Keeping old trees - and you - safe - The Buffalo News

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Keeping old trees - and you - safe

Storms are on our minds this week, as we have watched the people, animals, buildings and shorelines of Florida assaulted by Hurricane Irma. We don’t worry much about hurricanes here: A recent report listed Buffalo as the fourth-safest city in terms of natural disasters, even if we experience some much-publicized snowstorms.

What we do and should worry about: wind and ice storms that endanger property, people and many trees, especially if the trees are not well maintained.

Like so many wonderful things that surround us – Olmsted parks, the Niagara River, rolling hills in the Southtowns, open meadows and Lake Erie shoreline – we humans tend to take our old trees for granted.

Only when they are endangered do we raise our heads and say, “I loved that tree!” If we could only think about the old trees now, in time to prepare them for the storms to come and the stresses of old age – what a difference we could make!

As Jeremy Sayers from the Tree Doctor once told me: “I believe that old trees are like old poets. They speak to several generations of people over time. They gracefully express the wisdom and beauty of the ages and should be respected, protected and revered.”

Safety first

It is truly important – for ecological, economical and aesthetic reasons – to protect and keep grand old trees alive and healthy. They often need corrective pruning or thinning the canopy. But is it worth your limbs, fingers, eyes, or life to save money by trying to do it yourself? Every class taught by every arborist starts or ends with warnings about the danger of doing work on large trees by yourself. Advice includes:

• Don’t use a chain saw by yourself and don’t use it over your head.

• Don’t climb into a tree, straddle a limb, and then use any kind of saw up there unless you are a professional.

• Don’t attempt to fell a tree without professional help. They don’t necessarily fall the way you pushed.

• Don’t underestimate “rebound”: When limbs are held down by other limbs or a fallen trunk and you attempt to disassemble the pile without help, the repressed limbs can spring back violently. It can be lethal. (I have heard arborists’ describe human limbs lost and an actual beheading from this happening.)

The better, self-preserving way, that is also better for tree health, is to hire a professional, certified arborist. Start the search at the International Society of Arboriculture website (ISA): www.isa-arbor.com/faca/findArborist.aspx. The ASCA (American Society of Consulting Arborists) is another greatly respected registration program.

I am not qualified to tell you which listing to follow but I can tell you that we have excellent professional arborists in our region. Get a consultation; ask advice from people you respect in the industry; be sure you are comfortable with the person you choose – but get a pro.

Because they must have good insurance and because it is strenuous, sometimes dangerous work requiring large and costly equipment, hiring an arborist can be expensive.
On the other hand, consider your safety and the huge value of a mature tree (and the take-down cost of a dead one). Good work by an arborist can add decades to the life of a tree.

When does a tree need a doctor?

Every old tree isn’t a problem. A lot depends upon where it stands. At the back corner of the lot, in the woods or in a hedgerow, a tree with broken limbs or holes in the trunk has great wildlife value. It’s called a “snag.” As it decays it is a kind of bed-and-breakfast for many living things from insects to owls to bears, and ultimately it provides organic matter to the soil. So let the snags stand.

It’s another story if that same tree stands where it will blow over onto the house or damage a car or endanger passersby. I am chagrined to admit I learned this lesson much earlier in my horticulture career: About 15 years ago a 3-foot diameter tree on the windy west side of my house blew over, cracking the roof beam. It hit about 3 feet from where my head usually rests at night. I wasn’t home just then and the old house wasn’t broken badly, but it was an expensive and frightening lesson.

Rex Webber of Bradley Tree and Landscaping, the only arborist I knew at the time, shook his head and said: “What were you thinking? Couldn’t you see this weakness – right here?”
And of course an arborist would have spotted ensuing danger. I should have had my old trees inspected. Now I know.

Some clues that your tree may need help and you should call a professional:

• A broken limb is still attached, hanging downward. Get it taken off properly – cutting just outside the branch bark ridge and branch collar. They call it a “widow-maker” – not for nothing.

• The top of your tree looks sickly and sparse: It is stressed.

• Construction or trenching was done anywhere near the tree as far out as the dripline; long term damage usually follows.

• The bark was cut or stripped even partially: Many say that girdling a tree more than one-third of the diameter will likely be fatal; ask an expert if it can be saved.

• Large fungal bodies or cankers on the tree can tell some pathologists or mycologists the degree and nature of decay within the trunk. (Do not worry about blue-gray lichens.)

My final advice: Don’t hire your brother-in-law, son home from college, or your spouse’s buddy with a chain saw if your old tree needs help. Call an arborist. If the advice is to take down the tree you might also get a second opinion. And know when to let it go.

As Alex L. Shigo, author of “Tree Pruning” (Shigo and Trees Associates, 1989), wrote in his book: “Trees, like all living things, grow old and die. Do not insult old trees with wound dressings and treatments that result in more metal and concrete than wood. Let trees die with dignity. Then plant new trees. And maintain what you plant.”

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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