Tree t r oub le?

April 15, 2011

Sometimes it seems they’re out to get us. The same trees that shade our homes, add value to our neighborhoods and freshen our air regularly wreak havoc on our lives. Storms bring them crashing down on houses and power lines. They cost small fortunes when they’re planted, trimmed and, eventually, cut down. When they’re healthy, they choke us with their pollen. We ignore trees at our peril. Here are some acorns of wisdom that might help to keep the relationship cordial.

A big branch snapped off in a storm. Do I need to hire someone to saw it
off cleanly?

Yes. A ragged break “matters in­cred­ibly,” says Chris Klimas, mid-Atlantic operations manager for Davey Tree. A clean break allows the plant to wall-off the wound. And a professional arborist can advise on whether other help is needed, such as installation of steel support cables, to save the tree.

If I hire someone to evaluate my trees, won’t they just sell me an expensive tree-removal job?

If you hire a guy with a chain saw who knocks on the door following a storm, sawing is about all you can expect. (“We call those butchers,” says Klimas of Davey Tree. “I am an arborist.”) A certified arborist is supposed to consult on ways to preserve trees — and to evaluate whether the effort is worthwhile given the health and value of the tree. Some communities have arborists on staff, or you can search for one through the American Society of Consulting Arborists at asca-consultants.org. Some arborists will do an initial consultation at no charge, or they may charge $100 to $150 per hour.

If a tree belonging to my homeowners association is a threat to my home, who has to take care of it?

Call your HOA immediately, says Debra H. Lewin, senior director of CAI Press, the publishing arm of the Community Associations Institute. “Most associations will recognize the potential liability and take action as soon as possible,” Lewin says. “The problem that arises, unfortunately, is defining ‘threat.’ Is the tree about to collapse on the roof? Or is it merely dropping all its leaves on the roof and causing additional expense for the homeowner who has to clean out the gutters frequently?”

How far away from the house
should I keep trees?

Casey Trees, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the tree canopy over the District, says trees should be planted at least 10 feet from a building. Also, they should be three feet from sidewalks, driveways, patios or fences.

Sometimes big trees simply topple over. Is there a way to predict that?

Yes, says Mike Galvin, deputy director of Casey Trees. Make sure the “root plate” is flat, not tipping above the soil in any direction. You can also hold a carpenter’s level vertically beside the trunk to see if the tree is listing in any direction. Sustained periods of above-average rainfall can create the perfect conditions for such trees to fall.

Do I need to water trees?

A tree needs 25 gallons of water a week to grow and remain healthy, according to Casey Trees. You can get that from 11 / 2 inches of rainfall or by turning the hose on low for half an hour at the base of the tree. Starting May 1 through the summer months, Casey Trees publishes watering alerts based on local weather conditions on its Web site, caseytrees.org.

If my tree falls on a neighbor’s
house, whose insurance pays?

Your neighbor, who has an insurance policy on the damaged house, should file a claim with his company, says Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, which is funded by the industry. After a major storm, when branches might be strewn about a neighborhood, insurance companies don’t try to track down the source of each branch. But if it’s obvious who owned the fallen tree or branch and that the tree was not well maintained, the insurance company might go after the owner of the tree for compensation (probably through his insurance company), and the owner of the damaged home might have his deductible refunded.

The electric utility prunes away a big chunk of my tree each year. Is there anything I can do?

“That pruning can be very detrimental,” says Klimas of Davey Tree (which has a division that does pruning for utilities). You can’t stop the pruning; utilities have the right-of-way — and in some cases they are required by law to keep trees from threatening power lines. Your options are to do corrective pruning to help balance the tree, or possibly to do deep root fertilization to help it overcome the shock.

How far should trees be away from utility lines?

Don’t plant closer than 10 feet away from power lines running down the street; and avoid planting directly beneath the power lines running from the street to your house, according
to Casey Trees. Stay at least three feet
away from buried utilities. Call the free Miss Utility service before you dig. In the District and Maryland, call 800-257-7777 at least two business days ahead of digging. In Virginia, call 800-552-7001 at least three business days ahead.

Should you have an arborist
inspect trees before you buy
a home?

Evaluating the health of trees is not in the scope of the standard home inspection, but if there are sizable trees on the property, especially near the house or other structures, it’s worth finding out if they are unhealthy and likely to cost thousands of dollars for removal.

What does it cost to have a
tree taken down?

It depends on the size and location of the tree. An easy job might cost about $1,500, but a big tree that needs to be hauled out with a crane could cost $5,000 or more, according to Davey Tree.

How often should you have an arborist evaluate your trees?

After a big tree-damaging storm, whenever you notice that areas of the crown have died off, or every three to five years, according to various sources.

When is a tree a goner?

If you’ve lost 50 percent or more of the crown, the tree is probably a lost cause, says Klimas of Davey Tree.

If birds set up housekeeping in a tree hole, is that a bad sign?

It’s a boon for the birds, but it signals decay in the tree. Klimas says it’s of particular concern if the hole is greater than 20 percent to 25 percent of the diameter of a branch; that could weaken it enough to break off in a high wind. And woodpeckers drilling into the wood are a sign that they’re finding food inside — in other words an insect infestation. Klimas says there are treatments that can help repair the decayed area, or get rid of the infestation, without harming wildlife — and without necessarily requiring that the tree be felled.

Should you pay a pro to plant the tree?

It can be satisfying to plant your own trees, says Dan Lambe, vice president of the Arbor Day Foundation, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. But do it right; not too deep, not too shallow. They have instructions on their Web site, arborday.org. Of course, size matters. If the tree is so big it arrives on a truck, you’re going to need a pro to wrangle it.

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