Right around this time of year, landscaping and yard service companies start cruising my neighborhood. They come in search of easy prey: nice middle-class homeowners eager to keep a tidy yard, and concerned about the danger large trees supposedly pose to telephone and electrical wires, the roof, or the neighbor’s five-figure fully winterized RV. They’ll leave flyers in your mailbox or dangling on the doorknob. In my case, they come on up to the stoop and ring the doorbell, having greedily eyeballed the monstrous pin-oak that towers over my house, the phone lines, and the neighbors’ houses on two sides.
“If we top your tree before leaf-fall,” encouraged one sly salesman, smiling his honey-sweet money-shredder smile: “you won’t have any raking to do. We’re insured.”
Get thee behind me Satan, indeed.
Brace yourselves: I’m about to shoot from the hip. Tree topping is arboricide.
A tree’s natural shape is determined by its genetic code, not by chain-saw. Some trees are columnar in shape, some are pyramidal, or have what is called “the irregular form.” Still others are vase-like, or oval. Some of the most magnificent come with beautifully rounded canopies. They also come in spreading, and weeping forms.
If you top a spreading Chinese Elm tree so that it is the shape and size of a paper birch (out of fear that in a wind-storm, it will drop branches on your home) you will have killed it deader than a door-nail, though the death won’t be obvious to you right away. When the poor thing finally breaks, or tips up out of the ground to show off a shockingly small root-ball, you’ll think the Storm of ’04 did it in, but the truth is that you paid a tree-service company to deliver the Terminal Cut back in ’98.
Topping starves a tree’s root system. Roots atrophy when the tree canopy is no longer able to photosynthesize sufficient sugars to feed them. While some varieties of trees, in a limited number of environmental conditions, are somewhat better able to re-establish a sustainable root-growth-to-top growth ratio, topped trees never recover sufficient root mass to anchor themselves to the earth strongly enough to bear the weight of their height and their major limbs in high wind conditions. If you’ve ever seen a “wind thrown tree” – one whose root system has been torn out of the ground as the tree tipped over, you are looking at a tree that, for any number of reasons, has lost root mass through cycles of starvation.
Master Gardeners are often called on to try to explain this to people who have their trees routinely topped as part of yearly yard maintenance. “But my tree has been fine!” they exclaim (although they have called to ask what to do about sap suckers drilling so many holes in the tree that entire branches are cracking under the weight of the leaves). “It bounces right back every spring with lots of new growth!”
That explosion of new growth? It isn’t a sign that the tree has bounced back. It is a sign that the tree has suffered a massive systemic shock. What looks like a “bounce-back” is actually called “witch-crazing,” a colloquial term that describes the neurotic flush of growth seen in trees and herbaceous perennials experiencing massive immuno-systemic compromise. An ash trees witch-crazes in response to an emerald ash borer infestation (if it has time). All trees witch craze in response to losing one-third or more body mass to a well-meaning chain saw.
Trees are long-lived creatures with slow life cycles. A tree that lives 150+ years can easily take 10 years to die. Uninformed humans – including tree service companies – don’t recognize the small signs that are a quiet giant’s death throes: first, the explosion of brittle, pest-susceptible branches, then sun scalded leaves or bark, failure to flower, the wholesale dropping of immature fruits, discolored branch stumps slippery with fungal infection, insect-riddled wood, cracked and fallen branches, sheared bark, and the rest.
Everything is “just fine” until a winter ice storm or an early summer funnel cloud breaks the tree in half and tosses its corpse through the living room window, may the good Lord protect us all from such harm. Amen.
“Wow, that was a powerful storm!” Maybe.
“Wow, that was your mortally wounded tree.” Definitely.
Don’t get me wrong: you don’t want oak tree branches lying on your roof, encouraging moisture to accumulate, rotting out your beams. You might have purchased a house that some cheap-skate builder “landscaped” with an inexpensive, fast growing tree, like a brittle Silver Maple, famous for littering the yard with sticks under no more stress than a pair of quarreling squirrels. Or it may be you were lucky enough to inherit a Little House in the Big Woods surrounded by majestic Shagbark Hickories…. among whose ancient limbs are threaded power and phone lines. There are dozens of reasons why trees need the intervention of a trained professional with a chain saw. But trained professionals know how much wood to take at a time; they know how to make cuts that the tree is able to heal; they know what times of year are best suited to trimming different species of tree; they know how to preserve each tree’s natural form. They are also able to identify and treat pests and diseases.
You don’t need a lawn-care service whose main qualifications are a group of workers brave enough to haul chain-saws 75 feet into a canopy. You need to hire an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist: a tree doctor. You can find ISA certified tree doctors in your area by visiting the organization’s web-site at http://www.isa-arbor.com/home.aspx.
A certified arborist is significantly more expensive than a do-it-yourself tree service company. My experience has been that arborists are aware that their prices are steep, and are willing to work with you to develop a payment plan to make tree care more affordable. In addition, they carry insurance not only for accidental damage to your property, but also to cover accident and injury to themselves and their crews. ALWAYS ask to see proof of insurance coverage from professionals you are considering hiring to work on your trees. Do not be surprised when you find that inexpensive yard care providers carry insurance against accidental damage to your property but not for accident or injury to themselves or their crews. You had better have good home-owner’s insurance if one of them falls out of your tree or chain-saws their foot while standing on your property.
Shade trees add value and beauty to your property. They help to prevent flooding; they help to prevent erosion. They lower your heating and cooling bills twelve months out of the year. They provide home, cover, and food to wildlife. It takes a long time to grow a good, hardwood shade tree. Take very good care of them if you are lucky enough to have them.