Monday, November 28, 2011

Kiss Mistletoe Goodby

Mistletoe has been a part of holiday tradition for hundreds of years. Who hasn't seen a festively ribboned sprig hanging over a doorway, just asking for the next passerby to be kissed? That happy custom dates back to the 17th Century. (Then again, a much older custom, practiced by Druids, promoted hanging mistletoe to ward off evil spirits.)

Courtesy Paul A. Mistretta, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood Org.
All that good and bad mojo aside,  when we purchased our current property last spring, I was less then pleased to look up into a big elm tree alongside the driveway and spot numerous wads of mistletoe decking the branches.

Knowing what I know about the plant, I had no urge to kiss under it. I did, in fact, have an urge to give it the evil eye.

Mistletoe is, after all, a parasite.

There are two major groups of the plant: so-called true mistletoe, which infects oaks, maples and other hardwoods, as well as cypress and junipers; and dwarf mistletoe, which infests pines and conifers (other than cypress and junipers).

Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia

True mistletoe—the stuff of holiday tradition—produces berry-like fruits that birds love...and that's how the seeds get spread far and wide. I was somewhat relieved to learn that the true mistletoe infesting my elm is more or less self-supporting, and doesn't generally do serious damage to a tree. (I say "more or less," because the parasite does drain lots of water from its host, which can be lethal during our ongoing drought conditions. So I'll be doubly careful to keep that big elm well irrigated during dry spells.)

Removing as much of the invader as possible also can help. But the tree is too tall for do-it-yourself pruning. So this winter, I'll have a certified arborist take a look at it, to see if the branches can be cut back a foot from each infestation to help control the parasite. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the birds attracted to the berries.

The other type of this pain in the landscape, dwarf mistletoe, doesn't require birds to spread itself; it has seeds that are discharged explosively. This keeps the infestation "closer to home." As with true mistletoe, you can help control the dwarf type by pruning away infected limbs whenever possible. This often can help prolong the tree's life and improve it's health.

Chemicals are not very effective in controlling mistletoe. If an infestation becomes serious enough to cause the entire tree to be removed, then it would be a good idea to replace it with a species that is more mistletoe resistant.

Also...this cheerful holiday tradition is poisonous, especially to small children and pets. So while you're smooching under the mistletoe, make sure that no leafy parts drop to the floor.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Your Trees Might Not Make It

Winter is coming. Usually by now, giant acorns from our neighbor's burr oak tree are hitting the driveway like golf balls. Usually, squirrels are madly filling their winter larders with acorns and other provisions. Usually, I'm not this worried.

I don't see acorns in the burr, post, and blackjack oaks this fall. None. A few are up there in the branches, but they're so small—stunted by a devastating summer of record-setting heat and drought—that I spot them only when they drop onto the driveway.

I wonder what all the wildlife that depends on acorns and other seeds for winter forage will do between now and spring. I wonder if even a majority of them will make it to spring.

And I wonder about the trees themselves.

For landscapes in much of the country, this has been one of the toughest years in memory. If trees and shrubs weren't being flooded, or ravaged by high winds, they were being subjected to record-setting droughts and heatwaves. And let's not forget the blizzards and ice storms of last winter, or the catastrophic early snow in the Northeast this fall that shattered and felled countless trees that hadn't yet dropped their foliage.

Most tree species are built to take a lot—at least, they are when grown in the kind of climate where they evolved. Even so, there's a limit to what even the toughest tree can withstand.

We've had life-saving rains this past month, though experience tells us that the tap could shut off at any moment, plunging us back into the summer's exceptional drought. I have hopes that our trees will have enough soil moisture to tide them over at least until hard winter sets in. But we have our hoses at the ready, prepared to soak the ground around critical root zones if and when the soil starts to dry out again.

Other than that, it's a waiting game. Did some of the trees lose too much of their root systems during the drought? After being largely defoliated by a late-spring hailstorm, did they have enough leaves left to photosynthesize sufficiently and store energy? Will disease or pests attack before they can regain their former vitality?

Spring will tell.

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
I do have hope. Especially after hearing from my friend, artist Pablo Solomon. Pablo lost a big oak to a tornado three years ago. The same twister practically wrung the life out of a nearby mesquite tree. But this year, life sprang eternal, as the saying goes.

"After three years and a drought," reports Pablo, "the mesquite has decided to renew itself. Tough stuff."

His photo shows a healthy sprig of new growth sprouted from the side of what otherwise appears to be a dead stump—with the toppled oak in the background.

Which goes to prove my long-held belief that plants want to live if given half a chance. So we'll be ready with supplemental water this winter. And we'll be there to welcome our hard-weathered trees next spring if they're able to show up.

Monday, November 21, 2011

When Plants Get In Your Face

It all started innocently one spring, when I spotted a cute little seedling sprouting in the landscape bed near  the front porch. At first, I mistook the volunteer for a Rose of Sharon shrub, of which I had many. But when it shot up to shoulder height, I got the news: a mulberry tree.

I backed off, gave it a brief moment of thought, and decided, Okay. It'll grow up and shade the porch from the blistering summer sun. So I let it grow...and grow...and grow, barely four feet from the foundation. Of course, as the tree matured, its branches played havoc with roof shingles. During severe storms, its swaying and lashing threatened to do even more damage. And we won't even mention the masses of purple mulberries that rained onto the porch and got tracked indoors during the fruiting season.

Eventually, we had to remove the too-close mulberry. Sadly surveying the vacated spot, I replaced the volunteer with a crape myrtle that would grow and provide shade without turning into a 100-pound gorilla in the room.

All too often, trees growing too close to structures started out as volunteers that someone lacked the heart or the interest to evict. The tree at the right is undoubtedly one of those, its trunk pressed right up against a stone wall. (This sad example has the added misfortune of being wrapped in Treacherous Beauty.) Someday, this misfit will feel the bite of a chainsaw and be brought down long before its time.

But trees growing too close to structures were often put there on purpose. I've seen young Japanese laceleaf maples planted next to walkways in foundation beds barely 18 inches deep, when these pricey trees mature into mushroom shapes that will turn into an obstacle course for pedestrians.

And that's one of the most common mistakes homeowners make when planting trees: not taking into consideration their mature size and shape. Unlike the furniture in your living room, these important elements of the landscape cannot be moved around when their size or shape has matured into proportions that no longer suit their location.

Shrubs tend to be an even more common "too close for comfort" problem. When most people plant a tree, they expect it to get bigger, and so at least make an effort to plant it some distance from structures, even if that distance eventually proves to be not far enough. But for some reason, the cute little arborvitae or American holly plant brought home from the garden center in a one-gallon container often doesn't get the same amount of consideration.

Needless to say, an 8-foot-tall shrub growing 2 feet from a wall won't be able to mature into its full glory. And, as with a tree growing too close for comfort, the cramped plant is likely to be less robust, more vulnerable to problems caused by poor air circulation, and more apt to succumb to extreme weather conditions.

Even when shrubs are spaced properly, they're no gift to the landscape if they are neglected. The plantings at the left have been allowed to grossly overgrow their purpose,  darkening the windows from the inside and all but hiding the house on the outside. If this property were to be put on the market, the run-amok shrubs alone would be enough to turn off many potential buyers. And the overgrowth makes it impossible to do routine maintenance work on the exterior of the house.

On my own recently-purchased property, two crape myrtles were planted right up against a window bump-out, where they scrape against the paint and don't have room to grow into their proper shape. So,although they are obviously long-established plants, they will have to be dug up and moved out a few feet next spring. Then they will have to undergo rehabilitation pruning for several years to come.

How much simpler it would be if they had been properly located when they were originally planted.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Since You Asked...For The Weatherproof Your Landscape Holiday Gift List

Ordinarily, I don't like to jump the gun on the holidays. But, okay, you asked for it—and you must have known this list would be filled with practical items that every homeowner should have for maintaining trees and shrubs.

The fact is, most households do not own a full set of the basic non-powered tools for the care and repair of the landscape's valuable anchor plants. With today's increasingly extreme weather, these tools are a must. So here we go with my top ten recommendations:

Available from publisher:, or call
1-800-226-3822; or go to
1. Weatherproofing Your Landscape

I won't even blush. Anyone who owns a tree or shrub needs a copy of this book (perhaps tastefully packaged together with one or more of the next nine gift ideas).

This is suitable for both new and veteran property owners anywhere in the country, from California to Maine to Florida, and all points in between. (Much of the information is applicable to landscapes around the globe.) If you know someone who has relocated to a new region that has unfamiliar weather issues: yup, also a super smooth idea.

Recipients will thank you every time an extreme-weather event hammers their landscape—and as recent history has shown us, that's going to happen no matter where you live.

Bypass pruners, Courtesy Fiskars
 2. Pruners

These come in two basic types: anvil and bypass. Both are useful for small branches up to about finger-diameter. Pruners are a must for training young trees and shrubs into sturdy growth habits, as well as for removing small broken branches.

Anvil pruners, Courtesy Fiskars
 Anvil-jawed pruners (at left) have a cutter blade that chomps down on a flat surface. These are bulkier than bypass types, and so are more difficult to maneuver into tight crotches for close cuts.

More popular bypass pruners (above) have two sharpened blades that work with a scissor action. They'll fit into almost any nook and cranny, and  this definitely makes them my choice if I could own just one type.

Both types of pruners come in a wide array of models, some with easy-grip hands and other nifty features.

3. Loppers
Loppers, Courtesy Fiskars

As with pruners, loppers are available in anvil or bypass models. Designed for  larger branches than pruners can handle, they need to be built to stand up to heavy-duty use.

My old loppers have toiled in the trenches for three decades, and are still going strong. But what I'd really like is a set with telescoping handles, to reach up a little higher without resorting to a tree pruner (see blow) or having to break out a ladder...especially when dealing with an ice storm.

Power-tooth saw, Courtesy Fiskars
4. Pruning saws

Saws are a must following almost any tree-damaging extreme weather event. Again, you have a choice of two primary models: power tooth and bow.

Power-tooth saws (to the left) are great for removing branches that won't quite fit between the jaws of a lopper. The shape of this saw blade is ideal for making cuts close to crotches and other tight areas.

Bow saw, Courtesy Fiskars

Bow saws (to the right) are for larger limbs that are just short of needing a powered chainsaw. We've even used our bow saw for felling small trees. This can come in handy if a storm causes significant damage to a tree.

Tree pruner, Courtesy Fiskars
5. 12' tree pruner

This is a must for trimming broken branches out of trees following wind or ice storms, or even for basic manicure pruning to help prevent damage. The telescoping handle brings a range of branches into easy reach. I find this tool indispensable for pruning tall varieties of crape myrtle without having to resort to a ladder.

Shrub rake, Courtesy Fiskars
6. Shrub rake

Extreme weather events commonly leave a lot of debris scattered around the landscape. A shrub rake can reach into those tight places where a standard rake can't, so you won't have to get down on your hands and knees to grub out the yard trash.

Courtesy Water Right Inc.
 7. Water hoses

There are water hoses...and then, there are water hoses. Some high-grade hoses don't contain any metals or chemicals that can be harmful to pets or people. Some are sturdy enough to drive a truck over. Some are super-easy to coil, and never kink. So something as seemingly simple as a water hose can be a nifty and varied gift, indeed. This would be an especially good gift for anyone who lives in this year's vast drought area, where more of the same is forecast for 2012.

Courtesy Wells Lamont

8. Gloves

I'm not talking about those namby-pamby plastic or cotton gardening gloves that you find on store racks everywhere. If you're going to do serious maintenance or repair work in the landscape, you need something that will hold up and protect your hands. I stick with sturdy leather-palmed gloves that get me through the entire year no matter how hard I work them—and, yes, you can find them in women's and even children's sizes as well as men's.

9. Safety goggles or glasses

Nothing makes a bad day worse than getting a scratched cornea. And that's so easy to do when trimming overhead branches or reaching into shrubs to make just the right pruning cut—not to mention when using power tools such as shredders and chainsaws.

Today's safety goggles and glasses come in a wide array of cool styles to suit even the most discerning fashionista. Just make sure you select a model designed to protect your eyes from flying debris, not against chemical splashes or other industrial uses.

Courtesy Fiskars
10. Water catchment system

Nothing is more vital to the landscape than water—a natural resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. Water catchment systems will someday become standard equipment for all households. Indeed, they are already being built into many new homes, especially in drought-prone areas.

A system is available to fit every budget. So 'tis the season for making sure your loved one gets on the  bandwagon with a new water-saving system that can help tide over their plants during dry periods.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Earthworms...The Canaries Of Your Landscape

Weatherproofing Your Landscape is all about the health and weather-tolerance of your trees and shrubs. So you might be wondering: What do earthworms have to do with that? Well, it happens that these little squiggly creatures have a lot to do with your big anchor plants.

For one thing, earthworms are the canaries of your landscape. If you dig a hole a cubic foot deep and don't find at least 5 plump and lively earthworms, you can bet that your soil lacks the organic matter and microbial action necessary for healthy plant growth—be it pansies or a mighty oak tree.

Here's the scoop on why you should care:

Earthworm castings (poop) have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) rating of 5-5-3. Castings sell for up to 25 bucks a pound. For every three earthworms, your soil gains around a pound of this high-grade organic fertilizer each year. Worm-friendly soil can host up to 25 earthworms per cubic foot. Do the math.

As if that weren't reward enough for treating these guys with royal respect, earthworms help neutralize soil pH by oozing calcium carbonate. (I guess you could say they're the Rolaids of the garden.) And their miles and miles of tiny burrows allow air, moisture, surface nutrients and roots to penetrate deeply into the soil. They also treat lawn thatch and harmful nematodes like Thanksgiving dinner.

Ya just gotta love 'em.

So here are some things you need to know about your little subterranean buddies.

• Earthworms have the sunlight tolerance of Dracula, coming out only at night to grope for food. (They collect on the surface and haul everything downstairs.)

• They like soil temperatures of 50F to 60F degrees. In the heat of a summer day or during winter, they burrow deeper to find that temperature.

• Move a worm to unfavorable soil, and it'll die, pronto.

• Earthworms have a taste for grass clippings and shredded leaves, as well as banana peels, coffee grounds, composted cow or rabbit manure, and ground eggshells. (Steer clear of pickled foods and salt.)

• When adding a powdery substance to the soil, suspend it in water first, or it'll desiccate worms.

• Even if you don't have earthworms, you probably have them. Worm eggs can remain dormant for long periods...until you create a favorable habitat for them.

• With earthworms, you don't need to till. In time, they will burrow up to 6 feet deep, turning the soil as they go.

• Earthworms breathe through their skin, so any chemicals used in the landscape will either repel them or kill them outright.

The best earthworm habitat I've ever seen was beneath a bird feeder outside my living room window. Over a period of months, birds left a layer of sunflower-seed hulls several inches deep. I could rake my fingers through the moist hulls and stir up masses of huge, fat, wriggly earthworms.

If only the robins had known...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Coming Friday...Holiday Gift Ideas!

In response to requests, I'm putting together Weatherproofing Your Landscape holiday gift ideas for folks who want to make sure friends and loved ones get on the road to more weatherproofed landscapes. (And you just might want to add some of these items to your holiday wish list for yourself!)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Leaving Leaves Alone

When I was a kid, autumn was always accompanied by the Currier & Ives aroma of burning leaves. Before the age of leaf bags and curbside yard-waste pickup, that's what homeowners did with the huge piles of leaves dropped by their trees.

I miss that smell. But I've come a long way since those days. Besides appreciating clean air in the fall, I've also come to know that lighting a match to leaves is akin torching pure gold.

Fallen leaves contain up to 80 percent of the nutrients that a tree has absorbed during the growing season. If allowed to decay on the ground, they return this store of nutrients to the soil, where they are reabsorbed by roots and channeled back to a new season of growth.

Leaves also are an incredibly rich source of organic matter that helps soil retain nutrients and moisture, while keeping pH levels in balance. And they are a favorite food of those often unsung heroes of the garden—earthworms (which will be covered in Wednesday's posting).

But a season's production of leaves from a single large tree can amount to a formidable pile. And if you live at the south end of a cul de sac, as we once did, a stiff north wind could gift you with most of your neighbors' leaves, as well. (I learned to accept these freebies with glee!)

So how do you manage these mountains of gold?

Flowtron LE-900 with tilt stand
You shrink the mountain.

Shredding leaves can reduce the bounty to 1/16th of its original volume. Shredding also solves another problem: if left whole, leathery leaves such as oak can take years to decompose, meanwhile creating a barrier to moisture reaching the soil.

When it comes to shredding leaves, you have a lot of options, both gas and electric. My sister, who has two large trees in her backyard, simply runs over the leaves with her electric mulching mower. She lets the shredded leaves remain in place, thus eliminating the added chore of raking.

There are any number of gas or electric free-standing shredders—some of the heavy-duty variety also chop small branches, which can be handy during spring cleanup or following a storm. This method requires raking, as well as  stoop labor as you pick up armloads of leaves and feed them into the hopper. But that's terrific exercise almost guaranteed to reduce the waistline.

We use a hand-held leaf vacuum, with a hose that runs to a hood, which fastens onto a garbage can. (You can simply let the leaves blow out the back end of the hood onto the ground, but that makes for a pretty messy situation.) This works most efficiently if the leaves are raked into a pile first, then vacuumed up. But there isn't any stooping.

Patriot Pro-Series leaf vac
Or you could go with a walk-behind leaf vacuum that sucks up and shreds leaves, then deposits them into an attached bag. No raking or stooping—except when clearing leaves from beds.

Of course, if you have a large property with lots of trees, you might want to go with a riding mower with a mulching/bagging attachment. No raking or stooping—or even walking.

So there is a leaf-mulching system to suit just about anyone's pocketbook or energy level.

Once you have your leaves shredded and tidied, you can spread them directly onto garden beds (no more than 2 or 3 inches deep...and rake them in lightly). Or you can corral them in a wire cage or leaf bags for later use, either during winter or during the next growing season.

Shredded leaves make an excellent, nutritious mulch for summer (keeping soil cool while maintaining soil moisture) or winter (piled around tender plants to provide insulation against the cold). Note: you might need to top with a thin layer of cedar mulch, straw, or other weightier material to keep them from blowing away.

Most of all, leaves returned to the soil are able to play their vital role in your tree's great annual cycle of life, from birth to rebirth. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Since You Asked...Sandra Dark About Buying Stock From Big Box Stores

In much of the country, the fall tree and shrub planting season is still in progress—and so are the questions I'm asked about buying stock from home improvement centers and other big box stores.

These high-volume plant outlets have become a major source for the anchor plants grown in landscapes across the country. As such, they are in many ways making an imprint on the quality and durability of urban forests—including the part encompassing your own backyard. This imprint can be either good or bad, depending upon how alert you are to both the up and down sides of shopping for live plants at the same place where you get your plumbing supplies, fishing tackle, and toothpaste.

So here are a few of the most important and frequently asked questions.

Q. How do I know if the store's trees and shrubs are of good quality?

A. To begin with, a store's living plants are only as good as its supplier—so ask who supplies the trees and shrubs. (You might hear, "Oh, the guy who knows about that stuff is off today." Wrong answer!) When you get the supplier's name, check them out online. Preferably, they are actually growers, and not just distributors that buy from unspecified nurseries and ship to retail stores.

(Note: Some stores sell last year's leftover stock that they buy from wholesalers and other retailers at a major discount. Even if you can buy one of these holdovers for a song, it isn't a bargain.)

But a major consideration is whether the store stands behind its plants 100 percent, unconditionally guaranteeing that your new tree or shrub will survive its important first growing season. (Save those cash register receipts!) Last summer, I saw customers returning dead trees and shrubs to home improvement centers across my community, after the plants were killed by a brutal heatwave/drought.

A. How do I find the best species for my landscape at a big box store?

Q. To be blunt, you often can't. For the most part, big box stores carry cookie-cutter trees and shrubs. These same species are seen in new housing developments from coast to coast, as well as in shopping center landscapes. What community doesn't sport ubiquitous red-tipped photinias,  Bradford pears, and other species whose main claim to fame is that they are easy on the wallet?

But many big outlets also offer species that are highly suitable and desirable for your local conditions, such as drought/heat tolerant crape myrtles in the Southern Plains, or bald cypress on the Southern California coast. (In this age of extreme weather, tolerance of  conditions most common to your locale should be a top priority when choosing plants.)

So do your homework before shopping. Contact your local cooperative extension agent or local native plant society to find out what species are suitable for the hot, dry, wet, windy, semi-shady or other conditions in your specific landscape. Then shop for only those species and varieties. If the big box stores don't carry what you're looking for, refuse to settle for what they have.

And don't depend on the advice of sales help in these stores! I have yet to come across a genuine horticulturist working in a big box establishment...but find that many of the untrained workers are very generous about handing out misinformation. So cross-check everything they tell you with authoritative online sources or your cooperative extension horticulturist.

A. How do I know if an individual plant is of good quality?

Q. First, check for signs of disease or infestation. (I once walked into a greenhouse that was overrun by aphids, and another where half the plants were coated with powdery mildew.) Take a close look at the stems and undersides of leaves.

Make sure the plant is symmetrical, and doesn't have a "bad" side caused by branch loss or growing too close to other plants.

Look for major stems that have been lopped off—a sign that the plant might have suffered damage, or was last year's stock that has been pruned back to keep it at a marketable size in its current pot.

Take hold of the stem near the base and gently rock the plant. If it shifts in the pot, then it's a holdover that has been repotted for quick sale. Such a plant is not a bargain at any price.

Finally, if you are looking for a flowering shrub that comes in a variety of blossom colors, wait unti the bloom stage before making your purchase. It isn't uncommon for such plants to be mislabeled, so you could end up with a pink crape myrtle instead of white.

And speaking of crape myrtles: after searching nurseries for two years, I found cinnamon-barked Natchez crapes at a big box home-improvement center last summer. I carefully picked the best in the bunch, and planted it on a 100+ degree day during an exceptional drought. The crape thrived, far exceeding my wildest expectations.

So you can fill your landscaping needs at a big-box store if you do your homework, shop wisely, and keep your eyes and mind wide open.

Where do you buy most of your trees and shrubs? At a big box store? A local nursery? Mail order?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Treacherous Beauty

I remember the good old days when, during long walks in the summer, I would pause to admire (covet) wild trumpet vines growing along the country roadsides. Often, a rubythroat hummingbird would be face-deep in a brilliant orange blossom, drinking in its rich nectar. I would think, I'll stop by in late summer and gather some of the seed pods...or maybe find a small vine to transplant next spring. But years rolled by, and I never got around to it.

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)
Then some unseen bird made my wish come true by depositing seeds on our property. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to spot a distinctive splash of orange along the treeline in front of our house. I grabbed a camera and commemorated the moment a picture.

The pleasure didn't last. All too soon, we learned why this vine with its glorious blossoms is called a thug.

Our perky little volunteer burgeoned with the rampant enthusiasm of kudzu. Its root system produced vast underground networks (some gardeners who have tried to eradicate trumpet vine claim the roots grow up to 40 feet deep!), and sent up new sprouts that quickly grew into astonishingly robust invaders that rivaled the Mongol Hordes. Attempting to pull up the vines was like trying to pull up a sewer line: the linkages just kept going and going.

We tried mowing, but that only seemed to encourage new sprouts. Neighbors who had been gifted with similar "volunteer" trumpet vines grew so desperate that they set aside their organic practices and tried dabbing herbicides on the leaves. Their trumpet vines laughed.

You might think this was much ado about nothing—after all, trumpet vines are gorgeous, and hummingbirds adore the blossoms. But trumpets can be deadly. They develop woody stems that naturally want to grow up fences, walls, telephone poles...and trees. Grown on a wooden fence, it will insinuate itself between the boards, where it will proceed to slowly tear the fence apart. Allowed to grow up a porch post, it will probe through the tiniest openings until it finds a way inside the eaves and attic of your house.

Trumpet vine growing up an oak tree.
Allowed near a tree, it will shoot up the trunk and fill the canopy with its foliage and blooms. And as the years go by, the stems will grow thicker (I've seen them as big around as my wrist) until they can begin choking the life out of branches.

Trumpet vines aren't alone in their ability to damage or destroy trees. Climate change is resulting in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—a boon to vining plants. In the past, vines such as Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, Boston ivy and wild grape could be kept within the bounds of reason. Now they run amok, growing at rates unheard of before. I've even seen wisteria blooming in the tops of tall cottonwoods.

Vines don't have to produce powerful woody stems to do severe damage to trees. Years ago, we had a stand of young oak trees in which a wild grape vine grew. Before I noticed what was happening, the leafy vine had grown to the top of the canopy, spreading in the sunlight and shading out the tree foliage. Deprived of their ability to photosynthesize, the trees died.

Even vine-stressed trees that survive can be so weakened by their unwanted "guests" that they are left vulnerable to extreme-weather events. During drought conditions, these vines drink up scarce water resources that could have gone to the tree. And vine-shaded canopies produce less of the energy that a tree needs to heal injuries or resist pests and diseases.

So these days, I limit vines in my garden to annuals. And when I see any vine growing up a tree trunk, I'm quick to cut it off.

What experiences with "treacherous vines" have you had in your garden?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Raining Bullets: Severe Hailstorms

Forecast: Thunderstorms today, with a chance of large hail. Which reminds me...

One bright, sunny day, I was standing in the front yard innocently picking bagworms off an arborvitae, when I heard something go plop behind me. I turned, and found a golfball-size hailstone lying in the grass. Just one. I checked the sky, and the only cloud was a modest snow-white thunderhead miles away.

If that hailstone had landed on the roof—or my head—it would have made a good-sized dent.

But when it comes to hailstorms, it isn't always the size of the hailstone that counts, as much as the volume...and the delivery system. We found that out last spring.

Late one quiet afternoon, my sister called, half shouting, wanting to know if the storm had reached us yet. Barely able to hear hear her over the roar on her end of the line, I thought, "What storm?" And suddenly a wall of pea-size hail hit our house, driven in a horizontal wave by 60-90 mph winds.

For more than 20 minutes, the hail hammered away, first from the west before turning around and coming back at us from the east. For more than 20 minutes, we couldn't see out the windows. For more than 20 minutes, we felt utterly one often does during an extreme-weather event.

When the storm finally ended, the yard looked like a giant salad bowl, ankle-deep in green leaves. The trees had been stripped of a good two-thirds of their foliage. "Hail fog" caused by ice lying on warm ground drifted around until almost noon the next day, making some neighborhoods appear to be on fire.

The dramatic tree defoliation was community-wide. (As for roof damage, one local roofer reported that he had two years of work lined up as a result of the storm.)

But what about those trees? I hoped they would refoliate from secondary buds. But immediately after the storm, a brutal heatwave set in that further stunned landscapes already stressed by a long-running drought. So the trees stood partially denuded all summer long, many with barely enough leaves to keep them alive.

In retrospect, the defoliation might have been a partial blessing. With fewer leaves to support, the trees could get by on less water in record-setting drought conditions. But we missed the shade during the brutal summer, and still worry that the battered trees won't make it through what is predicted to be a dry winter ahead.

All in all, I've gained a greater respect for the awesome power of hail. There is little you can do to prepare a landscape for such a hit. The best we could do all summer was deep-soak the trees on a regular basis—and keep fertilizer away from their root zones. [For information on fertilizing damaged trees, check out To Feed Or Not To Feed, That Is The Question.] And with a dry winter predicted, you can bet I'll be dragging out soaker hoses while togged out in cold-weather gear.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Since You Asked...The Davey Tree Expert Company About Surface Roots

My Japanese laceleaf maple tree has surface roots that just dare me to trip over them or clip them with the lawn mower. And my big American elm has a girdling root. You might have the same problems and wonder, as I have many times, whether exposed or girdling roots pose a serious threat to your valuable trees.

So I contacted Nicole Wisniewski at The Davey Tree Expert Company. Nicole consulted with company arborists, and now we can clear the air.

The Davey Tree Expert Company
Q. What are the common causes of exposed tree roots?

A. There are several reasons for surface tree roots. Some species, like maples, are simply more prone to this than others. Older trees also tend to show more roots than younger trees. But this often happens when there's little or poor soil in the area, poor drainage, or as a result of poor planting practices.

Q. Do exposed roots present special dangers to the tree?

A. While surface roots may be unsightly, they rarely pose a threat to the tree.

Q. What should be done about them?

A. There's usually little you can do about exposed tree roots. Arborists don't advise trying to prune or cut away any of these roots, to avoid damaging the tree itself.

But if the tree is planted too close to a home or other structure, or if roots are causing damage to a structure, you may want to consider having the tree removed or transplanted to prevent potential or further damage. Professional arborists can assist in this.

Adding soil to the exposed root area may help cover exposed tree roots, but this might be short term. As the tree grows, so will the roots, and it's only a matter of time before they resurface. Also, soil fill over a root system will reduce oxygen availability [to roots].

Q. What should be done about exposed roots that have been damaged by mowers or foot traffic?

A. A professional arborist can assess the tree to determine if there has been significant damage, and help root-prune to preserve the tree and reduce tripping hazards.

Q. What should be done about "root strangling" (roots growing atop other exposed roots)?

Girdling root on an elm.
A. Girdling roots are roots that grow around other roots or trunks, putting pressure on them—thus, "choking" and compressing the water and nutrient-conductive tissues.

Recommendations vary with respect to the value and practicality of removing girdling roots. For instance, girdling roots may be supplying a significant part of the tree with nutrients and water, and removal of these roots may further stress the tree.

A professional arborist can assess the status, and provide solutions, using proper techniques to remove some roots if necessary. When dealing with girdling roots, sooner is better [than later] to prolong the life of the tree.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Life Expectancy of a Tree

I can go out into my backyard and put my hands on a big post oak tree that's been growing in that same spot since before I was born. Then I can step over about 40 feet, and lean against a pine that is perhaps half that old, though the two trees are the same height. In the best possible world, my oak tree will be around for a hundred years, and can be expected to outlive its neighbor by a quarter of a century.

Long-lived eastern red cedar.
But just across the fence stands an eastern red cedar—a wildly invasive pest that has taken over millions of acres of  grasslands in the Southern Plains, and is choking out vast areas of native deciduous woods. Hypothetically, that cedar could outlive both the post oak and the pine by a good 700 years.

Obviously, when it comes to trees, there doesn't always seem to be a lot of justice in the age distribution of different species.

So how do the trees in your own landscape measure up? Have you ever even thought about how long you can expect your valuable anchor plants to continue to fulfill their important roles? Perhaps you should. Because a  desirable long-lived specimen might be well worth the cost of restoration if it is damaged by an extreme-weather event, while a short-lived tree might warrant removal and replacement (preferably, with a long-lived species).

The ubiquitous Bradford pear is a classic example of a remove-and-replace tree, should it become seriously damaged or simply begin to "age out." The life span of a Bradford pear is 15 to 25 years—and the last five years are apt to look sad indeed as its lollipop shape tends to open out and spread. So...the first five years are devoted to establishing itself and taking shape, followed by a maximum of 15 years in good-looking prime time (if a severe-weather event doesn't substantially shorten that period—a distinct possibility), ending by at least five years of decline.

Short-lived Bradford pears.
If it seems that I spend a lot of time dissing Bradford pears, well, I certainly do. To that, I could add the river birch, despite the fact that the species' "Heritage" cultivar was named 2002 Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. In 2007, I saw many, many river birches destroyed by an ice storm in my community. Five years later, many more remain out there in landscapes, their severely damaged crowns still sporting visible signs of damage.

In this age of increasingly extreme weather, planting a tree that can't "take the heat" (or ice or wind or flood or whatever your region dishes out) makes about as much sense as packing a bikini on an expedition to the South Pole. A little forethought can save you from a lot of grief.

Every part of the country has its rogue's gallery of tree species that are vulnerable to the specific forms of extreme weather common to those areas. Some trees just don't have the structural habit or strength to stand up to the assaults that landscapes across the country are being subjected to these days.

So what does a tree's life expectancy mean to you and your landscape?

First of all, keep in mind that a long-lived species won't necessarily live out its full life span if  it is planted outside its desired growing conditions. And that means more than just its hardiness zone. You also need to take into consideration a species' soil and moisture preferences, as well as what extreme-weather conditions it can tolerate.

Over the ages, a tree species that is native to your area has evolved an ability to withstand most of the types of extreme weather likely to strike you landscape. (Tornadoes and powerful hurricanes are an exception— they have the capacity to uproot even long-lived native trees.) If these native species hadn't developed their weather-specific strengths, they could never had continued to survive and evolve the capacity to live very long lives.

So when I plant trees, I shoot for species that have a "normal" life expectancy of at least 75 to 100 years. These include oaks, maples and ginkgoes. Yes, these trees will outlive me. But I also know they will grace the places where I've lived for generations after I'm gone—a concept that I rather fancy.
Long-lived oak.

The benefits can be striking.

When the ice storm of 2007 struck, my heavily-treed neighborhood was hit particularly hard. Debris-removal trucks trundled up and down the streets week after week, hauling away shattered tree branches and trunks. The roar of stump grinders made pesky leaf blowers sound like wind chimes. But over on the next block, the sturdy oak shown at the right stood unscathed. The tree is probably about 40 years old now, and Nature-built for our heavy-duty weather extremes. With proper care, this tree should live on for generations longer.

You can learn the life-expectancy of your own trees—or that of a tree you think you might like to plant—by googling the species and "lifespan." For an overview of several dozen species, check out this site.

Then, before you buy another tree, pick up the phone and talk with your local cooperative extension agent or municipal forester (if you community has the latter) to find out if your chosen species is suitable for the growing conditions and extreme-weather events common to your location. (Besides longevity, you'll be wanting to know if your soil, drainage, hardiness zone, and other factors are compatible with your choice.

And don't be shy. It's perfectly okay to go out and hug your trees.

Monday, October 31, 2011

BLOG EXTRA! When Autumn Leaves...Pack With Snow

Wow. Right when you're all set to enjoy the colorful fall foliage, along comes a freaky autumn snowstorm of deep-winter proportions.

Of course, the results are predictable. Leaves hold onto snow, adding tremendous weight to tree branches that would otherwise shrug off the frozen stuff. The sound of breaking limbs reverberates through neighborhoods, accompanied by cold darkness as shattered tree parts bring down power lines. At last count, something like 3 million households and businesses have been left without power.

Clearly, Halloween has delivered all Trick and no Treat.

My agent, Gina Panettieri, reports from Connecticut that she has a tree in her swimming pool, and no one in the area has gas or hot water.

Courtesy Alexandra Owens

In New Jersey, American Society of Journalists and Authors Executive Editor Alexandra Owens has trees down all over her neighborhood, including in her own front yard where her Callery pear split down the middle. (The species is notorious for buckling under stress.)

There isn't much you can do to save large, leafy trees from damage when a storm dumps not just inches, but feet of wet, sticky snow. If you've taken preventive measures by pruning trees to create stronger branching habits, whether your tree then comes through unscathed will depend on how much of a weight lifter it's become.

Some tree species just naturally have branch angles better able to carry greater weights. Others—such as Alexandra's pear—don't.

But there is something you can do to help shrubs. Wade out in the snow with a broom and start brushing off the frozen stuff, beginning at the bottom and working your way up. Don't bat at it—just brush and lightly jiggle the branches. If the weight has already warped the shrub, it will often resume its proper shape over the next few days if branches haven't been broken.

Once power has returned to the area, the daunging job of cleanup begins...

This posting will be updated as other photos and stories arrive. And do leave comments on what the storm has done to your area!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Since You Asked...Nancy Hugo About "Seeing Trees"

I've loved a lot of trees in my lifetime. Truth be told, I've even hugged a few...and not just metaphorically. But it took nature writer and lecturer Nancy Hugo and photographer Robert Llewellyn, to teach me how to really see the trees that are such an important part of the scenery of our lives.

Courtesy Nancy Hugo/Robert Llewellyn
With their book, Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees [Timber Press, 2011], Nancy and Bob have given the world something very special, indeed.

Rather than dealing with the gorgeous, perfect specimens shown in most books about trees, the 245 pages of this volume are devoted to the ordinary. Once you've soaked up the contents of Seeing Trees (I found it to be a real page-turning), you can walk right out into your own backyard and see your perhaps-imperfect trees with a depth of appreciation that you might not have thought possible.

And the photos...I am not exaggerating when I say they will take your breath away. (You can find out how Bob Llewellyn produced these amazing pictures by viewing the video on the book's Amazon site. Believe me, it's well worth a couple of minutes of your time.)

So I'm delighted to have an opportunity to chat with Nancy Hugo about Seeing Trees.

Photo by Robert Llewellyn
Q. Nancy, when did your fascination with trees begin?

A. As a child, I helped my mother plant trees. My favorite was a Deodar cedar, and I swore I was going to name my first child Deodora. (I didn't; my daughter's name is Kate!) I remember walking through pine forests (grown for lumber, I now know) and being struck by their symmetry, and reading Longfellow and loving references to things like "the murmuring pines and the hemlocks." I won $10 in a Keep Virginia Clean contest when I was 10 (for a forest picture I did in pastels), and that, no doubt, launched my tree watching career!

All gardeners (and I am an avid gardener) come around to loving trees best eventually, because they are the biggest and best plants. I see them as symbols of perseverance—strength in adversity—slow, inexorable growth. I love comparing my small, puny, short-lived self to their large, strong, long-lived selves. And of course, trees have been around about 397 million years longer than people, so there is enormous wisdom in their biological adaptations.

Courtesy Robert Llewellyn
Q. Clearly, Seeing Trees was a challenging book to write and photograph. How long did it take you and Bob to put it together?

A. We worked about two years on Seeing Trees, but some of what we learned doing Remarkable Trees of Virginia [University of Virginia Press, 2009] also seeped into this book. The interesting thing is that, as Bob observes, he and I experienced no fewer "wow" moments in our two years of viewing our backyard trees up close (and traveling nowhere) than we did from viewing Virginia's most remarkable trees (and traveling almost 20,000 miles over four years)!

Q. This book is a terrific teaching tool. But it must have been a tremendous learning process for you, as well. What surprised you during the research?

A. Too much to tell! I guess my two favorite moments were when I saw the pollination droplets on the ginkgo ovules (in my windowsill), and when I heard American beech bud scales falling in my woodland. The sound of the latter is almost imperceptible, but it's real and will now, forever, be something I listen for in spring.

I enjoy doing research, and have lots of experts I call with questions. But I also enjoyed, over and over, hearing even experts say (about some of the things Bob and I were observing): "Well, you know, I've never seen that myself!" And these weren't unusual things, they were things that happen every year, like the "birth" of a red cedar cone. There is just so much that goes on outside our awareness.

Courtesy Robert Llewellyn
Q. You have magnificently revealed the extraordinary in ordinary trees. (I love the way you refer to a tree "behind the Burger King.") How has this book changed the way you see trees?

A. For one thing (and this is more a result of Remarkable Trees than Seeing Trees), I am forever looking for places where a 600-year-old tree can grow. Or a 200-year-old tree for that matter. There are just such few places you can trust to remain undisturbed for centuries. Cemeteries and some college campuses are good.

Also, once you see the kinds of things Bob and I discovered in Seeing Trees, you'll never not see them again (I love that double negative!). Once you've seen, say, the spear-like resting buds of the beech or the spur shoots of the ginkgo, you don't forget them. They are now part of your natural universe and just another way of connecting with nature.

[NOTE: Here is another brief video of Nancy Hugo, with more information on her website.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Blowing In The Wind

This past week or so, wind has been tough on trees. First, a mile-and-a-half-high sandstorm turned day to night in West Texas. Then high winds hammered the Upper Midwest at the same time a tornado plowed through Florida.

Whatever form of extreme-wind event you experience, the trees in your landscape are at risk, as many of you have no doubt discovered. Wind speeds of around 40mph can snap off twigs. Tack on another 10mph, and weak limbs can come down. Once winds reach 60mph—such as Chicago experienced this week—entire trees can be uprooted.

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration/
Department of Commerce

And those velocities don't hold a candle to tornadic winds that, at their worst, can rip a full-grown tree out of the ground and carry it away. Less powerful tornadoes often strip limbs, leaving particularly ragged torque injuries.

During the past 18 months, several heavy-duty tornadoes have torn through this area. And just last spring, we experienced 60 to 90 mph straight-line winds from a storm downburst. Under those conditions, there isn't much you can do to protect trees. In fact, there isn't anything you can do except pick up the pieces and make repairs in the aftermath.

But those repairs—or lack of them—can make the difference between life and death for a tree. So can getting the right repairs.

Several years ago, a major storm left one of the most beautiful oaks in our community severely damaged. While other property owners trimmed away broken limbs from their trees, often bringing in certified arborists to make sure the job was done properly, this poor tree stood draped in broken, dead branches, like a car-crash victim cast off to the side of the road.

Year after year went by, during which the tree received no post-disaster care at all. None. Zero. Its many wounds remained open, providing ready access for any pest or disease that came along. I ground my teeth every time I drove past.

In the meantime, trees that had been properly pruned following the storm were able to devote all their energies to callusing over their neatly trimmed wounds and recovering from the shock they had suffered. These specimens are now well on their way to regaining much of their past glory.

Then, in the middle of last summer's record-breaking heatwave and drought, a tree-trimmer struck.

I didn't see it happen, but I know the so-called "expert" in question was no certified arborist. Why? Because he topped the oak, sawing back all the major limbs, leaving them with blunt ends. As if that weren't bad enough, he even removed every last lateral branch, so the drought-stressed tree had to use all its depleted energy to produce leaf-bearing sprouts just to stay alive. And it had to do this not in spring, but in mid-summer.

Undoubtedly, in his own eyes, the inept tree trimmer was making the damaged oak tidy—and it is, if a dying  tree does it for you. The sprigs of growth that the tree managed to put out along its stumped-back limbs make me think of that  neglected car-crash victim, gasping his last breaths. Unfortunately, the once noble oak's injuries have now gone from survivable to mortal. I no longer grind my teeth when I drive past. How I feel about this "deadly pruning" goes well beyond that.

I'll be glad when the tree's struggles are finally over and it's been taken down. Because, really, that grand old oak that has stood there for generations is just too painful to look at now.

What I'm getting at is this: If you've had horrific weather—wind, ice, snow, whatever—and need help with your trees, call someone who won't leave you worse off than you started. To find a qualified arborist in your area, go toThe Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA).

Monday, October 24, 2011

With Respect to Rotten Trees

Millions of you have seen it in the movie, or read about it in Harper Lee's book: the big old tree in To Kill a Mockingbird, where reclusive "Boo" Radley left presents for Scout in a hole in the trunk.

While I'm a strong proponent of growing the healthiest trees possible, there can be magic in the imperfections of old trees. Besides providing hidey-holes for stashing treasures, hollow trees are prime nesting sites for woodpeckers and many other species of birds, as well as squirrels and other small mammals.

In my own backyard, a single hole in the trunk of an old post oak alternately housed squirrels in winter, and titmice and chickadees in summer. So tree hollows are definitely important habitat for wildlife, whether in urban or rural settings.

At least one rotten tree I knew went well beyond nesting-site status. It was merely a six-foot, one-sided snag of cambium layer and bark, with a single short, gnarly branch. For more than thirty years, this remnant of a once large specimen produced enormous blackjack oak leaves—proof that trees really do want to live, given half a chance. (Sadly, the snag was finally clipped by a truck and toppled.)

I admit, I do have a soft spot for needy plants. But there is a limit...and that limit comes up hard against safety. A hollow tree that might fall on a neighbor's property, or otherwise threaten property or lives, is a serious candidate for removal. And if a tree is downright ramshackle, with major dead and dying limbs that make an arborist shake his head, then it needs to come down. (I recently spotted one tree in my community with a hollow that went all the way through the trunk at the base—large enough for a small child to crawl through.)

[Note: for information on the legal liabilities involved with ramshackle trees, refer to the book, Weatherproofing Your Landscape: A Homeowner's Guide to Protecting and Rescuing Your Plants.]

Of course, a hollow tree that you've chosen to keep as long as possible needs extra care and attention. An annual inspection by a certified arborist will help assure that your tree isn't infested, diseased or unstable. While he's at it, the arborist can prune away weak limbs and keep the tree as sturdy as possible. Even so, I certainly wouldn't park my favorite birdbath—much less, my vehicle—beneath the limbs of a hollow tree, especially when bad weather threatens.

All that said, a hollow but still-stable tree is both a treasure and a delicate balancing act—in a way, a fitting symbol of our own life condition. In an age where perfection is the ideal, I rather fancy the idea of celebrating imperfection. And so, apparently, does Nature.

These days, I can stand at my door from spring through early summer and watch birds that are in a family way come and go from a hollow tree in my front yard. So far, the old oak tree remains robust—last spring, it withstood 60 to 90 mph winds without losing so much as a twig.

Of course, with their protective shield of bark compromised, such trees are always vulnerable to invasive organisms and other maladies that can bring them crashing down. But if the old post-oak snag was any indication, this tree could be around for a long, long time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Since You Asked...Pablo Solomon

Record-setting dry conditions continue to take an ever-growing toll on landscape trees and shrubs in large parts of the nation this year. So this week, we're having a chat with widely recognized artist and environmental designer Pablo Solomon, who lives in one of the most drought-stricken areas of the country. He has been a prominent figure in the environmental movement since the 1960s.

Break out your copy of Weatherproofing Your Landscape: A Homeowner's Guide to Protecting and Rescuing Your Plants, and you will find Pablo's striking photo of his "tumped tree"—with his wife, Bev—on page 5.

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
Q. Pablo, water has become an urgent global issue. But how much responsibility can and should we as individuals take in conserving water literally in our own backyards?

A. I am a big believer that everything of value starts with the individual taking responsibility for whatever he/she has some control over.

As a well-known artist and ecologist, I travel a lot. I find it annoying when people want these big plans instituted, while doing nothing on a personal level.

So if you want to save the planet, save your backyard, and then move on to bigger challenges.

Q. As outspoken as ever, I see. So what do you think is the most important tool for landscape owners who want to conserve water?

A. The most important tool is actually your mind. You must first want to conserve water. Then you must apply your time, energy and creativity toward that goal.

Q. Do water catchment systems, for example, have to be sophisticated or pricey to be effective?

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
A. The photo at the left shows a very simple water collection system—basically a garbage can collecting runoff from my 1856 long tobacco barn, which I use as a bad-weather workshop.

I also have an 8,000-gallon concrete storage tank which is at the other end of the cost spectrum.

And I put plastic dish-washing tubs in my hand sinks and showers to collect any water I can.

Gray water use can be as simple as using bath water for plants or to flush a toilet occasionally. I run a flexible drain hose out to plants from my washing machine (use biodegradable detergents). Some new and retro-fixed homes have more elaborate gray water separation systems. Just do what you can afford and feel comfortable doing.

[Note: For more rules-of-the-road for using gray water, break out Weatherproofing Your Landscape again.]

It really is a state of mind: if you want to save water and it is part of your value system, you will find ways to do it. If every one in America saved just one gallon of water a day, that would supply a city of one million for five days.

Q. How have you addressed the issue of excessive water usage by your plants themselves?

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
A. I live in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, where drought is recurring. Over the eons, the native plants here have developed remarkable tolerance to crazy, extreme weather conditions.

So we use native plants: cacti, mesquite, live oak, western juniper, wild flowers, wild grasses, wild shrubs, etc.

I love to shape plants—it's like doing giant bonsai trees. I studied Japanese flower arranging to understand Zen concepts of balance and harmony—the principles are the same whether doing a miniature tree or a complete landscape.

A. As an environmental designer, what does your crystal ball tell you about water conservation systems becoming standard equipment in new residential and commercial construction?

Q. Amazingly, my crystal ball readings have been somewhat accurate over the years. Unfortunately, the most accurate readings have been the most negative. People continue to waste water...continue to use drinking water to flush toilets...continue to plant Hawaiian gardens in Phoenix.

However, I think that separation of usable gray water from sewage water; rainwater collection systems; runoff retention systems; etc., will be standard features very soon. I am encouraged by how many commercial developments are doing very creative things in water collection, conservation and retention. As we improve desalinization methods, they will become standard for beach houses, resorts, seaside towns, etc.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Honoring The Old Ones

In the world of trees, this past year has been a giant-killer. In Amsterdam, the iconic chestnut tree that young Anne Frank gazed out upon from her attic window during World War II was toppled by a storm. Hurricane Irene brought down a 220-year-old tree that had stood over John F. Kennedy's gravesite  for almost half a century. Even "movie" trees took a hit, as the grand old oak that was seen in a closing scene of the film, Shawshank Redemption, was split in half by yet another storm.

Each year, tens of thousands of people travel great distances to visit historical trees. These Old Ones can hold special meaning to people who might not otherwise consider themselves to be sentimental. And if you stop to think about it, that stands to reason.

The tree that stood over JFK's grave, for instance, was a young sapling when George Washington and our other founding fathers were old men. It had grown to maturity by the time the country was nearly torn apart by the Civil War and the Virginia estate where it stood became Arlington National Cemetery. As the 20th Century rolled through war after war, the tree added 100 more rings as thousands of soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen arrived at their final resting places.

And then, as suddenly as a lightning bolt, the tree was gone.

The Survivor Tree
Oklahoma City National Memorial
Many Old Ones, such as Anne Frank's much beloved chestnut, fall to extreme-weather events because they were already in failing health. Still others get a new lease on life with well-deserved special care—the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial is an example.

Defoliated, broken, and badly charred by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, the century-old American elm has been lovingly nurtured back to robust health by a team of dedicated state foresters. Today, the Survivor Tree casts a giant shadow, both physically and in a spiritual sense. When I first stood beneath its broad boughs, I couldn't help but feel humbled by this grand symbol of quiet endurance and strength.

Whether they are in the public domain or grow in your own landscape, Old Ones have earned the right to special care. The big oak in my back yard has been carefully manicured by a certified arborist. When its roots were damaged a few years ago, it received additional treatment that could keep it thriving despite last summer's deadly heatwave and drought.

As a property owner, I have become the designated steward of my Old One's life. It is a responsibility that I don't take lightly.

Do you know of an Old One in your community...or your own backyard? I would love to hear about it.