Jane’s Walk highlights Wood’s oaks

Arborist Todd Irvine and homeowner Art Wood explain how Wood's deck was built to protect the mature oak trees in the backyard of his home bordering the Glen Stewart Ravine on May 4. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Arborist Todd Irvine and homeowner Art Wood explain how Wood’s deck was built to protect the mature oak trees in the backyard of his home bordering the Glen Stewart Ravine on May 4.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Art Wood was leafing through his Saturday paper in the dappled shade of his back deck last week when his arborist, city councillor and 40 tree enthusiasts clambered out of the Glen Stewart ravine and into his yard to see his magnificent oaks.

Built in 1931 in a way that preserved the trees on site, Wood’s home on Crown Park Road is now shaded by towering red oaks that are likely 125 years old.

So when Wood’s back deck needed replacing, he went to great lengths – nine metres in places – to brace the new one with deeply driven supports that avoid the sprawling network of roots that feed his trees.

“You don’t replace them,” Wood told the  crowd. “They’re simply irreplaceable, at least in any of our lifetimes.”

The oaks at Wood’s house were just a few of the outstanding trees seen on a May 4 Jane’s Walk organized by local arborist Todd Irvine and Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon. Held every May 5 weekend since 2007, the free, city-exploring walks honour the birthday of the late urbanist Jane Jacobs.

As the tour wound up the Glen Stewart ravine and back down Balsam Avenue, Irvine and McMahon spoke about several issues facing Toronto trees – summer droughts, the Emerald Ash Borer, invasive plants and buried waterways.

But the focus of the tour was on what builders and city planners can do to protect Toronto’s existing forest of 10.2 million trees.

“We all live in buildings where there was a forest at one time,” Irvine said. “How do we find that balance between the development that’s taking place and keeping what we have intact?”

At Wood’s house, Irvine noted that building a typical deck in other parts of the city is a one-weekend job, with the deck propped on shallow posts planted into concrete every few feet.

That was not an option for Wood, partly because his trees are protected by Toronto’s ravine bylaw.

“It’s a responsibility that comes with ravine-facing lots,” Irvine said, explaining that the city requires a permit to cut down or disturb all trees on such properties. Another bylaw requires a similar permit for any tree 30 cm or larger around when measured 1.4 metres above the ground.

But, true to his name, Wood also built his deck the way he did because he wanted to do all he could to keep his trees in good shape. That meant getting one city permit to install the deep supports, Wood said, and two more to bring heavy equipment onto his yard through a public park.

He also chose to build the deck using “tiger” wood – dense, teak-like wood that can be grown sustainably – and then girding it with galvanized steel beams.

“When the nuclear holocaust comes, this is where you want to be,” Wood joked.

That level of care comes at a high cost, but Wood’s lot is steeper than most, and with older trees.

More typical of the Beach was a small lot for sale on Balsam Avenue, where Irvine and McMahon stopped to point out where a builder could install protective fences or plywood walkways to move equipment around a front-yard tree.

Such measures may not stop 100 per cent of the damage, Irvine said, but it’s a big step up from the recent past, when on hot summer days some Toronto builders parked their trucks right under a shady tree.

Councillor McMahon said that when it comes to enforcing tree bylaws, residents need to be “eyes on the street,” using a term originally popularized by Jacobs.

Other City of Toronto departments are getting better at referring tree problems to city foresters, she said. But with 600,000 of its own trees to look after, enforcing the bylaws protecting every private tree is no easy task.

The end goal, McMahon added, is to grow Toronto’s tree canopy from the 17 to 20 per cent coverage where it stands today up to between 30 and 40 per cent.

To cap off the tour, Irvine stopped at the site of a new house on Balsam south of Queen where the owner is building a 1,000 square-foot house in the midst of six mature oaks.

Arborist Todd Irvine stops on a May 4 Jane's Walk to explain how a new home on Balsam Avenue is built on a raised platform to preserve the six mature oak trees that surround it. The roots of a mature tree can grow out to a lateral distance two or three times the length of its longest branch. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Arborist Todd Irvine stops on a May 4 Jane’s Walk to explain how a new home on Balsam Avenue is built on a raised platform to preserve the six mature oak trees that surround it. The roots of a mature tree can grow out to a lateral distance two or three times the length of its longest branch.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

The first architect to draft a plan for the house drew Xs over all six trees, he said. When the city rejected that plan, the owner opted to build the whole house on a raised platform instead, rather than digging a standard foundation and basement.

Not only did the plan require the same deep, screw-shaped supports that were built under Wood’s deck, it also called for  mycorrhizae, a fungus that helps trees grow, to be spread all over the site, as well as a system of perforated pipes to feed them with rainwater from the roof.

Building that way likely cost two or three times as much, Irvine said, but the result is a house nestled under shady trees and a street that keeps more of its canopy.

“That’s how you build a house on platforms,” said Irvine. “These trees will likely be better off than they were before.”


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