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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (Michael.Gee@richmondgov.com) 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.
“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: email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 flairs can also lead to roots growing around the trunk, which means the tree can eventually choke itself.
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.
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.