Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Arboreal Geriatrics. Part 3

On a back road in the Watchung hills stand four ancient red oaks, all much squattier than is their species habit and each with grotesque lumps and knobs where the main lower limbs should be. Perhaps they were amputated in their youth by some woodsman, clearing a tote road, who was too busy to fell the trees entirely. Then cankers set in which deformed but failed to kill them, so that they have aged like a quartet of gnarled gnomes crouching at the roadside. To worry about the health of such a group, if they lived in your grounds, would be silly. To remove them in favor of more graceful trees would be to compound the woodsman's felony. Most country dwellers are charmed and flattered when wild creatures take up residence in their grounds. An old tree with otherwise deplorable dead stubs and cavities extends a warm invitation to wrens, bluebirds, woodpeckers, sparrow hawks, and the smaller owls, saw-whet and screech. Squirrels - red, gray, and flying - which might otherwise invade your attic will be content if they have a derelict tree to nest in. If rowdy starlings or English sparrows move in, there is one sure cure: a swab of kerosene.

The fondest possession of one gracious lady who wanted us to manicure all her other trees was a disreputable old silver maple close to her front patio. This one we were forbidden to touch, for in it, in a major cavity, lived a family of raccoons whose matriarch led forth her brood in the summer dusks and marched them across the lawn, down the driveway, for their fishing lessons at the creek. If the old rampike that you leave standing for wild guests really disfigures its setting, plant trumpet-creeper or wisteria at its base and turn it into a showpiece. Against the day when it must fall down, plant a replacement tree nearby, but not too near.

A curious thing about some old trees is this: when they never looked better, they may be approaching their worst. A superannuated apple tree, for example, after years of steady decline will suddenly surprise you one spring by bursting into exaggerated bloom. Though it has borne little or no fruit for the longest time, this year it will produce quantities. Then, within another year or two, the tree is dead or next thing to it. Authorities vary in their explanations of such behavior, which of course is variously caused. But in a general way there seems to be truth in the old saying, "That's Nature's way of perpetuating the species." Old trees with new troubles or an accumulation of chronic ones sometimes react with a burst of energy, as if trying to save themselves or their kind, and then give up trying.

The phenomenon is mentioned in this discussion of arboreal geriatrics because another fact about it is this; such dying-gasp or death-throe activity will appear in old trees that have been entirely neglected, whose trouble is truly mortal, but seldom in trees that you have tried to help. If your feeding, root relief, and topside pruning have started an old tree on a new lease of life, you are not likely to see quick, dramatic results. Leaf color and annual growth will improve, dieback will lessen, but any stimulation provided by you should not produce suddenly a cloud of dogwood blossoms or a copious crop of spruce cones.

If you do get such results, you are probably overdoing something, or doing something wrong. For people of modest means, self-service to their trees is less a matter of choice than of necessity. The surest way for them to avoid mistakes, of omission or commission, is (to repeat): call in a professional. If he is half the man he should be, he will, in appreciation of such paid work as you really need and can afford, be glad to lay out a program for you to follow by yourself, and to see that you follow it. Some of the happiest clients are those who, with several old trees that need skilled attention, have their treeman arrange these in priority order and then budget their therapy piecemeal over the years until all are rehabilitated.