Living with a
A problem rears its head
A Venerable Boxelder, trimmed and cabled, October 2001
While picking up scattered branches and limbs after an early August storm this past summer, I glanced back at our Boxelder (Acer negundo) on the east side of our house and felt a thrill of fear. This Boxelder is an old tree, and well-loved by us, its present guardian family. It was planted as a sapling in 1874 by early settlers from Denmark – Niels and Olive Bergeson – who had also built the oldest part of our house.
The storm was breaking up by then. Dark clouds behind the tree contrasted starkly with clear blue sky to the north. And the painterly effect of the wide-spreading and massive limbs against the brooding sky, lit as it was from the north as though by stage lighting, made for a singularly surreal effect. The tree is located a few yards back from the edge of a steep bank leading down to the Cub River and can be seen from over a mile away. It had stood sentinel there since 1874 and, to my frightened eyes, it looked at that moment as though collapsing under the weight of its years.
I could see its outlines so clearly in that light, you see, and the well-defined crotch in the middle, that crotch that had supported so many climbing children and cats, and even a few adventurous grownups, had definitely spread. In fact, hadn't it actually split? A quick trot over to it and a panicky inspection revealed no obvious break in the bark, but the spread looked ominous. A large limb hung heavily over the house and another one hung quite low over the lawn. But, at the time, I wasn't concerned so much about damage to possible targets, but rather about losing the tree.
It's beautifully shaped, this Boxelder of ours, a truly "stately" tree, as witness the photo above. The species is held in low repute here, (uninteresting, weak-wooded, poor fall color, and – horror of horrors – the females host Boxelder bugs). Ours, however, a male Boxelder, has been admired by nurserymen and architects as well as gardeners touring the grounds. Almost all of these people have had trouble believing the tree really was what I said it was. (A Boxelder, you say? Not an oak? Not a maple? Well, I tell them, it's in the Maple family.)
Caring for a Venerable Tree
We'd had it cleaned of dead wood about 15 years ago, but it had grown enormously since then, and when in full leaf, it practically engulfed the east side of the house. The photo at left shows the boxelder in the spring of 2000 in which can be seen the large limb hanging over the roof of the house. Obviously it needed attention, and I got on the phone immediately and was directed, finally, to an expert in climbing, trimming, and cabling trees, Total Tree Care, based here in Cache Valley.*
Mark Malmstrom, the owner of the company, confirmed the absence of a split in the crotch, but showed that the spread, coupled by the heavy, overhanging limb, posed a hazardous situation, especially since the limb had a good part of the house as a target. He recommended a support system consisting of eye-bolts and galvanized cable after a crown cleaning and raising to reduce the weight on the spreading limbs. He put me on his schedule for mid-September, and showed up with his crew as promised. Early in the morning.
The Work is not Easy
Cabling experts do this kind of thing with ropes, sheer muscle, and agility. No spikes on their boots to help them to climb, for instance – spikes could damage the bark. Hard hats, of course, but what good they would do if an operator fell out of the tree and on to his head is hard for me to imagine. In short, balancing on limbs some forty feet in the air and wrapped up in a lanyard tied to the tree while manipulating a heavy electric drill, yards of galvanized cable, and a canvas bag full of supplies – this sort of thing is not for the faint of heart.
It took the better part of the morning for the four men – two in the tree, two on the ground – to clean, thin, and raise the crown – that is, to clean off the lower limbs and bring the canopy up, allowing light and air to circulate through and under the tree. They unhooked the awning over the deck and laid it back out of the way, then set to work. Saws whined. Huge limbs were eased onto the ground. Lighter limbs fell with a satisfying crash. Coming out later with my camera on a tripod, I stepped through a battle ground of leaves, branches, heavy limbs and sawn logs, shown at left below.
The pruning accomplished, Mark and his colleague, Tod Welch, scrambled up into the massive limbs supporting the crown, drawing ropes, extension cords, and cables up behind them. Mark is shown above left, very high in the tree in his work position – held in place with a lanyard or flip line to keep him from swinging and make him more stable. Tod was on another limb (right), both of them drilling holes through three limbs, into which they would screw the long eyebolts which were secured on the back side with heavy-duty washers (dead-end grips) and nuts. On the inside of the limb is the eyebolt through which is drawn a 5/16" galvanized, extra-strength cable stretched taut between the three limbs in a rough triangle. "Triangular cabling," explained Mark later, "is the most efficient way to support a tree of this type....the procedures has twice the strength (of a single cable between two limbs) because of twice the amount of cable."
Note the ropes and wires hanging from the tree in the photo at left and the dark heart wood in some of the sawn logs – a sign of decay. Ben Burbank, part of the ground crew, is on the left of the tree, sending up a second extension cord for Mark's drill after the first one conked out on him. Amazingly, by late afternoon, all the mess was cleaned up, the leaf litter blown away, the chips piled up near our compost heap, and the sawn logs packed away in the truck. Shown at right below is a closeup of one of the amon-eyes holding the northern most cable on to a limb.
Bad Options Persist
What else could we have done with an old tree, close to the house, spreading massive limbs in all directions, heavy with foliage? One option, one which is taken by property owners all too often, is topping or stubbing. This procedure is condemned by the National Arborists Association whose members are advised not to commit to topping by a customer requesting it. The ANSI standards states (complete with terminal exclamation point), "...the reduction of a tree's size using heading cuts that shorten limbs or branches back to a predetermined crown limit is not acceptable pruning practice!"
As Mark pointed out, far from making a large old tree less dangerous, topping and stubbing – cutting a tree back to its main trunk or stubbing branches back drastically – actually makes the tree more dangerous. These stubby cuts produce witch's brooms of branches that are weak-wooded and prone to breakage. Moreover, the depleted canopy cannot sustain the root system which had thus far grown naturally with the tree. The result, in short, is extreme damage to the tree itself – dying roots, susceptibility to disease, and brittle growth.
Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, a topped tree is painfully ugly, especially in winter after the leaves are gone. The photo at left is The National Arbor Day Foundation's opinion of a butchered tree depicted in their September/October 1997 newsletter. Notice the cut back, stubby new growth sprouting from the cut limbs as the tree tries desperately to match its canopy to its root system.
In a final conversation, Mark suggested a follow-up visit to our Boxelder by a tree professional in four or five years to check on the arrangement. "For its age," he said, "it's in great shape, it hasn't been topped or mal-pruned, or abused in any way. Of course," he went on, "it's a mature tree, perhaps over mature."
I took that to mean that we'd better be
vigilant as far as the tree's good health is concerned, and we will.
tree has long outlived the early settlers who planted it; it's outlived
the settlers' children and their children's children. We'd like to be
that it outlives us, as well, and also our children. This would be
an accomplishment, I understand, for the lowly Boxelder. We'd like to
sure it has that chance.
*Mark Malmsford of Total Tree Care is a member of the National Arborists Association and follows the arboriculture standards in the publications of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). To contact Mark, write, phone or fax
246 W. 280 N.
Providence, UT 84332
Phone or Fax: 435-752-1884
Interesting tree sites:
Coalition of United Green Partners: http://www.treesaregood.org
Tree Link: http://www.treelink.org
National Tree Trust: http://www.nationaltreetrust.org
National Arbor Day Foundation http://www.arborday.org/
National Standards Institute (ANSI): http://www.natlarb.com/
An excellent guide to caring for your trees is Tree Maintenance by Pirone, Harman, Sall, and Pirone
Link to browse for tree books:
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