“Oak tree, spread your branches, you know what to do.”
–Morris Day, “The Oak Tree”
There’s a 25-foot-tall Canyon live oak in the front yard of the house my family now calls home. We moved here in December, and shortly afterward a friend in the neighborhood told me of some minor dramas he faced when getting his own old oak trimmed.
Because this is the first time I have been charged with caring for a protected species, I decided to dig into the Do’s and Don’ts of oak tree stewardship in Los Angeles County. And this required the assistance of the Tree People.
Here’s how TreePeople, the Los Angeles nonprofit, explains the city’s oak tree ordinance:
The City of Los Angeles has an Oak Tree Ordinance that protects all oaks (except scrub oak), California bay laurel, black walnut and the Western sycamore. It is illegal to remove or fatally harm any of these species measuring at least 4″ diameter that are 54″ above ground level. Parcels of less than one acre must comply with the ordinance. L.A. County officials are also considering tougher native tree regulations.
I’m a homeowner, or at least I pay the mortgage to live here, so I needed to know what it would cost to care for a native oak. It didn’t take much sleuthing to figure out that getting a licensed tree service to trim the oak could run $2,000. (That price includes the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning’s Oak Tree Permit application fee and environmental assessment fee.)
I love the nature as much as the next punker-turned-hippie, but this was a bit much. Still, I have plenty of friends who spend more than that on their pet dogs and cats in a year, so I was able to rationalize the potential expense and move on: I decided to name our pet tree Morris, in honor of the Morris Day song “The Oak Tree.”
To figure out the proper care and feeding of Morris, I found the California Oak Foundation, a non-profit organization “dedicated to the conservation and perpetuation of California’s native oak woodlands.”
The nice people at the California Oak Foundation suggested that I immediately stop watering under the tree, and remove the grass from within six feet of the trunk—or as far out as the “dripline” below the outermost branches. Apparently this is part of a strategy designed to protect the tree’s “root protection zone,” the most vulnerable part of the mighty oak.
That was a plan we already had discussed with our landscaper, so I was feeling pretty good until I went deeper into the foundation’s literature to discover some of the other natural and man-made horrors that can prematurely fell an oak: trenching, soil compaction, crown rot, root fungus, insect infestation, etc.
The local oak tree ordinance was starting to make sense, but there was a more obvious reason to take care of Morris: He was one of the reasons we bought the house in the first place.
“Oak trees are very often a focus of conservation efforts, like oak tree ordinances for example, because oaks are big, they’re iconic and they’re beautiful,” says Dan Silver from the Endangered Habitats League, which works to protect all five Southern California counties. “People are attracted to them, and what they’re attracted to, they want to save. Oaks get a lot of attention.”
I hereby commit to taking care of my oak tree.