A different kind of storm chaser

As an Extensional Specialist working on urban and community forestry issues, I am frequently asked to respond to questions about tree damage after storms.  One standard bit of advice I give is to be wary of ‘door knockers’ or ‘storm chasers’; individuals that descend like locusts upon storm-ravaged areas with pick-up trucks and chainsaws offering to clean up storm damage.  Sometimes these are just honest folks trying make a buck but there are also less scrupulous folks in the mix that are clearly exploiting the misfortune of others.  In either event, they usually lack the training, not to mention insurance, to tackle the dangerous chore of removing downed trees around homes, cars, and people.

In trolling the internet the other day for photos for Monday’s post, I ran across a different kind of storm chaser.  It seems the internet has gone viral with photos of Brazilian glamour model, Nana Gouvea, who was photographed by her boyfriend in various settings among the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.  The photos were posted on (and subsequently removed from) from FaceBook.  Needless to say, many people were offended and have taken the model and her boyfriend to task for the photos and a FaceBook site has popped up with Photoshopped images of the comely model amidst other disasters from the killing of Bambi’s mother to Noah’s flood.

Personally, I think the public needs to cut Ms. Gouvea some slack.  This intrepid beauty has captured a teachable moment and performed a great public service for extension personnel everywhere.  I can see future hazard tree assessments talks and bulletins enlivened with her images.  Well, here, let me show some examples.

Note the upturned in roots in the upper left.  Poor root anchorage is a common cause of tree failures during storms.

Trees breaking at ground-line (far left) during high winds is often the result of girdling roots.

Trees snapping at mid-stem is often the result of a subtle defect.  Note the evidence of frost cracking below this breakpoint.

Superstorm Sandy aftermath: A modest proposal

Initial estimates from insurers indicate that Superstorm Sandy may be the second costliest storm in US history.  A large portion of the damage attributable to Sandy and several of the deaths associated with the storm were due to falling trees.   In many cases the winds were severe enough to topple healthy trees, but I’m sure many GP blog readers share my frustration in looking at storm-related tree damage photos and seeing obvious defects that a professional arborist would have readily spotted.

This brings me to a modest proposal: I propose insurance companies provide discounts for homeowners to have a hazard evaluation of trees on their property.  I did a quick search on the major insurance companies and they currently offer homeowners discounts of up to 15% for, among other things:

Smoke alarms

Burglar alarms

Fire extinguishers

            Security systems

Roofing materials

Sprinkler systems

The rational is self-evident; the cost of the discounts is more than off-set by damage and subsequent claims that are prevented.  How much of a discount should homeowners get for a hazard assessment?  I dunno, but I’m sure there are actuaries somewhere that could figure out cost-benefit breakdown of identifying hazards and removing them on a calm, clear day versus waiting until they come down in a major storm and destroy a car or a house or worse.

Why it’s important to prune tree roots before planting

This week I discovered that one of our center’s landscape trees is ready to bite the dust. I was sad – but also happy.  It’s a wonderful teaching moment and if the tree has to give up its life to save others, I guess that’s okay.

As the video will show you, this Japanese maple was planted some years ago with a root circling the trunk.  As both the trunk and root have developed in girth, we’ve reached a point where the trunk is constricted and the weight of the tree is splitting this V-shaped specimen down the middle just like a turkey wishbone.  We’ll just have to see how long it takes.


Bottom line: even though it takes a little more time to correct a flawed woody root system, it’s well worth the effort.

Point of view: tree fouls out

A few weeks ago the Seattle Times ran a story about a tree whose existence is straining a long-term neighborly relationship. The feud’s between former Mariners first baseman John Olerud and his neighbor Bruce Baker, both of whom live in the Clyde Hill area (a bit north of Bill Gates’ place in Medina). Baker owns a Chinese pine (red or white, I’m not sure, but I’m guessing red based on the photos) which interferes with Olerud’s view of Lake Washington and the Seattle skyline.

You can read the entire story on the link above, but I’m particularly interested in the following points from the article:

  • "The tree, with a 2-foot-thick trunk, was there long before the Oleruds built their home."
  • Baker "wasn’t willing to cut down a tree that his arborist called very rare and valued at $18,000."
  • Clyde Hill is "one of the first in the nation to adopt a process for condemning trees that block too much of neighbors’ sunlight or scenic views."
  • "You guys saw the trees," Olerud said at the board hearing. "They’re not attractive trees. I would say they’re the kind of tree that only an arborist would love."

So…what would YOU do if you were on the board making this decision? (Be sure to do your homework and read the entire article before weighing in.)

Maybe an early demise is better?

Yesterday I gave a presentation at an Urban Forestry symposium here in Seattle.  One of the sidebar conversations I had came from a urban forester who had (to my mind, anyway) a different way of looking at urban street trees.  I’ve bemoaned for years that our trees die far too young – we plant species that should live for decades or even centuries, only to watch them fail and die in a fraction of that time.  Urban conditions take their toll: compacted, poor soils, reduced sunlight, increased temperatures, etc.  It’s not surprising that our trees just don’t hang on as long as they should.

But…what would happen if we took the “planned obsolescence” route?  In other words, rather than planting species that have long life spans and somehow expecting them to overcome all that the urban environment flings at them, how about choosing trees with shorter life spans?  Sure, there will still be replacement costs, but they will be expected and planned for.

So – should we continue to fight against ridiculous ordinances, unrealistic planting plans and unworkable tree selection lists?  Or should we lower our expectations of our urban forests?


(And now I’ve gone completely off track mentally, remembering the “Lowered Expectations” skits on MadTV.  Feel free to watch one!)

Snow – should it stay or should it go?

It’s snowing here in Seattle – always a fun event, especially when we’re expecting up to 10 or more inches. I know…many of you laugh at our “big” snow, but the hilliness of Seattle makes driving in snow an adventure. (In fact, I’m supposed to be flying out tomorrow for a Connecticut presentation, and my flight’s already been cancelled and rebooked. Sigh.)

But what about the plants? This time of year people often ask whether they should leave the snow on their trees and shrubs. I covered this in December 2010 (and in a podcast in December 2011), but now I’ve come up with easily memorized advice:

If it’s light, leave it – if it’s heavy, heave it.

Light snow helps insulate trees and shrubs from winter dehydration, but heavy snow can permanently bend or worse, break, tree and shrub branches. Use a broom or rake to knock heavy snow off branches.

Bending is bad…

…but breaking is worse.

What I did on my Christmas vacation

The week between Christmas and New Years’ is usually pretty laid back around here.  But not this time!  Along with 22 volunteers, 3 family members, and 1 graduate student, I spent that week putting in 80 trees for a long-term experiment.

My long-suffering family and I installing the last of the 80 trees on the fourth day of hell.

My intrepid graduate student Cindy Riskin obtained 40 B&B Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and 40 containerized mugo pine (Pinus mugo).  Half of each of the trees were installed conventionally, meaning the root balls were not significantly disturbed, and half were bare-rooted by root-washing methods I’ve discussed on the blog previously. Roots that circled or had other flaws were pruned as needed. Over the next several years, we’ll be assessing tree health and comparing the two root preparation techniques in terms of tree establishment.

Installed maple

Installed pine

Look at some of the surprises we uncovered during root preparation!  I will say unequivocally that these were the WORST quality trees I’ve ever seen coming out of a nursery.  And they weren’t cheap.

Yes, that’s a 4" pot still covering the roots inside this "gallon" mugo pine.

The duct tape is where the top of the burlap was in the original B&B.  Every one of the B&B trees we bare-rooted was buried too deeply in the clay and burlap.

Multiple trees?  Multiple messes!

Stay tuned for more…

Opening up a can of roots (or worms as the case may be)

Blog reader Alan Haigh asked if we could start a discussion about tree planting recommendations.  He sent along these guidelines from the Colorado State Master Gardener Program.

While I’m glad to see that the consensus now seems to be that burlap, wire, twine etc. do not belong in the planting hole, there’s still plenty of issues to contest.  Here are just a few that I found on my first read:

1)  Not mulching over the root ball;

2)  Assuming that all B&B trees are “field grown,” which I *know* is incorrect for so very, very many B&B trees;

3)  Not including the root-washing technique for B&B, which is not only research-based but is actively promoted through the International Society for Arboriculture’s workshops (see this posting for instance).  This is the only way to find and correct circling and girdling woody roots, and the easiest way to find the root crown for planting at grade.

Without root washing you’d have to dig through 10″ of clay to find the root crown (the duct tape marks the top of the clay root ball prior to washing)

I’ve written about this topic before.  And many people argue that it would “take too much time” and “be too expensive” to root wash specimens.  But when you read this publication, note that it takes 13 pages to describe how to plant containerized and B&B trees.

It takes 1 page to describe how to plant a bare root tree.

An unusual company

This week I’m in Charlotte, NC as a guest of Bartlett Tree Experts.  In addition to providing tree services, this company also maintains the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum. The latter includes over 300 acres of tree collections and ongoing research trials.  Here’s a sampling of the tree research we had a chance to observe:

Demonstration espalier pruning…

…and pleaching

Comparison of root barrier materials.  This area was covered with a sidewalk for a number of years and then exposed to observe tree rooting patterns.  The purpose of the research was to find which barriers were most likely to prevent sidewalk lifting and cracking.

A control – no barrier, lots of roots!

Black plastic – lack of rigidity allows roots to grow over (and through) the plastic, then under the sidewalk.

18″ rigid root barrier.  One of the more effective means of keeping roots out.

Removing circling roots before planting

A tree whose roots had been corrected before planting.  I think this had been planted in 2007, then lifted a few weeks ago.

A tree without root correction.  It didn’t grow any better than the corrected tree, and those circling roots are well on their way to becoming girdling roots.

This company employs a number of PhDs whose research is routinely published in arboricultural and horticultural journals.  It was fun to finally meet these researchers whose work I’ve been following for years.

Wouldn’t it be great if more companies put this much effort towards research?