Taking Care of Your Trees

Eight Common Abuses of Trees

Oliver K. Reichl, H.B.E.S.
Consulting Arborist-Ecologist 
(To ask Oliver a question - Click Here) - Some Questions and Answers


What do Segovia (Spain), Calgary (Canada), and Saqqara (Egypt) have in common? 

Among my memories of these admittedly disparate places is the fact that these are all environments largely bereft of trees. Like vacationing under grey cloudy skies, visiting a place without trees imparts upon me a certain sense of desolation. 

Fortunately for myself I live in southern Ontario where a multitude of both coniferous and deciduous tree species grace the landscape. But that happenstance brings its own tree-related frustrations.

As an urban forester and consulting arborist, I see abuses heaped upon our trees every day: abuses spawned either by negligence, ignorance, or malicious profiteering. I would like to share the most prevalent of these abuses with you, and hope that an awareness of these common bad arboricultural practices will reduce the frequency of their occurrence. 

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, I present to you:

Eight Common Abuses of Trees

1) topping

Long recognized as a poor horticultural practice, topping still occurs with depressing regularity. Topping a tree is radical height reduction, where all branches/limbs are cut as though they were fruit trees. The result is a tree with many unsightly and unhealthy stubs and a crown that is seriously out of proportion with the root system. In an effort to re-establish some balance, the tree sends out many new shoots. These fast- growing shoots are weak-wooded and, in time, become more prone to breaking and crowding, ultimately creating an unhealthy and even hazardous tree. 


Figure 1: A topped weeping willow.



The reductions in height gained by topping are typically lost within 5-7 years, and correcting that usually means re-topping or a lot of time on an arborist's part judiciously pruning out lots of long thin stems. 

Basically, non-ethical arborists love topping, since it is both paying work and virtually guarantees repeat business. 

If disfiguring your tree, creating a hazard, lowering your property value, and getting poor service for your money is what you're after, topping is the procedure for you.

There is at least one pruning procedure that can achieve height reduction with somewhat less of a negative impact on the tree. 


Its called drop-crotch pruning, and is an attempt at meeting height-reduction objectives while respecting a given specimen's natural branching habits.

If the arborist proposing to work for you doesn't know what drop-crotch pruning is, get rid of them and find one who does.

(To ask Oliver a question - Click Here)

2) grade changes

We know surprisingly little about the root systems of trees. Roots don't usually get any attention until they're interfering with a construction project, a drainage or septic system, an underground garage, or a foundation wall. 

Here's a couple of things, mostly from trial and error, that we do know:

i) each species and genus has its unique rooting characteristics, with some being 
   more fibrous than others

ii) the tree tap root is largely a myth

iii) roots can't function effectively without the symbiotic benefits of mycorrhizae

iv) the majority of a tree's feeder roots are located within the first 15cm of soil

v) a root system extends far beyond the outer limits of the crown's spread

vi) roots like to grow horizontally and, to a lesser degree, down (not up)

vi) feeder roots are very sensitive to grade changes of even a few centimetres

Figure 2: A buried root collar.

People assume that trees, because they're plants, like lots of soil. Trees planted too deep or too shallow are prone to developing health and stability issues later on.

Adding soil to a maturing root zone is akin to planting the tree too deep in the first place. Water and air must now percolate that much further to reach the roots, and energy must now be expended to grow new feeder roots upward which is contrary to their natural inclination. 



Soil piled around the main stem, burying the root collar, will absorb moisture like a sponge and that moisture will sit against the trunk where it increases the risk of rot where the tree can least afford to develop it. 

The moral of this story: don't change the grade under a tree's canopy because it will stress the tree or cause it to decline. If you have a declining tree and the base does not show any root flare, chances are a grade change has taken place at some point in the not-too-distant past.

(To ask Oliver a question - Click Here)

3) planting too dense

We live in a culture where infantile notions of instant gratification are rampant. 

Who has time to wait for things to grow? 

We want our properties lush and green now! 

Landscaping companies and nurseries are more than happy to oblige. After all, you're paying them typically hundreds of dollars per plant. To achieve that insta-lush yard, lots of young shrubs and small trees are planted so close together that, within 3-5 years, half of them will need to be removed (there goes half your investment) because they are either physically crowding each other, or beginning to show signs of succumbing to their own version of Darwinism as they compete for moisture, nutrients, and sunlight. 

A good planting plan takes into account the growth habits and eventual sizes of the plant materials desired.  Planting young trees too close to one another may give you instant lushness, but it also guarantees that  some of those trees will be either stunted, unbalanced in form, or even dead.

4) introduced species

Given the tenacity with which Agriculture Canada keeps us from importing plant or animal material from abroad, it almost seems strange that introduced species are so prevalent. Now it is true that gypsy moths, zebra mussels, lampreys, raccoon rabies, purple loosestrife, and the Asian Long-horned beetle are all life forms that are not native to this part of the world, but the same can be said for many of the plant materials we deploy in our landscapes. 

With plants, however, the introductions are usually not accidental, and trees like Norway maple, Norway spruce, Austrian pine, Scots pine, and Weeping willow have become common features in suburbia and elsewhere.

There are numerous problems with non-native or "alien" species. Often they have no natural controls in terms of predators or pathogens and quickly overrun and devastate ecosystems. Introduced tree species are often under stress from simply trying to exist in our harsh continental climate, with its sweltering summers and bitterly cold winters. Like any organism under physiological stress, a stressed tree is less able to resist attacks by a host of vermin including insects, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and parasitic plants, as well as environmental factors like drought, frost, radiant heat, nutrient deficiencies, and pollution. 

They are more susceptible to infection, and their reduced vigour means recovery is slow or questionable. Like your typical lawn, which is predominantly composed of alien bluegrasses, non-native trees are simply more labour-intensive and costly to maintain, and their survivability is always suspect. 

This is not to say that our own Carolinian and boreal species are immune to infections and attacks, but they are generally more resistant and able to cope. 

For these reasons, when I am asked for advice on what species to plant, the first rule is always to invest in native species. Your property may not look as exotic, but you will have made a choice that is simply cheaper and environmentally friendly. You will have reduced the chance of having to pay for costly future life support services like pesticide and fertilizer applications, let alone the cost of prognosis, or removing and replacing the tree when all the technology at our disposal still can't keep it alive.

(To ask Oliver a question - Click Here)

5) lawn care gear

Simply put, a tree's bark is like a skin: it is an organic protective barrier that is a vital part of the living whole. Like skin, bark needs to breathe, it can "bleed", it scars, and it heals. Also like skin, a wound that isn't intrinsically life-threatening can still be an entry point for fungal, viral, insectine, or bacterial pathogens. And that is one of the two dangers posed by weed snippers and lawn mowers when they are recklessly used in such proximity to a tree that they scrape, tear, cut, and bash at the bark. 

The other danger, guaranteed to be fatal, is that repeated contact by lawn care equipment can sever or ruin an entire ring of bark. The area immediately under the bark is crucial for a tree's circulation and, like a tourniquet left on too long, a full ring of severed bark will essentially girdle the tree and effectively kill it. Plastic barriers at the bases of young trees are certainly helpful, but older larger trees are just as susceptible to this type of wounding. 

The best way to prevent girdling and wounding by lawn care equipment is to maintain a layer of mulch at the base of the tree. Mulch, among other things, retards or prevents the growth of competing vegetation, so there's simply nothing to mow or snip at the base of the tree.

(To ask Oliver a question - Click Here)

6) tying / girdling

While the methodology differs somewhat from lawn care equipment damage, the girdling aspect is basically the same. Anything tied around a branch or the trunk will girdle and kill all parts beyond the point of contact if that wrap is left on too long. When is too long? When you can see bark starting to bulge around either end of that contact point. The most common culprits of this sort of dendritic abuse are:

Figure 3: Scarring from collars.


i) collars (attached by wiring to t-bars) put on a newly-planted tree to help stabilize it, but not removed within 2-3 years

ii) unprofessional cabling jobs, where the cable is wrapped around a stem rather than attached to an eye-bolt

iii) forgotten recreational equipment, like tire swings, hammocks, and boats

iv) dog chains, clothes lines, floodlight wires

    (To ask Oliver a question - 
          Click Here

7) do-it-yourself pruning

I get called upon frequently to investigate a tree health concern at a customer's property, only to conclude that the likely cause of the problem is a poor cultural practice initiated by the owner or the owner's gardener or landscape contractor. The most common of these is making improper pruning cuts where, rather than a clean cut at the branch collar, there is a stub of some length sticking out of the side of the tree. Sure the offending branch has been removed, but stubs do not heal effectively, and thus become an attractive entry point for rot, insects, or disease. 

It follows that a proper pruning cut can also be that entry point, but the situation isn't nearly as serious because the bark will re-seal that wound as quickly as possible. 

Pruning is essentially a form of surgery, not that different from operating on a pet, person, or car: if you  don't really know what you're doing, you will likely do more harm than good. Like the doctor, veterinarian, and mechanic, a trained arborist is a specialist who knows the proper and best way of doing things within their area of expertise. The only caveat about that statement is that, unlike with mechanics, MDs and vets, the arboriculture profession is not regulated, meaning pretty much anyone can call themselves an arborist. 

For property owners concerned about the proper care of their trees and who choose to engage the services of a tree care company, its another situation of "buyer beware", but at least they've taken the first positive step and decided to leave the surgery to the surgeons.

(To ask Oliver a question - Click Here)

8) tree coffins

Tree coffins are a familiar sight at a familiar site: the shopping mall parking lot. But you'll also find them on sidewalks, in private gardens, and even public parks. The "tree coffin" is not a proper technical term, but certainly makes for an adequate description of those little concrete islands or stone planters where balled- and-burlapped maples, lindens, oaks, and honey-locusts are somehow expected to thrive and turn into pretty shade trees. This type of planting is completely non-sensical. 

Figure 4: This tree will get water from where?

Expecting anything to grow properly in that most prevalent of urban soil types, compacted nutrient-poor construction fill, is an exercise in optimism in and of itself. 

Believing that a coffin-planted tree will live happily, in a location where water and roots have almost no chance to meet, is grossly naive. Radiant heat reflected from the pavement scorches leaves and further aggravates the dessication. 

There is money wasted on planting a tree in a coffin and on having to remove the tree later when it dies, not to mention that the patiently cultivated tree itself may have had a long life had it been planted in a less-hostile growing environment.

Keeping trees healthy is often simply a matter of common sense. 

Don't worsen existing stresses, and try not to create new ones. 

Minimize or eliminate injurious activities. Care for them as you would care for a beloved pet and, 
like a well-treated dog or cat, they will reward you with many years of faithful longevity.

Oliver K. Reichl, H.B.E.S.
Consulting Arborist-Ecologist
Brockville, Ontario, Canada

Phone 613 923-8833

Copyright 2004 - 2008 by Oliver K. Reichl. 
All rights reserved.

Why Hire An Professional Arborist?

An arborist is a specialist in the care of individual trees. Arborists are knowledgeable about the needs of trees and are trained and equipped to provide proper care. Hiring an arborist is a decision that should not be taken lightly. 

Proper tree care is an investment that can lead to substantial returns. Well cared-for trees are attractive and can add considerable value to your property. Poorly maintained trees can be a significant liability. Pruning or removing trees, especially large trees, can be dangerous and expensive work. 

A consulting arborist that is not affiliated with a tree care company is probably the best person to provide unbiased professional opinion about your trees.

If you would like to hire Arborist - Ecologist Oliver Reichl 
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Questions Oliver Answers
Name: Jennifer Bewley
City: Springfield, MO USA

Questions about Trees: Here are my questions about my trees: My house was built about 3 1/2 years ago and the 3 oaks in my yard are not as full as before, someone told me that the house was built too close and is killing my trees, that were here first. Is there any way to save my
That is not an easy question to answer, even if we were both standing there looking up at your oaks right now. Minimizing root damage during excavation, protecting the root zone, and preventing soil compaction in that zone are the best ways to help a tree survive construction. Remedial efforts several years later are rarely successful. In short, I am not very optimistic as to their survivability from what you have told me, and what I can only imagine occurred on the site 3.5 years ago. It is sad, but true, that many new home owners buy houses with good-looking trees on them, only to see them start to decline within 3-5 years. By this time, of course, the builder has run off with the money, and you are left to deal with the expense of removal and replacement of these trees (should they die) and the reduced value of your property. We also can't logically exclude the possibility that your trees are suffering from some other stress(es) unrelated to the earlier
construction work.

None of your options at this point are cheap. Injecting nutrients into the trunks may help, but its pricey. Deep root feeding may help as well, by encouraging the growth of new root structures. Getting a lawyer and a consulting arborist to go after the builder for compensation is another option - this latter option would involve an investigation of your local laws regarding construction and tree preservation, whether the builder submitted a tree preservation plan (if they did, did they follow through on what their plan said would be done to protect the trees?; did the municipal forester or planning department visit the construction site to ensure the builder was following through with their plan?). Litigation is expensive, and proving negligence can be tricky. Your area may not even have any tree protection by-laws that the builder was required to comply with - in other words, they may not have done anything wrong, technically, and this house with its trees was a matter of caveat emptor (buyer beware).

Anyway, the house itself is not killing your trees. Indiscriminate construction work is very possibly the cause. No remedial action at this point is guaranteed to be successful - only you know how big these trees are, and how important they are to you. Let that dictate your next move (no pun intended).
Name: Karin Kramer
City: Irricana

Questions about Trees: Here are my questions about my trees: I want to prune some Mayday trees from the multi-stemmed shrub form (which they are currently in) into a single trunk tree. How do I do this? Also, the shrubs are 3 yrs old and were just transplanted this year. Should I give them a year before I start pruning?
I am not familiar with this particular species, but I can offer some insight.

1) Anything that has been recently transplanted is usually in a state of shock that lasts 1-3 seasons. A pruning of the sort you are proposing may well create enough additional stress to kill the plant, so definitely give them at least a year. In that year, keep them well-watered. Deep root fertilizing would be helpful to offset stresses as well.

2) Multiple stems can occur in several ways, most commonly at ground level or slightly above. If the stems are coming up more-or-less individually (like a lilac), you could simply cut away all but the one stem you want to keep. As far as the "keeper" goes, I would favour the stem that is growing the straightest, or by virtue of its girth or branching or foliage appears to be the most robust. If these stems are forking above the ground (more like a birch), then things get a little trickier because you will be trying to encourage an unnatural shape. I would go about this very 
slowly  (2-5 years), making only a couple of cuts per season. The actual size of the plants at present is of course also a factor here. Again, try to favour what appears to be the most robust stem.

A personal note: Humans expend enormous amounts of time, money, and effort fighting nature, trying to make it bend to our wishes and designs. Your plants are naturally multi-stemmed. Why not enjoy them and nurture them and appreciate them for what they are? If you want something that is single-stemmed, then why not plant something that is naturally single-stemmed?

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