If you are breathing right now, thank a tree. While you’re at it, thank it not only for giving off oxygen, but also for cleaning the air, conserving water, preventing soil runoff, providing shade, supporting wildlife and giving you a place to hide from your brother.
Thank trees for providing a place for kids to climb and build forts, for being a cover for your picnic and a post for your hammock, for rescuing the cat from the dog, for adding character to yards and beauty to parks, and for writing poems on the sky.
I am writing this homage to trees in apology. I have been taking trees for granted. I’ve done nothing to support them except pay their water bill. That is, until last week when the trees in my community — all 120 — became the unsuspecting subjects of my consideration and, ultimately, my benevolence.
See, a little over a year ago, in a weak moment, when I was new to the neighborhood and vulnerable, I agreed to serve on the board of my community’s homeowners association. Alcohol may have been involved. This thankless but important job involves approving budgets, handling prickly neighbor squabbles and getting some good gossip.
This is how I came to review our community’s tree maintenance plan. Tree plan? Holy pinecones and holly berries, I never knew trees needed a plan. (Insert your favorite notifier ding here.) So began my enlightenment.
I call Brian Dierks, the certified arborist from Altamonte Springs, Florida, who submitted the plan, to confess. “I feel terrible,” I said. “All my life trees have been doing so much for me, and I have done nothing, zippo for them. I should be flogged. Can we pay you more than you’re asking?”
“Well, they get you back when they fall on your roof from neglect,” he said, only half joking.
“So how can we make it up to them?” I asked.
Dierks gave me the following rundown on tree care, which applies, whether you have one tree or 50. I’ll further confess, I didn’t know any of this:
Aim for age diversity
If all your trees were planted at the same time and are the same type, they will likely die about the same time, said Dierks. Trees have lifespans that range, depending on the species, from decades to centuries. If you want to maintain a tree canopy into perpetuity, offset tree life cycles by staggering planting, so for every tree that goes, one is coming in behind.
Plant different species
Having different types of trees protects against infestation. Tree pathogens tend to be tree specific, said Dierks. You don’t find Dutch elm disease on oaks, or oak wilt on sycamores. When one species populates a yard or neighborhood, infestation can spread fast. Pathogens spread by insects or when roots touch. “I’ve seen whole streets laid bare from the same pathogen running tree to tree.” Mixed species act as physical barriers.
Assess trees in spring
Trees work hardest in spring, when they’re producing new growth. If a tree is weak or sick, this is when you will notice. Healthy trees push out denser foliage. If a tree isn’t putting out as much new growth as in years past, or as compared to other trees nearby of the same species, find out why. Problems may be not enough water, root restriction (if the tree is stuck between two driveways), over application of lawn herbicides, caterpillars or storm events. “The most impact arborists can have is during the growth period,” said Dierks. Options dwindle as the growth window closes, and the tree gets worse.
Head off the fall
The best way to prevent a tree from falling on your roof or the neighbor’s is by having it checked for disease or decay. Fungal infections can rot wood. Insect infestations also weaken trees making them vulnerable for a fall, said Dierks, also a certified tree risk assessor.
Call help in early
If caught in time, an arborist can inject fungicide into the tree to protect its vascular system, treat it with insecticides, or provide growth hormones and growth regulators to help trees rebound. If you wait till the tree starts dying, you’re limited.
Consider a tree inventory
If you have many trees, as our community does, ask an arborist for a tree inventory, which will map each tree, and note its species, size, age and condition, and point out trees in conflict with the infrastructure, at risk of violating clearances, or that need monitoring due to decay, pests, root restriction, stress or poor nutrition.
Prune based on need, not schedule
“Customers call me to prune their trees because they haven’t pruned them in many years,” said Dierks. “That is not a good reason. Some trees never need pruning. Tree owners should aim to keep as much foliage as they can.” However, if your otherwise healthy tree is interfering with traffic, utility lines, or streetlight visibility, selective pruning is in order.
Know who’s climbing your tree
The wrong person in your tree is bound to make a camel out of a horse, said Dierks. Certified climbers know the biology of the tree, and the impact of what they do. “For instance, many customers ask us to clear away interior branches, so their lawn or home gets more light,” he said. Done wrong, this can weaken the tree and shorten its life by putting all the weight on older, outer branches. “A good arborist will balance the tree’s final appearance and what the homeowner wants against what the tree can give us.” Proper pruning should enhance a tree’s health and appearance — in that order.
Now go plant a tree.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go and the forthcoming Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One (Sterling Publishing, Dec. 2019). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.