Taking the baton from Mike Mather’s beautiful article about making the decision to give back to the community by planting trees, I want to focus a little more on why that makes a difference. I am usually giving advice for a client’s front or back yard in the city that does not have a lot of room for big trees. I’m normally banking on my go-to suggestions of either a redbud or dogwood, two of my favorite trees. Although they contribute to the native landscape and local ecology of Richmond, Virginia, they add just a mere fraction of the potential of a mature shade tree.
Large native shade trees add an immeasurable amount of benefits to nature. Older trees collect carbon and pollution in the air at a much greater rate than younger trees, and the bigger they are, the more they can do. Their canopies support the native wildlife, while their extensive root systems can absorb more water to decrease stormwater runoff, and slow erosion. As we contemplate the planet and our responsibility to preserve nature for the benefit of all living plants and creatures, we ought to think about our own space as part of the bigger picture. This quote from Doug Tallamy really strikes a chord with me:
It sounds pretty radical in theory, including our yards as part of nature – but we certainly all love to watch the birds at our feeders, the butterflies on our flowers, and the occasional furry visitor. So we need to do our part to support them.
A simple way to plan for a better tomorrow is by planting trees today that will support our environment in the future. Your local nursery should carry a wide range of shade trees, like maples and oaks, and also offer suggestions for where and when to plant them. Large trees will need a lot of space to grow up and out, so make sure you consider the potential interference with all your structures, walkways, power lines, and amenities nearby. A mature white oak can get 100 ft tall and 60 ft wide, but certainly not within our lifetime. If you are going to plant one by your home, it’s best to plant on the southwest corner of the house to allow for the morning sun, but remain cool during the hot afternoon heat.
Lastly, let’s consider keeping our current large shade trees. They can not only keep your energy bill down, but they also add to the curb appeal of your house, increasing the potential price up to 10% or more. That’s a good investment to keep in mind when weighing the pros and cons of taking down your mature shade trees. They provide shade, a place for kids to play, or a place to picnic or relax out of the heat of the sun, sometimes up to 6 degrees cooler. If you just bought a house and you are unsure of the health of the trees close to your home, call an arborist to get some peace of mind about the structure and integrity of the trees and have a plan for pruning intervals if needed.
So you’ve decided to call someone to help with the trees on your property, but you don’t have a recommended tree company to use. Each company will pitch a wide range of recommendations for what you could do with your trees, but if you haven’t consulted with an arborist, you have not done your due diligence. Without proper information about your tree, clear and descriptive options, and an educated recommendation to make a proper decision, you could end up needlessly cutting down that tree your grandfather planted.
Becoming a certified arborist involves many years working in the tree care industry, learning a set of tree care standards, hours of study, and finally taking and passing the ISA Certifed Arborist exam. To maintain your certification, you are required to attend continuing education classes every year to keep up-to-date on the latest arboricultural practices. The tree care industry is a rapidly-changing industry, and it’s not always easy to know what the current advances are. This is the life of both a tree guy and an arborist. And while a tree guy is the caterpillar that is borne from the sawdust of learning such a complex trade, an arborist is a butterfly that emerges from a tree guy’s credentialed chrysalis.
It’s not always a question you might ask, but you might want to know how the crew plans to access the tree. If you’re not careful, a tree guy could leave small holes from the bottom of your tree to the top because they wore spikes or gaffs to climb your tree; a practice that is okay for removing a tree, but not a tool to use when pruning trees. It punctures the cambium of your tree, damaging the live tissue and leaving an open wound that is vulnerable to pests, disease, and fungus. An arborist is able to surpass this problem by using ropes in the upper canopy, and can also set up a cambium saver in the tree to eliminate the friction burn from the rope. No harm, no foul.
Damage to your tree’s health could get worse if a tree guy suggests “topping” a tree, an old practice that is still done today. A homeowner might just be looking for some safety in reducing a very large and mature tree, but what they’ve asked for is quite the opposite. A topped tree now has decay at every cut, with new growth that is weaker and more susceptible to breaking out. An arborist might suggest end-weight reduction on a section of the tree over the roof, or addressing specific limbs of concern with less invasive cuts. These options keep the tree healthy while still meeting the initial goal.
Information about spots, defects, and rot is important to note and consider when weighing the options for how to proceed with your trees, especially if a tree guy accidentally misidentifies something growing at the base of your tree. There are lots of fungi that grow in different parts of the tree, which would give your estimator a clue as to what is happening to your tree. I’ve had a lot of calls about what turns out to be slime molds, which are mostly just eating the sugars from the sap – an indication of nearly zero concern. However, if you had something called Kretzschmaria or “Brittle Cinder Fungus,” you could have a much more dire situation. If gone unnoticed or misidentified, your tree could fall from root decay, and this, unfortunately, happens when you are not prepared – and the outcomes have been deadly.
It might make sense to decide to choose a tree guy because of a low price. But having a knowledgeable arborist come out for a free estimate could turn into saving your tree and saving money in the long run. Honesty is not always the problem with selecting a tree company for your service; it just comes down to the information you have to work with when caring for your trees. Once you know what you are dealing with, how the work will be performed, and what options you have, you can make a clear decision on how to proceed with the work. Getting a few estimates from different companies always helps, just try to make a certified arborist one of those calls.
The tools for every trade change with the technology available. Most of the time tool selection has to do with a matter of efficiency, but sometimes the right tools can make the difference in whether or not a job can be done at all. We can change the range of what we are able to do, just by knowing what to use and when to use it. Here are a few tools we use every day in arboriculture that you could also use at home to do some tree work yourself, and do it more safely.
I’m originally from a city that changed its name from Losantiville, which means means ‘the city opposite the mouth of the river,’ to Cincinnati. The former name told us about the landscape, the culture, and language in the region, and gave us clues to what makes up the city and who lives there. It was thoughtful, helpful, and promptly thrown out after only 2 years in favor of honoring some Roman dictator that did nothing that’s related to what the city represents.
Naming cities and rivers and even trees can get a little messy, and mostly feels arbitrary. If you grew up next to somebody and have both been living in the same place your whole lives, you could either refer to Quercus phellos as a willow oak, or as a pin oak. You might be tempted to call an Acer negundo a boxelder, or ash-leaf maple if you’re a sap (pun), but we all know it’s clearly a ‘poison ivy tree.’ I’m kidding, but I have heard that before. So what the heck is up with all these names for the same thing, and are any a misnomer?
A blue beech is not a beech, a sweet gum is not a gum, and an Eastern red cedar is not a cedar. Worse yet, a cucumber tree does not bear cucumbers; this is getting confusing! These misnomers are the cause of a lot of disruption from time to time. Sometimes there are a few characteristics that both these species share, but on a closer look, these trees became distant relatives long ago.
Scientists will use the Latin binomial nomenclature for strict classification of trees, to communicate clearly about a specific kind of tree. Although I’m a professional, I find reading the Latin names of trees makes my eyes cross. It can be boring, like reading the phone book – unless it’s a crape myrtle, which has a type of beer in it’s scientific name: Lagerstroemia. I tend to defer to using the common name of trees in my day to day, just to keep things simple, but that gets tricky with every client I meet, and what they want to call it.
In the end, it’s important that we stay on the same page about our trees, or at least while you’re talking to an arborist. If there’s a miscommunication about a particular tree, you might end up planting the wrong tree in an unsuitable location, or contracting a company to cut down the wrong tree. And if they happen to cut down your family tree, no one will know where you’re coming from.
If you were wondering what that black stuff is all over your cherry and plum trees, in clumps on the end of twigs like tar, and in large masses like a burl, you are probably dealing with a bacterial fungus called Black Knot. It is caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa that spreads very easily and can destroy your plans for a delicious fruit later in the year. As my co-worker so eloquently put it, ‘it looks like a raccoon turd stuck on a branch,’ imagery that should in turn, get stuck in your mind.
These infections start as innocent-looking, olive-colored swelling or galls at a point of vigorous growth or at a fruit spur, turning black as it ages. Nestled in during the dormant season, it opens to release its spores in the spring to turn your beautiful ornamental fruiting trees into a sickly-looking mess of black mass mayhem. It spreads best in temperatures between 60 to 80 degrees, and can also spread with rain splashing to disperse the infection, sharing its despicable existence with all your favorite plum and cherry trees.
We can fight it though! Treatment involves pruning the stem’s branches below the affected area, varying from 4 to 12 inches past where the fungus is visible. The best time to prune is in the late winter, before the spores have a chance to open up and spread in the wind to new growth and wounds on other trees. The removed material should be burned and/or buried, and the tools need to be sterilized between cuts. You can use fungicides too, just before spring, but make sure you do it before bud break and on a regular regiment as to that specific species.
Don’t be a snoot, save your fruit.
Living in downtown Richmond has its perks, whether it’s the ability to walk to a concert or an event without having to deal with parking, or just to visit one of your favorite restaurants at the drop of the hat. You might agree that as you’re navigating the one-way streets, detours, and pedestrians, the one thing the city is not known for is its abundance of nature and healthy beautiful trees. I have learned after years of being in the tree care industry that some of the most amazing trees you’ll ever see can be quickly overlooked. Some can only be viewed from the range of half a block radius of a random downtown corner, the trees you’ll never see as zoom to catch the next traffic light or you’re busy checking the incessant alerts from your phone.
If you happen to be close to the downtown library at the intersection of 1st and Franklin, you can catch a glimpse of a pair of Magnolias I find to be stunning. The trees are nestled together on the northwest corner in front of the Garden Club of Virginia, filling the small space allotted to a bit of complimentary landscaping; which far exceeds their purpose. The elongated limbs stretch and lunge outward from the facade of the building as if some artist sculpted these goliath effigies to remind us of the wonder of mother nature’s arms pulling us back to something long forgotten, or the tentacles of an enormous sea creature ready to snatch the next car that passes. The way some of the branches swoop down to the ground to gently rest and then back up again, it’s as if it’s showing off the ability to go beyond the rules of what it means to just be a tree.
I admire these trees greatly, as I do with so many other trees I see in the city and around the Richmond area, and it’s a wonderful reminder of why I chose to be an arborist in the first place. These trees are not just hypothetically alive, but they are enormous living entities. I haven’t always been the best at realizing I need a break from whatever was distracting me, but when I take that brief moment to look up I never regret what I see.