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!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.