The storm season is upon us and we got our first touch of it this last week in Richmond. I live on the Southside, close to the water, and we got hit with some pretty intense wind, rain, and even some hail. The big red oak in my backyard held strong, but it got rocked around a lot and dropped every little piece of dead limbs in the canopy. I’ve thoroughly inspected the tree and have been all through the canopy for an aerial inspection this last year so I felt ready, but what could I have done as the average homeowner?
The time has passed for getting ready, as most tree companies are in the midst of the busy season and are scheduled out. It is also not a time to panic and cut down all your trees, so the best thing everyone can do at this point is to pay attention to some of the signs, call your local arborist for their professional opinion, and make a plan for next year. The signs are usually obvious and it’s important to listen to your gut but some issues can only be identified by the trained eye.
Included bark is one of the biggest and most commonly missed factors in storm breakage and tree failures. You’ll notice it very clearly once the tree has separated or split at a union, as you can then see that the bark on the two sections runs much further down into where the tree seemed to be connected. You’ll notice this beforehand on trees that have double-stem trunks that meet close to the stump or on every single Bradford Pear tree, where a visible line runs down from the union and sometimes manifests in a bulge that sticks out on the sides. You can consider adding a cable or brace rod, but maybe just some trimming or thinning in the canopy could help keep the union together.
Trees with basal defects are another big red flag. Most of the time decay on trees is fairly obvious with hollow spots, loose bark, or missing pieces of the tree, but other signs are a bit more subtle. You might see the fruiting bodies of fungus around the trunk and on the root flare and should look for anything from large obvious conk mushrooms to the black, burned-looking fungus near ground level ( Brittle Cinder Fungus that is very dangerous). These are all indications of a defect in the structural integrity of the tree and could result in whole tree failure.
Some of the more obvious things to look for and get advice on are leaning trees, trees with cracks, and dead trees. Leaning trees happen for a number of reasons, but most likely because the trees were phototropic and grew towards the light ever since they first sprouted. On the other hand, if the ground is heaving or you notice the limbs pushing against other trees, you should have the tree inspected very soon. Cracks are usually a bad sign, especially if the color of the exposed interior of the tree is lighter color, indicating it was a recent split. Lastly, dead trees are less likely to fall over whole, as wind moves through their canopies more easily without the leaves, but don’t discount the fact they will rain dead limbs onto everything underneath.
The less obvious factors to pay attention to are trees close to a recent land clearing, trees sitting in poor drainage areas, and trees with issues in the canopy. Tree roots that sit in water are prone to rotting and cannot grip the ground in the same way they can in firm/dry soil. The trees recently exposed to the wind, say because of land clearing in the immediate area, are not storm-ready themselves having grown up in the protected environments of a forest and not developed the proper tissue to weather the storm. If the tree has an issue in the canopy that is obvious, it’s worth the peace of mind to pay for an aerial inspection from a trained climbing arborist to give it a close look. An arborist can sometimes catch these issues during a winter inspection when the leaves are gone and you can see the skeleton of the tree.
Most issues with trees are brought to my attention by homeowners who are very inquisitive and keep a close eye on their trees. Please remember to look up at the tree tops, look down and around the trunk to the root flare, and know that your tree looks healthy and ready to stand against the coming weather.
This recent heat wave in Richmond was pretty rough, topping temps of over 100°F for a few days in a row, and it has a lot of people thinking about ways to cool down. You might immediately consider grabbing a cold drink and staying inside, but not everybody has the ability to escape to their homes to relax in the air-conditioning. You could consider other innovative ways of cooling the house by using reflective paint or insulating building materials to keep your house cool – but the number one recommended solution for a cooler home and surrounding area is increased vegetation and tree coverage.
I live in the downtown area of the city, and it is noticeably hotter there because of the urban heat island effect. Hot air gets trapped there and slowly emits, making the area 7 to 10 degrees higher than the surrounding rural counties. As you leave the city, the landscape becomes more green and lush, open to more vegetation and trees that can use the groundwater to cool the air. Trees have pores on the underside of their leaves that release droplets of water through transpiration, creating a cooler zone in the immediate space. And don’t forget the difference the shade provides, blocking direct sunlight. I was curious about this and decided to take some temperatures around town in different environments.
I ventured to Publix to grab a digital thermometer and decided to get the temperature of the parking lot. It was close to noon and the temperature read 89 degrees in the direct sunlight. The pavement definitely made everything feel hotter with the surface heat all around me. There was a Crepe Myrtle on a small parking island close by that I set the thermometer on briefly. After a few minutes, the temperature read 85 degrees, a fair bit cooler in the shade, but very significant for such a little tree!
Later in the day, I was out on the west end of town past Tuckahoe village in a wooded lot. There were a ton of mature trees overhead creating a fantastic shaded area for a few hundred feet. At that point it was later in the day, close to 1:30 pm and the average temperature for the day read that it had risen, but the thermometer only showed 83 degrees in the shade. I bet if it had been closer to the same time as the first reading, I would have had an even lower temperature.
It was a quick and fun experiment to learn about the difference trees can make. We tend to forget about the benefits of our trees and worry about the potential hazard a tree is when it’s close to the house. We trim or remove it altogether and find all this out the hard way. I will not soon forget what I am saving on the energy bill with my large tree, and continue to monitor its health instead of taking it down. This perspective really gives a new meaning to my cool tree.
You’re probably wondering what all this sticky mess is outside your house. It’s all over the patio and deck, and on the cars and driveway. It’s becoming a nuisance. You can’t sit on your furniture on a nice afternoon without getting it on your clothes and bringing it into the house. More than likely what you’ve got is an insect infestation very close to your residence that’s producing a substance called honeydew. It’s alarming but please don’t fret; it’s natural, nontoxic, and temporary.
Honeydew is excreted from sap-sucking insects or ‘phloem feeders’ such as aphids or soft scales. The spotted lantern fly is another culprit that is becoming a very prominent pest to our neighbors north of the Richmond area. As these various insects feast on the leaves of trees and plants, then drop this sugar-rich liquid that sticks to everything. The honeydew will collect over time and draw all kinds of other insects to come and consume it. Even fungus will take advantage of this opportunity in the form of sooty mold, which is the dark-colored coating on the honeydew.
Broadleaf trees such as tulip poplars and linden trees are prone to getting aphids ; whereas pecans, oaks, maples, and crape myrtles can get scale. The crape myrtles have been terribly infested with the CMBS or “crape myrtle bark scale” for the last 2 years. You may have also noticed the bark of the trees turning a dark color (due to the sooty mold). The honeydew will also get on the landscape beneath the trees, turning the leaves black so that the plants can no longer photosynthesize properly. This can cause long-term health effects and has been known to kill trees and plants.
Spring is the time when the sap is flowing in trees and plants, which brings all the bugs to the yard. The Aphids will come in droves, and their populations will flourish in the early to mid-summer after the spring showers cease to wash them away. But do not worry, because predators such as the wasp and ladybug larvae will show up soon after to eat the aphids and cut the infestation levels back down. Mother Nature is truly our greatest ally.
The CMBS can be treated with a soil drench, which is taken into the roots and kills the scale – but this process should be done by a professional. You can use dish detergent with a soft bristle brush to remove it from the bark and leaves. Use pesticides as a last resort, but the broadly-applied spray can kill the other beneficial insects in your garden and, as a result, have many unwanted side effects. Please consider Neem oil (keep this oil away from the bees) or White oil as a nature-friendly alternative.
Water is your best option. A spray can knock the bugs off of your trees and plants, and it can get the sooty mold off of everything by loosening the sticky bond. Then scrub with a brush or washcloth to remove the remaining residue. Don’t let the honeydew sit for long periods and harden, as it will become tough to remove. I would avoid using any harmful chemicals to clean, as the areas affected are generally close to trees and could get into the ground (and then get taken up by the root systems).
Whatever you choose, please remember to act responsibly in the meantime, and Mother Nature will deploy predators and rain to help in due time.
As we walk out into our yards and gaze out into the lush scenery the spring has offered, we may notice that some order is needed for the shrubs and trees that may have offered too much or too little this year. The last of the sleepy tree species have leafed out by now, and that lingering question of what is alive or dead no longer persists. Now you have to come up with a plan and you ask yourself ‘am I gonna do this?’ Here are a couple things to consider to help you decide what to do.
Time to get the job done – so what’s it gonna be? Do you have the tools, time and experience to get this job done? Don’t wait to do it, as those dead limbs and trees may start to fall on something important or expensive. Company is coming over for a BBQ and you still have a mountain of material in your yard, or that limb looming over the patio is making you anxious. So what do you do? Be safe, be smart, and don’t get out a ladder please!
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.