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It is a well-known fact that we need to take good care of our environment. When this doesn’t go as planned, it is easy to point at others. I dare to admit though that I deviate little from the average self-centered behavior in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on our view of shed leaves and dead branches by trying to show the value of a "defect”.  All this in the context of "every bit counts".

Changing fixed habits is quite a challenge for any working field, and the gardeners world is not an exception. Let’s take winterizing gardens as an example. Winterize is a term dating back to bygone days of yore when the makeable world was leading in our acting and thinking. I feel like winterizing the garden means removing shed leaves, trimming dead plants, pruning trees and ruthlessly removing anything not thoughtfully planted in the garden. In other words, eliminating all signs of natural activity from your garden with the pretext that it doesn’t fit in and is therefore worth removing. Soon enough you will end up teaming up with the ultimate ally of winterizing: the leaf blower. It is mainly men who operate this device, battling the leaves as if they were superheroes and swaffling through the public greenery and gardens with their air bazooka. The leaf blower does not actually clean up anything, but mainly moves it away. So it would be beneficial if this device was used to blow leaves to the rough spots of the garden and leave them there. I do understand that you don't want a leafy winter blanket on your lawn. But unfortunately I see way too often that leaves are blown into large heaps and then removed. Hopefully the good news is that awareness is increasing and the #laatzeliggen campaign (#letthembe) is already gaining support in various municipalities in Belgium and also receiving some attention in the Netherlands. This is a positive initiative in which awareness for behavioral change is requested in reference to letting the leaves be in public spaces.

I know at Kew Gardens since years leaf is mulched on the lawns which is been done under authority of Tony Kirkham. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered in the Netherlands this pilot device developed by the Rotterdam municipal tree specialist Ronald Loch. The purpose of this machine is also to fragment and scatter leaves on the spot. This certainly benefits trees by maintaining their food supply. My colleague Luuk Boender also published a study on this subject in 2018 showing that this method is certainly worthwhile. This action is also important because it contributes to our awareness of the value of raw materials, value leaves as a source and not as waste.

Another ingrained habit is the way we deal with tree management. Since the introduction of the duty of care and subsequent tree safety inspections, we have completely lost sight of the ecological values. Our entire tree management is people and risk oriented. I consider that language is a strong indicator to detect whether a habit is deeply ingrained. For example, in tree safety checks we often refer to "defects". Defects are defined in this context as cavities, dead branches, rotted wounds, fungi, insects, woodpecker holes and so on. However for me these are not defects but values. Take for instance the fascinating biotope of micro fungi growing in the moss that is attached to the trunk of a beech tree, the water pockets formed in tree cavities from which birds can drink, the rotting wood that offers a growing place for a forgotten berry left behind by a bird which eventually grows into a miniature plant. Cavities that provide shelter for mammals and birds, and dead branches full with insects. Unfortunately, we hardly attach any value to these, instead we label them as defects. One of the saddest examples portraying the “tree safety syndrome” is the felling of a 151 year old beech a few years ago in Mill just because it contained dead branches. In this short article I described my feelings about this capital mistake. To this day, I still feel the pain when I pass this once beautiful place.

I understand that as tree owners we are responsible for managing risks in an urban environment. But let me tell you that the safest tree is no tree. In other words, we estimate  tree safety based on the latest knowledge, but in the end  it is just a natural being that may react differently than predicted. And we have to accept that. I think it is time that we not only focus on the assumed danger when assessing tree safety, but also give the natural values ​​their well-deserved status. There are too many natural values ​​that are simply ignored. It cannot be that we all ignore these assets ​​and focus only on the safety concerns of a swarm of flies on a beautiful summer evening. If that dead branch cannot fall on the road, leave it alone, a tree knows how to create many more biotopes from it than a battery powerpack wood chipper. We are all good at determining the price of trees when it comes to purchase and maintenance, so cannot we make an effort to determine the inner value ​​of shed leaves and dead branches?

We tend to know the price of everything but often forget about the value.

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