Safety in Numbers

March 24, 2021 · 1 minute read
Safety in Numbers

If you’re building a home in a wooded area or already live in a home with surrounding trees, you’re almost guaranteed to have or will have experienced some attention to tree needs. If for whatever reason, your needs or wants turn to tree removal there are some things to keep in mind. If you have a tree that becomes compromised, then it could be an easy decision. If it’s more of a want than an obvious need, then it’s worth considering what else could be impacted.

Whatever your reasons, trees can be like groups of friends: Consider that there is safety in numbers. This is on my mind a lot with trees, and it’s especially true for trees that for most of their life have lived within a larger community of other trees.

Often, if there is an abundance of trees, the community will protect those on the inside (I know this isn’t always the case and, of course, many other variables can have an effect: construction, root damage, injury, etc.). But when you begin removing parts of the community, the supporting dynamics weaken. Trunk bases and root systems that have not had the need to become strong enough to withstand high winds find themselves exposed and searching for grip while trying to hold up their leveraging canopies that have mostly developed their branching near the top of the forest where the sunlight hits.

The ground that roots have always found firm and sturdy become soft and spongy in the absence of the weighted trunks with their roots under them helping to hold on. Adequate drainage often becomes a problem as well.

New construction is very often a tough test for a tree. Arborists visit many new homes with impressive landscapes and freshly rolled out lawns to inspect stressed-out trees left wondering where their friends — their community — went. Imagine walking out of the house to discover everyone on your block has disappeared. It might be a little stressful, you may even experience a little die back from the top down.

Anyway, if you are considering a change in your landscape with trees, consider the new areas of wind and light flow and what may be the collateral impact beyond your initial goal.

Saving Our Trees, Shrubs from Road Salt

February 23, 2021 · 2 minute read
Saving Our Trees, Shrubs from Road Salt

If it’s bad luck for humans to spill salt, then it’s probably even worse for trees and plants and our soil.

22 million tons of salt is dropped on U.S. roads every year. Most commonly used is sodium chloride (rock salt). It’s cheap, readily available, and effective. It’s what allows us to commute after bad weather and helps keep us out of the ER with broken appendages (or worse). 

There is a trade-off though. It all eventually goes somewhere, and VDOT doesn’t swap out their salt spreaders in the spring for salt vacuums. That leaves the salt to get absorbed into our soils and washed into our waterways.

Salt spray from passing cars lands on plants and trees and often causees salt burn. This can leave vulnerable plant tissue exposed, drying out developing leaves and flower buds. This isn’t evident in deciduous plants usually until late winter or early spring but can be seen in evergreens sometimes sooner.

Evergreens are among the trees particularly susceptible to damage from road salt.

Road salt is dissolved in runoff water and is broken down into chlorine and sodium which then displaces important minerals in soil. Plants then absorb the dissolved salts in runoff water instead of the nutrients they need, leading to deficiencies. Chloride ions get transported to the leaves where they screw up photosynthesis and chlorophyll production. Once this reaches a toxic level we start to see leaf burn and dieback.

If salt has accumulated around plants and trees from plows piling up snow, the salt can also absorb the water plants need causing a reduction in growth.

Late winter salt applications can be particularly harsh to plants and trees because the salt doesn’t have a chance to be leached away by rainfall before active root growth begins.

Symptoms of salt injury can include:

  • Browning of evergreen needles
  • Twig and stem dieback
  • Abnormal growth development (tufted or stunted appearance)
  • Delayed spring foliage or bud break
  • Early leaf drop
  • Reduced vigor
  • Wilt during hot or dry spells
  • Needle tip/leaf burn
  • Smaller than normal flowers or fruit
  • Discolored foliage

Some plants and trees are more susceptible to salt injury than others. I think for the most part our white and red oaks are probably okay, however many maples, pines, firs, spruce, boxwoods, dogwoods, hemlocks, and the pin oak (and many others) aren’t as resilient.

Since we probably shouldn’t lay down in front of the salt trucks in protest, I think it’s important to make sure that we’re doing what we can to decrease the bad luck felt by our plants and trees and try to get perhaps a little more water than usual to our vulnerable trees, like street trees, and plants after a particularly salty season.

Wildlife In the City

January 27, 2021 · 1 minute read
Wildlife In the City

The work of an arborist typically focuses on the safety and care of trees in urban and suburban environments, but when it comes to wildlife in those trees, our general hope is that we don’t run into it. Often it’s unexpected and can become an instant dilemma both in terms of our conscience and doing our job, and there isn’t much in the way of literature or documentation to give us direction on how to deal with it.

About 20 percent of birds live in cities. In the U.S., about 80 percent of people live in urban areas, and this percentage is expected to grow. While we continue to expand our needs for development and convenience, wildlife habitats continue to shrink and unfortunately, arborists often have a front-row seat. It’s nothing that any arborist I know likes to admit, but we’re not exactly without blame.

At the start of a job an arborist inspects the work site for safety hazards and strategizes ways to maintain safety while working. It makes sense that we should also inspect the job site for wildlife and how not to interfere, especially during nesting season. 

Homeowners can get a head start on this as well. If your plan is to have work performed on a tree and something is spotted up there that may be nesting or perhaps even protected under the law (which I think just about everything is except the European starling), then it may be just a matter of waiting a few weeks. As arborists, we can usually help with determining the urgency of a potentially dangerous tree and if that tree is providing protection for nests, then we should come up with a plan to responsibly avoid its destruction. In some circumstances, the plan may require utilizing an outside resource such as a local wildlife department and wildlife care center. Here are a couple of links for more information.

Injured Birds | Richmond Audubon Society

Found Injured Wildlife — Richmond Wildlife Center

As our industry advances, so should our efforts in conservation. I think that it will become a common practice in our business to implement protocols and training for wildlife habitat avoidance. Just as we desire comfort and beauty in our urban forests, we also have a responsibility to make sure that the unassuming wildlife we share it with is also protected.

Unruly Roots

December 23, 2020 · 1 minute read
Unruly Roots

There are some tree questions arborists seem to get more than others, questions that anyone who has moved into an older (or newer) home with existing mature trees is likely to have. Often because trees are planted as saplings, or are simply smaller during home construction, their full-growth size is hard to imagine 20 years down the road. A question, in particular, I hear often from community planners, HOA’s, and homeowners alike is:

“What can I do about the roots that are raising up my driveway/sidewalk..?” 

It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of bad advice out there from seemingly professional sites. For instance, “The tree is unstable and or overgrown…” or one of my favorites; “The roots have grown out of control!!!…” 

In actuality, your tree is rarely the culprit. Driveway companies often have one method of construction whether it’s asphalt, concrete, or any other surface. The problem is that what works on one type of soil may not on another. Some soils swell and shrink more than others, and as a result of poor design and soil conditions, sloppy pavement construction heaves and settles and roots will often follow the gaps created. If you add in heavy erosion such as we’ve seen in the past few years with record rainfall, it’ll take an impressive product to compete with that level of change.

So how can we know about soil variations? The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service offers soil survey maps that illustrate these variances. So, if you’re replacing a damaged driveway or sidewalk, ask the contractor what their method will be to decrease the likelihood of future damage. Is the design specific to the soil composition in your area? Alas, root cutting or tree removal may in fact be necessary, but I think more often it isn’t, and if you’re receiving advice to remove an otherwise healthy tree, get another opinion — or three!

A Season for an Arborist

November 16, 2020 · 2 minute read
A Season for an Arborist

I apologize ahead of time, I’m not trying to bring anyone down. I promise this gets better.

As it is for many people, late fall and winter is kind of tricky for me (this Covid reality doesn’t exactly help). With the “fall back” time change begins a sort of anxiousness as daily we see less and less sunlight. The landscape’s luster seems to fade into drab and dreary dullness. For some reason, this is how I’ve always felt this time of year. It seems like some of my tougher memories happened in the weeks preluding the onset of the holidays. I’m not sure if this is actually true or if it’s just the way my brain has associated hardship with colder more difficult weather (although, I guess Richmond has pretty easy weather. Rain can be a pain and especially cold rain, but our cars usually still start). I know there were tough times in nice weather also, but it just seems like they were more forgiving, like the sun would re-energize my optimism. 

Up until just a few years ago I was a self-employed arborist. As the cooler weather and holidays approached it meant two things: Less income and more spending. This was always stressful and difficult to try to balance. No matter how hard I tried, I could never feel really prepared. It seemed as the cozy blanket of the holidays warmed over everyone else, it would somehow leave me just outside the covers. But, now that I’m in my forty’s and approaching adulthood, I know this isn’t the reality. I know that it’s rare that someone can run out to the dealership after seeing an ad for a Lexus with a bow on it. But it does often feel like that’s what we’re supposed to think.

I said this would get better…

Things have changed a little now that I’m with a group of like minded people that understand the challenges of hungry tree guys. They’ve made a great effort, one that I’m extremely grateful for, to provide me/us with needed optimism and security, especially as work slows down and the days get shorter. This isn’t true with a lot of companies in our industry. But, being around a group of people that share in lifting each other up has made this time of year so much easier. I think what I’m trying to say is, although Covid has made it especially hard to enjoy company, try to be a voice of optimism for the people or person around you. This may just be a phone conversation, but I’d bet that someone you don’t suspect needs it. 

This time of year still isn’t easy for me. I still dread the cold. But, when I’m circling the rabbit hole or looking down a dark road, there’s a throwline that I’m learning how to grab and that I know will pull me back into the sunlight…

Hollow is the Heart(wood)

October 13, 2020 · 1 minute read
Hollow is the Heart(wood)

Is my hollow tree dangerous?

A hollow tree by itself isn’t an indication of weakness. Decay is the natural life cycle of many trees. Ancient trees have stood for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years full of hollow cavities, and most are strong and sturdy if there are no other problems or diseases affecting the tree. It is usually younger trees that carry greater risk as they can’t withstand significant decay. As a result, they become weakened. Healthy trees will continue to form what is like a “cylinder” of sapwood that maintains structural support to the trunk and canopy depending on the ratio to the interior “dead” wood. 

Of course, there are times when largely hollow trees are a risk. They may become unstable during the final stages of disease and in turn, become susceptible to wind and storms. It’s always a good idea to consult with an arborist if you have a hollowed tree in question.

Some trees live long and strong with significant cavities.

Should I fill the hole/hollow with something to prevent further decay?

The answer to this is no. Filling a hole means trapping moisture in and usually promoting rot. Also, there are likely other things in there that need to get out like insects and possibly even animals. Sometimes covering a hole may be acceptable to theoretically allow a cavity to dry out while keeping moisture from entering. Though while that may seem logical, I’m not sure there’s enough research out there to suggest that this is at all effective. Healthy trees have a pretty good system of walling off or “compartmentalizing” on their own to keep decay from spreading to other areas of the tree. My usual advice is to just leave it be. Personally, I like seeing little doors over small hollows for “gnome homes.”

So, if you have a hollowed tree that is otherwise healthy, it’s probably fine. However, as is always the case, if you aren’t sure, or perhaps it has a foreboding lean in your direction, get advice from a certified arborist on what best to do (or not do).

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