Turf Wars: Grass vs. Trees

September 9, 2020 · 2 minute read
Turf Wars: Grass vs. Trees

I’ve consulted with many people on how to “adjust” their trees to allow the grass around more light and generally be happier. I do it, of course, but the problem is, I’m just not a fan of grass — at least not manicured grass.

I’m not really sure why this is. I like the color green, and I like things that are soft under my feet. I mean there’s no real reason to dislike grass itself. It isn’t poisonous or really have any offensive odor. In fact, I like the way fresh cut grass smells, I always have. But still, there is something that turns me off about “nice” or “manicured” grass. I think It goes beyond physiology to what exactly the grass is. I think it’s what having good grass represents to me. Good grass means being free of weeds and bare spots. Maybe free of any variances in color. It takes a lot to maintain good grass. It’s usually quite time-consuming or expensive or both. 

I guess that’s why I chose arboriculture for a career. Trees seem to hold some kind of mystery to me that grass can’t match. Mature trees have a story, and they’ve seen the changes that only can be seen with undisturbed time and patience. They’re wise. Manicured grass isn’t wise. It’s usually paid for, and sometimes it’s the result of the removal of those mysterious trees. A client said to me once, “I love the shade of my trees, and, anyway, the moss and clover are still green”. 

Before I knew there was actually a biological reason for it, I noticed while climbing around in trees that grass and trees don’t get along. They just don’t seem to handle being right next to each other well. You may think that a tree would have the upper hand because it’s bigger and its roots are deeper, but that’s not the case. Most of a tree’s feeder roots that absorb water and nutrients are in the upper few inches of soil. It’s a constant battle; Later I learned that another part of this invisible warfare is a sophisticated and intriguing phenomenon called allelopathy. Trees and turf both release natural chemicals that act like herbicides to slow the growth of surrounding plants. Also, trees and grass typically need a mediator like mulch to help lessen the chance of injury from the battle. 

So, sometimes it’s difficult for me to know how to respond to “We need to cut the trees so we can get grass” because my response may be unpopular and shouldn’t be what I may be thinking, which is: Why?

Taking an Unpopular Stance on Line Clearance and Our Trees

August 5, 2020 · 2 minute read
Taking an Unpopular Stance on Line Clearance and Our Trees

As a nature lover/tree hugger I loath the insult to our industry of bad tree work from self-described “professionals.” We spend so much time educating our communities on the right practices when trying to find balance in loving and caring for our trees while protecting the occupants under them. Because of this, my disdain has often been directed at line clearance workers. Like many, I can’t stand the one-sided, off-balance pruning leftover from the local power line trimmers. A tree couldn’t appear more confounded and abashed than after a line trimmer has descended from its canopy. I’ve met tree-loving clients distressed to the point of tears or in some cases cursing at the guys that climbed their trees. Trust me, I get it. I see their trucks set up in the neighborhoods, and I cringe because I know there’s an array of unsuspecting trees completely unaware of what’s coming. Sometimes I catch my nose in the air when passing them. 

But today as a thunderstorm started rolling through, I was doing what I always do and wondering how much damage will come from it, which then made me think of power lines. Often trees are the reason power is out. As arborists (and any tree guy), we get super busy with the storms. And line trimmers and workers get even busier. They might not physically hook the power back up since that’s the lineman’s job, but more often than not for the lineman to get where he needs to go, his tree guys have to clear the way and sometimes in some very rough weather. 

Without their regular maintenance we would be without power far more often. Also, trees don’t necessarily have to touch an energized power line to be dangerous. In the right conditions, such as a voltage surge on the line from a nearby lightning strike, electricity can arc from the power line to nearby trees. This electric current can then travel into a home and wreak havoc in the electrical infrastructure causing thousands of dollars in repairs and potentially causing fir. And anyone caught near the tree could be seriously injured or killed.

Many (line trimmers) have started to gain a better understanding of arboriculture and when they can, at least aim for correct pruning. Unfortunately to keep us safe, a lot of the time it just isn’t possible while meeting their objective, and we still feel like we’re left with someone’s cruel attempt at recreating a one-sided cactus.

Anyway, just give it a few more moments of thought before gritting your teeth and preparing for attack when these guys make their way through the easements behind your home. Their job is extremely dangerous and we’re safer because of it.

Plan On Native Planting

July 1, 2020 · 3 minute read
Plan On Native Planting

I see a lot of yards. I’d even say I “know” a lot of yards quite well. Many of them are beautiful, each in their own way. It’s strangely one of the things I look forward to most in my day — yards. And not really with any expectations of what I’ll see. (Usually, I’m aware they’ll have trees…) But because I’m always trying to figure out what is an attractive yard to me. I think that’s it, the unknown is enticing.

Beauty, obviously, is a broad term and is certainly all in the “eye of the beholder.” Is it the home in the spring with all of the bright colors from the dogwoods, the redbuds, the cherry trees, the fringe trees? Is it the manicured shrubs and green grass that would probably be more comfortable in my house than any rug that I own? 

And although it’s not as popular, in all of my visits, I think I’ve become aware of something that is at least beautiful to me; I like stuff that is wild and left alone. Or at least appears to be. And I like trees and plants that belong where they are. Once I noticed this, I began to pay more attention to plants and where they’re supposed to be. Native plants seem to move more and have more activity. In fact, there are all kinds of things going on.

So I began to look into why this is, and the logic behind it is really simple. Every living thing knows one another. It has trust that’s been built on many years of cohabitation. It’s easier, it’s safer. That, to me is attractive. These are four benefits of native plants that stick out to me:

  1. Wildlife doesn’t trust what it doesn’t know. Insects won’t eat foreign plants. They don’t even recognize them as food. Frogs and birds as well as other insects that eat the insects that we aren’t fond of (flies, mosquitos, aphids etc.) go away because the insects they rely on aren’t around. Wildlife can’t shelter within foreign plants because of all the chemicals it takes to keep the plants healthy.
  2. Native plants require 10 times less chemical maintenance to survive if any at all. Fewer chemicals are better for the earth and for us. I promise.
  3. They’ve adapted so they don’t need as much water. Another plus for the environment.
  4. This last benefit is probably the most dear to me. Really I could’ve probably listed this one and only reason as enough for myself: Native plants are less work. They’re fine with the dirt they have, the amount of water, light, temperature they receive and the bugs that visit them. They’re more resilient to disease, funguses and our spectrum of weather change. They’re happier!

A wild yard, to me is so much more enjoyable. I don’t care if you walk across my “lawn” after it rains. It’s mostly clover anyway and the bees love it, and I love bees (most of the time). And I know milkweed has a bad rap, but without it we have no butterflies, and I love butterflies too so I have milkweed. My four-legged family isn’t interested in it anyway. 

I get a lot of apologies when I enter “unkept” yards, and I laugh because sometimes an “unkept” yard is quite “kept”. I’m quick to assure someone that I think there’s grace in respecting what’s there without manipulation. 

I don’t think this is the most popular thought out there, yet but newer generations are busier and stressed and native plants are simple and simplicity can mean peace and we can probably all use more of that — even if it’s from a plant.

Post Storm Examination: Converging On The Quiet

May 29, 2020 · 3 minute read
Post Storm Examination: Converging On The Quiet

Storm season is here and many of my appointments are likely to be tree risk assessments, recommended preventative pruning, and inquiries for complete tree removals to mitigate storm effects and to help folks sleep better. But, I don’t feel like I’m called to nearly as many “after the storm” evaluations as I should be. I think the calm after the storm is such a relief to us that we forget to look up and identify what the calm may be hiding. 

A handful of my appointments will be to help identify why tree or branch failures occur on otherwise peaceful days. Obviously, there’s no mystery to why we find debris in the yard immediately after a storm, but sometimes failures occur without any real explanation, or at least not with any certainty.

“I don’t understand. We’ve had great weather for the past week,” a customer will say, “then all of a sudden I find this large healthy branch in the yard. Is the tree sick?”

So, this is what I’ve figured out through the years: A storm hits, but it doesn’t seem to create any immediate threat. In your yard, you see a nice big green canopy. The tree(s) look great, maybe even inviting you to sit underneath in the shade. But, it’s possible that somewhere in that canopy a stress crack formed and though it’s small, It gets larger every time there’s even a slight breeze. You may even hear an unfamiliar squeak up there. (If you hear popping, please get out of there) It might take a few days; it might take a few weeks. Finally, on a peaceful sunny day when the birds are singing and the sky is blue… Crash!

So here is my suggestion after the storm:

Look up! It’s easy and seems obvious, but the tendency is to examine the debris lying in the yard and the work involved in removing it while perhaps not paying enough attention to the immense and intricate branch structure above. This goes for outside the yard as well. Parks, streets, and sidewalks. Anywhere there are trees overhead. Look up and be aware of what’s above you.

Listen. Sometimes a limb that is compromised is hung up or resting on another limb. This can cause creaking noises from the friction. (Look up again).

Examine the tree’s canopy. Get several viewpoints of the canopy from different spots in the yard. What looks fine in one corner of the yard could be hiding something that may be seen from the opposite corner. Binoculars are an awesome tool for this. Look for branch patterns that seem out of place. If your tree has most of its limbs growing upright or maybe horizontally and you notice one that breaks this pattern, it could be compromised.

–Always have a slightly heightened sense of alert immediately after a big storm passes.

–Lastly, call an arborist. If you spot something and are unsure if it poses a  threat, don’t take a chance. Most arborists are happy to provide a walk-around assessment free of charge. I would rather point out something hazardous even if we don’t end up doing the work.

An experienced Arborists has an eye for what should be done and will give you options on how to best proceed. Their goal is to maintain the health of your trees and to keep them as aesthetically pleasing as possible. But the first goal should always be to understand what should be done to keep trees safe for you and your family to enjoy.

Should We Leave the Dead?

April 21, 2020 · 1 minute read
Should We Leave the Dead?

“Dead” is usually not a term we think of with a silver lining, and I wouldn’t normally phrase the question quite that way. Rather: Would you like the debris hauled away?

Seems like it should have an obvious answer, but the benefit of decaying trees and woody debris within a natural landscape is becoming more appreciated even within the outdoor perimeters of our own properties.

As folks see the value and importance of a healthy ecosystem, I find myself talking about it with our neighbors more and more. Healthy earth and the different species that grow in and from its soil is full of dead tree and plant material that is continually breaking down and feeding new plant life as well as many other organisms. Some of the liveliest of earth’s environments exist because of decaying, dead trees.

This understanding is not the most culturally accepted yet since we tend to associate the term “dead” with everything that is expired, old, or depleted and finished — in other words, everything that is unfortunate.

But in the natural world, death in so many ways is a beginning, an opportunity for new life to thrive. Understandably, most of us don’t live in a forest where nobody thinks twice about having large dead trees standing tall. And we certainly don’t want a tree that’s showing signs of decay looming ominously near our homes.

But if there is a part of the yard, further from the house that doesn’t perhaps get the periodic manicure. It can be a healthy decision to leave dead trees and debris alone to break down and give back to the soil from which they grew. Wildlife, too, will appreciate the abundant real estate available and, in turn, leave the living not-yet-finished real estate alone. I’m personally a big fan of this school of thought for all of those reasons. Lastly and to many, most importantly, it can simply mean less work which will translate to less decay in our wallets.

Pruning over the House: Less Can Be More

March 25, 2020 · 2 minute read
Pruning over the House: Less Can Be More

We love our trees and we love our home. How do we mingle the two amicably in a way that will last the duration of time (or at least our time)?

Richmond’s urban forest offers an abundance of positive qualities both environmentally and aesthetically. In some places, the canopy is thick enough that, if lucky, we can find our own cozy living dens beneath in its shade.

As an arborist, we often get asked for advice on whether or not to remove growth from trees that overhang a client’s home. The conversation typically goes as follows: “We love our trees but we want our home protected, so we would like everything growing over the house to be removed.” Homeowners embrace the idea that if anything breaks in the tree, it will fall somewhere other than on the house. Seems to make sense on the surface as it did to me early in my career. However, over the years we’ve found that what seemed like a logical solution, removing all growth over the roof, has the potential to do more harm than good. 

We’ve done many broken limb “rescue” climbs to remove branches over a roof that have fallen from somewhere high in the canopy of a tree. Usually the limb is either entangled in the lower limbs over the house or laying brushy side down on the roof and still attached to the tree. 

Because of this, we’ve noticed that this lower growth was helping to catch or slow the impact from the higher canopy limbs and usually with little to no damage to the roof. Just as often, I’ve extracted limbs out of rooftops and even home interiors that resulted from a straight free fall out of the top of a tree and I’ve heard many times “We’ve always maintained our trees…” meaning growth over the roof was always removed.

I’ve also seen the health effects of “side-walling” trees near and over the house and the harm that over-pruning can do. Removing all growth from over a house often means removing up to 50 percent of the tree’s food source as well as opening it up to pest infestations that attack it in it’s weakened state. 

Clearance between the roof and the limbs is important however to allow airflow and light and prevent the build-up of moss and mildew. So some pruning is definitely needed.

In a nutshell, trees with simple and correct maintenance, but not overmaintenance, can offer protection and provide our homes with beauty, character and, with a good amount of love, survive the duration of time.

“…Give me a home among the gumtrees

With lots of plumtrees

  A sheep or two, a k-kangaroo

  A clothesline out the back

  Verandah out the front

  And on old rocking chair…”  

John Williamson