Even after a tree is selected and installed based on the site conditions of sun, shade, soil drainage, proximity to other trees and shrubs, nutrient availability, desired size, slope, surroundings, adjacent activity and more, it can fail to thrive.
Sometimes that’s because the tree wasn’t chosen well and sometimes it’s because it wasn’t planted well. But even more critical to the tree’s success is where it was planted. A tree’s proper location usually will determine whether it becomes an asset or detriment to the landscape.
Tried and true: RPRP
The gold standard of “Right Plant, Right Place” still reigns supreme.
Most arborists would say failure to mind this guiding principle begins with a lack of consideration for the tree’s size. Many reasons exist for this, including lack of foresight and denial that a certain species will actually get that big or wide. Many property owners are too lazy or self-centered to consider the future of their land and the potential ramifications associated with it.
The next consideration is the square footage of available rooting space required for adequate growth, nutrient absorption and structural and support. Although it’s a gross generalization, the average shade tree requires about 1,000 square feet of unimpeded surface – either covered by turf, mulch or groundcovers – in which to grow. In many locations, this much space isn’t provided.
The desired shape of tree – vase, cylindrical, rounded – also can play a role in RPRP. Some sites allow these forms to grow and develop well, and others don’t. The ones that require the largest available space are often limited on site.
The availability of sunlight is a key consideration when choosing tree species, as many require full sun exposure, while others are tolerant of, or actually prefer, shade. Species such as serviceberry, pagoda dogwood and redbud are often poorly sited as a result of this factor.
Tough sites and why
Unfortunately, many sites are compromised in one way or another. These are the most common tough sites.
Slopes: Gentle slopes are desirable; a 2 to 3 percent drop-off facilitates water movement away from buildings, yet generally allows for water movement downward through the water profile. When the degree of slope is 5 to 10 percent or greater, problems commonly arise in tree performance and landscape maintenance. At least four undesirable outcomes are associated with a severe slope:
- Decreased infiltration rate: On slopes, natural rainfall and irrigation water isn’t absorbed as quickly as at the top or bottom. Trees growing on the face of the slope often suffer from inadequate moisture in the root zone.
- Difficulty in mowing: When turf grass is grown on the slope, an increased chance exists for the mower to slip and slide, potentially striking the tree trunk or lower branches, causing damage.
- Difficulty in application of fertilizers and pesticides: After landscape maintenance products are applied on slopes, there’s a tendency for them to move downward, especially when granular products are used and/or moderate to severe rainfall occurs after application.
- Difficulty in mulch retention: Over time, mulch pieces tend to drift downward or sideways on slopes, moving away from installed landscape plants.
Hell strips: The thin, narrow and sometimes oddly shaped portions of the landscape often provide an inhospitable location for trees to grow well. The lack of available rooting and absorptive space is the main limiting influence. In northern climes, hell strips (also called tree lawns or devil strips, depending on your region) are often the space between the sidewalk and a street; in these situations, applied salt and sand for winter traction control causes damage and adds to the lack of rooting. In general, the siting of woody plants in these locations should be carefully considered.
Parking lots: Parking lots offer many of the same negative influences as hell strips. Salt, sand, radiating heat – along with the added occasional misfortune of cars, juvenile delinquents and shopping carts running into the trunk – are the major ones. The main differences between the two are that parking lots generally offer a bit more rooting space and a whole lot more interaction with pedestrians.
Middle of turf: Generally, trees and turf don’t mix. In most scenarios, turf requires more water and fertilizer than trees; in a mixed planting, if moderate amounts are applied to keep the turf thriving, excessive amounts of both are received by the trees. As well, in the midst of an island of turf, tree trunks are prone to mower blight, especially by youngsters and turf maintenance professionals who are in a hurry. The key message to deliver to them is to stop the movement of the mower before it reaches the tree, not after.
Next to concrete and rock: These materials have their place in the landscape, but it’s hard to overlook their negative impact on trees. They have a warming effect on the soil, don’t facilitate horizontal root growth as well as organic materials, provide no soil replenishment and are just so-so on moisture retention and weed suppression as compared with organic mulches and materials.
Compacted sites, high traffic spots: Settings where the soil particles are routinely compressed are tough locations for trees. Common locations for compaction of the soil are those that receive high traffic such as parks, campus grounds and shopping malls.
Adjacent to tough sites: Locations that are adjacent to the tough sites of compaction, hell strips, parking lots and other concrete surfaces may appear to be in good shape, or at least have the potential to produce healthy shoots and roots, however they are still adjoining and share a root zone. At best, sites adjacent to poor locations are half and half – half compromised and, hopefully, half conducive in terms of healthy soil, adequate space and overall growing conditions.
Close spacing: Often a scenario where the original property owner didn’t take size into account and planted way too many trees in way too small of a space. Close spacing is really an issue of trees competing for sun, nutrients and water.
Extremes of sunlight reflection: Commonly noticed when one side of a tree – the side that faces an office building – becomes blighted by excessive sunlight that can cause desiccation of the bark, stems and leaves.
Extreme shading: Opposite of sunlight reflection, absence of sunlight can cause etiolation, or a stretching for adequate light to support sturdy shoot growth. Growth that occurs in a heavily shaded location is usually thinner and weaker than when grown under ideal conditions.
So, what to do?
Identification and understanding is the first step in dealing with difficult sites; four other actions are next as making a difference in your landscape:
*First – it’s important to evaluate the status of the tree in question. Inspect for tree hazards and document defects that will influence future actions.
*Second – decide whether to keep the tree in the landscape or remove it. Consider the number of issues that weaken its structural integrity and limit the aesthetic value. If the tree doesn’t contribute toward the goals for the property, perhaps it shouldn’t remain on site.
*Third – if removal is chosen, possible replacement choices for each site can be contemplated. This is especially true for specimens that are not performing well due to an incompatibility with the size, sun, shade, soil and slope specifics of the site. For example, if a large tree is growing where a small one is called for, the potential replacements should be chosen from that group of options. In terms of possible selections for new specimens, local botanic gardens and arboretums are good places to gather information on suitability.
*Fourth – avoid planting in tough locations in the future. Seek advise on the microclimates where trees simply aren’t a good choice. In many scenarios, tall shrubs, groundcovers, perennials, native grasses and other landscape ornamentals are better options.
The Inside Story
- The outer bark is the tree’s protection from the outside world. Continually renewed from within, it helps keep out moisture in the rain, and prevents the tree from losing moisture when the air is dry. It insulates against cold and heat and wards off insect enemies.
- The inner bark, or “phloem”, is pipeline through which food is passed to the rest of the tree. It lives for only a short time, then dies and turns to cork to become part of the protective outer bark.
- The cambium cell layer is the growing part of the trunk. It annually produces new bark and new wood in response to hormones that pass down through the phloem with food from the leaves. These hormones, called “auxins”, stimulate growth in cells. Auxins are produced by leaf buds at the ends of branches as soon as they start growing in spring.
- Sapwood is the tree’s pipeline for water moving up to the leaves. Sapwood is new wood. As newer rings of sapwood are laid down, inner cells lose their vitality and turn to heartwood.
- Heartwood is the central, supporting pillar of the tree. Although dead, it will not decay or lose strength while the outer layers are intact. A composite of hollow, needlelike cellulose fibers bound together by a chemical glue called lignin, it is in many ways as strong as steel. A piece 12″ long and 1″ by 2″ in cross section set vertically can support a weight of twenty tons!
Leaves Make Food for the Tree
And this tells us much about their shapes. For example, the narrow needles of a Douglas fir can expose as much as three acres of chlorophyll surface to the sun.
The lobes, leaflets and jagged edges of many broad leaves have their uses, too. They help evaporate the water used in food-building, reduce wind resistance—even provide “drip tips” to shed rain that, left standing, could decay the leaf.
Often times, urban trees are vulnerable to pests and diseases because they are highly stressed. Stress can result from a variety of factors including the following:
-paved surfaces that interfere with water absorption
-restricted root spaces
-competition from dense layers of turf that surround a tree – Note: your trees should have layer of mulch surrounding diameter – call our Hometown Landscape division @ 301-490-5577 to assist with this recommendation.
Trees are also often times planted where they shouldn’t be or can be damaged from construction or heavy equipment. There is no single solution for managing all these issues; however, Hometown Tree Experts could assess this issue to ensure improving the overall health of your trees. Research has shown that proper care can increase the fine root density, helps to reduce water loss during dry and hot periods, and could increase the protective barrier of leaves. The trees are also greener and are better able to deal with stress. Call Hometown Tree Experts for solutions to your possible stress management @ 301-250-1033.
Slime spotted on trees is known as bacterial ooze. There are different types of bacterial ooze, and they’re not very well studied. Bacterial ooze can easily go unnoticed. At its most basic they form when a tree gets damaged and subsequently infected with bacteria. In certain circumstances if the bacteria is able to feed on the tree sap and nothing prevents it from multiplying it will eventually form this slime.
Trees, like all plants, have an immune system which should protect them from severe infections like this. Bacterial ooze happens when the tree is unable to heal a wound and prevent the bacteria from feeding on the sap. Bacterial oozes are often fatal; the ooze that forms will rot the tree as the bacteria ‘eats’ it, ultimately leading to the tree’s death.
Without knowing what bacteria is causing the problem, it’s difficult to know how contagious an ooze might be, but in most cases the ooze itself only forms when specific conditions occur on a tree so shouldn’t spread in a woodland. The bacteria involved are often present in a woodland anyway without causing any problems – the ooze forms when something goes wrong and the bacteria breeds out of control.
Bacterial oozes may be accompanied by other pathogens that further harm the tree. For example, slime flux is a type of bacterial ooze that is a mix of bacteria and yeast. It has quite a distinctive orange/yellow appearance. The yeast and bacteria ferment the tree sap, leading to an unpleasant smell and attracting insects to the ooze.
How we could help
If you spot a tree with bacterial ooze on it, we recommend that you call Hometown Tree Experts to assess. Hometown Tree Experts would assess your tree to ensure that it is indeed safe as the rot may be weakening your tree. This issue may be spreading bacterial oozes to other trees on property so would advise assessment to prevent. If you are able to provide good photos we would appreciate this photo being emailed to us as we’d love to see them!
Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, fluorides, carbon dioxide, ozone. What do all of these hard-to-pronounce things have in common? They are all making their way into your body when you breathe. That’s right, these air pollutants are everywhere, even when you can’t see them. In cities, there’s a mouthful in every breath.
There are two types of air pollutants: primary and secondary. Primary pollutants are toxic as soon as they are released into the air and typically have a source that can be pinpointed. The biggest threats in this category in cities are particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and fluorides. Secondary pollutants, on the other hand, form in the air from interactions whose components might not have been toxic on their own. The major secondary pollutant we find in cities is ozone (O3).
When we talk about ozone as an air pollutant, we’re referring to ground-level ozone (which we don’t like) as opposed to stratospheric ozone (which we do like) that creates a layer in the atmosphere protecting us from UV rays. Ground-level ozone is common in areas with dense populations and traffic because ozone forms when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from industry and automobile emissions interact with sunlight.
Particulate matter consists of microscopic particles from car exhaust, road dust, industry and other emissions. It is usually measured in two categories according to size: PM10, the larger kinds, and PM2.5, the smaller and more dangerous. The smaller the particle, the deeper into your lungs it can travel, and once it’s down there, it stays there. This leads to respiratory illnesses like asthma and lung cancer — outdoor PM causes 3.2 million deaths every year worldwide. SO2 and fluorides are produced by fossil fuel combustion, which of course there’s a lot of in cities.
With the known health consequences of respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer, it is clear that we should avoid exposure to these toxic air pollutants, but we don’t always have a choice. People in cities are especially vulnerable, since they have such frequent exposure to high concentrations of them. According to the World Health Organization, concentrations of PM exceed safe levels on the streets of more than 600 U.S. cities. Thankfully, city trees and greenery offer the beginnings of a solution to urban air pollution.
A study in London linked the annual removal of 90.4 tons of PM10 by urban trees to a decrease in 2 deaths and 2 hospitalizations per year. And according to a study in the U.S., the amount of PM2.5 removed annually by trees in 10 cities across the country in 2010 ranged from 4.7 tons in Syracuse to 64.5 tons in Atlanta. In the same cities, estimates of the annual monetary value of human health effects associated with PM2.5 removal, such as hospital admissions, respiratory symptoms and related deaths, ranged from $1.1 million in Syracuse to $60.1 million in New York City. That’s right: trees save lives and money.
Strategic placement of grass, ivy and other plants in cities can reduce the street level concentrations of NO2 and PM by 40 and 60 percent, respectively. There are multiple ways trees help to make urban air cleaner by filtering out pollutants:
Lowering temperatures reduces the movement of harmful ambient particles and prevents more pollutants from evaporating into the air. Trees create a great cooling effect by shading homes and streets, breaking up urban heat islands, and releasing water vapor into the air through their leaves. More tree crowns mean less dark surfaces like parking lots and paved streets being exposed to sunlight and emitting heat. Tree canopy cover in Los Angeles has decreased over the last 50 years, and a corresponding 6°F increase has been measured. Depending on the tree placement, trees can cool a city by up to 10°F, reducing the concentration of PM and other air pollutants with each degree.
Removal of pollutants
The first way trees remove air pollution is by particle interception: trapping pollution particles on their leaves and bark. Once the particle has been removed from the air, it is usually washed off the tree by rain or falls onto the ground with leaves and twigs. Studies have shown that in one urban park, tree cover removed 48 pounds of PM, 9 pounds of NO2, 6 pounds of SO2 and 100 pounds of carbon — daily. Silver birch trees in particular have been studied for their particle interception abilities: They have been found to reduce concentrations of PM by more than 50 percent.
A more complex way that trees filter the air is through gas uptake by leaf stomata. The stomata are tiny pores on tree leaves, and they absorb air to collect CO2 in order to perform photosynthesis. During that uptake of air, they also absorb gaseous pollutants in the air. Once inside the leaf, the gas diffuses throughout the leaf’s pores. It is then absorbed by films of water inside the leaf where it will either form acids or react with inner-leaf surfaces to become less toxic. It is estimated that one tree can absorb almost 10 pounds of polluted air through its leaf stomata every year.
Energy effects on buildings
Now that we understand trees’ chemical abilities, we can factor in their physical ones. Trees shade buildings in the summer and block winds in the winter, so it makes sense that they reduce building energy use for both heating and cooling purposes. Minimizing energy needs lowers the amount of fuel combustion necessary and therefore reduces the amount of pollution from power plants entering the air in the first place.
Once seen as an aesthetic window dressing, trees have never seemed as important in cities as they do now that we know their full potential. We can’t decide to stop breathing when we walk down a city street, but we can decide to plant and maintain healthy trees and hedges in cities to support the cause for greener cities. The air we breathe is a little bit cleaner thanks to each and every tree. Let’s keep it that way.
California’s magnificent Coast Redwood is the world’s tallest known tree and one of the world’s oldest trees. Average mature trees, several hundred years old, stand from 200 to 240 feet tall and have diameters of 10 to 15 feet, and some trees have been measured at more than 360 feet. The tallest tree in the world, The Stratosphere Giant located at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, is just over 370 feet tall. In the most favorable parts of their range, Coast Redwoods can live more than two thousand years.
Redwoods are named for the color of their bark and heartwood. The high tannin content of the wood gives the trees remarkable resistance to fungus diseases and insect infestations. The thick, fibrous bark has an even higher tannin content, and insulates them from the periodic fires which have occurred naturally down through the centuries in the redwood region.
These immense trees have delicate foliage. Narrow, sharp-pointed needles only one-half to three-quarters of an inch long grow flat along their stems, forming feathery sprays. Redwood cones are about an inch long and each cone contains 14 to 24 tiny seeds; a pound of redwood seeds would number more than a hundred thousand. Redwood seedlings grow rapidly, more than a foot per year in good conditions. Young trees also sprout from their parents’ roots, taking advantage of the established root system.
Coast Redwoods form almost pure stands in some areas, especially on flat, silt-covered river and creek plains such as the Bull Creek Flats area and the Rockefeller Forest. Coast Redwoods are also found in mixed evergreen forest with the majestic Douglas fir, as well as western hemlock, grand fir, and Sitka spruce. On drier slopes tan oak, madrone, maple, and California bay laurel grow along with the evergreens. Rhododendrons and a variety of ferns are the most common under story plants. Other plants which flourish under the trees in the duff of fallen needles include poison oak, huckleberry, hazel, and many flowering herbs.
Mammals found in the redwood forest include the ubiquitous raccoons and skunks, black bears, Roosevelt elk, deer, squirrels, porcupines, weasels, mink, and the rare ringtails. Among the birds found would be the marbled murrelet or the northern spotted owl, both of which nest almost exclusively in old-growth redwood and Douglas-fir forest. Many visitors in the redwoods notice a common mollusk, the yellow banana slug.
It is generally believed that the last ice age limited the Coast Redwoods to their present range, a narrow 450-mile strip along the Pacific Ocean from central California to southern Oregon. In the redwood belt, temperatures are moderate year-round, and heavy winter rains and dense summer fog provide the trees with the water they need. This climate was far more common in earlier eras. Paleobotanists have discovered fossil redwoods throughout what is now the western United States and Canada, and along the coasts of Europe and Asia. Some of these fossils are as much as 160 million years old. Redwoods are relatively recent arrivals in their current region; the earliest fossil record in California is found in rocks less than 20 million years old.
A natural Coast Redwood forest is a perfect recycling system. The soil (like that in any high-rainfall climate) contains few nutrients; most of the substance necessary for life is in the trees themselves, living and dead, and in the other plants and animals of the forest. If trees are removed from the forest instead of being allowed to die and decay naturally, many nutrients are lost from the cycle.
Public Health and Social Benefits
Air Cleaning: Trees produce oxygen, intercept airborne particulates, and reduce smog, enhancing a community’s respiratory health. The urban canopy directly contributes to meeting a city’s regulatory clean air requirements.
Access to trees, green spaces, and parks promotes greater physical activity, and reduces stress, while improving the quality of life in our cities and towns.
- Urban landscaping, including trees, helps lower crime rates.
- Studies show that urban vegetation slows heartbeats, lowers blood pressure, and relaxes brain wave patterns.
- Girls with a view of nature and trees at home score higher on tests of self-discipline.
Climate change: Trees sequester carbon (CO2), reducing the overall concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Read more about trees and climate change here.
- A tree is a natural air conditioner. The evaporation from a single tree can produce the cooling effect of ten room-sizes, residential air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.
- Acting as a natural air-conditioner, lush tree canopies ensure that summer temperatures are at least 6 to 8 degrees lower than in comparable neighborhoods without trees.
- Tree windbreaks can reduce residential heating costs 10-15%; while shading and evaporative cooling from trees can cut residential air-conditioning costs 20-50%.
Water filtration and retention: Urban forests promote beneficial water quality and reduce storm water management costs.
- Street and park trees can intercept 135 million gallons of rainwater. Trees capture and slow rainfall and their roots filter water and recharge the aquifer. Trees reduce storm water runoff, which reduces flooding, saves city storm water management costs and decreases the flow of polluted water into the Bay.
Wildlife habitat: Trees provide important habitats for numerous bird, insect and animal species.
Communities and business districts with healthy tree-cover attract new residents, industry, and commercial activity.
- Homes landscaped with trees sell more quickly and are worth 5% to 15% more than homes without trees.
- Where the entire street is tree-lined, homes may be worth 25% more.
- Trees enhance economic stability by attracting businesses; people linger and shop longer when trees are present.
- Where a canopy of trees exists, apartments and offices rent more quickly and have a higher occupancy rate; workers report more productivity and less absenteeism.
Tree Benefit “Fun Facts”:
- Trees provide inviting and cool areas for recreation and relaxation such as playgrounds and parks.
- Trees create a tapestry of color and interesting form that changes throughout the year.
- The color green is calming and relieves eye strain.
- Trees screen unattractive views and soften the harsh outline of masonry, metal, asphalt, steel and glass.
- People walk and jog more on shaded streets, which encourage interaction with neighbors and improve the sense of community.
- Trees absorb and block sound, reducing noise pollution by as much as 40 percent.
Odd-shaped growths on a tree trunk are good indicators of internal decay. Tree decay is one of those inevitable things in life. By itself, decay can be a major concern, especially if found in a soft-wooded tree species such as silver maple or poplar. Fortunately, some species are quite resistant and if other stressors aren’t present in a significant capacity, it may not be as worrisome as other problems such as poor location, planting errors, over fertilization or drought.
Decay is risky
When considering overall risk analysis of a mature tree, a basic formula can be used to determine how much risk is posed by each specimen. Risk equals the probability or likelihood that a particular tree will fail times the consequences of the occurrence. The presence and extent of the decay is just one of many factors that lead to tree failure along with the tree’s ability to compartmentalize and slow its spread. The capacity to predict tree failure is limited, however, when many defects (root girdling, compacted soils, leaning, codominant leaders, cracks, etc.) are involved, the potential is greater.
The second part of the equation, the consequences of failure, can be estimated by observing the specific site details such as nearby parking lots, homes, commercial buildings, bike paths, driveways, school activity and churches. Simply put, any human presence or property of significant value creates a “target.” The consequences of failure are largely tied to potential targets, in that trees or tree parts that could cause their loss are directly dependent on their nature. Trees near important targets such as those mentioned have a high degree of potential loss, whereas trees growing in the middle of pastures are concerning only if failure occurs at the same time a high-value cow is paying more attention to the forages than to a falling limb.
Hazards versus negligence
All trees carry some degree of risk. A hazard exists when a reasonable level of injury threshold has been surpassed. In this case, we’re talking about tree decay as a hazard. If a small amount of decay is present, which is common for smaller trees or trees with a slow rate of spread potential, then it’s a low hazard and classified as something to monitor. If extensive decay is present and notable in rot pockets, in cracks, etc., then the level of threshold has been surpassed and a distinct hazard exists.
You have a duty to provide reasonable and proper care for trees. Negligence occurs when you have failed in that duty, and the failure has caused injury that caused real harm to people and/or property. In the specific defect of tree decay, ignoring or delaying action when a substantial amount of decay is present could be considered negligence.
Regular and thorough inspection
In order to prevent damage to people and/or property, it’s important to perform regular and thorough inspections. How often is regular? The answer is – to a certain extent – it depends. If your property has targets (most of them do), then inspections should be made more frequently than if no targets exist. The frequency also depends on the tree species. Decay-prone tree species should be inspected more frequently than those that naturally resist decay such as walnut, Osage orange and black locust.
Another part of the answer is frequency of use, somewhat involving the existing targets. For example, if the grounds of a cemetery contain a large number of mature trees, a target-rich environment is probable. While the target is high, in this case the frequency is low, as 90 percent of visitors pay their respects to the departed on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. The opposite is true for shopping malls and campus grounds, where lots of people are present during the day, and there are also lots of high-value property targets. On these sites, the desired frequency is perhaps not weekly, but monthly wouldn’t be out of the question. Bottom line: On high-value sites with significant targets all mature trees should be inspected for the presence of decay at least seasonally.
Inspectors who have studied trees for many years have most likely have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of professionals and scientists and would find that each one has a slightly different methodology to determine whether or not decay is present. Though it’s hard to say if one is more effective than another, short of cutting a tree down and slicing it into wood cookies, a step-by-step approach works best when inspecting trees for decay.
- Use your eyes. Look for rot pockets, oozing, weeping, conks, and different colors on the bark and branches.
- Walk the property extensively and identify possible targets. Interview the property owner and neighbors to get a handle on the frequency of use on the site.
- Use your experience. Certain tree species in certain locations are likely to develop decay. Locate tree parts that could fall on a target.
- Look closer using probing tools: golf club, rebar, and irrigation flag. Use a rubber mallet or the butt of a hatchet to tap the tree trunk where you suspect decay is present.
- If necessary, use invasive tools such as a resistograph or core sampler. Reserve these for important tree specimens. For example, inspecting an oak at the entrance to the “Harvard Oaks” subdivision or a memorial tree. If the property owner has plenty of money to spend on inspection, consider the use of a sonic tomograph, a device that can illustrate the inside of the tree without cutting into it.
- Consider the potential for each tree defect to cause failure in conjunction with the proximity of an important target.
- Put it all together in the form of a relative hazard assessment, combining the presence and extent of the decay with other defects.
The specter of drought is often raised in these early days of summer. And while we often fret about the health of our lawns and our gardens, drought resistance also affects our favorite species, trees.
So, we all know that trees need water to survive. Basically the many leaves on a given tree have these pore-like holes called stomates that leak moisture into the surrounding air. As that vapor exits the tree through the leaves it draws more water up through the trunk and branches, like through a bundle of straws. Harnessing the power of the sun, trees break apart that water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen molecules; forming glucose with the hydrogen and exhaling the oxygen into the atmosphere. The glucose is what fuels growth in the tree, from buds to bark to leaves.
Times of drought can present problems for trees, but it depends on the type of tree. Heidi Asbjornsen, a professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of New Hampshire, has been making close study of the effects of drought on trees, which will prove useful data to have, as she says “Climate change forecast suggests that in the future, although we’ll likely experience more total rainfall, we’re also expected to see more frequent and severe droughts.”
Asbjornsen has been examining the relative health of trees during and since the 2016 drought. She and her team were taking a close look at how certain tree species were performing under conditions of little rain, and scarce ground water. “We measured the amount of soil moisture; then we were also measuring the amount of water trees were taking up. This is important because when trees experience stress and they don’t have enough water, they’re not able to take up as much water.” Which means they’re not able to photosynthesize and growth is hindered.
Specifically, Asbjornsen’s team was looking at white pine and red oak, and they found that while red oaks were adversely affected, white pines really suffered. “We found that red oaks had higher growth rates during the drought than white pine, which makes sense because the red oak was able to continue photosynthesizing even though it was experiencing moisture stress.”
Dendrologists won’t find this all that surprising. It’s just a reminder that oaks are more recent immigrants; they’ve only been in New England for about 4,000 years. That sound like a lot, but remember the glacier cleared out of the region about 12,000 years ago, so that’s 8,000 years without red oaks in this area. Oaks are actually tropical plants that have slowly extended their territory north. And as tropical plants, they are more used to warmer and drier weather. The possible increasingly dry climate will favor drought resistant trees, like oaks.
Less moisture in the soil, means less water to convert into glucose, means a shorter growing season for the tree. As a result heavily stressed trees in drought will enter winter dormancy earlier. This alone isn’t a problem since most established trees can survive without photosynthesizing for up to a year. But a prolonged drought could create a cycle of longer periods of dormancy and shorter intervening periods to prepare for it, which could have significant on the landscape.
Pruning is the stock and trade of professional arborists. A well-pruned tree is a thing of beauty, born of skill and knowledge. Done well, pruning enhances tree aesthetics, fosters new growth, and mitigates human and tree hazards.
Make the right cut every time
Pruning can be broken down to a series of tasks, which can then be reduced to actions. The single most important action in proper pruning is making the cut. Perfect the cut first. Cutting as close to the branch bark collar without disturbing it and making clean, even cuts with no rips, tears or splintering on the finished product are vital so use of the proper tools, be it chain saw, handsaw, rope or block are important.
Have a plan
Pruning should always have a stated purpose. Making random cuts on any plant is foolhardy and wasteful. Pruning can accomplish many goals: health, growth, reduction, vista or sight lines, safety, aesthetics and restoration. But how these goals are achieved with the plant’s best interests and longevity in mind may differ greatly. Having a clear plan with priorities, guidelines and goals allows the arborist to envision the finished product, make corrections if needed and work efficiently. Quality control is also much easier when pruning specifics are laid out beforehand and observed.
Use sharp, high-quality tools
Professionals use professional tools. Not only will they last longer and make better cuts, high-quality, sharp tools are safer. Saving $10 or $20 on a handsaw may seem tempting, but how many will you go through making hundreds of cuts a day? How long will a less expensive tool stay sharp?
Good tools stay sharp. Sharp tools cut better and more efficiently, saving time, money and effort. Sharp tools leave behind crisp edges and smooth surfaces. This is the look of a professional. Hinge cuts and drop cuts work much better with sharp tools. Take pride in your work and in the equipment you do it with.
Think of the plant as a whole
Novice pruners often get caught up in the minutia of every cut, every twig, and forget the plant as a whole. If you’re pruning small specimens, step away often and look at the whole plant. If you’re climbing a large tree, have your ground person give you an outside-in perspective.
See if the thinning is even throughout. Check the branch structure: is it good for the species? A Japanese Zelkova has a shape distinct from a George Washington Hawthorn. Have you chosen cuts to accentuate the plant’s natural form? Is the crown high enough to discourage untrained would-be arborists? Details are important, but so is the big picture, and it is often the big picture the client will judge the quality of your work on.
Take time to leave the flowers
Timing is important for some species of trees and shrubs. Plan your pruning cycles around optimum times as appropriate. Also, seek to do structure pruning at times of the year when the structure can be better seen. (Some plants are susceptible to bark peel in the spring.) Take it easy on yourself and the tree. Prune before or after these times.
Don’t forget why many people plant flowering species: for the flowers. Prune to achieve maximum flowering through timing, thinning and other species-appropriate methods.
Plants have a history. From the day they sprouted to the moment you approach to care for them, they have been in a constant interaction with their environment. Look for the signs of this and act accordingly. A small tree next to a house may be thinner on one side than the other due to shading. A large tree exposed in an expansive front yard may have experienced storm breaks in the past. Trees may lean due to prevailing winds.
All these factors affect the health and well-being of the plant. The tree is telling you something. A tree that has had extensive storm damage in the past may need a more thorough, careful crown reduction than average. A tree next to a newly installed swimming pool may be stressed, but not showing it yet. Any number of external and internal histories can affect tree health.
Share your knowledge
It is often said in training circles that if you really want to master a skill, teach it. This is especially true of pruning. Vocalizing your actions to another when you prune will engage another aspect of your brain. Not only must you make a decision, you must explain why and how. This opens you to new possibilities in learning and growing.
Teaching new arborists will also remind you of the basics. Many times, going back to the simplest ideas and terms helps ground our advanced knowledge in the foundation it developed from. As with any skill, a firm base of knowledge and actions is required to advance. Teaching somebody else returns us to our roots.
Shift your thinking
Clients ask, “How do you know what to take out?” Arborists in training may ask, “Should I take this one out?” a trained arborist’s response would be: “It is not a matter of if it should go, but one of should it stay.”
When pruning, shift your thinking from “What should I take out?” to “What should I leave behind?” Once a limb is cut and cast off to the brush pile, it ceases to matter to the tree. What matters is what is left behind. Do not wonder how much should be removed. Instead, wonder how much should be left behind. It is this the tree will depend on for its future.
On bright, sunny days, everybody wants the arborist’s job. It’s easy to find fascination when pruning a large, fantastic, flowering tree or shrub. Remember these times and recall them on the dismal days when nothing goes right, the plants look terrible and your mood is foul.
Remember that what you do now will affect the plant until it dies. The work of the arborist must not only embrace the past and infuse the present; it must look to the future. Think of pruning not only as a skill or job to be done, but one to be mastered and perfected on a continual basis. Learn all you can, share it whenever possible and embrace the finer aspects of philosophy, planning and precision.