Trees are stuck with you. They can’t run away when you make life tough for them. Trees have no voice and must suffer in silence.
The worst thing is that many well-meaning, even tree-loving, property owners unwittingly torture their trees.
Whether you inherited trees when you bought your current real estate or you’ve planted trees yourself, their value to your property, your lifestyle, and the community is numerous: privacy, greenery, reduction of air pollution, lessening of soil erosion, shade, wildlife habitat—and the list goes on.
Yet in spite of loving your greenery, are you unknowingly torturing your trees?
“What me?” you say in shock. Do you recognize yourself or your neighbors in the behaviors listed below?
Compaction Suffocates Trees
Is the soil around your trees so compact, that adequate oxygen and water do not reach tree roots? No, you say, but did you recently have landscaping equipment or construction vehicles on or near your property? Even many people walking around a tree can compress soil when moisture levels are high and soil is soft. Soil compression by machinery or foot traffic reduces soil pore size and restricts oxygen and water availability for tree roots. If the surrounding soil—up to three times the diameter of the leaf canopy—is significantly covered with patio stones or pavement right up to the tree trunk, the tree may be suffering. This hard surface results in reduction of available oxygen and water for tree roots which can restrict tree growth or eventually kill the tree. Remedies: Enlarge Tree Protection Zones, which should be set-up before construction begins, to reduce compaction. Do not park cars or other vehicles under a tree canopy or on the root zone of a tree. Depaving projects to free hard-surface-bound sidewalk and playground trees remove suffocating pavement and let soil and tree roots breath again. Contact a professional arborist before working under a tree or when compaction may have occurred.
Not Heal, But Seal
Have you weed-whacked or mowed around a tree trunk and scratched the bark or taken a chunk out of the trunk in the process? Broken a branch off lately? Dug through a root or two? Fastened a slackline to a tree and damaged the bark or strained the tree with your weight? “No problem, the tree will heal” may have been your reaction, but you’re dead wrong. Trees do not heal. No bandaids for them. Trees can only compartmentalize or “wall-off” an injury—that is, slowly grow a “box” around the damage and seal if off. Because this is not a quick reaction, bacteria, fungi, or pests may invade the weakened area and make matters worse before the tree can complete the seal. Your quick, perhaps thoughtless, actions may cause damage that the tree can not seal itself off from leading to its death.
Remedies: Be cautious when you weed-whack, mow, play, construct, or dig near trees. Warn others to do the same. Consult an arborist beforehand. Prevention of damage is the only effective remedy when it comes to trees.
Mulch May Cause Problems
Which works? Donuts (L) or Volcanos (R)? Donuts, not volcanos—that’s the correct application of mulch that will not damage tree trunks. Mulch, or organic material like wood chips or straw, improves moisture levels and suppresses weeds. However, pile mulch up against a tree trunk and moisture will build up and make it easier for pests, bacteria, and fungi to damage the trunk and undermine the tree’s health.
Remedies: Mulch in a donut shape that is away from the trunk like the attached photo. Avoid dyed varieties of wood chips and stick to natural.
Wrong Tree or Wrong Place
Planting the right tree in the right place sounds like an obvious decision, but enthusiastic gardeners don’t always search out the professional input they need to successfully make this choice. What’s best for the tree is best for the property owner. The wrong location for a particular species will weaken the tree making it more susceptible to disease or pest attacks. The tree suffers unnecessarily and the owner stares at an expensive, unsightly dying tree. Growing healthy, beautiful trees, in the right type of soil and at the right moisture level, avoids problems, reduces maintenance, and celebrates the beauty of nature.
Remedies: Ask an arborist or professionals at nurseries, tree maintenance companies, or tree-planting nonprofits which tree species works best for your soil type, moisture levels, light conditions, and general location. They’ll also help you avoid local invasive trees. Take a look at what’s thriving near your property and ask about those species. Native trees will do best.
Trees Wrongly Take The Rap
Trees provide benefits, there’s no doubt about that, but they get blamed for two misunderstood headaches that property owners often complain about:
#1. Leave Leaves Raking leaves can be a backbreaking task for property owners. The current intelligence on this issue tells us to leave leaves on the garden. Leave them on over winter to protect plants and to provide habitat for local ground-dwelling bee species, which are usually more important pollinators than imported honey-bees. The leaves will breakdown over winter. Even oak leaves are easier to handle in the spring. Lawn-lovers are encouraged to mulch leaves or go over them with a mower.
#2. Roots Don’t Deserve The Blame Most tree roots are contained in the top two feet of soil. They radiate out from the trunk, largely in search of water, nutrients, and oxygen, extending as much as three times the width of the leaf canopy. If there is a crack—tiny or otherwise—in a pipe, drain, foundation wall, patio, or driveway within this root zone, the tiny fibrous root tips will be attracted to leaking or accumulated water and to higher oxygen levels. Over time, they’ll work their way into the drain, pipe, foundation wall, or driveway cracks and grow larger. Tree roots do not cause the initial problem, but they are attracted to the accumulation of water and oxygen that may result from it and wrongly end up with the blame.
Want to easily learn more about your trees and the tree canopy?
- Is your town a Tree City USA Community? Find out now. The Tree City USA program has “greened up” more than 3,400 communities across America since 1976.
- What’s your carbon footprint? If everyone lived like you, how many planets would we need? Try the Carbon Dioxide and Planetary Footprint Calculator to learn where you stand for trees.
- Volunteer as a tree tender or in many other ways to enhance and protect your forests. I just completed a Tree Tender course where I learned all the above and more. Amazing experience. The US Forest Service provides details for managing trees, evaluating worth, and selecting species to grow. For an insider look at the world of trees, check out the Forest Service’s free 128-page PDF “Landscape Stewardship Guide.”
- Start celebrating Arbor Day now, so you’ll be more than ready when April 26, 2019 arrives.
Written by PJ Wade