Support Your Tree

October 13, 2021 · 2 minute read
Support Your Tree

As trees grow they often develop areas of weakness or defects. In a wild setting, these areas are not of concern. However, in the urban environment weaknesses and defects can pose a threat to people and property and need to be managed. Most tree issues can be prevented when a tree is young through proper pruning, but for mature trees, arborists may recommend various forms of supplemental support. There are two very common tree issues that we see on a nearly daily basis.

The first is what’s referred to as a “co-dominant stem.” These are stems that are not well attached to the rest of the tree due to being allowed to grow in an improper way. They’re easily identified by a deep “V”-shaped union. Co-dominant stems are more likely to split off the tree because of their poor attachment.

A tree supported with brace rods.

The second tree issue we see frequently is what we call an “over-extended limb”. These are limbs that are growing excessively long in relation to the rest of the tree. Oftentimes they grow horizontally or downward, and most of their weight is towards the end of the limb. Over-extended limbs are more likely to break due to wind, ice, snow, etc.

What can be done to deal with these issues? As mentioned above, pruning a tree early into its life really does wonders for its longevity. And even if the tree is more mature, some level of pruning can be effective. Reducing the weight on limbs that have defects can help with the strain on the branch’s union to the tree. When pruning is not enough, a trained arborist may recommend supplemental support systems. We’ll cover three common support systems below.

Cabling supporting trees.


  • Support cables are a common solution for trees with co-dominant stems. Cables are attached to either side of a poor union with the idea that the cable adds supplemental support and limits the amount of movement and strain on the poor union. Cables come in two types: Static and dynamic. Static cables are designed to really limit movement while dynamic cables are used on unions that could benefit from a little extra movement. Deciding which cable to use depends on a variety of factors that an arborist will take into account.

Brace Rods:

  • Slightly less common, brace rods are galvanized steel rods that are installed through a poor union to help “stitch” it together. These are more commonly found in situations where the tree has formed a crack or the union being supported is fairly long. If brace rods are being installed, a support cable is almost always included.


  • The last form of supplemental support we’ll talk about is a tree prop. It’s by far the most simple in design. Props are usually used for low, over-extended branches and for small leaning trees. Think of them like a crutch for a tree, holding some of the limb’s weight to reduce strain on the attachment to the tree.

It’s important to note that supplemental support in a tree is not a fail-safe. Installing hardware is designed to help mitigate the risk of failure, but it will not prevent it. If you’ve got a tree with a potential issue, one of our arborists will be able to help you make an informed decision towards its care.

Trees of Virginia’s Blue Ridge

August 26, 2021 · 1 minute read
Trees of Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Besides my love of trees, I also very much enjoy riding my bicycle. This past weekend I traveled to the Harrisonburg area for some mountain biking. During my trip, I was reminded of the many different varieties of trees that grow in Virginia’s higher elevations. While there are many trees that exist in both Richmond and the mountains, there are a few that you won’t find here.

The point of this article is to help you identify some of the common tree species found in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Next time you’re up there, whether it be for a hike, a mountain bike ride, or even just some peace and quiet, see if you can point out these trees!

It’s obvious where the striped maple gets its name.

Striped Maple

  • The striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) is a small tree that can be found all over the Appalachian mountains, from Canada to Georgia. It’s very shade tolerant and can be identified by its very large leaves, especially in relation its typically very small trunk.
Chestnut oak leaves and an acorn.

Chestnut Oak

  • Okay, so the chestnut oak (Quercus montana) is somewhat common among the Richmond area, but it truly thrives in the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge. Richmond is right on the eastern edge of its natural habitat. Chestnut oaks typically like to grow in dry, rocky areas, typically on ridge tops. As a result these trees are not typically very large in this environment. 
American chestnut leaves and chestnuts

American Chestnut

  • The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) honestly deserves its own article. Once one of the most important trees in North America, the chestnut has been devastated by a blight since the early 20th century that nearly wiped out the population. Today smaller trees and saplings can be found in the mountains, but eventually they will succumb to the blight. Their telltale serrated leaves are a dead giveaway, as are their spiky nuts which can often be found littering the ground.

Yellow Birch

  • The Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) gets its name from its gold-colored bark. The tree has a similar shiny exfoliating bark to a cherry tree. It can reach heights of 60-80 feet, making it one of the tallest birch tree varieties in the world.

Herbicides: Kill Weeds, Not Trees

July 21, 2021 · 1 minute read
Herbicides: Kill Weeds, Not Trees

For many trees and shrubs, the summer months are a period of rapid growth. The same can be said for weeds around your yard. While it may seem like a good idea to grab a spray bottle of weed killer, it’s important to understand these chemicals and how they can affect your property and everything living on it.

Store-bought weed killer is an herbicide, meaning it’s designed to be toxic to plants, and that means ALL plants. During the summer, when herbicides are used most frequently, our staff often sees the effects of incorrectly applied chemicals causing damage to and even killing trees and shrubs. 

Herbicide damage to trees is often the result of improper handling and application of the chemical. The result depends on the severity of the application and which specific chemical is applied, but there are some telltale signs that weed killer is the culprit. Affected leaves will often shrivel up into a cupped and deformed appearance. New growth can be stunted in size and development and will be tightly clustered. They can often have a hard “plastic-y” feeling.

Once a tree has been affected by weed killer, there is little that can actually be done to reverse the damage. Remember, these chemicals are designed to kill vegetation! Depending on the severity, it is often recommended to wait at least a season to see how the tree handles the exposure. Watering the soil regularly can help flush some of the chemicals out of the ground as well.

The next time you’re planning on ridding your yard of weeds, follow these steps to ensure that there are no unforeseen casualties:

  • When possible, pull weeds by hand.
  • Spray herbicide on specific weeds, not over a broad area.
  • Never spray on a windy day. Wind will carry herbicide onto nearby trees and shrubs.
  • Avoid any chemicals on the roots or trunk of your trees and shrubs.
  • Try to avoid treating the area within the drip line of a tree (the area underneath a tree’s canopy).

A Sticky Situation

June 30, 2021 · 1 minute read
A Sticky Situation

Over the past few months, Truetimber has gotten quite a few calls to look at “sap dripping from trees,” covering everything beneath them in a clear, sticky film. Most homeowners are surprised to find out that the liquid isn’t really sap, but a substance called “honeydew” (no relation to the fruit).

Honeydew is actually the excrement of plant-sucking insects such as scale, aphids, and lace bugs. More like honey-“ew”, am I right? The most commonly affected trees in our area are maple, oak, and poplar, but typically most deciduous trees and many shrubs are susceptible to it.

While honeydew can be extremely annoying and messy, it’s not inherently bad for your trees. However, an excessive buildup of the substance can lead to sooty mold, a black fungus that coats a tree’s leaves and bark and makes it hard for the tree to photosynthesize. Over time sooty mold can affect the overall health of your tree.

So what’s the solution? The first step is prevention. Leaf-sucking insects typically feed on trees that are either not healthy or stressed in some way. Making sure that your tree is healthy to begin with is a great way to ward off these insects. If your trees already have a honeydew problem, you have a few options. While Truetimber does not offer chemical applications, a common method for honeydew problems is to treat with horticultural oil or an insecticide. The final solution is to release beneficial insects into your yard that will prey on the leaf-sucking insects. The most popular choice is the ladybug. This is a great natural approach that is extremely effective. 

If you’ve got a honeydew or sooty mold problem, give us a call. We’d love to help come up with a solution for your trees!

Mulberry Season Approaches

May 12, 2021 · 1 minute read
Mulberry Season Approaches

Late spring in Richmond means the arrival of a popular wild fruit: the mulberry. Mulberry trees can be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the city, from back alleys to front yards. Some might not realize that Richmond is home to three different varieties of mulberry, so this article will hopefully serve as a guide for their identification.

Mulberries ripening on the tree.
Red mulberry leaves.

The red mulberry is Virginia’s only native variety. It is found as far north as Ontario and as far south as Florida and Texas. Their berries are very sweet, and were a staple food for the Powhatan people before Europeans found them. They are much less common than the other varieties we will cover, but if you find one, be sure to try its fruit! 

A white mulberry tree with fruit.
White mulberry leaves.

The white mulberry is native to Asia and was brought to America by European Colonists looking to begin a silk industry (silkworms feed on white mulberry leaves). America did not sustain silkworms, but the white mulberry flourished and is now considered naturalized. Its ability to cross breed with the native red mulberry makes this tree very prolific and common. Its fruit is much more bland than the red mulberry’s. Whenever I hear someone say they dislike mulberry fruit, I typically assume they’ve been eating white mulberry.

Leaves of the paper mulberry

Paper Mulberry was introduced to North America in the early 20th century as an ornamental and shade tree. It has since become extremely prolific in the US and is often considered invasive. Its fast growth and shallow root system make it more susceptible to structural issues. It does not produce fruit, but in Asia, the wood is traditionally used for paper.

As with any wild food, make sure you know what you’re looking for before consuming it. Luckily, mulberries are usually an easily recognizable tree!

Flower Power: A Guide to Spring Tree Blooms

April 6, 2021 · 1 minute read
Flower Power: A Guide to Spring Tree Blooms

Today I want to help educate our readers about the trees that surround us. I’m sure that many of you have a good understanding of tree identification, but for those who don’t, this article is for you! Today I have listed a few of the most common (and most beautiful!) flowering trees you’ll notice around the city right now. Hopefully, after reading, you’ll be able to impress your friends and family with your newfound knowledge.

Saucer Magnolia

The Saucer magnolia might be my favorite spring-blooming tree. Unlike the classic Southern magnolia, Saucers are deciduous trees. Their massive pink and purple flowers are one of the first to appear in the spring. 

Saucer magnolia

Yoshino Cherry

Commonly known as the Japanese Flowering Cherry, these trees are synonymous with spring. Cherry blossom festivals are a common occurrence throughout the world this time of year. As a kid, I even got to attend a cherry blossom festival in Japan. Their white-pink flowers and almost metallic-looking bark make them easy to identify.

Yoshino cherry blossoms

Eastern Redbud

The Eastern redbud is a beautiful native flowering tree. Its vibrant purple and pink flowers have a color unlike any other tree in this region. You may notice that some redbuds produce flowers directly from their trunk and branch wood as opposed to new growth and shoots. This is known as “cauliflory” and allows redbuds to be pollinated by animals climbing the trunk and dispersing seeds. Fun fact: Redbud flowers are edible!

Eastern redbud flowers

Flowering Dogwood

Perhaps the most well-known tree here, the flowering dogwood is Virginia’s state tree. Dogwoods flower a little bit later than the others on the list, usually around mid to late April. The native variety has showy white flowers, but there are numerous cultivars with pink, red, and even yellow colors.

Flowering dogwood

Bradford Pear

The Bradford pear is an interesting tree. Blooming bradford pears are unmistakable. In the spring every inch of the tree’s canopy is covered in stark white blooms. You’ll likely notice flowering pear trees along roadways and in urban areas. This is because bradford pears and other related cultivars are considered invasive species. So while these trees do add a ton of color to the spring landscape, they’re oftentimes not supposed to be there.

Bradford pear blooms

A Pruning Primer

March 3, 2021 · 1 minute read
A Pruning Primer

Tree management is not a new practice. Throughout history humans have come up with myriad ways to coexist with our woody perennial friends. Still, our understanding of arboriculture expands each year, leaving many older methods out of favor.

One question that recurs from time to time is whether or not to paint over a fresh pruning cut. In the past, it was often recommended that, after a limb was pruned, the fresh wound should be covered with sealing paint. This would prevent decay and disease, encourage quick healing, and improve appearance. We now know these sealants have adverse effects on a tree. 

While it might seem to go against our understanding of wound healing from a human perspective, we need to remember that trees don’t work like us. When a tree loses a limb, whether from damage or from pruning, it tries to seal over the wound. It does not heal. So when it comes to covering up tree wounds, pruning sealant can actually slow this process down. Applying pruning sealant also traps moisture against the fresh pruning cut, which can exacerbate decay and cause health issues on its own. 

Pruning sealants are still readily available to homeowners at any home and garden center. These often petroleum-based products are also advertised as being great for sealing gutters and waterproofing outdoor surfaces. This clearly doesn’t sound like a good-natured product to apply to a living thing.

The best step to take with a fresh pruning cut is to leave it alone. It’s true that pruning cuts are often the entry-point for various pests and diseases, but the key to mitigating these problems is knowing when and how to prune your trees correctly.

Lean On Me

February 2, 2021 · 1 minute read
Lean On Me

One of the most common calls arborists get is to inspect trees that look to be leaning. As a homeowner, leaning trees can definitely be cause for concern. A tree with severe lean, especially when aimed at a structure or an area where people frequent can be seen as a liability that needs to be taken care of. But do all leaning trees need to come down? Usually, the answer is no. As arborists, there are a number of telltale signs that a tree is either at risk of falling or poses no real threat.

The first step when determining if a tree is leaning dangerously is to figure out why it’s happening. Is the tree actually leaning over, or is it just crooked? The most common reason for a crooked tree is that the tree is reaching for space and sunlight, usually because of competing trees. If this is the case, the tree has likely spent its entire life growing crooked, and, as such, has intentionally built its structure to support the lean. In my experience, this is the most common situation I encounter when looking at a customer’s trees.

So how can we tell when a leaning tree is actually a threat? The simplest way is determining if the lean is a new development. Was there a storm recently? Is the ground around the base of the tree cracked, raised, or sunken? Look up: Is there a gap in the canopy where the tree in question should be? These are all telltale signs that the tree has recently shifted and could be a potential threat. 

What can be done with a leaning tree? Well, if the tree is indeed starting to lean and is not just crooked, full removal is oftentimes the preferred solution, especially if the tree’s trajectory is at something of value. If the tree seems safe and sound, but has a crooked growth habit, we might recommend pruning excessive weight off the ends, so that as the tree continues to grow it does not get too heavy on the side of its lean.

If you’ve got a leaning tree, please don’t hesitate to call us. We will be able to properly diagnose your tree’s condition and recommend the best course of action.

Not all leaning trees are a threat to their surroundings.

The Case for Keeping Your Backyard Habitat Standing

January 5, 2021 · 1 minute read
The Case for Keeping Your Backyard Habitat Standing

Are you one of the many Richmonders with a bird feeder in your yard? How about a birdhouse? Admittedly both are common, but do you know what’s more ubiquitous (and even better for birds)? Trees! Trees with nuts and seeds to eat; and trees with spreading canopies and homey burrows. 

As arborists, one of our jobs is to help manage the urban forest in a way that, ideally, benefits every living organism in the ecosystem. One way we can do that is by leaving habitats for wildlife. 

It should come as no surprise that trees are an excellent habitat for animals. Our teams routinely encounter birds, bats, squirrels, opossums and raccoons while aloft in the canopy. When a tree is selected for removal, not only is it a loss to our area’s green space, but it’s potentially a major habitat loss for our furry and feathered friends. As trees age, their cavities, nooks, and crannies provide excellent homes. While some of these trees may pose a potential threat to our homes, it is worthwhile to consider which trees can be left or modified in a way that mitigates risk and allows for wildlife use and interaction.

So how can we balance the needs of a homeowner with those of their animal neighbors? One popular solution is to leave standing wildlife habitats. This is done by taking down a tree to a height where it is no longer a hazard, but leaving the rest standing for birds and other wildlife to make their homes. As the remaining tree decays, animals continue to utilize it for habitat and as a food source. At Truetimber, we commonly leave wildlife habitats in situations where the tree is recessed into the woods, or in areas where access to the tree is limited and more costly. Leaving behind sections of tree when possible means less time spent on the job and more money in a homeowner’s pocket.

The name of this website says it all. We at Truetimber are urban forest dwellers, and, as such, are stewards of the natural environment. If you’ve got a tree that might seem like a good choice for a project like this, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.

Pruning: How to Understand an Arborist

December 7, 2020 · 2 minute read
Pruning: How to Understand an Arborist

Sometimes arborist terminology and lingo can be confusing to a homeowner. One of the most common challenges as a tree-care advisor is explaining pruning goals without using too much industry jargon. Hopefully, the following will help you, the homeowner, understand some of the terminology you may hear or read in relation to pruning your trees.

Pruning cuts fall into three main categories: removal, reduction, and heading. Each type of pruning cut is used to achieve a specific goal and is dependent on the tree’s species, location, form, and health. All three pruning cuts create different results and appearances. When pruning, the size of a pruning cut matters. Typically we try to remove live branches no larger than two to three inches in diameter. Anything larger than this really needs a reason, as larger cuts can result in potential decay over time.

A Truetimber arborist hard at work.

A removal cut is probably the simplest to understand. As the name suggests, a removal cut gets rid of an entire limb at its point of origin, which is a larger limb or other section of the tree. This can be against a trunk, coming off of a larger limb, etc. The goal with this kind of pruning typically is to create clearance from a structure, allow for light penetration through a canopy, or when other smaller pruning cuts are not possible.

A reduction cut is performed by cutting back a larger section of limb back to a smaller section. The important thing to remember here is to always bring the cut back to a limb that is no smaller than ⅓ the size of what’s being removed. This helps ensure that there’s a substantial limb to help take over growth. This pruning technique is often used on the tips of smaller trees to prune away from structures or other trees where full removal of a branch is not necessary or recommended.

Heading cuts, also called topping cuts, are likely the most misunderstood. With a heading cut, the branch is pruned back to a limb less than ⅓ the diameter of what’s being removed. This cut results in excessive suckering (clusters of small weak branches) originating from the cut. With removal and reduction cuts, the final cut allows another branch to take over. With a heading cut, there is no dominant limb, so new sprouts form and compete with each other. These sprouts are typically extremely weak. So why would anyone make this cut? We save this type of pruning for very specific circumstances with a particular goal in mind. Heading cuts are very situational and species-dependent. Some examples of when topping cuts might be employed by a trained Arborist are hedge trimming, pollard pruning, and fruit tree pruning.

The arborists at Truetimber truly enjoy pruning. Next time we’re on your property to care for your trees, feel free to pick our brains. We’d love to explain the thought process that goes into pruning and how it can help achieve your goals as a homeowner while keeping our urban forest thriving.

Putting Down Roots

November 3, 2020 · 1 minute read
Putting Down Roots

With the wet year we’ve had here in Richmond, uprooted trees have been an unfortunate but common occurrence. It’s always a spectacle to see the massive wall of roots protruding out of the ground out like a big pancake, and homeowners are often shocked by the lack of a downward root system.

“No wonder it fell over” is something I hear often.

A common misconception when it comes to tree roots is that they grow straight down almost acting as a mirror image of the canopy. In reality, roots grow outward, stretching as far out as 2-3 times the spread of a tree’s crown.

Furthermore, most roots are typically found in the top 12-18 inches of soil — not very deep at all! Why is this? Well, roots need oxygen. In sandy, well-drained soils, trees might send roots deeper underground, as the environment is more oxygenated. When the soil is good, roots thrive and create a solid anchor for the tree. Here in Virginia specifically, we have lots of clay in our soil, which does not drain well and creates an environment less rich in oxygen.

In newer neighborhoods and subdivisions around Richmond, construction backfill, poor drainage, and compacted soil can exacerbate the problem of a shallow root system. A common situation I see when looking at a tree that has fallen over is standing water, a shallow root plate, and poorly draining soil. When the soil is less than ideal, roots have trouble establishing a good structure and anchor. Couple that with the saturated ground we’ve experienced this year, and you can end up with a toppled tree.

If you are concerned about a tree on your property, give us a call. We can help you understand what’s going on beneath the surface of your yard and help identify problems before they arise.

Leave Those Leaves!

September 23, 2020 · 1 minute read
Leave Those Leaves!

As autumn approaches, so does the impending leaf drop that blankets Richmond’s yards. Countless hours will soon be spent raking, bagging, and disposing of leaf material in order to achieve a tidy look. What many do not realize, however, is that leaves serve as a crucial component to the biology of your yard. It’s often better to leave the leaves!

Where possible, consider mowing over leaves in your grass. Shredding the leaves in this fashion prevents heavy piles of material from suffocating the grass, but will allow the smaller particles of shredded leaves to break down. Not only does this make the leaf material smaller and therefore easier to manage, the leaves will help boost your yard’s fertility. If you’re fertilizing your lawn, this is a great natural alternative.

Leaves are an excellent source of organic material for your trees and shrubs as well. If you’re attached to a leaf-free lawn this autumn, instead of collecting the leaves in plastic bags to be tossed to the curb, consider blowing them into your mulch beds and around the base of your trees. Keeping the dirt around your landscape covered with organic material throughout the winter prevents dry compacted soil. As it breaks down, it bolsters your soil’s fertility, which will result in very happy trees and shrubs. If you think your plants may have a fungal issue you should consult an arborist before committing to your free fertilizer. Certain fungal issues found in trees and shrubs can be spread through infected leaves, and should be removed from the property.

This fall, consider utilizing mother nature’s gift to your yard’s health. Not only will it cut down on time and money spent ridding your yard of beneficial material, but your landscape will thank you for it.

The Approach of Pawpaw Season

August 19, 2020 · 1 minute read
The Approach of Pawpaw Season

When it comes to edible fruit in Virginia, most people think of apple orchards and blackberries. However, Virginia is home to a unique fruit that is naturally abundant here in Richmond and often hidden in plain sight. What is this mysterious fruit and tree of the same name? The pawpaw. Pawpaws line the James River and are usually ready to harvest around late August into September.

The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is an understory tree that grows in well-drained, fertile soil. In Richmond, they’re usually found close to water. Native American tribes were known to cultivate the pawpaw, and colonial settlers were such big fans of the fruit that they often grew it on farms and made it into various desserts. Most say the fruit tastes like a hybrid of a banana and a mango, but the flavor can vary widely.

The author looking for pawpaws with his grandmother.

I recently purchased a copy of “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit” by Andrew Moore for my grandmother while she enjoyed an extended stay with my family in Virginia. As a native of California, she’s always been fascinated with our state’s native flora and fauna. A few weeks ago, we explored Richmond’s urban forest to track down pawpaw groves that might prove bountiful once the fruit ripens. It was truly a special experience getting to walk a rugged trail with my 90-year-old grandmother, watching her discover this tree and its fruit she had just read so much about. Luckily we found quite a few fruit-bearing trees and will be sure to check on them in the coming weeks!

As with any type of foraging, make sure you know what you’re looking for. Never eat something you’re unsure of, and never overharvest a location. Leave some for other foragers, both human and animal!

Here are some pawpaw resources, if you’re interested in learning more:

National Park Service on pawpaws

NPR story on pawpaws

All the pawpaw details from

‘Slime Flux’: Great Name But a Problem for Trees

July 13, 2020 · 2 minute read
‘Slime Flux’: Great Name But a Problem for Trees

Truetimber’s tree care advisors often get called out to look at a plethora of phenomena related to homeowners’ trees. This spring and summer, it seems like one issue has been the most common: bacterial wetwood

Bacterial wetwood, also known as “slime flux” (great band name!) is a very common occurrence. In the Richmond area, it’s usually seen in elms, oaks, and maples, although it can make an appearance in other trees. Wetwood is usually brought on by bacteria entering a tree through some sort of wound. Wounds can be anything from a pruning cut to an impact from a vehicle, but, according to the Morton Arboretum, since the “bacteria associated with wetwood are common in soil, root wounds are probably a major point of entry. Infection is usually confined to the inner sapwood and heartwood.”

As the bacteria ferments, it pushes liquid out of the tree, resulting in a wet stain. The build-up of gases fluctuates during the year, with the highest pressure usually found in summer when the bacteria are most active. Often this liquid will have a sour, alcoholic aroma, which attracts different insects to feed. I recently saw a swarm of bald-faced hornets on one patch of wetwood!

So is bacterial wetwood anything to worry about? Yes and no. While the infection can definitely affect a tree’s vigor and overall health, it’s not considered to be a fatal condition. Currently, there are no known methods to completely cure a tree from infection. The best steps to take to prevent and/or manage bacterial wetwood are as follows:

  1. Prune correctly, and during the right time of year. Any time you prune a tree, you are creating a wound. It is best to limit any pruning on susceptible trees (i.e. elms, oaks and maples) during the summer months, as this is when bacterial wetwood is the most active.
  2. Boost the soil health around your tree. Adding nutrients to the soil will help boosts a tree’s vigor, allowing it a better chance at fighting off a potential infection, or better dealing with a current one.

In the past, some arborists would drill a small hole into an infection site and insert a metal tube. This was believed to help release pressure and direct the flow of fluid out of the tree. Today this is not considered a sound practice, potentially causing more harm than anything.

The Ins and Outs of Air Spading

June 16, 2020 · 3 minute read
The Ins and Outs of Air Spading

One of the first things I do when assessing a tree’s health is look down. So much of what we as arborists as problems in a tree’s canopy originate from issues underground. Soil compaction, buried root flares, lack of soil nutrients, and improperly planted trees are some of the most common tree health concerns I see on a daily basis.

So what can be done to remedy these problems? Well, prepare to meet what might be my favorite tool in our industry: the Air Spade. As opposed to manual digging tools, an Air Spade allows us to control highly compressed air to move soil from a tree’s root system with very minimal, if any, damage. It should be noted that any disruption to the soil around a tree inevitably damages the soil’s microbiome. It is up to a trained arborist to determine if and when using the air spade is the right call. We use this tool for numerous tasks, some of which we’ll go over in this article.

Examples of Air Spading techniques

Root Collar Excavation

You may remember an earlier article entitled “Root Flare: Where Trees Meet the Earth”. In that article, we discussed the importance of a tree’s root flair. It’s extremely common in an urban environment for a tree to be planted too deep or for mulch to be built up to an excessive level, burying a tree’s root flare. Over time, this can lead to stem-girdling roots that can encircle a tree’s stem—or trunk—and prevent the uptake of nutrients. 

It can also lead to root decay, which can eventually lead to tree failure. Using an Air Spade to expose a tree’s root flare is perhaps the most common application for the tool. An arborist is then able to prune any roots that may be growing in a way that is detrimental to the tree’s health.

Truetimber at work with the Air Spade

Vertical Mulching and Radial Trenching

When a tree is looking less than great, another common cause is soil compaction. Over time, constant foot or vehicle traffic, as well as construction, can compress the soil around a tree preventing the uptake of oxygen, water, and nutrients by the tree’s roots. We use the Air Spade to decompact the soil in two ways. 

Vertical Mulching is much like aerating your grass. We drive the tool straight down into the soil, creating a vertical tube. This is repeated in a grid pattern around the prescribed root zone. Finally, we backfill these holes with compost to boost the nutrients in the soil. The second method is called radial trenching. In this procedure, the air spade is used to create long trenches that fan out from the root flare of the tree, and are then backfilled with compost. Both methods are designed to cover as much surface area as possible while still retaining the soil’s preexisting microbiome. Our arborists are able to make an informed decision as to which method should be used.


Occasionally, trees end up in the wrong location. Whether it be due to construction, the size of the tree, or simply to make way for something else. As an alternative to removing a tree entirely, an Air Spade can be used to help us move a tree from one spot to another. By exposing a tree’s root’s we are able to make safe pruning cuts to extract the tree and replant in a different location. While this can be a risky procedure, it can be worth the effort!

Some Air Spade projects are massive

Construction Management

Oftentimes when we see trees that are in decline, they are suspiciously close to some form of new development. This may be a new driveway, an addition to a house, etc. While the issue may be just compaction from the constant presence of construction machinery, compiled on construction backfill devoid of nutrients, many times there is root damage present as well. An air spade allows us to expose and preventively prune roots back from a construction project so that they aren’t destroyed by machinery.

Truetimber wants to see Richmond’s trees thrive. If you have a tree that looks like it could use some love, have us take a look. We might be able to discover the ‘root’ of the problem.