Sunday Opinion: Aging Trees

A good client has lost 6 very big and very old trees in the terrible storms we have had this season. The damage to her landscape is considerable.  The remaining old trees in the same proximity look lonely, and off center. She is asking me what to do.  I haven’t answered her yet, but she will most likely need to start over. Just yesterday we had a storm, wind driven and rain laden, blow through such that Detroit Edison counts it as their 10th worst storm on record.  Luckily my neighborhood was spared.  At the shop, a giant limb of a willow sheared off, and landed on our neighbor’s roof.  Lots of people lost their power in the greater Detroit area. The big winds and the big rain took down trees in a wide range of communities.  Big trees.  As in, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.  Miraculously, no person was injured.

Big storms are the plague of the weak and the big old trees. A sapling can gracefully bend under the duress of a straight line wind.  No harm done. Old trees whose wood is stiff with age do not bend-they break. The canopy of a big tree is like a a giant sail. A wind that is too strong can stress that trunk beyond reason. For certain, large caliper trees that are snapped off above the ground, or uprooted in the height of a storm are victims of the unpredictable direction and incredible strength of that force we call nature. If you have ever seen a big tree uprooted or snapped off you understand the meaning of the word “force”.

Other trees in poor condition go over or shed big limbs without much in the way of protest. A lack of health, or a lack of regular maintenance makes them a target for the effects of severe weather.  There are a lot of limbs on the ground now.  The pruning that violent nature does is extreme. No judicious or clean cuts. I suppose storm pruning is effective.  Any limb that is weak, or growing at an unsustainable angle gets a haircut in a matter of seconds. There is no time for a second opinion.

Our trees are our biggest plants. Old trees are up there, dealing with the brunt of the weather. All kinds of issues challenge their health.  As they age, they need care.  Maples in the tree lawn develop girdling roots.  Sun loving deciduous trees in too much shade grow towards the light.  Lots of our evergreens are being threatened by needle cast disease. I could go on and on about the illnesses of trees, but that is not my point.  Trees need a gardener in charge to look after them, routinely-unless being at the mercy of nature is a place you don’t mind being.

My city does no pruning or maintenance on the street trees. I would guess this is a budget issue.  So the three trees in the tree lawn on my corner lot that they finally took down this spring – I had to make a case that not to take them down would expose people to serious danger.  They finally agreed. They were all maples, more than 2/3rds dead, suffering from girdling roots and seriously weakened by fungus.  The maples were a poor choice to begin with. Their roots need room.  They are much too large growing to restrict to the space in an urban tree lawn.  Years of neglect made them a disaster waiting to happen. One giant limb at a just about horizontal angle arcing over my street featured a home trunk entirely rotted on the interior. That tree worried me to no end.  I am glad it is gone now, before it collapsed under its own weight.  In my next life I would like to be in charge of street tree plantings.  Not that I have an agenda proud of the history of street trees in my urban community.  I just have a big love for trees, and want to see them take hold and thrive.  Old trees ask for some care.  Loosing one – grievous. Certain neighborhoods in Royal Oak have incredibly gorgeous and substantial London Plane trees, thriving.  These trees have been looked after all along the way.

An landscape asks for a regular hand.  An aging landscape asks for a better than regular hand.  There is no substitute for regular care.  This is not to say that regular care will insure you will never have storm related damage to your trees.  But it will provide them a fighting chance.

As for my dead maples, I have had the stumps ground down 24 inches. I had to transplant all of the hosta planted around them like skirts.  I raked and seeded each 6′ diameter circle of bare dirt.  Now it’s time to think about how I will replant that tree lawn.  All living plants have a life span. Long and short.  Expected, and unexpected. Looking after a property also means starting over.

Pruning Trees

March 30a 2013 (2) There are plenty of reasons to prune.  The branch of a tree, shrub, or rose may be dead, and need removal.  It may be growing across the sidewalk, and need some heading back.  An old lilac may be blooming only at the top, 15 feet above ground, and need rejuvenation.  Branches of shrubs that cross over each other, and rub off the bark is an invitation to disease or insect damage.  Intact bark protects the life inside.  Pruning can help keep woody plants vigorous, healthy, and beautiful.

Plants maintained as hedges require regular pruning. The lindens at the shop form a hedge the body of which is above ground.  The branches at ground level have been removed over the years so people may walk underneath them.  Regular pruning of the trees promotes a good framework of branches that represent the desired shape.  These lindens were overdue.  Though I am a serviceable pruner of shrubs and roses, this job asks for an expert.  Someone who knows how to safely navigate high above the ground, and someone who understands the consequences of each cut, deliberately pruning in anticipation of a desired result.
pruning-the-lindens.jpgTrees that are trained as an overhead hedge are pruned with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Anyone who has ever topped a shrub knows that the plant responds to a single cut with multiple sprouting shoots.  This results in a dense pattern of twigs on top, which blocks the light to the interior.  Every branch of a plant needs light.  Shrubs that are repeatedly cut back so every branch is the same length eventually decline on the interior, and will need more drastic pruning to restore them to health from the inside out.

Pruning trees in late winter means there will only be a short time before growth resumes, and the healing of the cuts can begin. Another reason to prune now is that the cuts will stimulate growth at a time of year when new growth is expected.  Trees actually stop growing and begin to go dormant in late summer.  This is part of the process by which they are eventually able to  go totally dormant, and endure the winter without injury.  I do not like to prune seriously at the end of the summer or in the fall-the plants should be going to sleep.  Not shocked into growth.  Pruning these trees the end of March will encourage dormant buds to flush out.

on-the-roof.jpgThe roof next to the trees turned out to be handy.  This perch, and a long and very sharp pole pruner, enabled Jack Richardson, owner of Guardian Tree Experts, to trim the inside flat sides of the lindens.


When the trees leaf out, those leaves will make a giant rectangle above ground.  They will represent this better next year than they will this year. Pruning that waits too long means more time will be needed for the trees to grow in how you envision.  The trees were originally planted far enough away from the building so the shape would be easy to see.  This also permits light to wash that dark wall.  The relationship of the sun to the shade is a feature of this space in the summer.

pruning-trees.jpgThe big cuts make it easy to understand the concept of lateral growth.  The thick branches are pruned back to a smaller branch which is already growing in the proper plane.  The smaller branch will benefit from the growth energy in the tree directed its way.  Dormant buds at this point will emerge, and grow into the space around the larger branch.

hedging-the-lindens.jpgThe overall vertical plane has been reestablished.  In a year, a decision can be made about whether to prune again, or wait until the following year.  That said, frequent and less drastic pruning makes for a quicker recovery time.  Regular pruning from the beginning helps to create a strong and healthy structure.

dying-tree.jpgThe ultimate pruning means taking a tree down to the ground.  This maple, suffering from girdling roots and severe injury from lightning has become a hazard.  The large left lateral branch is at such a near horizontal angle that the branch has begun to split.  The original wound never really healed, and now the tree has begun to rot.  No one could foresee the exact moment that this big tree will give way, but all of the signs are there.  This tree needs to come down.

taking-down-a-maple.jpgNorway maples are especially prone to girdling roots.  A root that encircles a tree trunk can eventually grow enough to strangle the tree.  At a certain point, the pruning of the offending root is too late to make a difference.  Every one of the maples on my property had significant girdling roots when I moved there.  Knowing that this tree would eventually die, I planted other trees around it.  The loss of a large tree can be devastating to the community planted underneath it.  This maple had been in serious decline for many years.  Very little remained of its crown.

There are 5 trees that were planted fairly close to the maple-2 magnolias, and 3 parrotias. Those trees had been in ground and growing long enough for their upper branches to reach the height of the lower branches of the maple. The time was right to take the maple down. The 5 remaining trees will prosper from the light, space, and less competition for water. They should grow very fast now; their filtered shade will be just what the garden underneath them will need.  Guardian Tree Experts in Ann Arbor-they do first rate work.  The trees are ready for a little spring weather.