Horticulture Forum: May 1999, Preserving Historic Trees

Departments - Trees & Ornamentals

November 23, 1999

It's not uncommon for the landscape contractor or lawn care operator responsible for the maintenance of many properties to become involved in the upkeep of the lawn, shrubs and ornamentals.

This frequently results in the larger, mature trees being ignored. By doing so, one may also be overlooking an element of the landscape that is very precious to the property owner.

When the declining or sick condition of a large, mature tree is brought up, a landscape contractor may search for a mysterious culprit. He or she might be better off by first thinking back upon how trees grow naturally.

Perhaps, contractors share in the misconception that mature trees, like trees in the forest ‘take care of themselves’ and don’t need help.

Even in the forest, trees suffer from adverse environmental conditions, yet the truth is that it’s ‘survival of the fittest.’

Increased stress on mature trees comes from poor and compacted soils, poor drainage, competition from grass, restricted growing areas, road salt, pollution, etc. Stress reduces plant vigor and pre-disposes mature trees to insect and disease problems. By placing emphasis on young trees and ornamentals, landscape contractors are ignoring the high value that property owners place on their larger, mature trees. Many trees are considered irreplaceable. Frequently, trees hold significant sentimental value, too.

People who place a high value on large, mature trees will invest more in maintaining and preserving them. They will also be more loyal to companies that demonstrate the needed expertise to care for these trees. Companies that neglect to address large, mature trees are walking away from potential sales and missing an opportunity to build customer loyalty.

A SPECIFIC CASE. Forest City Tree Protection Co. and Lanphear Supply, South Euclid, Ohio, recently received an Excellence in Arboriculture Award of Distinction from the National Arborist Association for their efforts to preserve a historic 300-year-old white oak tree on the grounds of St. Gregory the Great Church and School in South Euclid, Ohio.

The white oak was designated a “Moses Cleaveland Tree” by the Early Settlers Association in recognition that it was standing when Moses Cleaveland first arrived on the shores of the Cuyahoga River in 1796 and founded Cleveland, Ohio. The oak is 65 inches in diameter, approximately 65-feet tall, and has a spread covering almost a quarter acre.

A focal point of the church’s landscaping and a landmark in the community, the white oak raises both aesthetic and safety concerns. It grows in the frequently used front lawn area of the church property along a busy thoroughfare. In addition to a couple of gazebos on the lawn beneath the tree, seasonal display signs and manned booths are placed there at various times throughout the year. Sidewalks, which are heavily trafficked by both school children and churchgoers, are also near the oak.

Forest City Tree Protection and Lanphear Supply have been providing care for this tree on an as-needed basis for more than 25 years.

However, despite the annual fertilization, in early 1998 the tree’s leaves were unusually pale green. Significant deadwood had also accumulated. There was valid concern that falling deadwood would damage the gazebos and cars below or, even worse, hurt a pedestrian. In addition, the color of the foliage was an indication that the tree’s health was in decline.

A tree’s leaves serve as its ‘food factory.’ They absorb energy from the sun, converting it through the magic of photosynthesis into starches and sugars necessary for growth. Large, dark green leaves indicate adequate chlorophyll and sufficient surface area is present for efficient food production. Small, pale green leaves make inefficient food factories, causing trees to deplete their stored energy reserves. In an older, mature tree this can signify a serious problem.

In a natural setting, the decay process takes leaves, twigs, branches and tree trunks, breaking them down into elements that will replenish those taken from the soil. This organic matter also helps to maintain an adequate level of moisture and aeration in the soil for healthy root development to occur.

During the 50-plus years the tree has been in the landscape setting, the leaves and twigs have been raked up rather than allowed to decompose and replenish the soil. Even the turf itself actually competes with the tree for water and nutrients. And all of the activities on top of the tree’s root zone over the years must have caused considerable compaction.

Although the slow-release fertilizer application compensated for the lack of natural nutrient replenishment, it was important to make more of an effort to restore the root zone to its natural condition. A mycorrhizae inoculation combined with another dose of slow-release fertilizer was then applied, containing humates, a root-zone biostimulant. Mycorrhizae, nature’s link between trees and soil, are created when plant roots and certain fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship. Mycorrhizal fungi expand the network of a landscape’s root system. Together with humates, they increase a root system’s capacity to absorb water and elements while improving aeration.

Pruning was then done to remove dead and broken branches. Great care had to be taken not to damage the gazebos below.

Four months after treatment, the leaves were a rich, healthy, dark green. Because special attention was paid to one tree and because it’s preservation was a success, a client relationship was solidified. The tree should remain a healthy and significant asset to the community for many years to come.

Lanphear is president and third generation owner of Forest City Tree Protection Co. and Lan-phear Supply, South Euclid, Ohio. He can be reached at 1884 S. Green Road, South Euclid, Ohio 44121 or drj3@ix.netcom.com.

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