chinese magnolia. Tulip magnolia may be the best name since their showy white pinkish and purple flowers bear a resemblance to a bulb tulip flower. M. Soulangianas are a horticulturist’s brilliant hybrid of two much less spectacular natural species.
Here’s a heretical Earth Day toast to genetic modification!
Their blossoms are among the largest tree flowers anywhere, typically 3 or 4 inches across but sometimes as much as 6 or 7. And the flowing is prolific, covering most of the tree’s canopy with a blend of white, pink and purple.
Magnolias generate the most spectacular flowers. It’s a matter of opinion but I love the varied shape of the clusters, though of course others may see this as untidy. Most of all I love how they blend their colors from the purest white to pink to dark purple. It’s said they are fragrant, but I don’t catch much fragrance from them – maybe an insensitive nose I have.
They come and go quickly. This year buds lost their covers April 4-6, then opened progressively through the next week, with April 13 the peak of the flowering. The petals begin to fall and by April 20 are almost all down – replaced by bright green leaves unfurling.
It’s a two-week show.
Then we practice composting-in-place
The aggregate volume of the magnolia’s spring petal fall is huge – at least as big as the leaf fall in the autumn. I’m a believer in composting-in-place. And the ‘place’ that needs the compost is the ground under the tree, so I rake fallen leaves and petals into an even layer under the canopy, and let nature take its course.
No bagging, no gifting of it to the City in paper bags.
Composting-in-place of course doesn’t work with a lawn. Lawn grass is smothered by layers of fallen leaves and petals. When I bought the property in April 2000 there was a kind of lawn under the magnolia, an attempt lawn – ground in which there was sparse grass. The sellers were tidy people and I’m sure they worked to make a better lawn, applying fertilizer, scrupulously raking up and bagging the fall and watering the lawn in dry spells. But it’s a losing battle trying to maintain real lawn under a large mature magnolia. In the growing season the canopy blocks most of the sun from getting to the grass while underneath the tree roots greedily take up most of the soil’s nutriment.
So any ‘lawn’ struggles. We’re better off in these circumstances doing various shade loving perennials, bulbs and ground covers in a planting area that’s composting-in-place from the big tree above
Redesigning a garden around the magnolia
I’ve been doing garden design on and off since my teenage years in the 1950s. My mother and aunt were both keen gardeners into their late-70s. My mother picked it up from her farming family. Her younger sister my aunt Jean studied horticulture at Kew Gardens outside London, and then as a single woman had a successful career advising customers at commercial plant nurseries in England and Australia. Plants were a constant subject of conversation when I was growing up. We had a small library of gardening books, and I worked gardens for extra money in high school years, went to evening courses in landscape design – my day studies were economics and politics – and for some years had a little design/build garden business I worked at on weekends.
A glance was enough to decide the ‘lawn’ must go
Back in 2000 first looking at 102W3rd I knew at a glance at the lawn under the magnolia that this pathetic sparse grass had to go. Grass didn’t grow properly under the canopy of the huge tree and it was too sloped to be usable – falling over 2 feet in 50 feet from north to south. Not only was the area useless for lawn activities because of the slope but it denied the tree’s roots the benefit of a thorough rain soak. All the water of storms ran off down the slope, under the fence onto the street and the City’s stormwater drains.
We excavated a large dumptruck load of clayey soil to gain a flat area up to the periphery of the magnolia’s root system – creating a sunken garden with more shelter and privacy. Paved with irregular shaped natural stone slabs, the paving had large joints of soil and ground covers to allow water to soak in. Encouraged by a near horizontal overall alignment, it works as a mini-stormwater retention pond, flooding to a couple of inches in major thunderstorms, but soaking away in an hour or two. Large boulders are stepped around the north and west sides to form walk and perching steps, and a natural looking retaining wall for the higher level planting area to the west. Some of the better cut soil was moved to the adjacent higher planting areas leaving a garden floor 3 feet below. The effect is to give the stone paved sitting area an enclosed, intimate feel. The fence on North Court Street and a line of shrubs enclose it to the east and a holly tree and garage to the south.
We call it the stone or sunken garden, and it is available for the use of all three apartments.
This was built about ten years ago – before the Historic Preservation Commission got its fussy finger into landscape work.
HPC now intrudes into garden design
The prevailing or 2009 Guidelines for the historic district now have a whole chapter that affects yards and landscaping (Chapter 8 p116 to 132.) It is badly written – if clarity and logic are aims. Under Part A Definitions, page 117 Paragraph 3, Greenspace it says these are “areas that are unpaved and devoid of buildings.” All proposals for new development, additions, parking and other paving will be evaluated for their impact on greenspace. Then there is this commandment: “Residential yards must maintain a 30% area of greenspace out side (they mean ’outside’) of the primary structure. Garages, new additions and paved areas cannot occupy more than 70% of the lot.”
The chapter starts with a picture of City Hall, various institutional buildings, even cemeteries and the reader gets the sense all kinds of land uses are encompassed. The assertion is made that the HPC will evaluate “all proposals” for new development, additions, parking and other paving. But then in the next sentence setting 30% as the minimum greenspace the adjective ‘residential’ pops up,. How they evaluate greenspace requirements for non-residential, or even if any apply to non-reisidential is left a mystery. All this on requirements is placed in what is headed Definitions!
The chaotic prose staggers on. (No wonder former City historic preservation staffer Barbara Wyatt to whom the text is attributed in the Acknowledgments disowns authorship, admitting only that she wrote a first draft.) Like this sentence: “The Commission will not approve the placement of gravel in an area that that (yes two thats) is more appropriately a planted landscape.” By what criteria the Historic Commission is to judge where gravel – ‘placement of’ is redundant – is more ‘appropriate’ than planting is left unspecified. The property owner’s opinion doesn’t matter. Historic Preservation commissioners judgement of gravel or planting must prevail.
ASIDE: Appropriate is one of the favorite words of the historic preservation regulators, perhaps because it is so elastic and subjective. It sort of makes you sound important pronouncing something ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate.’ I find it loathesomely smug.
In most cases the one syllable word ‘right’ would do just as well as appropriate. But the more syllables used the more seriously judgmental it sounds.
Back to vot’s verboten in der garten: We’re reminded in the Guidelines that decks between houses and their yards became popular in the mid-20th century. That’s 60 years plus ago, so by the logic of 50 years or older as being ‘historic’ as spelled out elsewhere in the Guidelines, decks could be regarded as ‘contributing resources’ of historic importance, and deserving of HPC protection where old, and of encouragement in the new.
But no, decks are “associated with American suburbs” (p120) the Guidelines tell us. And it goes without saying that suburbs and their appurtenances are bad, so we get this firm pronouncement for the historic district: “Decks are not appropriate in the Historic District and will not be approved.”
Other sweeping edicts in this chapter on landscaping in the historic district include: “”Retain historic landscape and streetscape features. Historic features must be identified, repaired and preserved.” Just what in a yard constitutes an “historic feature” is not spelled out. it is apparently up to the Commission to decide. Maybe a fence or a walk, even a lawn is an “historic feature” and must be preserved whether needed or not by the current owner.
Few citizens in historic district know
I have the impression most people within the historic district in Frederick have no idea the HPC has such powers over their yards and landscaping. They think of historic preservation as applying to their main building. If they want to make changes to their yards they’ll simply discuss a design with as contractor and contract for the work to be done, all without even thinking they need a city permit. And usually that’s it. It never goes to the HPC.
City inspectors don’t go looking for unpermitted yard work. It usually takes a neighbor with a grudge making a complaint to the City to trigger an HPC review of someone’s landscape work.
The Guidelines say (p120) under Tree Removal that removal of trees over 12 inches diameter must be approved by the Commission. This can cause premature loss of mid-sized trees. Better to get trees removed earlier than leave it grow beyond 12 inches and risk the hassle of an application to the HPC. So better take it down now.
In our area siberian elms seed themselves prolifically. Probably introduced by early settlers for firewood they now get called ‘weed trees’ or just ‘volunteers’ but regardless they’re both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for a few years because they’re vigorous growers and while small and into midlife they are quite attractive trees. But after six or seven years and the same number of inches in trunk diameter they grow at amazing speed, and by their teenage years they’re going crazy with limbs reach right over buildings and going up through overhead power and telecom lines. The limbs are very brittle and break off in storms.
If you have a troublesome siberian elm 12 or 15 inches trunk diameter, the last thing you need as a property owner is to have to work up an application to the HPC for tree removal. Multiple printed copies of lot plan showing location, photographs to be submitted, and fees paid and notice of public meeting posted. Then the hearing… To hell with it most people say, just get the weed tree down and chip the limbs and grind the stump. By the time that’s done it’s diameter can’t be measured to see if you breached the 12 inch trigger size for a Commission permit. And you’re in the clear.
The 12 inch tree takedown permit (p120) is largely a dead letter, but its presence in the official historic district Guidelines is testimony of the tendency of historic preservationists to arrogant over-reach.
Another example: the chapter contains p121 one breathtakingly sweeping catchall power to dictate landscaping. Almost as though the authors were sneaking it in, it’s not even a complete sentence: “E. Other plantings. Other plantings as required by the Commission.”
This is the fifth item under a section which reads: “HPC Review. The Commission must approve the following regarding plantings in the Historic District,..” It deals coherently with the first four (tree removal, street trees, plantings to screen utility items such as airconditioning, and window boxes.
But paragraph E.’s ‘Other plantings’ is so sweeping it gives the Commission the power to direct the most minute details of planting – no tulips, only daffodils etc.
Of course this doesn’t happen. To date anyway. Commissioners don’t presently dictate details of planting plans. A page later (p122) the Guidelines say “The Commission does not generally (NOTE THE QUALIFIER) review tree, shrub, perennial and annual plantings; however in the context of new construction it must approve landscape plans, including the full range of plant materials.”
It is a measure of the contempt historic preservationists writing the Guidelines have for citizens rights or citizen competence that they would propose for themselves such sweeping powers over gardening within private properties in the historic district. And it is a measure of the carelessness of elected officials that they vote this kind of fussy fascism as city law.
What after all has an approved ‘planting plan’ for new construction in a designated historic district got to do with historic preservation? Zero. It’s all about power, being able to boss people around with ‘historic preservation’ the justification invoked.
Gawd, they could have said to the owner of 102W3rd back 60 or 70 years ago: “You will plant a cherry, not a magnolia. Magnolias are not appropriate here. This is the historic district and we have the power on page 121 and 122 of the Guidelines.”
We should count our blessings – only very recently have we foolishly empowered these fanatic busybodies. So we can still enjoy the beauty made possible as a legacy of our less fettered forebears.
- editor 2015-04-23 2841wds
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