Tree Wars: There’s a Battle On in the Suburbs

Take a boundary fence, put people on either side of it, add a hedge, a tall tree, some overhanging branches, and you have all the elements necessary for war.

Tree wars and hedge feuds are played out in the community on a daily basis. On the softer end of the spectrum, contrary views on the merits of a box hedge may mean sharp words flung over the fence and fiery, but short-lived resentments. Taken to the extreme they can mean lifetime stalemates, bitter legal battles, uprooted tomato plants and murder.

Mr Dickenson and Mr Wilson were neighbours in a housing estate in Lincolnshire, England. The two were also proud gardeners. Each meticulously tended the lawn in front of his home. But garden hobbies turned sour when a dispute broke out over a low-lying line of bushes, marking the boundary between their properties. For years the men hailed abuse at each other over the hedge, and hacked at each other’s plants with clippers, until one day something snapped inside of Mr Dickenson.

He marched inside, fetched his shotgun, emerged again, and shot Mr Wilson four times in the stomach.

Later Mr Dickenson hung himself in a prison cell, awaiting trial for murder. It is unknown whether the spurned hedge remains, or has had the means to flourish.

Garden rage is not unique to the United Kingdom. Two old men played out a similarly morbid, psychological battle that ended with one of them dead next to a freshly turned veggie patch, closer to home in Clayton, Victoria in 2011. I remember reading about it in the papers at the time. The intimate details of the crime struck me, in no small part because of the tomatoes.

Mr Papadopoulos, a sixty-seven-year-old painter by trade, lived in a boarding house for elderly Greek men in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Previously, he had spent 16 years in Greek prison for shooting dead his cousin over a minor disagreement outside a local tavern. At home in Australia, he began a grim feud with one of his housemates, Mr Mirtsopoulos, who was seventy-two. The men regularly bickered over trivial matters, Mr Karkanis, their other housemate, said.

But it was springtime. New opportunities floated on the air. One day Mr Mirtsopoulos got out his shovel and turned the soil in the fenced-off back garden of their boarding house. He planned to plant seedlings, although in the end he never did. Mr Papadopoulos beat him to it, claiming the turf with four or five tomato and capsicum plants.

This was the red flag, signalling the last act of a sad, personal war.

Mr Papadopoulos was wearing his blue pyjamas, sandals and slicing a pear with a six-inch knife when Mr Mirtsopoulos discovered the vegetables. The men argued in front of a small orange tree, before Mr Mirtsopoulos stepped into the garden plot and began to pull up Papadopoulos’ tomatoes.

A punch was thrown, two punches, Mr Karkanis stepped in and tried to separate the men, but instead saw blood flowing from Mr Mirtsopoulos’ chest and a knife in Mr Papadopoulos’ hand. “Oh no what have I done, I’m going to go to jail for this bastard,” Mr Karkanis heard Mr Papadopoulos say in Greek.

Mr Papadopoulos wiped the blade of the knife on his shirt sleeve, ran into the house, changed into dark pants and a light coloured shirt and left. On trial for murder he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eleven years and six months’, with a non-parole period of nine years. “A petty argument leading to a loss of life,” the trial judge said.

More often backyard disputes are civil affairs. Some Australian states offer legislative solutions when trees come between the good relations of neighbours. The Trees (Disputes Between Neighbours) Act 2006 in New South Wales, for instance, and the Neighbourhood Disputes (Dividing Fences and Trees) Act 2011 in Queensland. In other states, like South Australia and Victoria, the common law of nuisance applies, along with rules for the protection of significant trees.

Generally, laws relating to trees or hedges are “rooted in the ideal of promoting orderly neighbour relationships, mindful of notions of mutual obligations premised on proximity, but also acknowledging the tensions which accompany attempts to balance competing interests,” the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute observed in its report, Problem Trees and Hedges: Access to Sunlight and Views (2016).

And this is precisely the point, because when it comes to everyday tree wars, what enhances the view for one person, and makes them happy, may obscure it, and lead to an unhappy existence, for another. A Norfolk Island pine, biscuit-coloured sand, a cool, flat sea and the blurred borderline to the horizon is an ideal view for me. This is what I grew up with in seaside Adelaide, where apparently not all the residents share my fondness for trees.

In 2012 a spate of tree poisonings, thefts and murders swept along the Esplanade in quiet, residential suburbs Somerton Park, Brighton and Seacliff. The target trees were young Norfolk Island pines, known for their straight trunks, symmetrical branches, resilience in the face of onshore winds, and towering mature heights. When the local council discovered the young trees missing, dead or snapped, they erected ‘Wanted’ signs, replaced the trees, and, in response to continued attacks, installed CCTV cameras. At one point even the ‘Wanted’ signs were stolen.

The pines, in the minds of the culprits, did not form part of their million-dollar views.

It was harbour views that were fought out between the Whites and Ms Baird of Rose Bay, New South Wales. The Whites claimed in the Land and Environment Court that three hedges on Ms Baird’s property obscured their views, and wanted them pruned.

Hedge 1 was planted 20 years earlier along a common boundary and comprised 16 individual trees, all Naylor’s Blue cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Naylor’s Blue’). They were “semi-mature, 12-16 metres tall and in good vigour,” it says in court documents. Hedge 2, planted at the same time, consisted of seven lilly pillies (Syzygium sp.), each 8-10 metres tall, planted at regular intervals of one metre. Hedge 3 was planted in the early 2000s. It comprised 22 trees, all Leighton Green cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Leighton Green’), 9-10 metres tall, forming a dense wall of vegetation. The trees had never been cut back. The Whites made requests on more than one occasion, but their neighbour was not so inclined.

The hedges continued to grow over the years, unabated.

In Court expert arborists gave evidence and aerial photos of the properties and offending hedges were filed. Ms Baird, for her part, argued that the hedges were planted to provide screening and had matured to form “the verdant landscape of her garden, a garden that provides an oasis in the inner city.” Oasis aside, it all came down to the view. The towering hedges had, over time, obstructed the Whites’ vista and it was Ms Baird’s responsibility to lop them. The court made orders for hedge pruning and ongoing, annual maintenance.

The Whites and Ms Baird’s conflict was resolved after eight years. Swiftly, you’d say, compared to the Elliotts and the Woolleys in Staffordshire, England, whose dispute lasted seventeen years. Eight, nine-metre tall conifers and a laurel tree stood on the Woolley’s side of the two families’ semi-detached dwellings. Mr Elliott complained constantly of shade problems, root damage to his property, and bugs. “We don’t open our front curtains anymore because then we haven’t got to face it,” he told the papers. In response, Mr Woolley’s son said: “When I come outside to have a cigarette, it’s like being in my own private forest. The birds love it!”

The feud eventually was fixed by local government using the Anti-Social Behaviour Act to have the trees cut to five-foot, never to exceed six-foot-six.

So don’t believe them when they tell you “plants make people happy”, because it’s much more complicated than that. Even a privet can start a war. Tomatoes can lead to murder.