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Tough Love For Trees

What is tough love for a horticulturist? It is explaining that the best place to make a pruning cut on some trees is at ground level. When I find myself face-to-face with a client and a hazardous tree, I know my job has just gotten harder.

Everyone loves trees. We like how they look and that they give us shelter and shade. They provide us with wood to build our homes or simply a cozy fire or a nice garden bench. Many are planted to celebrate a birth, a wedding, an anniversary, a new home, and even sometimes, sadly, a death.

Large shade trees such as beech, oak, maple, and ash can live well beyond our years, even span generations. It is hard for me to imagine that there are trees living today that are hundreds of years old.

Identifying tree problems
Many tree problems are brought on by human neglect and abuse, but many more are brought on by Mother Nature. What makes a tree decline, break apart, or fall can sometimes be fully explained, but is more often a complete mystery.

Hazardous trees should always be addressed as quickly as possible. A few potential hazards to look for are: large dead limbs, severely forked or split-crotch angles, or any sign of decay in a tree, especially the trunk.

Several tree species are more prone to hazards or storm damage than others, such as the Bradford pear. Always know the tree you are planting before you plant it and be familiar with all its characteristics, good or bad. It is a good idea to visually inspect all your trees on a regular basis, regardless of variety.

Consulting an expert
I have found that the decision to cut down a tree, for any reason, is one of the hardest for any gardener to make. I believe the difficulty comes from our acceptance that trees are living, growing parts of our environment and we are reluctant to take that away.

I have seen many trees that are clearly a hazard, yet people still cling to them, reluctant to accept that anything is wrong, when the worst could indeed happen. Take these trees and put them in the wild or an open field, free from what makes them potentially hazardous—such as people, cars, and homes—and these same trees would not be hazardous at all. In the open, they become homes to all sorts of wildlife who need these types of trees to survive.

When in doubt, it is always a good idea to consult your local certified arborist, who can evaluate your trees and make recommendations for maintenance or removal. In tree care, as with other businesses, there are all levels of knowledge and skill, from the untrained to the highest trained and certified arborists.

The beauty and value of mature shade trees can be priceless, so always check references and insurance before letting anyone work on your trees. If someone is driving around neighborhoods in a pickup truck with a chain saw knocking on doors, especially after a storm, there is a good chance they lack the experience and training necessary to make a competent evaluation or safely complete the work.

Hazard potential
Some trees are simply worth saving. First we must answer lots of questions to adequately evaluate the situation and a tree’s real value. The first and most important is the hazard potential. In the event of failure, what would be at greatest risk? Posing a danger to the lives of people gives it the highest hazard rating; next is buildings or structures, and then cars.

Trees that obviously pose a threat to human lives, buildings, and cars are an extreme hazard and must be removed as soon as possible.

A split crotch occurs more often than I would like and is more common on certain tree species. It can occur as a natural imperfection or as a result of improper care and pruning when the tree was young. This weak link in a tree’s structure makes it prone to failure more commonly during a windy day or storm, and when the tree is in full leaf in the spring or summer. The value of this tree can be taken into consideration as this type of hazard has the potential to be maintained. A certified arborist would need to install a support cable system, which is not a cure but will help lengthen the life of this tree. Once this type of system is installed, this tree will need to be monitored and maintained annually by your arborist.

When you make the decision to plant a tree, it is easy to think of all the positive things we will gain from it over our lifetime. It is our responsibility to also consider the negative things that may happen and plant it accordingly.

Planning ahead
Always know the tree you are planting, what environment it likes, how large it will grow, its condition at time of planting, and any common flaws to watch for in the variety you have chosen.

Know the tree’s height and spread when mature and use this information when planting your tree. Trees should not have to compete with your house’s foundation, sewer lines, overhead utility lines, or other underground lines.

If planting near overhead utility lines, choose a tree that has a maximum height of 25 feet or spread of 20 feet. Some popular examples are redbud, dogwood, crape myrtle, Japanese maple, or purpleleaf plum.

Above all, plant a healthy tree properly, inspect it regularly, and maintain it throughout its life. We are planting for the future.

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