Plea for pleaching
This is a bit of a departure for this blog. Generally speaking I tend to leave issues like landscape and gardening to the experts. In this weekend’s Vancouver Sun their gardening correspondent Steve Whysall has a longish piece about pleaching. As it happens, when we were in Paris recently we not only saw the results of pleaching, we also saw how it was done which means I have some photos – which had been on my hard drive and, until now, had not been posted to flickr. So, as with the piece about the Bombardier LRV mockup, I am going to try to do something in both channels.
Pleaching is a type of pruning on trees that produces a flat top and sides – essentially a box sort of shape. As Whysall remarks it’s “a classy way to give a street, courtyard, square, boulevard or avenue an elegant, formal look.” He wonders why it is not done more here, and I think the answer is simply that the traditions of gardening in France and England are different. The style most popular for the parks around the stately home were those fist adopted by Capability Brown. His style was to “perfect” a natural appearance and it almost completely replaced the formal patterns of gardens that preceded him. The formality of gardens in France, on the other had, tended to be preserved, although I was pleased to note that places like Versailles and Chantilly have English gardens in the Brown style.
Whysall says “There is no denying it is a time-consuming exercise. It requires skilled workers and it is probably an expensive process.” This is based on his observations of some pleachers in Chartres. And he is probably right about what he saw there, as he is an expert at what he writes. The approach at the Luxembourg Gardens which I observed was rather different.
In the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, for example, long avenues of giant chestnut trees have been pleached to create a superb formal, almost sculptural garden architecture with sufficient space underneath for people to sit, even have a picnic.
But that is done with a truck mounted crane, on which the arm at the top has mounted a series of circular saws. This can be used vertically or horizontally – and looks very much like the large economy version of what happens to cedar hedges here all the time. The truck moves forward slowly and the top – or the side – of the tree is just taken off. This is quite unlike the selective pruning used for most trees to promote tree health and vigour. Rather it is a simple matter of keeping the spread of the canopy in check.
It is an approach which we would like to see applied more in Vancouver for very selfish reasons. If you have a north facing window on the top floor of a six storey building put up around 30 years ago, you will have noticed that your view of the North Shore Mountains is steadily decreased every year, as the trees, planted at around the same time the building went up, reach maturity.
There was the notorious case of the West End resident who was so annoyed by the loss of her view that she simply poisoned the trees responsible for it – even though they were city trees planted in the boulevard. She was convicted and fined, but the social opprobrium heaped upon her was so great that she felt forced to leave town. Some people – make that many people – feel deep affection for trees, all trees. And cannot bear to see them “damaged” in any way. Which, of course, lead to the great Stanley Park disaster, when large numbers of trees were lost in a windstorm and tree management policies were subsequently revised to be more pro-active.
Update: July 28, 2012
This morning, on a short walk for a different purpose I saw something that reminded me I had intended to add to this post a while back. One of the nicest features of the west side of Vancouver are the narrow residential streets where the trees meet overhead, forming a green tunnel. I think that much of what Whysall wrote in his original Sun piece is quite simply wrong. Pleaching is not exactly highly skilled if you can do it with a large and rather brutal piece of machinery, and the result does not necessarily produce a better result – certainly not if you are looking for shade. The way these trees have been allowed to grow creates a more inviting, human space. So in terms of streetscape I do not want to see more pleaching. Yes, it would be nice if the sixth floor view was clearer – but living in cities means we have to learn to get along with other people. The lessons of history are that the people who planned cities who did not actually like people (Hausmann, Robert Moses, le Corbusier) did not produce spaces that worked well for everyone.