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.


  1. esther dutton says

    Thank you, I understand more clearly why our huge yews were destroyed in the 2010 monster snow.

  2. Roger Boeve says

    When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the second best time to plant a tree? Today. Well said. Big trees need to thinnned out so to reduce resistance to the wind. Thanks for your blog. Love your store. Roger

  3. So….this past Friday when the latest severe storm squall came barreling down, I had just popped the cork on a second magnum of champagne for my staff to celebrate the beginning of a new season of performances here in Ann Arbor. Sixteen people for a sit down dinner in a 150-year-old barn accompanied by 70-80-mile-an-hour straight-line winds — not a pretty picture. We first carried the makeshift bar from the front lawn to the old pole barn….when everything started to shake and heave I screamed “everyone in the house.” When it all past there was little damage and the dinner in the granary went off as planned. The last guests left at 2am. The next day while cleaning up the plates and glasses, I spent no small amount of time thinking about the two 150-year-old crap trees (box elders) I had taken down two years ago. As I say, they were crap trees or, as DS called them, giant weeds….but I loved the canopy they created and it was painful to cut them down. When the limbs hit the ground the whole house shook such that I had to get in the car and leave. I was unnerved by the whole affair. Well….two years hence, I am happy they are gone none more so than when we are having a tempest like last Friday night. I am sure that those rotten trees would have come down and maybe even taken a building or person out in the process. Tree maintenance is an obligation I have come to respect.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Michael, I shudder to think what would have happened if those box elders had still been there. Like the maples in my tree lawn, they were just plain dangerous. The part where you say after “…those 70-80 mile an hour winds, there was little damage”… is saying a whole lot. Best, Deborah

  4. We had a massive honey locust beautifully pruned this spring It was a difficult job in our garden that is densely planted with shrubs and a pond . Work had to be done when those things were visible. It was amazing to watch these skilled professionals. Recently neighbors had a black walnut taken down just over the fence. It needed to go but we are now being raked by western sun to a degree I had not anticipated. But what was most noteworthy was the difference in the workers and workmanship between the two pruning jobs. A textbook example of “you get what you pay for”.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Linda, tree work is expensive. No small part of that is the cost of workman’s compensation for this kind of work, as it is so dangerous. I have seen some bad pruning too-yikes. thanks for writing, Deborah

  5. M. Ross Baldwin says

    Over 20+ years I have taken down, and planted many trees on my ¾ acre suburban rectangle. Old American Elm, ancient suffering flowering Crab Apples, old Silver Maples, all Chinese Elm and eventually all Spruces, Ash and Buckthorn. I too love trees and have planted one or two new species every year. Few of us can simply call in the nationally revered landscape designer, arborist and terraformer to wipe the slate clean and start over. Only those who have buffaloed their way to unlimited funds can or would take that kind of action with a property they love. What is needed is some practical instruction that takes into account income and expense limitations of normal homeowners. The need to avoid a naked looking property while scores of new shrubs and trees take hold and grow to a decent scale. Or the corollary destruction and soil compaction caused by heavy equipment and large hydro-spades moving all over your precious hard won property. I imagine your good client hopes you can be counted on for something more
    moderate than the clean slate approach. On the other hand they cold sell the place or away to Frinton ’til the surgery has healed.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Ross, my point is that if tree care is regular, the the costs all at one time are much more reasonable. In the case of my street trees, I am not permitted to do any maintenance on them, and the city chose not to. I have to start over for that spot. My landscape has taken many years to grow in, as I had to do the work a piece at a time. Most people do it that way. Best, Deborah

  6. We’ve lost 2 majestic Oaks within the last month, along with a beautiful Norwegian Pine. 3 trees that were such a big part of the landscape here. Unfortunately, the pine came down with the help of a neighbors struggling Spruce that should’ve been take down years ago. Very sad!! I have to keep telling myself that it’s nature’s way of prunning. Too bad it had to be so severe.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Susie, nature’s way is severe. Trees need care all along, and maybe even more when they get older! best, Deborah

  7. What a terrible situation. I love big majestic trees. Detroit has been having a rough time….my heart goes out to you! It is difficult with large aging trees around homes. Houston has many big trees and with Hurricane Ike and the following drought we lost so much of our canopy. Thankfully Houston for the most part treasures its trees. The city does maintain the trees fairly well. We have a non-profit called Trees for Houston that helps educate people about trees. The street trees in residential areas are the responsibility of the home owners. Because we have hurricanes most folks know they need to thin the limbs every few years to allow the wind to blow through them. We recommend organic mulch and fertilizer that helps build a deeper soil profile and chance for deeper roots.

  8. Atlanta is losing many canopy hardwoods.

    Watershed management is a huge problem with their loss.

    Homes 50+ years old are flooding for the first time with a ‘medium’ rainstorm.

    And their loss increases city heat and HVAC costs……

    You hearing Sonny & Cher? The beat goes on.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  9. Neil McPhail says

    May I quote some of your comments in our Wednesday evening prayer service. Very touching words that also parallel our lives. Thank you for good wise thoughts.

  10. cynthia woodyard says

    Thank you Deborah for this excellent post! You’ve said so well what I’ve tried to convince clients of for years! I’m saving it to share with those who don’t understand! I must ask, what is a ‘tree lawn’? New term to me…….. Cynthia

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Cynthia, the tree lawn is the grass space between the sidewalk and the street-which is my old neighborhood has a street tree (big shade tree) every so often. Best, Deborah

  11. I am going through the painful and expensive process of having the 11 Ash trees that succumbed to the Emerald Ash Borer removed from my property. Most were in a wooded corner of my back yard, but the 50 year old tree that provided shade for the front of my house is already sorely missed. My landscape has been a work in progress since we moved in 15 years ago. We lost pine trees to drought and ice storms, a Dogwood to disease and now the Ash trees. After the sawdust clears, I am looking forward to working on plan B.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Angie, you have had more trouble than you ever deserved. But fair has nothing to do with it. Happy to hear that plan B is in your thoughts. What else is there to do except to get up and keep going? Best, Deborah

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