Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Arboreal Geriatrics. Part 2

Neither of the remedies just mentioned is inexpensive, and they should be bought only from practitioners of the highest repute. But sometimes one or both will work wonders, and well repay you. It has been pointed out that, often as not, the basic cause of trouble aloft in an old tree lies down in its underpinning. In finding and relieving "girdling" roots, your own efforts can match the experts'. But when severe restriction of moisture and nutrients has been of such long duration as to cause major dieback in a tree's head, much pruning will be needed aloft, of wood alive as well as dead. For this part of a salvage job it is folly not to hire professionals. Ladders, ropes, and sharp tools up old trees are not for the novice. Beyond such suggestions it is no more possible to generalize about treatment for infirm old trees than for infirm old people. Individuals alter cases, no two are just alike. More helpful will be some particularizing, from specific case histories: On its savage transit in 1960, Hurricane Donna laid low a certain magnificent white oak - almost the peer of the Mercer Oak on the Princeton battlefield (See Photo. 1) or the Joyce Kilmer tree at New Brunswick. When we were asked to appraise its value for insurance purposes (our figure was about $1800, for, though the tree was faulty, a guesthouse had been sited expressly to enjoy it), we were also asked if anything might have been done - years ago - to safeguard such a monarch from such a fate. When we knocked the clinging sod and soil off its upturned roots, the great oak's Achilles' heel came immediately to view. Three main roots had been crossed and strangled by a fourth of equal size.

The damage had been done right where the tapering of the killed roots should have gripped the ground most strongly. Whether or not timely excision of the constrictor root would have saved the rest, and judicious feeding on that side have improved the tree's anchorage, was of course problematical. But certainly, had its weakness been known, the tree's safety could have been secured by installing support cables. The same hurricane leveled a huge and gorgeous English walnut around which the owner had focused all her garden planting and pleasure, including a swimming pool. This tree's massive roots were snapped like fiddlestrings, but they all appeared to be in perfect health. The fact was, their very health had helped bring about the tree's downfall. In that well-watered and fertilized site they had produced such a luxuriant crown that the walnut, for want of thinning aloft - and carrying a full September load of nuts, too - was top-heavy. Drenched by Donna's downpour, blasted by her gusts like a tall schooner under full sail, the tree had capsized despite its splendid root system - or because of it.

Here lay a lesson in few words: it is possible, through fondness, to grow "too much tree." A case where ounces of prevention probably averted tons of woe was that of a lofty sycamore, one of those commanding, brightly mottled specimens sometimes called sachem. It stands close to a couple's cosy farmhouse, in the front lawn, where its position is such that a gaping hollow in its lower trunk, caused long ago by fire, presented an eyesore to the front porch and living room. We were asked to fill that cavity, for appearance's sake. We demurred, citing the cost, and persuaded the owners to let us remove about six truckloads of topside deadwood, caused by the damage below. We traced, rodded, and painted the cavity, making it almost as presentable as an expensive filling would have done, and even safer and healthier. Then we told the owners that, when next they fertilized their peach orchard, they might feed their old sycamore a few hundred pounds. This they did, and when a big blow knocked down several much younger, untended trees in their grounds a few seasons later, the sachem stood unscathed, and still so stands.

Another couple called us in to look at their feature black ash, a mastlike forty-incher. After long years of flourishing, the tree's head was now dying back on two sides and such new growth as it did make was coming out puny. Some one had told the owners that the tree was obviously blighted and had best be taken down, while the sawlogs were still good, before it died and fell. The tree stood in a corner of the clients' property, enclosed by a privet hedge on the same two sides that looked so sickly aloft. We asked how long the privet had been there. They said four years. With this as a clue, we dug down beside the privet and, at three feet, came to a thick layer of shale, on top of which ran the ash roots. Any shallower-rooted tree might have obstructed, or prevented, the privet's planting. As it was, the privet - a growth as greedy as ash - was robbing its big neighbor and starving it out. The solution: deep-feed the ash, and remove the hedge at its corner.

As you drive through the countryside looking at other people's trees, notice that some of the most picturesque and interesting ones are the most imperfect. They are veterans whose characters are accentuated if not entirely imparted by their scars, deformities, or malignancies. To mind comes many a storm-tattered white pine, towering above its surroundings with what look like wild pennons of courage still flying high. Such landmarks can be preserved for generations by keeping their stubs trimmed, their diet ample, and by getting an electrician (a tree expert will be higher priced) to install lightning protection. To mind comes an ancient catalpa, in a fine New Jersey lawn, which is bowed over so far that its trunk is horizontal, its branches vertical. (See Photo. 23.) Many people might have removed such a freak long ago, but the owners of this one cherish it. It looks like - and perhaps it is - an old trail-marker of the Delaware Indians.