Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Arboreal Geriatrics. Part 1

When people buy a run-down rural or suburban dwelling, usually at much less cost than building for themselves, they derive a special kind of satisfaction from renovating their old "bargain," or so remodeling as to make it truly their own, not just a hand-me-down. Money and effort so spent seem to them doubly creative, as indeed they are. In proportion as the house is ancient, the newcomers are preserving history, and converting to their own comfort a valid remnant of human experience. Hand in hand with an old house usually come old trees - mute but vital witnesses to the thought and feeling that made this place a home. Restoring these remnants too will help the newcomers to express and establish their own home-love, and more profoundly. The old house could be replaced by a new one in a matter of months. To regrow the old trees might take a century. The question of what to do for old trees, and when to do it, is never so pressing as questions about an ancient house. This is a large part of old trees' charm.

There they have stood for generations, while people came and went; and there, though they may be infirm and slowly dying, they will continue to stand for some time to come. Like old soldiers, old trees never say die, and unless they are hit by a sure killer such as Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight, their fadeaway is slower and more gradual than most humans'. Resuscitating them can wait at least until the old house's new roof is paid for. But don't postpone a survey of your old trees: an analysis of their condition and needs, and a reliable idea of what their repair will cost. To get these, there is no middle way. You need a professional. The sooner you call one in, the more the trees will mean to you from then on. For such a survey there is, or should be, no charge. Free estimates, and fair ones, are a hallmark of sincere tree service. Safety is your first concern in this scrutiny.

Your own eye can tell you if a heavy limb or broken peak hangs perilously over architecture, walk, or driveway. But experience is needed to spot a faulty crotch, a critical cavity, a trunk more "dozy" than it appears from the outside, or a tree whose imbalance is precarious because of the place it stands and the prevailing winds. Such structural dangers had better be faced and fixed than ignored and regretted. "Extended coverage" for storm damage is a term which most insurance companies construe loosely. It may cover the havoc wrought by a wind incontestably high, but not what an old tree wrecks when it collapses under heavy rain or snow. Even if you do collect on such damage, the inconvenience you suffer can be more grievous than a tree surgeon's bill for measures of prudence.After they have been made safe, the next thing to do for old trees is renew their vigor. Enough has been said above about tree feeding to provide guidance for doing or bossing this work yourself.

To recapitulate: Your soil strata and the levels at which your trees' roots run can be determined by digging a few test holes. If the root systems are predominantly shallow, simple broadcasting, and spiking the turf, may be the soundest way to reach them with fertilizer. If they root deeply, and the punch-bar or injector-needle methods of feeding are used, put the food insertions much closer together, more shallow, and extend them much farther beyond the branch spreads than most "experts" recommend. Give up to five pounds of well-balanced dry fertilizer, or five gallons of dissolved, for each inch of trunk diameter breast high.

If an old tree seems in dire condition, and its special character impels you to give it special treatment, there are measures which the expert can take that have not been mentioned. One of these is foliar feeding - spraying the leaves with a solution containing freely available nitrogen, for quick assimilation into the sapstream. This procedure, which resembles putting a human patient under an oxygen tent, can be combined with an attack on the immediate cause of the tree's trouble, such as an insect (like gall mite) or a fungus disease (like anthracnose). A specific control agent for the parasite is sprayed on along with the nutrient solution. Another procedure parallels intravenous feeding. An in-vigorator is put directly into the ailing tree's sap channels through holes bored at intervals around the trunk, where bottles with feeder tubes are hung.