Sunday, May 4, 2014

Don't worry, it's not that complicated.

I'm constantly amazed at the over simplification of plant maladies that most people subscribe to.  If a tree or shrub is looking 'sick', then it must be some inauspicious bug or disease causing the problem, and a one time spray of something should solve the problem.  If not some magic spray, then the obvious solution is to 'feed' the poor starving plant.  Often we can find a tree damaging pest or signs of nutrient deficiency on our sickly patient, but it's the greater predisposing factors which are leading to the plant's decline.
Recently I was asked to look at some sickly shrubs.  Within a few moments I learned the following; when the property owners purchased the plants they got a good deal because the shrubs were old stock and not looking great (in some cases dead bark was peeling from the trunks), when installing the shrubs the planting holes were over amended with compost, and they’d been applying a complete fertilizer liberally to the root zones.  In the mean time the root balls of most of the shrubs had settled to several inches below grade.  After the shrubs started to look really bad, the property owners assumed some unknown but malevolent pest was attacking their plants, and began spraying them with horticultral oil.  My assignment was to identify what was wrong with the shrubs and develop a plan for their improved health.
The diagnosis? What was wrong with the shrubs is everything.  Substandard plants, installed incorrectly, with soil chemistry all mixed up.  There was no baleful insect or disease, just a series of preventable cultural mishaps, which so often after having occurred are left to an unsuspecting arborist to diagnose.  The remediation plan? Basically, start the planting process from the beginning, which included removing and replacing a handful of the previously installed plants.
The results of this encounter was a dissatisfied property owner left doubting the diagnoses of the consultant that was subcontracted through their primary tree care provider.  At the end of jobs like these I almost feel guilty charging my fee, and I know the clients are never too happy to pay.  Maybe next year there will be a magic potion for this.
What could be going on with this sad looking plant?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What could it be? I hope it doesn't suck....

Take a look at the picture of the Nelly Stevens holly below.  You'll notice the top of the tree is in decline.  What could it be?  Root rot? Nutrient deficiency? Perhaps straps where left around the stem and are now girdling the tree...

Now let's take a closer look...

Upon closer inspection we see the top die back is being caused by coalescing sap sucker wounds.  The yellow belly sap sucker drills holes in over 1000 species of trees.  The purpose of this behavior is to feed on the high sugar content tree sap, and any insects that may get caught in it. Sap suckers form two kinds of holes.  The first is a round hole that extends far into the tree and is not enlarged.  These are the holes that are commonly associated with species like sugar maple.  The second is a square hole that is shallow, but which needs to be be constantly maintained for sap flow.  It's this square hole that I've seen kill whole branches of trees over the years, most notably holly species. 

There aren't any good ways to prevent sap suckers from enjoying your trees.  Repellent sprays on the market seem to not be effective.  For high value trees I've seen burlap being wrapped around trunks during times of sap sucker activity.  This provided some modicum of protection, but can be unsightly and labor intensive.  In the interest of political correctness, I'll refrain from any BB-gun jokes.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

It starts at Day 1

When we take a tree from its native environment and plop it in the middle of the landscape, we're taking on a lot of responsibility.  The seemingly simple step of planting a tree can be the most important moment for the plant over the course of its life.

In the picture below are two oaks planted at the same time and at the same size.  The tree in the left of the picture was planted with the root collar exposed and at the proper grade.  The tree to the right was planted with root collar well below grade.  Several years down the line the correctly planted tree is far out performing the improperly planted tree.

The precedent for how these trees will function in the landscape was set on the day they were planted.   Proper planting, soil moisture, soil texture, etc. all play a part in how our trees will survive. Attention to detail is important to the long-term success of any introduced tree in our landscapes.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Zombie Tree

One theme I can't emphasis enough is that trees don't want to die.  Over millions of years, these large woody plants have found ways to overcome all kinds of ordeals.  We often try to predict tree failure and mortality by quantifying visible and perceived damage.  If said damage exceeds some measurable threshold, then that tree is often slated for removal.  But trees don't always fall in line with what we think is so certain.  Take for instance the tree pictured below.

At some point in time this tree met with some accident.  Significant area of trunk circumference was damaged.  Upon initial inspection, most of us would probably not give this tree much chance of survival.  Now there is no telling how long ago the damage occurred, but if you look closely you'll see the extensive amount of wound wood growing over the damaged area.  Some may say this is unprecedented, but I say it's a tree showing us that there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions seem to be exceptionally common in arboriculture.

The arrows highlight areas of the tree where wound wood is forming around extensive trunk damage exceeding 30%  of trunk circumference.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tippy trees.

Some trees lean.  Leaning trees are a natural phenomenon in nature.  While there are many reasons why trees lean, most of the time the reason involves the search for light.  This is called a phototropic growth response.  Trees growing in this manor put on adaptive growth and reaction wood to maintain stability.

Once a tree has grown to a point where there is a clear view of the sky the lean will 'self correct,' and new growth will begin to grow with a more vertical orientation.  At this stage the stem lean should be at its maximum, and if the tree remains structurally sound the angle of the lean should remain constant.

Look carefully at the pictures below.  The picture on the left is a screen shot from Google Street View of a post oak taken in 2011.  The 2nd picture is of the same tree taken in December of 2013.

2011                                                                                       December 2013

Notice the difference in orientation of the lean.  The root collar of this tree is not well exposed.  The homeowner indicated she noticed a change in the lean of the tree in July of 2013, and was aware of at least one 3- to 4-inch diameter root that was severed to install the brick walkway earlier that same year.  After some peripheral probing with a soil knife to about 6-inches deep, no structural roots were detected on the tension side of the lean. 

Could this tree be actively failing, albeit slowly?