Supporting the trees - birch tree and power line edition
April 23, 2020 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I have this beautiful little birch tree in the backyard of a home I recently purchased. There are 4 trunks that have grown out kind of like the roots of a molar tooth - they each curve in different corners. Unfortunately, both mine and my neighbor's power lines run through the branches of two of them.

Right now, the trunks are about 5-7" in diameter. The lines are reinforced by cable, and though the tree is not very top heavy (at the moment), it makes me nervous to see them sway wildly on windy days - more so as the weight of the leaves grow in and pull on them. I recently called the power company to check and see if cutting needs to be done (have not yet heard back).

My questions:
- can I reinforce the 4 trunks together to reduce the outward curvature? If so, with what?
- should I cut some of the outer branches (that don't touch the lines), to reduce the outward weight?
- if I must cut 1-2 of the offending trunks, are there any neat things I could do with the wood?
- any other general suggestions?

I have not had a yard before and know nothing about trees, but am open to learning. If possible, I'd like to retain as much of it as possible while also minimizing possible falling or effect on the lines.
posted by raztaj to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Call an arborist, who can give you concrete information on the current health of the tree, what interventions are possible without undue risk of killing the tree, and what strategy is most compatible with your desired outcome and budget.
posted by wierdo at 12:32 PM on April 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

Just a heads up that in some places, it's common for the power company to own a right-of-way easement under their lines and may come along and cut the tree back (or down). The utility might have a ROW information page (example, another example) with more details.
posted by jquinby at 12:37 PM on April 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding, unfortunately, the power company ROW. If this tree's touching a power line, it needs to be gone, and the power company will do it without hesitation or warning.

Birches don't live very long, so this one might only have a couple of years left it in anyway.
posted by scruss at 1:10 PM on April 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Don't let the power company butcher your tree - they are notorious for just hacking them down, often in an unsightly V or square around the lines!

Hire a trained arborist to carefully, thoughtfully, reduce the height of the tree. They can visit once a year or once every two years to carefully manage its shape and structure. It can be a happy healthy tree that is trained to grow full and outward rather than up. It will always want to grow to it's genetically-destined height, but it can be managed.
posted by amaire at 1:30 PM on April 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

Being familiar with birch trees, I can tell you that you won't be happy with what you get by having someone trim the tree around the power lines. When the power company comes out, the tree will either come down completely or will be butchered beyond recognition.

I suggest you ask the power company to cut the trees completely to the ground. Then either have the stump ground out or pulled out, and make new plans for the space that doesn't threaten the power lines.
posted by summerstorm at 6:17 PM on April 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

One option to consider (if you love the trees a lot), would be to have the power lines buried. I've started looking into it for my house, since I have a very large boulevard shade tree that is threatening my power lines. Preliminary research indicates that it will run a few to several thousand dollars, depending on the distance from the house to the pole, and any obstacles in the way.

Since your neighbor's line runs through the tree, you'd have to have them both done to make any difference, so it's probably not worth it, but it is an option.
posted by yuwtze at 11:27 AM on April 24, 2020

Best answer: Some amount of swaying in birches is normal, but the four-trunks-one-stump configuration is not very stable, and is made more vulnerable by the fact that it's one tree by itself and not part of a clump that could help hold it in place. You are likely to eventually lose one or more trunks in a storm. This will leave a large wound, and your tree will probably start rotting from the inside, and the remaining trunks will also be more vulnerable to the next storm.

You can prune back the tops to buy it some time (look for tree pruning advice online or message me), but this tree is not likely to be healthy and long-lived due to its form. Arborists aren't free and I don't think there's much one could do besides pruning. I'd probably prune it back myself and keep it until it loses a trunk or the power company butchers it and then put what you would have spent on an arborist toward getting an appropriate replacement tree / trees.
posted by momus_window at 3:40 PM on April 24, 2020

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