Trees. What's up with those?
February 6, 2013 4:52 AM   Subscribe

We live in a rural New England house on a wooded lot and we don't actually know a whole lot about taking care of trees. Other than 'you should call someone and learn about taking care of trees' what will be useful for us to know?

We both grew up in the suburbs where you had 'Tree A and B in the front yard' plus maybe 'trees X and Y in the backyard' and that was kind of it. Now we're on a wooded lot surrounded by hundreds of them.

What we know:
-There is only one right next to the house and about a dozen scattered throughout that are in the range where they could fall on the house, which is on my Paranoid Fears "favorites" list.

-They are both deciduous and coniferous. Some of them are pine and some oak and some maple.

-There are a couple of decorative-ish trees, like a dogwood and a magnolia and a weeping cherry. We're actually less worried about those as they're a lot more Google-able and more clearly in the purview of 'landscaping'.

-How to watch YouTube videos of other people's tree removal misadventures

-The trees edge the grassy part of our yard and then continue out a short distance through the rest of our property and then on to forested land owned by neighbors

What we don't know:

-When trees edge our yard (by 'yard' I mean 'the part of the yard where we have grass') , is it good to 'thin' them the way one would 'thin' a row of carrots, to grow stronger trees with thicker trunks? We have some thin bony trees beneath very tall (see the paranoia above) pines. And non-pines.

-Are there trees that we should encourage more than others? Should we be taking down some pines to give the deciduous trees some extra room and maybe ultimately reduce the soil acidity a little (we haven't tested the soil but will and we're assuming it's acid-ish)?

-Are there trees that are more valuable than others due to some other perspective, including the perspective of critters?

-What signs should we look for in terms of the surprise tree that is going to crash on our house? We're aware of the obvious, like leaning over toward the house with the roots progressively showing, rubbing its ands and laughing maniacally, but is there anything other that we look at to determine instability? What about that freaky thing I've seen in other people's yards where for no reason it appears a pine has broken in half?

-Who specifically should we call and how should we find them to tell us specifically what trees they are and point out the non-obvious?

-What about pruning? Do/should big oaks and so on be pruned occasionally? Is there an advantage to that? Or is that making work where none would otherwise exist?

We want to be good stewards of the land and the trees, and give them what they need. Trees deeper in the woods we're not necessarily concerned with assuming they'll fight it out against themselves, but the ones that come close to our house or edge the lawn, we want to care for those particularly well.

We do recognize these trees are often homes for other creatures and preserving the little ecosystem and making sure that the critters who live around here also stay happy and protected is a concern as well and something we're watching out for.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Mature trees are pretty much OK on their own. If their limbs are getting precariously close to the house, hire a trimming service. A healthy adult tree won't collapse on your house; a hurricane (we get them occasionally), ice storm (which will potentially take down limbs), or freak weather event might cause damage, but by and large it's not something to worry about.

Don't prune them. Don't encourage/discourage them. Just let them be.
posted by ellF at 4:58 AM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of your questions are hard to answer without seeing your property. Pictures might help if you can post them. And it would be good to know what your soil is like — dry, wet, rocky, or what?

You'll get the best answers from someone knowledgeable who physically visits. Not necessarily a tree service person, because they're going to be interested in getting paid to cut some trees. Ask around for neighbors who've been around for a while. If you have more than a few acres you may be able to get the state extension service forester to pay a visit.

All that said, in general:
--There are woods ("the part of your yard that is not grass"), and then there are specimen trees that grow within the grassy part. If you have those, they are treated differently from you woodsy trees. Specimen trees can benefit from proper pruning, from keeping other trees a reasonable distance a way, and possibly from feeding.
-- Trees within the woodland border should not be pruned. You can thin out some of the ones on the edge if you want more of a view into the woods, or if you think they are going to grow up to interfere with mature trees that you like.
-- Trees that are close enough to the house to potentially fall on it should be watched carefully. If they are in particularly wet soil (or soil that gets really soaked and mushy if it rains a lot), they could blow down and cause damage. And if they are that close to the house it's probably a job for a tree company.
-- Also, if the trees are generally so close to the house that the house is in the shade most of the time, you could run into mildew problems on the outside walls and roof, and potentially mold inside the walls because moisture sticks around longer in the shade. So if this is the case you might want to look at a general clearing of a perimeter around the house.
-- In any event, do remove dead branches that might fall on the house. In the woods, leave any dead trees standing to decay on their own (unless they pose a danger of some kind). Dead trees are important to the wildlife ecology.
posted by beagle at 5:08 AM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Trees have a finite life span. They also get diseases. You can usually spot a sick/old tree by noting that leaves on a particular set of branches do not grow well; in more advanced illness, the bark will begin peeling. When this happens, call a tree surgeon to assess the problem. Trees can often be saved, for a while, by pruning large dead branches. But they will eventually die anyway. Fortunately, most trees live about as long as people. So if you have a hundred trees, you probably will only have to deal with just a few illnesses or mortalities over a decade or so.

To keep your trees healthy: don't cut the bark, e.g. by using a string trimmer around the base. Avoid pounding nails in. Don't worry about watering them UNLESS there is a profound drought, in which case do some google searches. And if accident befalls a tree, it is a good idea to trim off jagged bits until what is left is mostly a clean cut. You might want to put wax over large cuts.

Illness and infestation are something you should look out for. Look at your leaves and your bark; are there spots on the leaves, or a profusion of holes on the trunk? Spots suggest fungus, and holes suggest termites or ants or other inhabitants that birds are trying to get to. These are "tree professional" problems.

Mostly, though, just leave them alone, tend to accidents, and be observant for changes over time.

Oh, and be sure to keep them company with picnics, reading in the shade, taking naps, playing obstacle croquet and so on. Trees love company!
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:08 AM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: White pines are brittle and grow to be enormous, really shouldn't be close to the house.
Red Maple has a way of going punky in the middle and can drop large limbs and tops -also should not be allowed within striking distance of the house. If you are lucky enough to have sugar maple, that is less hazardous.
Ordinary windy and icy winter storms can pull down large pieces of those threes.

It would require a direct hit from a hurricane (not to say that wont happen) to do serious damage to an Oak tree.

If you would like the edge of the woods to have an open airy look, feel free to cull out skinny crooked stuff, particularly the maples. I have been weeding out pine and maple from my woods for over 20 years, and it is starting to look like the oak grove i envisioned when I was younger.
posted by Abinadab at 5:12 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It probably is worth it to have a consultation with an arborist. Tell them you want to pay them to visit the property and give you advice and a maintenance plan. They should be able to tell you which trees are good and bad, how to trim the ones that need trimming and so on. If you find the right company, it doesn't need to cost all that much, and they will be happy to tell you everything you need to know.
posted by gjc at 5:37 AM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding gjc. What you want is a consulting arborist. Try to find one who doesn't offer services and just consults. As a reference, in S. Florida I pay $100 an hour to have an arborist come out yearly and discuss/update our plan for our 75+ palms.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:54 AM on February 6, 2013

3rding gjc's suggestion to have an arborist over. Also if you're going to do any of this maintenance/upkeep yourself, you should absolutely take a chainsaw safety class to learn about the use and upkeep of your saw.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:23 AM on February 6, 2013

Best answer: Also if you're going to do any of this maintenance/upkeep yourself, you should absolutely take a chainsaw safety class to learn about the use and upkeep of your saw.

Or learn to use a bow saw. Seriously, depending on the amount of work you're going to be doing keeping a chainsaw handy, storage, dealing with maintenance and repairs, messy factor considerations, cost, and learning how to use it I see alot of people that could do for a good quality bow saw instead of a cheap (read: PITA, not durable) chainsaw.

You will have to learn how to handle the tool but that goes for anything. With a chainsaw you can sometimes get away without undercutting a branch and it won't split but the size of branches that you can get away with this (not undercutting that is) with a bow saw is dramatically reduced. But it's bad form anyway, so doing it right isn't really a bad thing.

I'd skip a full fledged ax as that's going to have a learning curve as well and, honestly, for most type of amateur work a hatchet or bow saw is going to be safer and provide 90% of the functionality of an ax.

Plus one non-negligible perk using hand tools in this scenario is no different than using hand tools instead of power tools in another, namely that with power tools you're way more likely to get in there and end up with bald trees or nicks/gouges/wounds where your tool got away from you, harming it which is exactly the opposite of what you're trying to do. You're also much more likely to work slowly and methodically with a handsaw and gloves than you are with a chainsaw puttering away saying "Let's go, Let's go, letsgo, letsgo, letsgoletsgoletsgo!" in your hands.

TL:DR - Chainsaws are great for professionals / storm cleanup but may not be the best bet for maintenance tasks. If you do get one, take a class and wear head to toe protection.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:42 AM on February 6, 2013

ps - Critters hate chainsaws more than they hate bow saws. So do neighbors.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:44 AM on February 6, 2013

If you're in Massachusetts, your town has a tree warden. His or her responsibility is care of trees on public property, but s/he might be able to give you advice or recommend an arborist.

I'm not sure about other New England states, but you could check with your town office.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:53 AM on February 6, 2013

Best answer: Trees are great! Where I live in Vermont you can actually get discounts on your taxes by having your land in "current use" which is usually something used by farmers but if you're someone with a woodlot you can have a management plan for it and that counts as well. Accordingly, this is something people do up here frequently. Usually this involves having a tree warden or an arborist come to your place and do a quick assessment and then you can hire them or someone to make a plan with you. Big things to stay on top of (around here, which is similar but not the same as where you are)

- How to find out what kind of trees you have (get a book or take a class, these classes are often fun) and what they are good/bad at. You may find that you have some really rooty tree near your sewer lines for example, as I did, and have to make some decisions.
- How to figure out where your property boundaries are. At my old place we'd have people going into the woods where it wasn't clear who owned what and go steal trees. This is a pain. Walk your property lines before you need to.
- How to determine if a tree has problems. Some things can be dangerous [i.e. a dying tree with branches that are precariously near the house] and some are not necessarily [a dead tree in the woods is a great place for woodpeckers and squirrels and other wildlife] and it's good to know the difference
- How to figure out what you can do yourself [chop off an errant limb, prune or plant] and what needs the big guns in and who to call.

You might be able to find a class at your local community college or adult ed program in resource management for this sort of thing. We have a whole program on it at the high school here where the kids start with walking around in the woods and wind up with a thing they built themselves out of the tree they cut down. It's really sort of great to understand a bit more about the process and all the systems that are interrelated right under your nose. I suggest the book Naturally Curious or the companion website if you're interested in this sort of thing.
posted by jessamyn at 7:07 AM on February 6, 2013

The Master Gardener course has a woody plant section, and hence, an expert teaching it. You might want to give your county extension office a call and ask to speak to them. Often they work on a volunteer basis to help local residents answer questions.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:00 AM on February 6, 2013

Oh Hi!

I live in Atlanta, basically in a forest. I've had some serious problems with trees lately so I'm going to tell you some stuff. This will save you all kinds of heartache.

First of all, I recommend finding an Arborist and having him/her come out to assess your trees. We found out that we had 3 dead trees on our property and had them removed. We were very happy we did this as we were in a drought for a year. Then we had torrential rain and trees in the neighborhood came down on houses because the roots were very close to the surface. Blue tarps EVERYWHERE!

Pine trees can be brittle, especially the branches. In my parking lot at work, a huge branch came down and did $2,000 worth of damage to my car. A Branch. Pic 1, Pic 2, Pic 3.

Then about two months later, our neighbor's 85 ft tall pine tree just fell over into our back yard. That cost $1,400 to clean up, plus who knows how much to get rid of the other tree, that was also diseased and had to be taken down with a crane. I'm glad they did though, because if they didn't, that second tree would have come straight through the house.

There's a pine tree infestor called Pine Bark Beetle and it destroys the integrity of the tree. You can see how pretty the tree looked before it fell over.

Now, lets talk about our beautiful, but shitty Bradford Pear trees. These line our driveway and we have to canopy them every year to keep them from scraping agains the house and messing with the electrical wires. Also, they're really, really brittle and are susceptible to storm damage. Basically, if you look at it funny it will fall over and take out your garage.

Then there's the Umbrella Tree aka Schefflera, a weed of a tree that grows in Florida. It's favorite past-time, having it's roots drill into your water pipes, and come up through your shower pan, causing leaks and other foundation problems. Ask me how I know. I had 6 of these things removed from the back of our condo after having one pretty much invade my house.

So just because it's pretty doesn't mean it isn't out to get you. An Arborist is cheap insurance against the Attack of the Trees!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:24 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also in Atlanta. I would recommend you shop for a good tree person now, not at the last minute when you’re over a barrel. It’s really expensive. Knowing that the trees around your house are healthy is good for peace of mind. The ones out in the wood? We just let them fall and lay there.

Make sure the tree people are insured. What if one their guys gets injured on your property, or they hit your house taking the tree down?

Worry about the trees that might hit your house, but worry about the trees that might hit a neighbors house more.

The big, wide hardwood trees can break and fall but also have a wide root and branch system to slow the fall. The Pines don’t, they are freakin scary. It’s like an earthquake in the house when one hits the ground.
posted by bongo_x at 11:25 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Can you help me, I'm loved up over someone Down...   |   Los Angeles Loves Love Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.