Gentle Giants: Caring for Mature Trees

Trees occupy an important place in our gardens—and our culture. Author Ernest H. Wilson aptly sums up America’s love for them in his book, Aristocrats of Trees: “When first we dabble in the healthful pastime of gardening our interests may be in the lesser things; we may enthuse over tiny alpine plants, bulbs or tall herbs….Later we are attracted to shrubs, more permanent things. Finally we take to our heart trees, treasure them while life lasts, and hand them on, objects of lasting usefulness and beauty, an enduring legacy,
to the generations that follow us.”

Consequently, we are willing to invest time and effort to manage trees on our property. In many cases, tree care should be left strictly to an arborist—an expert certified in the cultivation and care of trees. Look at it this way; you wouldn’t consider diagnosing and treating a very ill pet without professional help. Likewise, a mature and beloved tree needs professional care, especially for significant trees. According to Adam Braaten of Bartlett Tree Service, “Significant trees are large trees, those with historical value—often attached to a memory or important event—or a tree with some exceptional qualities that deem it worth extra care.” His office of Bartlett Tree Service serves the Lynchburg, Roanoke and Smith Mountain Lake areas. The company has been caring for trees for
100 years.

A homeowner can feel comfortable working with a tree up to 15 feet tall, but anything taller is a different story. “Leave big trees alone,” cautions Jonathan Sledge, owner of Above Ground Landscape in Bedford County. Sledge has a degree in landscape contracting and management, and in addition to servicing residential clients’ trees, also cares for the trees at historic sites in Appomattox and Poplar Forest. He explains that do-it-yourselfers can often run in to trouble when trying to work with too-big trees best left to the professionals. “I have removed more trees that have fallen on a house after a homeowner tried to tackle them,” says Sledge.

When hiring a professional for tree maintenance, there are several factors arborists will examine. It’s important to note that once a homeowner becomes a regular client with a tree service company, most are happy to perform a check up on clients’ trees, sometimes at no charge.

During this examination, an arborist will look for broken branches, stress cracks and lightning damage, which are all entry points for disease and other organisms. Fungal growth around the trunk of the tree is another cause for concern. Arborists also look for signs to indicate problems with the root system; cracking in the soil and dying limbs are often signs of roots in distress. Maintaining a tree’s proper shape through correct pruning is important, too. Since a tree can become top heavy, it needs thinning from time to time. Some experts say that when trees get sick and die, it is often from neglecting these signs.

If an arborist wants to take a tree down, Braaten recommends that you ask for the full reasoning why. The time is right for removal if the tree is posing a hazard, if it is dead or is a lightning target, if it is unhealthy and dying, and also if it is necessary to thin out an area. An overabundance of trees in one location creates a crowded and unhealthy situation.

There is an art to taking down a tree. An arborist must consider how it will fall and where most of the weight is concentrated in the tree. An arborist generally climbs the tree and removes all of its weight first. Unless the tree is coming down, spikes should never be used to climb a tree since these can cause damage to the trunk. Ropes and harnesses are the preferred method.

Some problems can be easily circumvented by the homeowner. Do not allow vines, especially ivy, to climb a tree. Just as ivy on a house can do untold damage, it can kill a tree. Avoid driving heavy vehicles around the base of the tree or wherever roots are likely to be. This causes the ground to compact, preventing the roots from accessing air and water. Do not pile mulch directly on the base of a tree. Known as volcano mulching, this technique is not recommended. While wood chips are great at holding moisture in, they can cause rot when piled against the tree’s base. Instead, keep the chips gently tapered away from the tree’s base. Finally, avoid hitting the tree with a weed eater or mower.

Hiring a Professional
To be sure that a tree professional is a certified arborist, confirm credentials with the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). This is a worldwide professional organization dedicated to fostering a greater appreciation for trees and promoting research, technology and the professional practice of arboriculture. ISA offers support and continued education for tree industry pros, and also serves as the governing body of tree workers, promoting safety and a code of ethics and standards for tree care and pruning. (Check out their website at www.isa-arbor.com.)

Since ISA provides certification for professional arborists, this organization offers a baseline for consumers, and assurance that an arborist certified with them has basic understanding of tree care and the precautions necessary to protect both trees and workers. Consider the following when hiring an arborist:

■ Does the firm have workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
■ Do they use spikes or a bucket truck when they work in trees? Just as spikes can damage the tree, a bucket truck can damage a yard and/or a healthy tree by causing the soil over the roots to compact. Most arborists prefer to climb the tree using ropes and harnesses.
■ Do they use safety precautions when they work, including
helmets and safety glasses? Tree professionals, including arborists and loggers, work in one of the most hazardous professions; safety
is paramount.
■ Do not be afraid to ask for references and credentials (ISA certification).
■ Is the company dependable? Do they return your phone calls? Are they on time and do they come when they say they are coming?
■ Ask for a written proposal describing what work they will do and the cost.

When planning any major projects centered on trees, it is important to consider the possible risks to the property. A professional will explain those risks and help you determine the least invasive, safest, most economical and most appropriate methods to complete the job.

Trees are the monarchs of the woodlands and welcome guests in our gardens. Treated as such, they will thrive for decades.

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