Better in theory than practice – planting street berms in edibles

Street plantings of orange trees in Cordoba

Street plantings of orange trees in Cordoba

I have been following with some interest the debate about Auckland’s road berms and the transfer of mowing responsibilities to the closest house occupants. I can’t think that I have ever lived anywhere with road berms that Council mows so my sympathy is limited for those who are railing against having to take responsibility. Road berms are community spaces that stop our urban areas from being too grey and congested.

The debate about alternative uses was more interesting. I was amused by the wit who suggested that a creative approach could solve the lack of new housing space in Auckland. Indeed, if you look at contemporary Japanese domestic architecture, I feel sure there is potential for space-saving apartments to be constructed on some of the wider berms. Though I can already hear the cries of protest from the adjoining landowners.

Often I hear the claim that berms should be planted out as community vegetable gardens and that all street trees should be fruit trees for the benefit of residents. It is so easily said and on the surface it sounds such a good idea but there are reasons why this is not so popular with powers that be.

Starting with the vegetable garden berm idea – how are you going to stop every passing dog from urinating on your plants? Or worse. Just watch a dog being taken for its walk and you may lose enthusiasm for growing vegetables out in a public space very quickly. Is the berm to be fenced to keep out wandering dogs? This rather defeats the whole notion of common space when ownership is claimed by way of a fence.

Unless your berm is at the end of a very quiet cul de sac, there are issues with automotive pollution, not to mention road splash. Okay, the lead content of our petrol has dropped dramatically from where it used to be, but I am not too sure about wanting to eat plants which are grown with full exposure to petrol and diesel fumes. And road spray on wet days is likely to be introducing more contaminants.

Then there are all the issues of ownership of the produce when it is on public land. How happy would you be if somebody came along and harvested your entire potato crop just as it hit its peak – or worse, before it has? And if one or two key individuals do not take ownership of the garden and manage it, soon it will descend into an unsightly mess which is a great deal worse than a bit of rank grass.

Vegetable gardens on the berms are not that easy. This is not to say it can’t be done, but it is not a universal panacea and it will take a lot more individual effort than mowing.

Plums - more likely to feed the birds than the human populace

Plums – more likely to feed the birds than the human populace

So, fruit trees as street trees? I really do not envy any Council staff who are faced with decisions on street trees but I applaud their valiant efforts to plant up our urban areas. Street trees have to be able to grow in exposed conditions, sometimes highly polluted. They need to have small leaves which decompose quickly so they don’t block all the drains. Their root systems are vitally important (don’t want to break up sewers or sealed areas but they need to be sufficiently well rooted not to blow over) and so is the ultimate shape of the tree. They need to be more upright than wide spreading. On top of that, if they are too desirable, they are vulnerable to theft when young and they need to be able to grow with a minimum of attention and no spraying.

That is a pretty big list already and that is just off the top of my head. There are probably more criteria than that. So tell me which fruit trees match those sorts of criteria. If it was easy, I am sure we would see it done more.

I have seen oranges used as street trees overseas – table oranges in Sorrento in Italy (tourist town, though, so maybe less inclined to be nicked) and bitter Seville oranges on the streets of Cordoba in Spain. The ones in Cordoba were harvested commercially, I found out. Citrus are not high maintenance trees but they still need spraying with copper and they are vulnerable to borer.

Feijoas! Definitely an option for road verge plantings

Feijoas! Definitely an option for road verge plantings

The best option I could come up with here is feijoas. They require next to no care and are reasonably wind tolerant. The fruit is peeled before eating so street pollution is not such a problem. Apples, pears, plums – all need care and are more utility than attractive. They are not even utility if they are uncared for and don’t crop. Plums are more likely to feed the birds than humans.

I think street trees are street trees. It is not a situation that lends itself to an ill-thought out philosophy that they should all be fruit trees in suburban areas as a matter of principle. I can only see it working where an adjacent householder takes responsibility for the trees and that includes dealing with theft and vandalism. It’s a nice idea in theory.

I admit, however, that I yearn to live somewhere with street plantings of oranges.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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