How we built a house and saved a big old tree

A move is always an adventure.

In 2003, Mark and his wife Mary built their dream house in the countryside — an adventure indeed. Once completed, they swore never to build a house again.

Until two years ago when, ready to return to the suburbs, they got up and did it once more.

They were inspired by the vision of a smaller house on a large one-acre lot in Markham. It seemed like a splendid idea.

Building a house during a pandemic was its own adventure. Pleading for trades to come to work and escalating material costs is a story for another time.

Then there was the garden. Moving to a large lot made perfect sense to Mark, who viewed the mostly treeless property as a blank canvas. He could plant trees of his choice, create a pollinator garden, and attract beneficial wildlife like butterflies, native bees, and hummingbirds. And a vegetable garden with a 16 tree apple orchard, raspberries, grapes, asparagus, rhubarb and all the annual vegetables the new garden space could hold.

And he would save the giant 70-year-old maple tree that towered over the backyard. It is a magnificent Norway maple that is 15 meters high. It provides dense shade over the house and deck that creates a cooling effect equal to a large air conditioner.

Sugar maple: The leaf of our Canadian flag has 3 to 5 lobes which are smaller at the bottom.  The leaves turn bright pink and red in the fall.

Many people might question efforts to save an “invasive” tree, which is the designation given to Norway maples by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. Yet over 40% of Toronto’s forest cover is Norway maple. They grow well in polluted city air, they sequester carbon and produce oxygen with the best of trees.

But they also send their seeds into the woods to compete with native trees and flora. So, given the choice, Mark would prefer sugar maple or, even better, a native oak of which there are a dozen species in Canada. But when you inherit a senior tree, that’s what it is.

To save the monstrous backyard tree, they had to build the garage a few yards south of the existing root zone — necessitating a trip to the adjustment committee for a building plan waiver. (A municipal C of A is a good place to go if you like to nap.) In Mark and Mary’s case, that meant a three-month delay in the building permit process to get the green light and then announce neighbors that the garage would be located a little south of theirs and would change the lines of the site.

White Oak: The leaves are bright green and rounded with 5 to 9 lobes and deep, rounded notches.  They host acorns in round, bumpy caps.

Their local councilor, Karen Rea, emailed about the extra effort: “Finally, someone who wants to save a tree and not cut it down!”

With no objections, they were able to go ahead with their plan.

The roots of the old tree were wedged between the concrete wall of an existing swimming pool and a concrete foundation of a one meter high knee wall. “It won’t hurt at all,” Mark whispered to the tree as a backhoe removed all the stone and limiting concrete around its root structure. Then, with a protective plywood wall built around the maple, in accordance with Markham’s tree protection regulations, construction proceeded with minimal disturbance to the roots of the tree.

Northern Red Oak: Dark green leaf lobes, usually 7 to 9, grow pointed and pointed, and feature round acorns that sit in scaly caps.

After the house was built and the foundation backfilled, Mark consulted a soil and tree expert who advised spreading ‘activated mulch’ – mulch created from living organic matter – over the root zone of the tree.

Next, Mark added generous amounts of Compost Tea, made from a mix of nutrients and micro-organisms, which he sourced from Crooked Farmz at Withrow Park Farmers’ Market in Toronto.

Then we wait. It now takes time to see how this senior tree responds to improvements to its root zone. With more room to grow, will it thrive?

Certainly, nothing will change the fact that it is a Norway maple. But hey, better a pig in a punch than a punch in the eye with a sharp branch – even from a more desirable native tree species.

Mark and Ben Cullen are expert gardeners and contributors to The Star. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkCullen4

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