Treasure in your yard
Trees need care and maintenance to thrive
Magnificent trees command our attention in fall. Sometimes though, trees can be taken for granted, even neglected. But ignoring the forest or the trees may jeopardize the most expensive, established plants to replace in your yard. Some trees could even be considered irreplaceable. They contribute to a sense of home and history like no other plant. Still, think of the amount of time and resources homeowners often spend on maintaining lawn grass, compared with trees. Ordinary lawn grass can be replaced in a matter of weeks.
Not so with trees. Just ask an arborist. “Trees are the oldest living things on Earth,” said arborist Jim Rude, owner and operator of Natural Habitat Professional Arborists in Wales. “Sometimes, people are blown away when I tell them how old their tree is.” Just because trees can live a long time, though, doesn’t mean they don’t need care. That’s especially true for urban trees. Bill Reichenbach, International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and horticulturist with Wachtel Tree Science in Merton, believes some property owners can forget about their trees.
“They have the impression that trees will take care of themselves,” he said. “However, when we live next to trees, we impact each other, sometimes negatively. So it is important to periodically have your trees inspected by a certified arborist.”
Arborists are trained specialists in the art and science of planting and caring for trees, according to the International Society of Arboriculture. They are a combination modern-day lumberjack, surgeon, pathologist, artist and tactician . . . requiring both brains and brawn with a streak of gutsy finesse.
“Working in the air, with heavy wood, gravity and sharp tools is very dangerous. Quality arborists have the unique training, experience, equipment and safety skills needed to get the job done safely and efficiently,”
Younger trees in particular can be overlooked, said Andrew Gollnick, certified arborist with Gollnick and Sons Tree Service in Cedarburg.
Generally, fast-growing trees such as willows, hybrid elms and maples need more maintenance, with evergreens and oaks usually requiring less attention.
Pruning, he added, should be done every three to five years.
Proper pruning produces a prettier, more wind-resistant tree while helping to prevent structural problems. Simply raising the crown by removing lower branches can help direct the tree’s growth and optimize its shape.
What to plant?
Asking an arborist the best trees to plant, or the worst ones to avoid, follows the same logic as seeking the advice of an appliance repairman before you buy that refrigerator.
Gollnick, Reichenbach and Rude said their favorite trees include white pine, sugar maple, burr oak, white oak, ginkgo and serviceberry.
Burr oak, named for the burr-like spikes on its acorn tops, is a “longlived, adaptable, beautiful tree native to Wisconsin” that creates a bold statement in the landscape, Reichenbach said.
Ginkgo is another wonderful tree, “very urbantolerant with unique foliage and spectacular golden fall color,” he added.
Least-liked tree: Colorado blue spruce. This troublesome tree, described as unsuitable for Wisconsin, was unanimously loathed by the experts consulted for this story. Also disliked were silver maple, Austrian pine, little leaf linden, Norway maple (considered invasive) and purpleleaf cherries and plums.
“Colorado blue spruce is a terrible tree,” Rude said. “They are prone to diseases and (are) overplanted. Austrian pines start having disease problems approaching maturity. They are both garbage.”
Reichenbach agreed, saying Colorado blue spruce are overused and often misplaced in the landscape.
Rude also cringes at the little leaf linden. “They have a myriad of insect and disease problems when they start to reach maturity,” he said. “By late summer, they are just decimated by Japanese beetles.”
Sometimes the “it” trees hailed by landscapers don’t deliver in the long term. Rude said landscape awards shouldn’t be given out until 10 years after planting (an old arborist saying).
Sadly, these trees can initially thrive, but problems arise once the patient homeowner has invested years into waiting for them to grow. He cited the autumn blaze maple as an example.
“We are finding out they are getting busted up in storms. This was the ‘it’ tree 20 years ago. Now, I’m not so sure I want to recommend those trees,” he said.
Some ornamental pears that were all the rage in the ’90s are also becoming easily damaged, especially by snow, now that they have matured. “Unless we have an ice storm, trees shouldn’t be suffering damage in the winter because they are defoliated,” Rude explained.
According to Reichenbach, the biggest three threats to urban trees are oak wilt, the emerald ash borer and invasive plants such as common buckthorn.
Lethal oak wilt is widespread in the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, yet it receives scant attention outside the arborist world. Oak wilt will strike red oaks (identified by pointier leaf tips) more often than whites and can establish during construction damage or pruning done in warmer months.
Storm-damaged oaks should be addressed immediately. Oak wilt can kill a mature tree in a matter of months and then spread like a cancer through the roots to other oaks.
The more-publicized emerald ash borer has heavily hit southeastern Wisconsin, Door County and the Driftless Area along the Mississippi River, according to the DNR. Nearly the entire southern half of the state and some northern areas remain under quarantine.
Reichenbach said ash trees can be successfully treated by arborists through injections; best results occur when trees are treated prior to infestation.
By contrast, Rude is skeptical of the chemical treatments as he regularly sees ash trees dying that have been treated. He never uses chemicals when caring for trees, thus declines any work on ash trees.
“The dire predictions are coming to fruition,” he said, of the borer. He candidly tells homeowners not to plant ash trees, not to treat them and not to bother paying him their money to prune them.
Gollnick has seen some success treating ash trees but added treatment is not guaranteed. “So unless it’s your favorite tree, you are most likely better off removing and replacing it,” he advised.
As for buckthorn, it’s “extremely invasive in both urban and rural land- scape environments and often out-competes both native and landscape plants,” Reichenbach said.
Because climbing trees can be just another day at the office for arborists, it’s only natural that they would have some lively wildlife stories . . . call them close encounters of the mammalian kind.
For example, Gollnick recently had to carefully relocate a raccoon family with babies “the size of my hand” cuddled up in a hollow beech tree. That must have required some serious diplomacy.
Reichenbach had a startling experience earlier this year while pounding a mallet during a sounding technique to determine decay near a cavity in an old silver maple.
“To our surprise, out popped a flying squirrel, which startled the bejesus out of us, as it did the squirrel, I am sure. Flying squirrels are thought to be rare, but in fact they are not. Being nocturnal, they are just rarely seen,” he said.
“Just goes to show how much life can be in a tree.”
Rude also encountered his share of mammals in over 30 years as an arborist.
Once climbing a huge ash tree, he was suddenly showered with liquid. Turns out he had startled a mother raccoon living in a cavity a few feet over his head so badly, she “peed all over me,” he tells it.
While arborists care for our most majestic plants, it seems a sense of humor should also be added to the long list of job requirements.
Offering spectacular fall color, the sugar maple is Wisconsin’s official state tree and the source for maple syrup.
Arborist Jim Rude identifies potential structural trouble in a limb to prune from a maple tree.
Autumn is an ideal time to plant a sapling or take a close look at the existing trees on your property.
Arborist Andrew Gollnick urges people to plant more quality trees such as white pine and white oak.
The white pine is an excellent conifer choice for all-season interest in your yard.