The Best Tree That You Probably Do Not Want

June 14, 2024 · 1 minute read
The Best Tree That You Probably Do Not Want

When I get asked “what is your favorite tree?”  I don’t usually think of a whole species, I think of one individual tree.  My favorite individual tree changes on a whim, but there is one that frequently comes to mind.  On the North edge of Richmond behind John Marshall High School there is a catalpa tree in Roy West Park that is a personal favorite.  It has a beautiful root flair and lean which makes it so you can walk up into the tree with a little balance, and bravery.

Many people ask what a favorite tree is because they are thinking of planting one.  A catalpa is probably not the right tree for your spot.  Every catalpa tends to have it’s own unique shape.  Every tree is messy, but catalpa trees are MESSY.  The flowers, and seed pods are a lot, but as an extra bonus, some summers catalpa worms will completely defoliate a tree, and leave behind a generous amount of caterpillar poop.  The trees bounce back with another flush of leaves, but for a while you have a bare tree in summer.

On the positive side; catalpas are big enough to be a nice shade tree with big heart shaped leaves.  They also have flowers beautiful enough to be considered ornamental.  The catalpa worms are also reported to be great for large mouth bass fishing. There are 2 species of catalpa that are both native to eastern North America.

Catalpa trees are a great example of a fantastic tree that needs the right kind space to be a good tree.  If you have a large space that can get messy, this may be the tree for you. 

Do you have a “Stumpy” tree?

April 5, 2024 · 1 minute read
Do you have a “Stumpy” tree?

You have probably heard of Stumpy, one of the most famous trees of this moment. If not a quick Google search with “Stumpy” and “Tidal Basin” and you can catch up on this tree in the spotlight. Stumpy is not a record-holding tree. It is not a historically significant tree.  

Stumpy is just a small decaying Yoshino cherry that only has one small live branch that flowers and leaves out. How did it get so popular  Knowing that it needs to be removed to make improvements to the tidal basin has probably helped this tree’s fame. However, stumpy has had a following on Reddit for at least 4 years. Stumpy was popular before its scheduled demise.

Stumpy shows tenacity. The tree’s root system is flooded twice a day.  It shows a ridiculous amount of decay. It doesn’t seem to produce enough leaves to keep a tree alive. And yet, this tree continues not just to survive, but put on a nice show of blossoms. This tree is a physical representation of tenacity and endurance.

Maybe you have a stumpy in your yard. You may have a tree with advanced decay, and a lot of dieback, that still persists. It may be an ornamental tree that would not cause harm if it fell.  Maybe its a larger tree in a quiet part of your yard. Somebody has probably told you it should be removed, but really, should it?

If you have a “Stumpy” tree in your yard, it may not be a classic example of aesthetic appearance. However, you may enjoy its beauty on another level. Declining trees that keep on hanging on can be symbols of grit that can give us inspiration. If there is little to no risk in leaving a tree like this in your yard, well, find your own nickname for your tree and enjoy it.


What’s in a name?

February 22, 2024 · 2 minute read
What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;”

Juliette tries to wish and pretend that names do not matter. Those who are familiar with the tale of Romeo and Juliette are well aware that this is not the case. 

There are many trees with dubious names:

Tulip Poplar: Not a tulip, not a poplar.

Tree of Heaven: I’m not sure what this says about the afterlife.

Red Maple: Sure it has red flowers, red stems, and red fall colors, but some Japanese maples are MORE red.

Those names don’t actually bother me that much. The tree names that I would love to change are the trees that are much better than their name implies. Juliette wished Romeo had a different name, but would he have caught the attention of Juliette if his name was Moe, Larry, or Curly? Probably not. I think the following trees are worthy of better titles.

Swamp white oak:

Quercus bicolor is a beautiful oak tree. It is an underused native oak with good form and deeply textured flaking bark. It is bicolor because the leaves are deep green above and silvery white underneath. It is a beautiful tree that thrives in compacted urban and residential soils. For a few of us its first name “swamp” conjures a beautiful wooded wetland, but most people don’t want a swamp tree in their yard. They will leave this tree for Shrek and Donkey. Frequently, when I suggest this tree to a customer, I see a pained look on their face, as if I just told an inappropriate joke.

Black gum:

Nyssa sylvatica has the misfortune that it shares its last name with a much-hated tree, the sweet gum. You can explain to people that it does not produce spiny seed pods and that it is not even related to sweet gum trees, but once they hear “gum” this tree is not given a chance. Blackgums are beautiful native trees that grow larger than most ornamental trees, but not as large as most shade trees. It nicely fills the niche of a small shade tree. It has waxy green leaves in the spring and stunning fall colors. Maybe we should start using a family name for the tree: Tupelo.  


Celtis occidentalis is a common tree. If you have trees growing in your fence line, chances are good, that at least one of them is a hackberry. Because it readily grows in fallow areas, many consider it a weed tree. The fact that it can tend to grow where it isn’t wanted probably helps it gain weed status, but hackberry trees can be great in the right location.

Hackberry trees have beautiful smooth grey bark with cork ridges. They are well known for thriving in urban soils where other trees languish. Perhaps they would be a more popular tree if we used a lesser-known name for them; Sugarberry.

Names do matter to us. But if you are looking for a tree to plant, there are benefits to looking past a tree’s moniker and exploring the traits the tree will have as it matures. Feel free to call it whatever you like.

Invasive Learning

January 12, 2024 · 1 minute read
Invasive Learning

If you have a little natural space in your backyard in Richmond, it most likely falls into one of two categories.  It is either being maintained to keep invasive plant species under control, or it has invasive plants taking over the space.  

If you have a lot of invasive plants, like the English ivy in these trees, it can seem overwhelming.  It can be difficult to even know where to start.

Understanding of invasive plants, and recognizing some of them in your yard is a good first step.  Knowing how you are going to manage them is a big “next step.”  If you have any interest in learning about invasive plants and managing them, but don’t know how to start, consider volunteering with the James River Parks System Invasive Plant Task Force.,river%20and%20its%20park%20system.

The mission of the James River Invasive Plant Task Force is to foster a thriving park ecosystem through invasive plant species management, restoration of native plant communities, public awareness, and citizen involvement.  The volunteer opportunities they provide are a great way to give some time to the park.  I think the volunteer sessions are great training opportunities.

A section of woods at Huguenot Flatwater has had winter creeper vines cut to benefit the native forest. 

Volunteering for the invasive species task force is a great way to learn about how to tackle invasive species.  As an Arborist with decades of experience and training, I think I know a lot about plants, but I learn something new whenever I spend a few hours volunteering with the team to remove invasive species in the James River Parks system.  

Volunteering in the parks, you can learn which plants to focus on removing.  You get to learn how to get rid of the invasive plants, with minimal impact on the plants that you want to keep.  As a bonus, you get to help out the parks.  Plus, as an extra bonus, it’s fun. 

The task force has several target areas along the James River in Richmond.  There are volunteer opportunities during the week and on the weekends.  You can check out the calendar and find a date to sign up here:

Let’s talk about leaf blowers

December 1, 2023 · 1 minute read
Let’s talk about leaf blowers

Leaf blowers can be an uncomfortable subject in the green industry. People and companies who use leaf blowers know them as an irreplaceable tool in yard maintenance. People and communities who oppose leaf blowers will cite a list of problems that they cause.

Full disclosure: Truetimber uses backpack blowers. Tree work is messy. Leaf blowers do the final clean up from pruning and removing trees more quickly, and more thoroughly, and with less damage to grass and landscape plants than raking. Leaf blowers move a lot of small material with minimal impact on yards and landscapes. However, we all should recognize that this useful tool does come with some costs.

Most gas-powered leaf blowers have 2-stroke engines. These small engines put a lot of power in a small portable package. The downside of these engines is emissions. 2-stoke engines have a significant amount of unburnt gas and oil in their exhaust. They also do not have catalytic converters like your car does to clean the exhaust. The pollution that they create is different from a car, but some compare the pollution from 1 hour of leaf blowing to 1,100 miles of driving in a car.

Leaf blowers also create an issue with airborne dust. Depending on the season and location, this dust can have mold spores, pollen, dried pet feces, and pesticides.

Leaf blowers are noisy. A leaf blower operator can use hearing protection, but the noise may be more than an annoyance to neighbors. Some argue that the 55 decimal plus noise of leaf blowing in a neighbor’s yard can lead to tinnitus and arterial hypertension.

This tension between the usefulness of leaf blowers and the issues they cause is real and growing. Over 200 municipalities in the country have some level of restriction on leaf blowers. Some have banned gas-powered leaf blowers altogether.

There are alternatives that can lower the impact. Inexpensive battery-powered leaf blowers can handle a lot of jobs with minimal pollution and a lot less noise. Mulching lawnmowers can recycle a lot of the leaves back into your yard. Some people choose to let the leaves stay in at least some parts of their yard to improve soil conditions and create habitat.

Before any of us fire up a leaf blower, we should at least recognize the problems they cause and consider alternatives.

Splitting Wood

October 27, 2023 · 2 minute read
Splitting Wood

I have had a discussion a few times with friends and co-workers:  Is splitting firewood recreational or is it work; to put it simply, is firewood splitting fun? I fall into the “fun” camp.  Admittedly, this is from a privileged perspective. The fires that I have split wood for are campfires, backyard fire pits, and fireplaces that are in houses otherwise heated by electricity or natural gas. The people who have to cut and split cords of wood as their primary heat source tend to fall into the “work/ not fun” camp.

At this point, there is very little reason for me to cut and split wood. I don’t need to have wood fires to stay warm or cook. If I choose to burn wood, I could certainly buy it, but there can be great rewards in time spent with a pile of wood and a splitting maul. 

Aldo Leopold wrote “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”  He wrote that at a time when a person would at least get a physical paper check for their work and have to write a check to buy oil for a furnace. Now, much of this happens electronically and we can think even less about what it takes to have food on the table and a warm house in the winter. Every once in a while getting heat from hard labor and something that grew from the earth can reconnect us with our world.  

Beyond that connection, there can be a lot of satisfaction in pounding a splitting maul on a piece of stubborn wood until it splits in two.  

A few notes on splitting wood:

Splitting wood is a lot of work. So is getting wood cut to fireplace length and getting it to your backyard for splitting. Tree companies may charge more to cut firewood and leave it than to haul it away, simply because it takes longer. Finding wood to split can be tricky. If you keep your eye out when you see tree work is being done, sometimes you can find a little here and there.  Ask first before taking wood.

Spitting wood is messy. A wood-spitting area will not fit well in a tidy landscape. It will trash your grass.  

Not all wood is created equal. If you have a source of wood, make sure it is good to split and burn. Some wood is ridiculously hard to split (elm). Some wood does not burn clean (pine.)  

Hand-splitting wood is hard physical labor. If your doctor doesn’t want you shoveling snow in the winter, she probably will not be thrilled if you tell her that you have picked up wood splitting as a new hobby.


Tree Reunion

September 6, 2023 · 2 minute read
Tree Reunion

Think back to the last time you saw somebody’s child for the first time in years. In your memory, she is still a baby. Now, when you meet her, she is in elementary school, and speaks in remarkably complete sentences. You say something about how she is all grown up and no longer a baby, and maybe you are feeling a little guilty for staying away for so long. She feels awkward, because most kids don’t know what to do when somebody they don’t remember brings up their infant years.

I found myself having a moment like that, except with a couple of trees instead of children. I knew these trees well when they were new plantings. Earlier this summer, I visited St. Paul. It is where I lived before spending the last 20 years in Midlothian. I regret to say: I have not gotten back to St. Paul as often as I thought I would when we left.

One of the first things I did when I got into St. Paul was take a walk around the old neighborhood. I have only been there twice since we left 20 years ago. As I walked down the street I used to live on, I saw the maple and basswood in the front yard of my old house – I stopped and stared. I could have made some comment about remembering when I brought them home in pots in the back of my pickup. These are trees that I planted when we lived there. I did not spend a lot of years with these trees, but I remember planting them. I remember looking at them every day when I stepped out the front door.

I planted both trees, but I feel a special connection with the maple tree. I planted it the spring my daughter was born. It is now a beautiful shade tree that is evidently loved by the current occupants.

We left St. Paul and our young trees when my daughter was almost 4 years old. My mind reeled with what the tree has become in 20 years.

The maple is a hybrid silver maple/red maple, an “Autumn Blaze” if I recall. It wasn’t necessarily the best tree for the location, but it wasn’t the worst. Also, my boss gave it to me, and I am grateful for that. Money can be tight when you have a new infant in the house.

I actually thought that if this tree gets too big for this space, I would just cut it down and plant another tree. As a young arborist, I may have known the tangible benefits of trees; shade, habitat, and improved property value. I, however, grossly underestimated the emotional attachment humans can have for trees. I am glad there is still space for the maple to grow in front of the house. I am grateful for the people who live there, for showing the tree so much love.

If there are some trees that you remember from your distant past that you have not seen in a while, pay them a visit. Sit in their shade for a bit and see if they bring back memories.

Pawpaw Trials

July 27, 2023 · 3 minute read
Pawpaw Trials

To say I had a half-baked idea is generous. Metaphorically, I didn’t turn on the oven.  I didn’t even open the recipe book.

Late last summer, I harvested a couple of pawpaws on a trail run. Usually, when I find a ripe pawpaw on the trail, I pick apart the fruit on the spot, to get a sweet little snack, and inevitably coat my hands and face generously with pawpaw goo. This time, I decided to pocket these fruits and take them home. While enjoying the fruit in the backyard, I decided to plant the seeds.  While still sticky from the paw paw, I gathered up some potting soil, and compost, stirred them up, and stuck them in a pot. The seeds were put on the soil, then some old leaves were scattered on top. Everything got watered in well and put to the side in the backyard. I figured that this is more or less how pawpaws are planted in the woods, it ought to work here.

Since these fruit trees grow in the shade, they should be a good fruit tree for my backyard.  I love the shade that my backyard trees provide, but that shade has made many of my gardening attempts fail. Pawpaw may be able to provide a little fruit where other garden plants fail.

After planting the seeds, I did a little research online. Pawpaw seedlings need shade, but after a year they can grow in full sun. Full sun will give more fruit, but they will grow some fruit in the shade. The trees along the James have shown that.  

The online references also suggested scarifying the seeds, and stratification. Scarification is scratching the shell of the seed, but not the seed itself. This seems like a lot for my half-baked idea. I decided to leave the seeds in the pot as is. Stratification is subjecting the seeds to cold, so the seeds got to stay in a pot outside last winter; which was going to happen anyway. 

I am not looking to grow a pawpaw orchard to give a bountiful harvest. I have more modest aspirations of watching a tree grow from seed, then someday being able to shake that tree in my backyard and get a couple of pieces of fruit. This will give me a little seasonal flavor. It is a sign that the days are getting shorter and fall is coming. 

This spring, I checked the pot frequently. There was a bit of excitement watching a seedling come out of the soil, then disappointment when my misidentified seedling unfolded its sweet gum leaves. A few more spring weeds got my hopes up, by sprouting in the pot, then crushed my dreams by not being pawpaw. After some spring watering and weeding, I kind of gave up on the little pawpaw experiment sometime in May.  

It seems like the pawpaw seedlings thrive on neglect; and summer rains. After a month or two of being forgotten, I checked the pot and several seedlings have sprouted. At first, I thought it was probably just another batch of weeds. A closer leaf inspection showed promise. Then I saw that one plant had not yet successfully shed the husk of the pawpaw seed, a sure sign that I have succeeded in my first step of growing pawpaw.

There are multiple seedlings, which is good. Pawpaw trees do not normally pollinate themselves.

This fall the seedlings will be bare-rooted and planted in the backyard. The online references recommend spring planting, but I probably will not wait. Why start following a recipe now?

These seedlings have a good chance of never bearing fruit. If they do, it won’t happen for another 5-8 years. If getting the fruit was important, I would be much better off buying some pawpaw trees. This is more of a slow journey. Watching seeds slowly grow into trees over the years will be more rewarding than the fruit that they may bear.       

Trees Are Messy

June 14, 2023 · 3 minute read
Trees Are Messy

Let’s just put this out there right from the beginning: I love trees, but they are messy. We are far from autumn, but If you have birches or tulip poplars, you will probably start to have leaves drop in the coming weeks when the temperature climbs. Once oaks and beech trees start losing leaves in the fall, they will continue to have them drop through most of the winter. Some trees like magnolias never really stop dropping their leaves. Then there are dead twigs, pollen, flowers, seeds, squirrel chewing, honey dew from aphids, and scale insects.

Without going into the nasty details, humans (or any animal) do not thrive living in their own messes. Being clean is part of being healthy. On the other hand, trees live well in their own detritus. Occasionally trees can have a leaf disease (which is when you should pick up leaves), but most of the time, the mess a tree makes just improves the soil it depends on. We do not clean up tree messes for them. We do it for ourselves.

If you live with trees, you need to deal with messes. You will either need to live with a certain amount of tree clutter, or be realistic knowing that you have a lot of work ahead keeping things tidy. The following are a few approaches to take:


Green grass to the base of the tree

Green grass to the base of the tree

A lot of people love the look of a finely-manicured lawn, with grass growing to the base of large shade trees. It is an impressive look. This is a high maintenance approach. Almost everything that falls from these trees is picked up. You will need to either spend a lot of time keeping your yard this way, or pay somebody to do it. If you don’t want to invest a lot of time or money in your yard, this probably isn’t for you. It can also be very challenging, and some say impossible, to have healthy trees and healthy grass living together like this.


Hardwood mulch and grass

Hardwood mulch and grass

Give the trees some area to be a little messy. The mulch will improve the soil around the tree. A few leaves, acorns and small sticks don’t look too bad in this bed, allowing a clean look without as much clean-up effort.


Dyed mulch at the tree base

Dyed mulch

Dyed mulch has a lot of curb appeal when it goes down, but everything the tree drops shows up in the mulch bed. Non-dyed mulch blends may not be as striking, but they do not need to be cleaned out as much for a tidy look.


Separation of woods and lawn

Separation of woods and lawn

This is a naturalized look. It’s not neat and tidy, but it suits some people just fine. This is a lower-maintenance option. The forest mess will spill into the yard, but it is easy to rake or blow it back. You can choose how much you want to clean up the woods. If your wooded area has a lot of invasive plants, it may be a struggle to keep up an area like this.


Wood chips and somewhat neglected grass

Wood chips and somewhat neglected grass

Wood chips don’t look as nice as shredded mulch, but the varied texture of wood chips hide tree messes better than mulch. This lawn doesn’t get raked. All of the leaves, acorns, and small sticks get mowed along with the grass. This makes a fairly low-maintenance lawn where the grass looks okay, not great. If you want low-maintenance, you have to get comfortable with a little “distressed” look.


If you feel like you are fighting a losing battle trying to keep tree messes under control, it may be time to take a different approach. As you wander around Richmond keep your eye out. There are a lot of yards that look great without having every leaf picked up. You may be able to have a yard you love with a lot less effort if you get creative.

Trees and Vines – the Good, the Bad, and the Solutions

May 3, 2023 · 3 minute read
Trees and Vines – the Good, the Bad, and the Solutions

Are vines in trees good or bad? Will vines kill your tree? Are they good for wildlife, or are they a habitat destroyer? That depends. Here are a few tips for some of the more common vines that you may have to deal with in your backyard.

Know what you have: Some vines are a natural part of the native forest of Richmond, others are invasive species that take over our landscapes. If you have vines that you think you may want to keep, a good first step is identification. If you like your grape vines, you should make sure that they are, in fact, grape vines and not invasive porcelain berries. Is that honeysuckle vine invasive or a native? Lewis Ginter has a good publication that shows native plants and their invasive look-alikes:

After you know what you have, the next step is to decide if you really want it. Here are a few pros and cons for some of the vines that you will run into.

  • English Ivy: Is there a place for English Ivy to live in your yard? Maybe a little, but probably not. English ivy does make a dense ground cover that chokes out most other plants. It does not produce fruit when it is a ground cover. Flowering and fruiting happens after it climbs vertically, mostly in trees. It is not recommended to make an English ivy bed, but if you already have one, keep the vines off of the tree and root flair. Using English ivy may seem like a low maintenance ground cover option, but keeping it from climbing and spreading makes containing this plant a lot of work.

English Ivy surrounding a


  • Poison Ivy: While this is a rather unpleasant plant for humans, it does provide fruit and flowers for other creatures, that do not suffer the consequences of urushiol. That said, do not let it grow in any area of your yard that humans hang out in. Do not let it grow up any tree that you may need to have maintenance on. You may have a hard time finding an arborist that will work on a tree full of poison ivy vines.


  • Virginia Creeper: This is a native vine that can live in harmony with your trees. The fall colors are striking against the bark of trees. Birds enjoy the fruit. If you let Virginia creeper grow on your trees, you need to keep an eye on it. It can be a great hiding spot for poison ivy to take hold.


  • Wisteria: There is a native wisteria vine, but unfortunately, the wisteria taking over your yard is probably an invasive. Wisteria is beautiful when flowering, but is a very aggressive plant. Once invasive wisteria has taken over a yard, it is a long hard process to get it under control. Wisteria arbors can be attractive, but the maintenance required to keep wisteria contained and maintained overwhelms most homeowners.


  • Winter Creeper: This invasive evergreen ground cover will climb trees and stick like glue. It can take over a landscape.


If you have vines that you do not want, getting rid of them can be an overwhelming undertaking. Here are a few tips.

  • Volunteering: If you don’t know where to start in your own yard, you can learn a lot by volunteering in James River Parks. Signing up for some invasive species removal in the parks can teach you a lot about how to tackle these plants in your own yard:
  • Baby steps: If you have a big invasive vine problem, start small. A good first step is finding a place where invasive vines are getting started and pull them. This may seem insignificant, but you are keeping a problem from spreading.

  • Know when to call in the pros: Cutting and killing large vines in mature trees without causing damage to the trees can be very tricky. If you have a big vine issue, you may need help to get it under control.

New arboricultural trends

March 30, 2023 · 2 minute read
New arboricultural trends

Spring is in the air. It’s time to get outside and think about the garden and yard. Here are a few new trends in Arboriculture to ponder as you get outside and get your hands dirty.

volcano mulching

Volcano mulch

Yes, this is a bad thing in the trees in your yard. It can lead to decay in the trunk of the tree and it can cause roots to girdle (cause a bare line in the bark) the trunk. However, new research shows that trees in shopping malls and office parks are physiologically different and deep mulch is actually beneficial for them. Researchers are now saying that the proper depth for mulch around trunks in retail and business areas is actually 3 inches deeper than it is right now. If there are 12 inches of mulch at the base of these trees, the proper mulch depth should be 15 inches.


String trimmer damage

String trimmer damage? Great!

Side by side studies have shown that young trees that are coddled and nurtured too much frequently don’t survive long-term in the landscape. If you scrape the bark on the trunk, it teaches the tree how to compartmentalize decay at a young age. When you plant a tree, that rope around the trunk may look a little unsightly, but remember to leave it there to help the tree grow through hardship.  We have been helicopter gardening our newly planted trees way too much!


English Ivy

Remember the benefits of English Ivy!

We thought that trees have an amazing system of lignin and cellulose that grows where needed to give structure and support. Research now shows that while trees do a pretty good job of building their own structure over the years, a support system that is dramatically enhanced by a strong network of English Ivy vines.


Green side down

Green side… down???

Yes, it is a common joke amongst landscapers: Fully train your tree and shrub planting crew with 3 simple words “Green side up”. That may be rethought if the trend of inverted planting continues. Rumor has it this innovative planting method started out at a land grant university that is as well known for stupid party stunts as it is for serious research. There is a surprising success rate in newly-planted trees with this method. Added bonus, you don’t have to worry about finding that pesky root flair.

Before you use this information to guide your weekend backyard projects, please remember that Saturday is April Fools Day. We may have stretched the truth or simply made some (or, well… all) of this up. If you do decide to plant your tree upside down, that’s awesome. We just ask that you don’t mention where you got the idea.

When to Prune

March 22, 2023 · 3 minute read
When to Prune

When should you prune your trees? It is a question that I get asked a lot. I keep on thinking that there should be an easy answer for this. Most pruning that we do is not time-sensitive. However, there are some plants and types of pruning where timing is important.

How do I find out when my trees should be pruned? Many of us go to our favorite internet search engine to answer questions like, “When to prune oak trees.” The internet has some great information, but it can be misleading. If you search “when to prune oak trees” you will likely see that you should only prune them from November to April to avoid the spread of oak wilt. Oak wilt is an aggressive, lethal disease that can kill entire groves of oak trees. Timing your oak pruning is incredibly important if you live in the Midwest or Texas, where oak wilt is a problem. In the Richmond area, it is not an issue.

The species of tree matters, but why you are pruning also matters. If you aggressively cut your crepe myrtle to control its size, late winter is the time for pruning. If you are thinning, removing deadwood and making some modest cuts to raise the crown, there really isn’t a bad time to prune your crepe myrtles.

Here is a short and, admittedly, incomplete list of rules that will hopefully give some guidance on your decision of when the time is right to prune your tree or shrub.

  • American Elms: Dutch elm disease is a concern. Pruning does not cause the disease, but there is some concern that the smell of fresh cut elm can attract the elm bark beetle, which carries the disease. If pruning during the growing season can be avoided, it should be. If a branch is partially broken, or rubbing on a building, the tree is going to have fresh wounds anyway, so sometimes pruning during the growing season makes sense.
  • Sappy trees: Some trees like maples and birches push a lot of sap in the late winter when the days are warm and the nights are below freezing. If these trees are pruned during this season, sap will flow from the cuts. This doesn’t negatively impact the tree at all. If it bothers you, wait until summer to prune the trees.
  • Slippery bark in the spring: When some trees and shrubs are just flowering or getting ready to grow in the spring, it is very easy to damage bark and watch it peel when you are making a cut. If this is happening, use a sharper tool, be a little more careful; or just wait until summer.
  • Structural pruning: When pruning young trees to improve their structure, it is beneficial to see the form without leaves on the trees. This is best done in the winter in order to make better pruning decisions.
  • Spring flowering trees and shrubs: The usual thought is to prune these within a few months of when they flower so that you don’t cut out next year’s flower buds. If you want to maximize flowers and you are making a lot of cuts, this makes sense. If you are making a few minor cuts, or removing deadwood and broken branches, you probably won’t notice the difference in flowers; prune away.
  • Fruit trees: Usually, fruit tree pruning is done in the winter. It should be noted that if you don’t know when to prune your fruit tree, you probably do not know how to prune it either. Take a class or do some serious reading before you pick up your saw or loppers.
  • Broadleaf evergreen shrubs (like hollies): If you are pruning to maintain shape and size, late winter is great for aggressive pruning. Birds aren’t nesting yet, but they don’t need cover as much as in the middle of winter. The shrubs will push out some new growth in the spring, so if you give a “bad hair cut” you won’t have to look at it very long. You can do some light touch-up pruning until the late summer and fall – it may stimulate new growth that won’t have time to harden off for the upcoming frost.

There are, of course, more rules for when to prune, but I would warn you not to get too overwhelmed by them. I have seen a lot of pruning mistakes over my years of being an arborist (and I have made a few myself.) Most of the issues that I have seen from pruning have not been from when the cuts were made. The issues are usually from how the tree was pruned.

Older & Planting

February 8, 2023 · 2 minute read
Older & Planting

New Year’s resolutions came a little slowly for me this year. 2023 started, and there were some thoughts and ideas about what I would like to see in the upcoming year: being more generous with my time, enjoying the little things, taking on some long ridiculous endurance challenge. These are good thoughts, but nothing really stood out as a goal for 2023 that I could get excited about.

When I want to take a long time to think on something, I find it can be helpful to go for a long run. Let a few hours slip away watching the world go by at a slow running pace, and I could either find my goals for the upcoming year, or be too tired to care.

While running through the woods, admiring trees, pondering their age, a thought hit me – If I planted a tree today, I wouldn’t be alive to see it grow to this size.

I’m old, never mind my specific age. I’m not “retirement old,” but I am grey-haired and “joints that ache when it’s going to rain” kind of old.

I won’t get to see any tree I plant be as old as the beech woods that I found myself running in. From here on out, any shade tree I plant will be for younger and future generations. I may be able to enjoy watching the tree reach a young adult status, but it will not be a stately shade tree until after I am gone. Planting a shade tree is a ridiculously forward thinking act at my age, especially in this era of instant gratification. Planting a tree now so that somebody can enjoy the benefits of it 60-80 years in the future is an absurd act of selflessness and optimism. Now that sounds like a New Year’s resolution I can get excited about!

This year, and hopefully many more future years, I will plant, and care for, at least one native shade tree. A few of these trees may be planted in my own yard for a future homeowner that I will most likely never know. I can join some volunteer plantings, and maybe plant some trees for friends. I will plant at least one tree a year for as long as I am able. Some of these trees won’t ever become the large beautiful tree that I am hoping for. Maybe a few of them will. I hope that after I am gone, somebody may stop and admire a tree that I put in the ground.

Happy 2023! For me, this is the year of the shovel.

A different way of looking at oak decline.

December 28, 2022 · 1 minute read
A different way of looking at oak decline.

What is oak decline? As you travel through the Richmond area, you can definitely see some areas where mature oak trees are having serious issues. Oak decline is thrown out as a reason, but it is not a very satisfactory answer. Basically, oak decline states that multiple stresses accumulate to weaken the trees – then root rot, boring insects, and canker finish the trees off.

I suggest that there is a very different reason as to why people are talking about oak decline in our urban forest. It is the lack of young oak trees. In many areas there are 60 to 90 year old oak trees, but very few 3 to 30 year old oaks. The next generation of trees hasn’t been given a chance.

I’ve been told that all of the chestnut oaks in Richmond are dying off. The seedlings (shown in the image above) disagree. They are ready to make a new generation of chestnut oaks if they are left to grow.

Oak trees are mortal. They have a lifespan. Urban conditions add stress to trees. Climate extremes add stress as well. We should expect this to make their lifespan a little shorter.

A neighborhood with a mature stand of oak trees is beautiful. But if there are no young trees, it will not last past this generation.

I may suggest that the biggest issue with oak decline isn’t that old oaks are dying – it is that we have not done a very good job of replacing them with young oak trees. If you love your trees, you can definitely do some things to minimize their stress and extend their life span for a while. But sooner or later, they will die.

If you love living in an urban forest, planting new trees and letting some oak seedlings grow into the next generation is probably more important than taking care of the old trees. If we can do this, oak decline will, well… decline.

Cemetery Trees

November 16, 2022 · 2 minute read
Cemetery Trees

On a recent trip to see my family in Iowa, I felt the need to visit a local cemetery.  I was not visiting any specific gravesite.  Although there was a solemn feel to the visit, I was there to take in a rare ecological community.

Rochester cemetery is a remnant of a prairie oak savanna.  Before this area was settled and plowed into farmland, it was a unique area between the grasslands of the west and the forests of the east.  Fire kept most trees from establishing in the prairie.  In prairie savannas, occasional white oaks and bur oaks resisted the fires and spread their branches out over the grasslands.

Cemetery Tree - oak tree

There are few remnants of tall grass prairie left.  There are even fewer tall grass savannas.  Due to a “limited maintenance” plan of occasional mowing and burning, Rochester Cemetery has a diverse plant community with over 350 plant species.  But what stands out are the ancient spreading oak trees.

Cemetery Tree - oak tree

If you want to see magnificent trees, take some time to wander through old cemeteries.  There, trees have a chance to spread their branches.  They do not have as many issues with soil compaction, are not impacted by trenching for underground utilities, are not heavily pruned for wires, and do not deal with issues that trees in our yards and parks face.  Sometimes the trees are well-maintained, other times they thrive on being neglected and forgotten.


Cemetery Tree - willow tree

An old willow tree like this would probably not remain in somebody’s well-kept yard.  At the edge of a small rural cemetery, it continues to both grow and die.


Cemetery Tree - post oak tree

This post oak stands alone on a hill in Maury Cemetery.  Half of this tree split off about 15 years ago, leaving a large open wound on the trunk.  In other settings, this tree would likely have been removed for fear of the rest of the tree failing.  Instead, here, the tree has remained standing.


Cemetery Tree - black gum tree

A black gum towers in Hollywood Cemetery, which is also an accredited arboretum.  Hollywood was designed as a park cemetery to provide a green space for people to visit outside of the city.


Cemetery Tree - yew tree

There is an ancient association with yew trees and cemeteries .  Yews can live for centuries.  Most of the plant is toxic to humans. The association between long life and death are probably why yews are linked with cemeteries.


Next time you are traveling by an old cemetery with a little time on your hands, slow down, turn in, and explore.  Be respectful.  These are places of reverence and reflection.  They can also be home to amazing trees.

The Spotted Lanternfly

October 6, 2022 · 2 minute read
The Spotted Lanternfly

Richmond’s urban forest has been hit hard with invasive pests lately and there may be more to come.

There are very few untreated ash trees left in our area that are not showing signs of emerald ash borers. This is an Asian insect that was accidentally introduced in Michigan through Great Lakes shipping in 2002. North American ash trees have no natural defense to them. It has quickly spread, likely through the movement of firewood. Any untreated ash trees in our area will likely be dead in the next five years.

This summer there has been a massive increase in the population of crepe myrtle bark scale in some neighborhoods of Richmond. This sucking insect was accidentally introduced into North America in Texas in 2004.  It has likely traveled through the country on nursery stock.  This insect won’t kill all crepe myrtles, but it can make them unhealthy and can be extraordinarily messy in the landscape. The insect sucks so much sap from the tree that some of the sugars do not get digested. They give off a sugary honeydew that turns black with sooty mold. Yes, sooty mold is a nice name for mol insect poop.

Entomologists are now keeping an eye on yet another pest that has made its way into Virginia.  This is a rather striking insect called the spotted lanternfly.

The good news about spotted lanternfly is that it favors ailanthus trees, which are also invasive.  The bad news is that it also enjoys at least 70 other plants including grapes, hops, and peach trees.  Like the crepe myrtle bark scale, it can have massive populations that produce honeydew.  Orchard and vineyard owners are very concerned about this insect for their crops.  For the rest of us, it just may be an extremely gross pest that weakens some of our favorite landscape plants.

There are no reported outbreaks of spotted lanternflies in the Richmond area at this time. But it is very good at hitchhiking on our stuff, including cars, as we travel to and from areas where it lives. The more of us looking for this pest, the better. Please take a little time to get familiar with what the insect and its egg masses look like.

We will have a healthier urban forest if we can slow the spread of this insect until some controls are established, or some of our other animals discover it as a food source.

So you want to plant a Crepe myrtle…

August 24, 2022 · 2 minute read
So you want to plant a Crepe myrtle…

Autumn is coming. Camping, football, pumpkin spiced beverages, leaf peeping in the mountains — and tree planting!?!

Fall is a great time to plant trees. The roots have plenty of time to get re-established before the next hot, dry summer season.

Crepe myrtles have been a longtime favorite tree to plant in the Richmond area. Crepe myrtles come in a variety of sizes, so you can find one that fits your space. They also will thrive in some spots that have limited root zones, where other trees will struggle. The long-lasting summer flowers, beautiful vase shaped form, and various colors of bark make these trees easy to love.

Crepe Myrtle tree

Crepe Myrtle tree

Up until recently, Crepe myrtles had relatively few problems with pests. The may have an occasional aphid outbreak, but that was about it.



That has recently changed though. Crepe myrtle bark scale has found Richmond. The scale was introduced in Texas around 2004 and has spread quickly. This scale can have amazing populations, happily sucking the sap out of the trees. They pull enough sap out of trees that some of the sugars pass through them undigested. This leads to a gooey coating of honeydew, a nice name for sweet bug poop. Honeydew leads to black, sticky sooty mold; which covers branches, leaves and everything under the tree.

bark scales

bark scales

Trees are able to handle a moderate scale population; but this insect has had extraordinary populations in some Richmond neighborhoods this year. This can severely weaken the tree and make an impressive sticky mess.

This insect is new to our area. Nobody likely knows if this scale will continue to have outbreak-sized populations in Richmond, or if it will be found by more predator insects and “naturalize” in time. Not knowing the future of crepe myrtle bark scale, you should probably find other trees to plant, at least for the next few years.

What should you plant?

Do a little research and try to find something that will grow well in your space, and is not that popular. The more common a tree is in an area, the bigger a pest outbreak can be.

Here are a few trees that are about the same size as some crepe myrtle varieties:

  • Red bud: This is a beautiful ornamental tree, and it is a native plant. Native plants tend to be better habitat for bees, butterflies and birds.
  • Dogwood: Flowering dogwood is a native ; kousa dogwood can handle a little more sun and harsh conditions.
  • Fringe tree: There are native and non-native varieties.


Risk Vs. Reward

July 13, 2022 · 1 minute read
Risk Vs. Reward

If you take the time to read Urban Forest Dweller, chances are good that you would rather have a yard like the one shown in photo A instead of photo B (you only get two choices in this hypothetical scenario.)

Photo A
Photo B

Richmond would not be the same without its trees. We love our urban forest. Trees give us shade, clean our water, provide habitat, and give a lot of character to our neighborhoods.

Then storms come and we get a little afraid. Nobody wants their house to look like this:

We value our big trees, but we want them safe. Maybe you decide the right thing to do will be to hire an arborist. You will have your tree inspected. If your tree can’t be made safe, then it’s time to sadly cut it down.

Unfortunately, if you bring out a responsible arborist who knows risk assessment, you probably won’t hear the word “safe” from them. Given the right (or wrong) conditions, any tree can fail. The arborist can assess risk, and help to mitigate risk, but they can not eliminate risk.

The most safety-minded among us will think this means that every large tree within 100 feet of their house needs to be removed (150 feet if your trees are big.)

The most tree-loving of us won’t cut anything down unless there is an imminent risk of failure.  

The rest of us need to weigh the risk of having the trees, with the reward that they give us, and occasionally have the trees maintained to manage the risk at a low level.  

When do you call an arborist?

June 2, 2022 · 1 minute read
When do you call an arborist?

“I had the tree looked at 10 years ago and the arborist told me it was fine”. 

I have heard this a few times this spring while I was looking at a tree with some serious issues. I can’t disagree. The tree probably was low risk 10 years ago, but it is a living, aging organism, and things change with time.

Arborists may be good at helping you mitigate your problems with your trees in the present. We frequently are not very good at telling you that trees may need some checkups in the future.

If you have a heat pump, it should be checked once or twice a year. You should go to the dentist twice a year. Your car should have an oil change every 3,000 to 10,000 miles and annual inspections. Should you have your trees periodically checked?

If a major weather event doesn’t occur, and the tree doesn’t apparently change, should you bother having an arborist look at it?

The short answer is yes, you should probably have your trees checked occasionally, whether you notice a problem or not. How often should you have them checked is a bigger (and trickier) question.

If I ask “Google” that question, three years is a number that will show up, and that is probably not a bad starting point. 

If your trees are smaller and further away from the house and living space, and they generally appear healthy, you could probably stretch that to 5 or more years.

Larger trees that overhang your house probably should be looked at once a year.

If you look at your house’s satellite image and google maps and you can’t see it, you should probably consider having your trees inspected annually.

The Three Cut Method

April 27, 2022 · 1 minute read
The Three Cut Method

You want to remove a few branches from a tree and you don’t want to pay an arborist to do it. I get it. The branches are within reach and you have a good saw. You do not need to hire an arborist every time you want to get rid of a branch. That said, if you do it wrong, your mistake will be right there in front of you every time you walk by the tree.

Even if it is a fairly small branch, you can mess up and cause unneeded damage to your tree.  A bad cut can look ugly and add a lot of extra decay and stress to the tree. Take a little extra time and learn the three-cut method for pruning a branch.

The branch that you are removing is probably heavier than you think.  If you try to take it off in one cut, chances are, the branch will split and rip and cause extra damage. 

Do it right, make three cuts.

Start with an undercut a few inches away from the trunk. 

 Then make a second cut further up the branch. 

When the branch is cut, you will have a stub left. You are almost ready to make a final cut to be proud of.  

Next, find the branch collar. You want to leave the collar undamaged to minimize damage to the tree and make the cut look good.

Make your final cut just outside of the collar and that is it. Time to clean up the mess you made and admire your handiwork.

Do You Have Risky Trees?

March 24, 2022 · 1 minute read
Do You Have Risky Trees?

One of the most common reasons arborists are asked to look at trees is to try and judge whether the tree is a potential risk. When asked to assess trees we look at the tree’s flaws (every tree has them) to judge the level of risk they pose.  

One of the structural things we look at is co-dominance. A tree that grows a single trunk tends to have a stronger structure than a tree that forks into 2 trunks.

For a few reasons, trees may end up with two trunks.

When this happens, the union of these two trunks can be a failure point. Not all co-dominant unions are equally bad.  One of the main things an arborist will look for with codominant unions is a “V” shape or a “U” shape.

The maple in the photo has a very tight “V” shape. Every year, when the tree grows thicker, the two trunks actually push against each other. This form of co-dominant tree has a higher likelihood of failure.

This codominant sycamore has a wide “U” shape. This may be less advantageous than a single trunk, but it is a very strong union. The risk of this union failing is low.

There are steps that can be taken to lower the risk of these unions failing. Pruning and cabling may be recommended. The best (and most affordable) thing that can happen is to give a young tree structural pruning to eliminate the problem early on.

It should be noted that not every co-dominant union is destined for failure. Every year a healthy tree will grow more wood where it needs to in order to compensate for its flaws. These are just some potential issues with trees that deserve a closer look.

Take Back the Forest

February 16, 2022 · 1 minute read
Take Back the Forest

It can be exciting learning about the forests around us. It can also be a little depressing. When you learn about the importance of native plants to our forest community, then you learn how many of the plants you see that do not belong there and are taking over, it may be easy to just give up and let the English ivy, kudzu, and ailanthus take over.  

Fortunately, we have people in Richmond who do not give up that easily. You have an opportunity to help out and learn from them.

The James River Park System Invasive Plant Task Force invites you to join them for the fourth annual observance of National Invasive Species Awareness Week, Sunday, February 27 – Saturday, March 5. This is an opportunity to learn what plants around us are invasive, and how to control them. Registration is required. You can find event registration directly on Hands On Greater Richmond.

This week offers opportunities to learn about invasive species, as well as opportunities to help with controlling them in the James River Park System. If you want to tackle some invasive species in your own yard and don’t know where to start, take this opportunity to learn and help.

Spring is Coming

February 9, 2022 · 0 minute read
Spring is Coming

Last Friday, February 4th, I had a little time to go for a run just as the heavy rains were hitting and the temperature was dropping. Word has it that a few days ago, the groundhog promised several more weeks of winter. With the temperature dropping and a cold rain moving in, it sounds like this chubby rodent might be on to something. However, the spring peepers in the wetland I ran by were telling me otherwise. These little frogs’ chorus was reminding me that although we will likely get a little more snow, and cold, the days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher. Spring is slowly creeping into the forest. Biologists will tell me that these little amphibians are going through their annual mating behaviors, but the peepers were telling me much more than that.

These amphibians were telling me to set aside my projects for a while this weekend and spend some time in this little patch of local woods. I should wander around a little and see the first signs that winter is ready to give way to spring.  

Friendly, Neighborhood Squirrels

January 5, 2022 · 2 minute read
Friendly, Neighborhood Squirrels

Some of you love them.

Squirrels can be great fun to watch as they jump from tree to tree. Their fuzzy tails make them much cuter than their naked-tailed rodent cousins. It can be great entertainment watching squirrels outmaneuver your dog and puzzle through the latest “squirrel-proof” bird feeder that you just acquired.

Some of you hate them.

They’re in your bird feeder. They’re in your garden. (Really? Just one bite out of each tomato?) They got into your neighbor’s attic, built a nest, and stored a shocking quantity of nuts.

Whether you love squirrels or despise them, if you are living in the urban forests of Central Virginia, you’ll have to co-exist with them on some level. Squirrels can cause some issues for our homes and trees. Here are a few hints you could consider to keep any issues small.

Prune your trees for house clearance

Branches of large trees growing close to your house can create a squirrel highway onto your roof. From there, they may be inspired to chew their way through the eaves and into the attic. Keeping clearance between trees and roof can discourage squirrels from sharing your home.

Pruning trees will not stop squirrels, but it just might discourage them. If squirrels have taken up residence in your attic, pruning will not stop them from returning. Squirrels are adept climbers that can scale wood siding and brick. Squirrels can cause some tree damage, although it is usually minor. Sometimes you’ll find a lot of small green branches scattered under one tree in your yard. That’s squirrels at work.

It may seem like there are a lot of little branches under one tree, but it is minor enough damage that the biggest issue is the mess they leave us to clean up. Some parts of the year squirrels may start chewing bark off trees. Chances are they’re seeking out the sweet sap.

Bark stripping can occasionally be a bigger issue in our area. Most of the times I have seen this be problematic is in yards where there’s extensive bird feeding. If you feed birds and see squirrels start to create issues, you may consider pausing your bird feeding for a while or mixing cayenne pepper in your bird seed. This will likely lower the squirrel population in your yard.

If you think about how common these rodents are that share our urban forests, the issues they cause are fairly rare. Most of us have had far more problematic and far less entertaining neighbors over time.

Leyland Cypress: A Very Costly ‘Cheap’ Tree

December 1, 2021 · 1 minute read
Leyland Cypress: A Very Costly ‘Cheap’ Tree

If you want to plant a row of screening trees, a lot of trees, 10, 20, 30, 40 or more trees, it can get very expensive. So, you hit Google and look up “fast-growing privacy trees,” and Leyland Cypress trees show up on the list. Probably at or near the top. You can get them for less than $20 a tree.

For 20 bucks a tree you’ll have to start small, but that’s okay, Leyland Cypresses are fast-growing.  A few hundred bucks and one weekend of planting and you’re done. You can afford to plant a privacy screen and still have enough money to get through Christmas!

A row of “cheap” Leyland Cypress trees reminds me of my first “free to a good home” dog I owned. I didn’t pay a dime for that dog; until I took him to the vet the first time, and then he chewed up 3 left shoes (yes, only the left ones) and then he filled up a room with the stuffing from a couch. I loved that free dog, but he taught me that saving money can be pretty costly in the long run. 

Mature Leyland cypress trees

Leyland Cypress trees are another great example of an expensive bargain. The good news with your inexpensive trees is that they will grow quickly. The bad news is that your trees do not stop growing quickly after they have gotten to the right size. They tend to grow fast and overgrow their space in a few years. The lower branches get shaded out and die. Once the lower branches are gone, you have lost your screen. 

Then you find out that Leyland Cypress trees are very vulnerable to diseases, most of which are
untreatable. They also do not do well with snow, ice, and heavy winds.

Leyland cypress trees are susceptible to damage from heavy winds.

Wow, time flies. It seems like just a few years ago, you found a bargain way to plant a privacy screen. Now you are spending a huge amount of money to remove a mess and you have to start over again. 

Using trees and shrubs can be a great way to give you a little screening and privacy.  Just make sure that you do a little research and get something that will give you value for a long time. 

Protect That Living Lightning Rod

October 27, 2021 · 1 minute read
Protect That Living Lightning Rod

This summer I noticed an increase in calls asking me to look at lightning-struck trees. There were a couple of trees that broke my heart a little. I could tell these were trees that were loved, and now their survival is questionable.

What happens to a tree that gets hit by lightning?

The damage from a lightning strike can be very minor to significant. The electricity conducts through the water along the tree. It can follow a narrow line just under the bark, flash boil the water in the sap, and blow a narrow line of bark off. It can also follow lines that get into the wood and cause structural damage. Lightning can also cause root damage as it is conducted through the root system.

If your tree is struck by lightning can you save it?

Maybe. Have an arborist inspect the tree to assess the health and risk level of the tree. Be prepared to give the tree extra water if it has been struck. Your tree may be suffering from root damage and needs a little more water to help it reduce stress which can lead to boring insect infestations. Some of the damage from a lightning strike may be unknown. Trees that look like they have minor injuries can die quickly due to extensive root damage.

Bark stripped by a lightning strike.

Lightning Protection

Copper lightning protection can be installed in a tree. A cable is connected from a conductor in the tree to a ground rod that is set away from the trunk of the tree. It can be a bit of an investment so it is not for every tree. Certain trees may be good candidates for protection.

Trees Next to Your House

Lightning can arc from a tree to a house, causing damage to your home. If trees are much taller than your house and within 20 feet you may consider lightning protection.

Significant Trees

If your yard is a forest, lightning protection may not be practical. If you have a single significant tree that is more important than any of the others, you may consider lightning protection.

Lightning Prone Areas

There are a few hilltop areas in the Richmond area that show repeated lightning strikes. If in talking to your neighbors, you find that several trees in the area have been struck, the odds are greater that there will be more strikes.

What’s Up With Mulch?

September 22, 2021 · 2 minute read
What’s Up With Mulch?

Why mulch around trees? You see it all over: Sometimes there’s just a little around trees. Other times there are whole beds.  At your local shopping center, you may see a large mound of mulch sloping up around the trunk of a tree. What is the point of all of this?

A little mulch around trees can add a lot of benefit. First off, it can reduce the amount of grass and weeds around the base of a tree.  Reducing grass and weeds around the trees can reduce the use of lawnmowers and string trimmers around the base of a tree which lead to injury and decay. 

This tree has multiple decaying wounds from repeated lawnmower injuries. 


Organic mulch around the tree can do more than keep lawnmowers away. It can help hold moisture in the soil. It will also benefit the tree as the mulch breaks down. Decaying mulch can improve the soil and make it more like the forest soil that the tree was adapted to. 

If some is good, more is better, right?

Well…no.  Some trees have a fresh coating of dyed mulch added every year to keep a fresh look.  After years of this, the tree can get what some call a mulch volcano.

Tree roots do well in soil under mulch. Tree trunks prefer to be in the open air.  Tree roots thrive in moist conditions.  Tree trunks like to dry out. 

If mulch gets put up against the trunk of trees, roots can grow in that mulch.  A tree’s roots can grow around a tree in the mulch and eventually as the tree grows, it can choke itself.

A few inches of mulch on the ground around the base of a tree is great.  Just keep it away from the trunk.

How big should a mulch area be? 

A common arborist reply is to mulch out to the drip line of the tree.  Another answer is anything is better than nothing at all. If you do not want to give up much of your lawn, a small mulch ring is far better than grass up to the base of the tree.

What kind of mulch is best?  Double shredded hardwood mulch looks great and decomposes to benefit the soil under the tree. There is a free alternative that doesn’t look quite as nice, but has added biological benefits. Wood chips have shredded leaves, twigs, bark, and wood and no added dyes which is great for soil biology. Wood chips do not have the formal look of store-bought mulch, but they do a better job of mimicking the forest floor as the mulch breaks down. 

Letting Your Yard Grow Wild — but With Purpose

August 18, 2021 · 2 minute read
Letting Your Yard Grow Wild — but With Purpose

Sometimes I’ll encounter a homeowner that decides they have too much manicured yard and wants to let some of it go wild. A little more nature in the yard can be great. The good news is that wild-growing native plants increase habitat for songbirds, pollinators, and more. The bad news is if you just stop mowing and weeding, many of the plants that start to grow will not be natives.

Invasive trees, shrubs and vines such as ailanthus, privet, and English ivy can easily choke out the native plants and produce poor habitat once they’ve taken over. They can spread quickly and dominate more of your yard than you bargained for.

Every plant you see in this photo is fast-growing and invasive.

If you want to let some of your yard go wild, that’s great.  You just need to put some effort in to do it right. Here are a few rules that can help you out:

            1) When a new plant is growing in your new wild space, if you don’t know what it is, call it a weed and get rid of it. This may seem harsh, but chances are most of the plants growing from seed are plants that you don’t want. Go online and learn some plant identification, and you’ll be able to ID plants coming up that you want in your space. 

            2) Check out the nurseries. Many of the local nurseries can point you to native plants that will enhance your wild space. It can be fun and inexpensive to let things grow on their own, but it can also be slow. 

            3) Don’t try to save every native you find. If you discover a new white oak sprouting up, chances are there will be others as well. Go ahead and transplant a few seedlings, but you will run out of space if you try to save them all.

White oak seedlings growing near a house: This is not a good space to let trees grow.

Watching a seedling that was planted by wind, squirrel or bird grow into a tree is a slow, rewarding process. Go ahead and let a corner of your yard go wild. You just need to put a little effort into it.

To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize?

July 14, 2021 · 2 minute read
To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize?

“Should I fertilize my trees?”

Through my years as an arborist, I have gotten this question a lot. The answer varies depending on which arborist you ask. I thought I’d offer some pros and cons for fertilizing trees to help with the decision.

Why Should I Fertilize My Tree?

Trees in yards and urban areas often have some of the following issues limiting healthy root growth: Competition with turf, limited root zones due to paved areas and buildings, or compacted soils. Since there are limits to the root system, fertilizers will help give the tree with limited root systems more nutrients. 

Why Shouldn’t I Fertilize My Trees?

I don’t know what my tree needs

Ideally, before fertilization, there should be a soil test or foliar test (preferably both) to know what nutrients the tree needs more of, and whether or not they are in the soil. If a tree company doesn’t do any testing before prescribing fertilizer, be wary.

There will be pollution

Some methods of tree fertilization are lower-impact than others, But there will be some runoff that will fertilize algae in the James River and Chesapeake Bay.

There can be a potential harm to the tree

            If too much quick-release fertilizer is used, it is basically adding salt to the soil which can dry out roots.

Flushes of new growth can promote some insect pests

It may harm beneficial soil organisms

Should I do anything instead of fertilization?

Most tree fertilization adds nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to the soil. What urban soil needs is more pore space for air, and to let water drain through. Adding more nitrogen when roots really need more air may green your plant up for a while, but it may be masking problems instead of solving them.

To improve the soil quickly, have a soil invigoration (radial trenching, vertical mulching) done instead. Arborists have the ability to use compressed air to blow out compacted soil in areas around the tree with minimal negative impact to the root system. Soil can be put back with a compost mix to improve air and water penetration into the soil. This is a messy process, and you may need to give up some turf around the tree. But it works.

To slowly, and inexpensively improve soil, one of the easiest things to do is give up a little bit of grass and add a few inches of wood chips. Just remember to avoid piling up chips and mulch around the trunk and root flare.

Is an Irrigation System Good for Your Trees?

June 9, 2021 · 1 minute read
Is an Irrigation System Good for Your Trees?

The days are getting hotter and drier. You want a beautiful landscape. You know that Richmond summers usually bring hot, dry weather that can be stressful for your entire landscape. It seems like adding an irrigation system would benefit all of the plants in your yard.

Most irrigation systems that you see in our area are set up to benefit grass. It’s easy to assume that if you are helping grass with water, that your trees and shrubs are benefitting, too. Unfortunately, it can be a little more complicated than that.

Trees do not typically have deep root systems. They have expansive, shallow root systems that extend beyond the canopy (drip line). If irrigation systems are installed without consideration for these roots, the damage can be significant.

Instead of helping your trees by giving them water, installing an irrigation system without consideration of tree roots can cut a significant portion of your tree’s roots, which means the top of the tree will get less water. It is not uncommon to see significant dieback in trees within a few years after irrigation is installed if it isn’t done with consideration for the trees.

There are other concerns with irrigation systems. Roots thrive in moist conditions. Trunks and leaves are better off being dry when they are not being rained on. Sprinkler systems can carry and promote disease if they are consistently hitting trunks, branches and leaves. Irrigation specifically done for woody plants is usually a slow, deep drip done less frequently.

If you choose to put in an irrigation system near established trees, consider checking with an arborist before installation occurs. An arborist can give guidance on where the trenching can happen to minimize impact to root systems. If trenching is going to occur close to trees, an air tool can be used instead of a trencher to minimize root damage.

Running with Scissors

May 5, 2021 · 2 minute read
Running with Scissors

Knowledge of invasive species can really be a bummer in some of the woods in the Richmond area. The more you learn, the more you discover that much of what you see are plants that do little to help habitat. Instead, they choke out the native plants that are good for wildlife.

Non-native English ivy blanketing trees in the James River Park.

I’ve found it satisfying to help with big invasive species-removal projects: cutting English ivy vines growing up trees, clearing privet in the understory of the woods, and cutting down ailanthus trees. It feels satisfying to take on a large project and slowly see the native trees coming back.

I’ve also accidentally stumbled upon another way to give a little help, with just a few plants at a time.

This last winter I was working a little on a local trail. I enjoy trail running, and this trail had an uncomfortable amount of greenbrier closing in. I stashed a folding handsaw and pruners in my pack, planning a little trail work break during my run.  A few miles later, I noticed some English ivy growing up a beautiful old oak tree, and I had just the tools I needed to stop it.  I took a rest and cut the ivy off of a half dozen trees. 

Since then it has been quite satisfying to run by this tree and see the ivy slowly drying up and dying.  

Don’t let this — greenbrier run amok — happen to your favorite patch of woods.

Now I carry the saw and handpruners on more of my runs. Instead of big invasive removal projects, I’ll just whittle away at a few vines on a few trees each trip out.  Over time the trees will slowly be released from the ivy.

Tools of the invasive-killing trade.

Name your outdoor activity: mountain biking, bird watching, rock climbing. Whatever it is, it wouldn’t be hard to stick a couple of tools in your pack (maybe in a scabbard if you are at risk of falling down), take a little trail break, and release a few trees from their vines. You may even find that it’s hard to put your tools away and move on! 

Note from the author: I’ve received some great, critical feedback to “Running with Scissors.” The feedback is important enough that I feel the need to add some points that were brought to my attention.

Greenbrier is a native plant that does give habitat benefit. It’s not fun on trails but should be left in other places where it grows naturally. 

Trail work and invasive species removal should not be done without property owners or managers’ consent. They probably want some oversight to make sure that it is done correctly.

​If somebody is doing in ivy cutting and removal without training, they can cause significant damage to trees. 

​Rogue trail work can also cause more harm than good. It’s best left for professionals and trained volunteer groups.

There are great volunteer opportunities for trail work and invasive removal if you are interested in helping out.

Thanks to those who took the time to send in their comments!

The Best Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

March 31, 2021 · 1 minute read
The Best Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

It’s spring, and many of us are getting out in our yards to tackle a long list of projects. Tree planting may be one of those projects. Fall is a better time for tree planting, but spring is acceptable. Go ahead and plant a tree if you have the itch to do so!

A common question arborists get is, “What tree should I plant?” This question usually requires a little more information from the homeowner. How much space do you have for a tree? How well does the soil drain? Are you looking for shade, wildlife habitat, something ornamental? Depending on the answers to these questions, I admit to some biases. I like to steer people to native plants for the habitat benefits. I also like to use trees that thrive in our area but are less popular. Species diversity is important for a healthy urban forest.

I’m not a complete native purest. If it’s a tree from the Eastern United States and it grows in our zone, I’m calling it a native. Cucumber trees are more Appalachian. Bald cypress are native to the swamps of the Coastal Plain. They both do just fine in the Richmond Piedmont. I’m calling both native(ish).

A yellowwood in bloom.

I have several underutilized native(ish) trees that I like to keep on my list.  A particular favorite if the space is right is American Yellowwood, Cladrastric kentukea.

Yellowwood’s native range stretches from North Carolina to Oklahoma, but it does well in the Richmond area. Yellowwood trees have an attractive smooth grey bark that looks similar to a beech tree.  A yellowwood has a structure similar to an elm tree. Its mature size is not massive, about 50 feet. It’s large enough to give good shade, but it won’t get as big as many of the shade trees in our area. And it’s one of the few shade trees that you can grow that has beautiful flowers — long, white drooping chains in the spring. Yellowwood is one of my absolute favorites. It may be the best tree you’ve never heard of!

Tree Health and Your Friendly, Backyard Ant

March 11, 2021 · 1 minute read
Tree Health and Your Friendly, Backyard Ant

Spring is just around the corner. As we look forward to warmer days and spring flowers and garden projects, our excitement builds. Spring is also a time when the cold-blooded animals start to wake up and, well, start bugging us. One group of insects that can be frequently misunderstood and maligned is ants. It’s the time of the year that you may be frustrated with ants finding their way into your home. Ants in your house may not be a welcome part of the warmer months, however, ants in your yard — and on and around your trees — are a different story.

Ants are important in the ecosystem for several reasons. They frequently predate other insects; they can be important for seed dispersal; they are pollinators for many plants; they can predate pest insects. If you love your trees and want to keep them healthy, consider that ants play an important role in having healthy roots.

A majority of tree health issues that I see in urban forests are soil health issues.  The biggest soil health issue I encounter is soil compaction (lack of pore space for air to get to the roots and water to drain through the soil.) Compacted soil can lead to limited and shallow roots for your trees. Well-aerated soils mean better tree root systems. Ants are one of the best natural soil aerators out there. Some say they do more to aerate the soil than earthworms. As ants build nests, they open up the soil and bring organic matter underground. If you want deeper and more abundant tree roots to anchor your trees and keep them healthy, you should be glad you have some ants in your yard. Sure, there can be some bad actors in the ant world. You don’t need to travel very far southeast of Richmond before you’ll encounter the dreaded and invasive fire ant. Carpenter ants can be a sign of decay in trees (although they do not cause the decay). But in general, a healthy ant colony under the canopy of your tree is a good thing. It usually means healthier soil, and thus, a healthier tree.

In Praise of the Red Maple

February 10, 2021 · 2 minute read
In Praise of the Red Maple

I’m sure that mechanics have favorite cars, realtors have favorite neighborhoods and chefs have their favorite dish. So it’s no surprise that arborists have their favorite trees, too. 

I’ve never heard an arborist claim that red maple is their favorite tree.  Just the opposite. I’ve heard many arborists put this tree down because of its issues (over use, girdling root, sun scald, poor structure, gloomy scale). I think arborists need to take another look at this tree. Maybe we’re hating on red maples the way we hate on Tom Brady for being “too good” of a quarterback. Red maples have a lot going for them.

Red maples are less expensive at the nursery than most trees. They grow fast and reliably, so nurseries can produce them easily. They transplant well. If you don’t have a red maple survive and thrive in its first year after planting with a little bit of watering, I suspect somebody is trying to kill it. And, with a little effort, you can get one for free: Red maples are one of the easiest trees to grow from seed.  Grab a few handfuls of red maple seeds (the little helicopters) this spring. Let the kids chuck them in the air and chase them for a while. Chances are you will find one growing in some quiet spot in your yard a few months later.  Plant it where you like and watch it grow.

The distinctive red maple leaf.

They grow in extremely hostile environments. They may not look good if they are in a small island in a baking, hot asphalt parking lot. Close inspection will show that they have survived the last 5 years with tons of issues and neglect. Looking close, you find improper planting, rope around the trunk from when it was planted, sun scald, and string trimmer damage, but that red maple is not dead yet.  These beauties grow from Florida to Ontario and can take heat and cold, drought and saturated soils.

If you do decide that you’d like to give a red maple a try, here are a few tips to help it thrive (not just survive).

Make sure that the tree is planted with a visible root flair. When you get done planting your tree, if the trunk looks like a lollipop stick stuck in the ground, it is too deep.  It may grow for a long time this way, but it will develop problems.

Be ready to have your tree pruned for structure a few times when it is young.  They can be prone to co-dominant leads that split when the tree gets larger.  Taking care of small issues when the tree is young will make a big difference when it gets older.

Red maples can give you little shows throughout the year. The spring flowers are often overlooked, but beautiful when you notice them. The fall colors can be amazing. They cast a deep shade in summer and show off red twigs in winter. 

DIY Tree Work? Draw the Line at Ladders and Saws

January 13, 2021 · 2 minute read
DIY Tree Work? Draw the Line at Ladders and Saws

I have a confession. I am a “do it yourself-er” to a fault. The other day, our upstairs bathtub started to leak and we had water running through a light fixture in our kitchen. My wife said hopefully “maybe we should call a plumber this time.” 

“No, I think I can handle this,” I said. 

Her shoulders slumped a little as she decided to let me give it a try. I’ve solved some problems in the house and yard, and I’ve had some pretty remarkable DIY failures. Through those failures, I like to think that I’ve gained the wisdom to know when to tackle a project and when to call in the pros. I’ve learned the hard way where to draw the line with electricity, plumbing, carpentry, and yard work. Experience has harshly taught me not to cross that line.

As an arborist, there is a hard do-it-yourself line I see people cross. If you’re standing on a ladder using a saw in a tree (handsaw, chainsaw, sawzall, any saw) you have crossed that line. I don’t usually judge what somebody else can tackle.  That said, if you are climbing a ladder with a saw you have crossed the line and are risking a catastrophic DIY failure.

To the Do-It-Yourself-er on a ladder: The limb you are about to cut is heavier and longer than you think it is. The limb is going to fall to the ground differently than you imagine it. The chance of that limb hitting the ladder that you are standing on is great. The tree will also shift when you release the weight of the limb you are cutting. Things are not going to happen the way you think they are.   

The internet is full of horrific videos of tree cutting failures involving ladders. I can not bring myself to watch these videos. Watching people fall with sharp objects gives me chills. Don’t be like the people in these videos.

If you are removing that limb because you think it a risk for failure, you should know that the risk that you are taking on that ladder far exceeds the risk of leaving that branch alone. As a DIYer, I know the defeat that comes with paying a professional when you think that you can tackle something yourself. I understand. As a small consolation for this, I would like to remind you that most tree companies will give free estimates. It will cost you nothing to find out how much money a project will cost. You may even find out that the limb that you have been thinking about removing is not the risk you think it is.

Crepe Pruning or Crepe Murder?

December 2, 2020 · 2 minute read
Crepe Pruning or Crepe Murder?

I’m going to touch on a topic that can be as taboo in polite conversation as politics or religion: crepe myrtle pruning. During my 17 years of being an arborist in Richmond, I’ve met many people who fully believe that they alone know how to prune a crepe myrtle and that everybody else butchers these poor plants. Of course, most of these people disagree with each other on exactly how to do it and what constitutes responsible pruning.

Some will say “If you don’t cut back your crepe myrtles every year, they will get out of control”. I hear this and I imagine the alien plant in Little Shop of Horrors that grows to a monstrous size and gets a taste for blood.

Others declare that cutting your crepe myrtles back is “Crepe Murder” which gives me images of a crime scene drama complete with chalk outlines and a coffee-sipping forensic team in trench coats.

So, what should I do with my crepe myrtle? Do I need to prune it every year?  How should my crepe myrtle be pruned? If I don’t prune my crepe myrtle correctly, will I be chastised by my neighbors like I have crabgrass and dandelions?

First off:  If I don’t know what to do with my crepe myrtle, doing nothing may be the best option. If my crepe myrtle isn’t blocking a sidewalk or rubbing against my house it is probably a good idea to leave it alone until I know what to do with it. It will not grow out of control. I don’t need to cut my crepe myrtle back because everybody else is doing it.

Is cutting my crepe myrtle back “crepe murder?” No. Most woody plants do not do well with “topping” cuts, but crepe myrtles tend to tolerate this kind of pruning more than most. I fall into the camp that does not like this practice, but it isn’t murder. Cutting back a crepe myrtle isn’t necessary. It won’t increase the blooms. It does not help the plant. But it will keep the plant smaller which is important in certain landscapes. Topping a crepe myrtle does lead to a lot of re-sprouting, which tends to give it an odd look, especially in the winter. Crepe myrtles can have a wonderful form, that compliments their bark textures, giving them a great winter interest. If I top my crepe myrtle it will have an odd look in the winter, but it isn’t “murdered”.

Is there something else I could do with my crepe myrtle?  If it has space, let it grow tall. If I raise the crown and thin out some of the smaller stems, it can show off the great form and texture of a crepe myrtle. Some trees and shrubs do not handle heavy thinning very well.  Once again, crepe myrtles are more resilient than other trees and can tend to take a harder pruning. It is hard to over thin them.

So, what should I do with my crepe myrtle?  I should know that I have options, one of which is to do nothing. I should also remind myself what my mother told me: I shouldn’t do something just because everybody else is doing it.

When in Doubt, Skip the Chainsaw

November 11, 2020 · 1 minute read
When in Doubt, Skip the Chainsaw

For some of us, a chainsaw is an indispensable tool. If you work in trees or burn a lot of wood, learning how to safely use a chainsaw, keeping it well maintained, and having all of the personal protective equipment at hand are well worth the effort and cost.

For the rest of us, it just doesn’t make sense. If you don’t have enough training they can be dangerous.  There are about 36,000 chainsaw injuries in the U.S. every year.  The average chainsaw cut needs an average of 110 stitches.  A good chainsaw is expensive to buy and maintain.  If you don’t maintain the chainsaw properly it probably won’t cut well when you really need it. 

If you find yourself occasionally needing to cut some branches or smaller trees, you may be amazed to find out how much you can do with a good handsaw.

A quality pruning saw is often all that’s needed for homeowners.

It took me less than 7 minutes to cut a 4”-5” diameter branch into an evenings worth of firewood using a larger folding handsaw.  In comparison, to prepare to use a chainsaw for the same job, I have to fill these with gas and bar oil.  I should check the safety features of the saw and chain tension and sharpness.  Then I need to put on chaps, hard hat safety glasses, and hearing protection.  For smaller cutting jobs, if I use a handsaw, I can be done cutting in less time than it takes to prepare to use a chainsaw.

Tree-loving Volunteers Needed for Forest Hill Park Survey

November 11, 2020 · 1 minute read
Tree-loving Volunteers Needed for Forest Hill Park Survey

We pass along the following from city arborist Michael Gee:

Do you have a knack for tree identification? Enjoy a walk in the woods and want to learn more about the trees around you?

If so, you can help Forest Hill Park become an accredited arboretum, a partnership initiative of the City of Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities and the Friends of Forest Hill Park.

Whether you are an expert, amateur, or novice we need your assistance in identifying trees within the park that are not yet listed in the City Tree Inventory or the Forest Hill Park RVA Tree Walk .

Project Timeframe:  Volunteers will survey their chosen areas from now until December 12th.

Project Tasks:  Volunteers will identify and note any trees or stands of trees notable for their size, growth characteristic, or species rarity in the Richmond area. This will include both native and non-native species as well as a limited number of invasive species in order to educate park visitors on their harmful impact to our environment. Volunteers should note observations about trees most burdened by invasive vine cover and possible areas of prioritization for invasive management. Necessary data to collection: common and/or Latin name of species and Latitude/Longitude location point. If you do not have GPS capacity, do not let that discourage you from volunteering. Please e-mail Michael Gee ( if you are interested in partnering with other participants.

Safety Reminder:  Although this project will be conducted outdoors, we ask that you wear a mask if you are working with other participants. Some of these areas may require walking on steep terrain outside of the trail system and pathways.  Please watch your step and obey all trail closed signs that you may come upon.

Feeling Shady? Try Fungal Gardening

September 30, 2020 · 2 minute read
Feeling Shady? Try Fungal Gardening

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” — Aldo Leopold

I have no intention of growing all of my own food. I also know that I am not going to heat my house completely with a wood stove. That said, there is a satisfaction to be had from having a meal with food you have grown, or building a fire with wood that you split with a maul. It gives us a connection to the earth that is otherwise lost to the convenience of grocery stores and climate control.

I love having a yard full of trees and shade, but those trees have led to multiple gardening failures. My tomato plants languish in the shade. I can grow some peaches, but the squirrels eat them long before they are ripe enough for human consumption. Raspberry vines grow but lack the sun needed to flower and fruit.

Instead of continued failures with gardening, or cutting down a tree or two to gain sunlight, I thought I would try my hand at growing a mushroom garden. It’s easy to go online and find some spore to get started. There is more than enough information on the web about how to grow edible mushrooms. Other than that, all I needed was a shady, moist environment, some hardwood logs without decay, a drill, and time.

Drilling and plugging the logs with spores goes fairly quickly. After that mushroom growing is largely a waiting game with some occasional watering when it occurred to me. After a year, I got a small batch of snow oyster mushrooms, not much, but a tasty treat. I was about ready to give up on my mushroom logs this fall, after 18 months, when I looked out my window to see a big batch of shiitake mushrooms showing me that I just needed more patience.

After a fine breakfast of mushrooms and eggs, I am going to hit the computer and find my next batch of mushroom spores. The logs I have should continue to produce more mushrooms, but I’ve got the urge to expand my mushroom garden. Due to the fact that I can find wood in abundance, and have ample shade, my fungal garden will expand. Yours can too with shade, water and some simple internet searches. Or better yet, shoot me an email:

What’s in a Lichen?

August 26, 2020 · 1 minute read
What’s in a Lichen?

Take a close look at the trunk and branches on a tree in your yard. There is likely something growing on it. It’s easy to assume that this thing must not be good. If something is growing on my tree, it must be harming it, right?

I frequently get asked about the blue-green flackery stuff growing on trees. What is it? What should be done?

This “stuff” is usually lichen. It’s two organisms that live together. The flaky material is a fungus. It establishes itself on tree bark, absorbs water when available, and provides a home for algae. The color comes from algae (similar to the algae found in warm standing water). The algae gathers sunlight and provides food for the fungus. This is a symbiotic relationship: The algae and the fungus rely on each other to live. The tree is just a place for lichen to grow. It does not harm, or benefit the tree.

Lichens can be really cool looking and don’t harm trees.

Lichen can give you clues about its environment. They don’t grow well in high ozone environments and don’t not like acid precipitation. So, their presence is a positive indicator of air quality. Lichen can increase in growth if there is an increase in filtered light. An increase in lichen can give a clue that a tree is thinning and has other issues. 

If you don’t like the look of lichen, you can get rid of it; though it is not recommended. Remember, lichen is neither harmful nor beneficial to the tree.  A copper-based fungicide can kill it, but this may be harmful to other fungi, some of which are beneficial to the tree. It would likely be better to leave it alone, take a close look at this strange living thing, and see it as an interesting addition to your landscape. 

Forecast: Hot and Dry

July 22, 2020 · 1 minute read
Forecast: Hot and Dry

It has turned hot and dry. It can be hard to be outside. The heat of summer can be a little hard on Urban Forest Dwellers. It can also be a challenge for our trees. 

Some of our trees cope with hot dry summers by dropping some of their leaves.  If you have tulip poplars, river birch, or locust trees in your yard you have probably noticed this. One mature tree can transpire tens of thousands of gallons a year through their leaves. When a tulip poplar is making leaves in the spring, there is a lot of soil moisture, and the tree puts a lot of leaves out to use that water. Then, when a hot, dry period arrives, one way to conserve water is to lose some of those leaves.

Locust trees are among those that drop leaves in the summer to conserve water.

Should you do anything about this? Most trees can go through a significant amount of drought stress and be fine. However, if your tree has other stresses, the dry heat of summer can be fatal. If you are concerned there are two fairly easy things you can do to help.

You can water a mature tree. You are probably not going to water the tree enough to keep it at full photosynthesis (this would be thousands of gallons of water), but you can water it enough to lower its stress.  If you want to water your tree, use a soaker hose under the drip line of the tree. Leave it on for a few hours once every week or two. Grass does well with frequent short watering. Trees like occasional deep soakings.

Another thing you can do is give up a little bit of your grass for wood chips or mulch. Grass and trees compete for water and nutrients in the soil. Mulching takes away some of the competition. Long term mulching will also improve the soils water holding capacity.

Go Climb a Tree!

June 24, 2020 · 2 minute read
Go Climb a Tree!

Maybe it’s in your backyard, or on a favorite hike; you come across a tree that looks climbable. It’s got a leaning trunk or low branches that show an opportunity to enter the canopy. You’re tempted to climb but show restraint. “I’d love to climb that tree. I shouldn’t climb it though, should I?”

Yes. You should.

My mother may not agree with this advice. I remember the warning that I got from her when I was young. The neighbor boy was climbing a tree. He grabbed a dead branch. It snapped. He fell and broke his arm. Climbing trees is dangerous. But I couldn’t resist. The cottonwood in the backyard called to me. It had a low branch that I could jump, grab onto and hang from. After several struggles and failures, I figured out how to use that branch to enter the canopy and climb as high as I dared. The more times I climbed it, the higher I traveled. I can still remember the first time I got high enough in that tree to feel it really move with the wind. At first, that was unnerving, then it was exhilarating, after that, it became a peaceful connection. I was feeling the way another living thing was responding to the forces and strains that it’s environment placed on it.

Kids love to climb the red mulberry at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

This is not rope and saddle climbing. If you aren’t trained, this is not an invitation to use sharp objects in trees. This is putting your hands on trunk and limbs, feeling the texture of the bark, and having your feet leave the earth, if only a few feet off the ground. Take your time. If that voice in your head tells you that is high enough; stop. If you can find a place to sit in the tree, take a few moments to enjoy your new perspective. Even being a few feet off of the ground in a tree can give you a connection with it. Take the time to enjoy it. Maybe next time you can venture a little higher, or maybe not.

I am still thankful that all those years ago my mother gave me firm warnings “maybe you shouldn’t” without telling me to come down out of the tree. I still have to respectfully disagree with her. Now turn off your computer, set down your phone, and get in that tree!

You Sure Have a Lot of Gall

May 13, 2020 · 1 minute read
You Sure Have a Lot of Gall

Some of us are spending a little — or maybe a lot — more time in our yards as we are stuck at home these days. If you’re paying more attention to your trees, you may be alarmed to find strange growths on the stems and leaves. Sometimes those growths are what’s called “galls.”

It can be hard to know what is an actual health problem for your tree and what is “just one of those things.” Fortunately, galls almost always fall into the “just one of those things” category. Galls can look alarming. They definitely look abnormal. The good news is their impact tends to be pretty minimal. Think of them as you would benign tumors or warts in animals.

An “oak apple” or oak gall.

Many galls are caused by insects. Some insects can play with plant chemistry, add a little growth hormone and force the plant to grow a home for their young.  The insect inserts its eggs, and the plant will grow shelter and food for their young as they grow. It can be difficult to treat to prevent galls, and the vast majority of the time you really don’t need to. Once you get past the “ick factor,” they can be pretty cool.

Galls are rarely something to be concerned about. The best advice I can give for galls is to keep an eye out for them, take a photo, and share it with us. We would love to see what you can find for us. Click here to shoot us an email!

The wool sower gall is found in white oaks and is caused by a tiny, non-problematic wasp.

Don’t Fear Leaves of Three

April 8, 2020 · 1 minute read
Don’t Fear Leaves of Three

Spring is a great time to get in your yard to do some work, or out in the woods to explore. Unfortunately, spring projects and adventures can bring you into contact with poison ivy.

Poison ivy when it first leafs out in spring.

If you happen to find yourself in a patch of poison ivy, don’t panic. You can get through it itch-free. Urushiol is the poison ivy sap that will cause the itch. It’s sticky and oily like axle grease. If you can thoroughly wash axle grease off your skin, you can do the same with poison ivy.

If you can clean grease off your skin, you can scrub poison ivy sap, too.

Washing with soap and water but no scrubbing will leave oils behind. If you leave a little behind, you can still expect an itchy rash.

Use a washcloth, paper towels, or old rags and scrub with plenty of soap and water. Any soap will work on poison ivy sap. You just need to be thorough, and scrub with paper towels or a cloth. 

Just soap and water is not enough to get the urushiol off your skin.

It can be tricky removing poison ivy sap, because you can’t see or feel the oil. If you get into poison ivy, just pretend that you have a lot of axle grease on your skin that you need to wash off.  Take a little extra time and overdo it if you have to. 

Now get outside and enjoy spring with a lot less itching!

Release a Tree: The War Against English Ivy

March 11, 2020 · 1 minute read
Release a Tree: The War Against English Ivy

Winter is almost over, but before it goes away, you should take the opportunity to release a tree from English Ivy. It’s best done in the winter when stinging insects and spiders are dormant and poison ivy doesn’t have leaves.

English ivy is an invasive species that can add a lot of weight, windload and competition to a tree. Ivy covers the trunk and branches and can hide potential problems in the tree.

Now you know what English ivy looks like.

Don’t try to remove the vines.  Just cut out a section.  If the vines are completely severed, they can usually be pulled out of the tree later after dying and drying out.

Watch out for poison ivy.  Look for vines that have horizontal branches sticking out, or extra hairy vines. Poison ivy vines can be hidden amongst the English ivy vines. Poison ivy vines still have sap in the winter and give you an unpleasant surprise.

English ivy can envelop a tree, causing myriad problems.

There can be great satisfaction in cutting vines, then watching the English ivy decline in the spring while watching a tree flourish.

Know when to call a professional.  It can be challenging to cut larger or extremely dense vines without damaging the tree. If you have a big ivy project, consider getting some help. Your trees will thank you.

Root Flair: Where Trees Meet the Earth

February 25, 2020 · 1 minute read
Root Flair: Where Trees Meet the Earth

When an arborist wants to check the health and stability of a tree, one of the first things they may look for is a good root flair. This feature where the tree and earth meet should flair out as the trunk meets the ground. 

Healthy, exposed root flair.

Problems can arise when this feature is not seen.  If you see the trunk of the tree enter the ground like a fence post, this can be problematic.  Buried root flairs can promote decay in the root flair and the roots, which can lead to the tree falling. 

Buried root collar.

Buried root flairs can also lead to roots growing around the trunk, which means the tree can eventually choke itself.

The mulch volcano buries the root flair and invites problems for the tree.

If you don’t see a root flair, we may be able to help.  We can use an air excavation technique that will have minimal impact to the tree to re-establish a root flair.  We can prune any roots that have a potential to harm the tree as it grows. 

Truetimber arborist Peter Girardi excavates a buried root collar.

Some trees do have more pronounced root flairs than others.  If you are concerned about the root flair on your tree, feel free to give us a call for a free arborist’s visit.