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Four years ago, when we were house hunting, one of the best selling points of our neighborhood was that it was filled with tree-lined streets. An abundance of stunning, tall trees could be seen towering over homes and sidewalks. There are so many benefits to living in a neighborhood with a lot of trees. They add instant character to the neighborhood, especially in the fall when the leafy color palette just explodes and makes us feel like our homes are nestled in a Bob Ross painting.
When we settled into our new home, one of my favorite window views was of a giant 40-foot maple tree that sat in my neighbor’s front yard — since we live in a corner house, we could take it in from almost any window. Then, just like that, one day it was gone. Our neighbors had it cut down, and we had no clue why.
In our backyard, we enjoyed the cozy combined shade of three 30-foot Linden trees that kept our yard protected and cool in the summer. But they’re gone now too. Last year, we had to make the sudden and heartbreaking decision to remove all of the trees in our yard to protect our property and our neighbor’s from damage. The trees had become infested with aphids (those little green bugs you sometimes see swarming in the sun) and weren’t in good health. The trees were slowly dying from the inside out and dripping something called sooty mold all over the neighbor’s property and our backyard too. The mold was destroying our deck, our car paint, and our fence. Large branches were starting to fall too. When we inquired about treating the infestation, we learned that it could take years and may be too late to stop the problem.
And so, we removed them, then this year we planted three more new trees in their place. While the new additions will likely take a lifetime to grow to the heights of the ones we had to remove, we took comfort in enjoying the many other neighborhood trees still in view. Then they all began to disappear too.
It turns out that our trees weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood that had been neglected for decades. Many of our neighbors were having similar issues with the trees in their yards, and this summer, we watched seven trees — all taller than most of the homes on the block — meet their end. We asked around and learned that the trees that were removed were also dying or in distress, while some were too heavily infected with aphids and spotted lantern flies. Each neighbor we talked to admitted the same thing to us; they didn’t want to remove their trees either. We were all in the same boat — we inherited mature trees in our yards that needed more care than we realized, and we missed the early signs of distress.
Parts of our beloved block now look completely different than they did when we moved in. It has been pretty disappointing; it just wasn’t a problem we ever foresaw happening. While we can’t go back in time and fix what’s happened, we are looking to the future. As homeowners it’s important to us to learn more about overall tree health and maintenance going forward.
How does one know if the trees in their yard are unhealthy, dead or in distress? There are some obvious signs to lookout for, says certified arborist Casey R. Walentowicz of Aspen Tree Care Professionals in New Jersey. “Signs of a stressed or failing tree can be dieback from the tips or uppermost parts of the branches, discolored foliage, cavities, nesting holes, cracks, abnormal sap, or wetness flow from areas, sparse or undersized foliage, or anything that doesn’t look quite right to you,” he explains.
Discolored foliage and dieback were major red flags we missed, and our neighbors did too. Large portions of tree branches didn’t bloom in the spring and would fall to the ground on windy days. There were a good amount of dead leaves dropping well before the start of fall. Of course, we thought it was a little strange at the time but had no idea it could be an early indicator that our trees were in big trouble. Had we known then, we could have contacted an arborist for support much sooner and been more aware of the risk both our family and pets potentially faced.
“If you suspect a safety or health issue, keep pets, family, and friends clear of the tree,” says Walentowicz. “Call a qualified tree risk assessment qualified arborist (TRAQ Qualified) and have them advise on the next steps” A qualified arborist can safely assess the situation and help you create a tree care plan that’s customized to the types of trees in your yard and the issue you’re facing.
He’s right. The faster you seek help, the better. The sooty mold that was dripping from our trees and covering our backyard was toxic to our two dogs and our outdoor garden plants — it coated their leaves and prevented sunlight from reaching the leaf surface. Our poor plants and pets had been battling this for weeks before we realized it wasn’t just some sort of temporary seasonal sap dripping from the trees.
Ideally, you’ll want to spot any warning signs before your trees are in as bad shape as the ones in our neighborhood were. If you look up, and all seems well, you can focus on keeping the healthy trees strong. “Maintaining healthy trees is much easier than nursing back a sick tree,” Walentowicz cautions. “Established trees require less continual maintenance. They should be on a pruning cycle to be inspected and pruned as needed every 3-5 years (more frequently in certain circumstances). An arborist can collect a soil sample and send it to a local lab to be tested and determine any fertilizer needs. They should also be monitored for any signs of abnormalities.”
Our newly planted trees, as it turns out, will need our help too. “They need much more attention than established trees,” Walentowicz adds. “They need to be properly installed — we recommend an arborist for this over a landscaper — and they need proper watering, staking, or guying, which should only be done if necessary and should be removed as soon as possible so the tree does not develop a dependency on the support.”
The longer you wait to pay attention to the health of the trees around you, the more it could cost you to repair or remove them later on. “Sometimes, by the time an arborist is called, the tree is in an advanced state of decline, and it can be difficult and costly to reverse,” Walentowicz warns. It cost around $5,000 to have our three trees removed, which was actually a good deal. Many of the quotes we received were much higher. “Removal of a single large tree in a tight space can be between $5000-$10,000,” says Walentowicz.
The most important advice for us has been that not every major tree issue is solved by removing the tree. There are other alternatives to removal, depending on the issue. Supplemental support systems (cabling, bracing, and guying) can be used to help minimize hazards from trees with certain structural deficiencies, says Walentowicz. “Crown reduction pruning can be implemented to properly reduce the size or spread of the crown and help reduce static and dynamic loading. Directional pruning can help to clear roofs, buildings, utilities, lights, etc. Soil analysis and fertilization of trees that may look thin or stressed can help bring them back to their former glory.
Regular tree maintenance would have been much more cost effective for us as new homeowners. “It can run anywhere from $200 to $3000,” shares Walentowicz. “Depending on the number, size, and locations of trees on your property. The initial arborist visit will determine the extent of work needed and this can always be broken into separate phases. Once you have corrected any main tree health issues on the property — supplemental support or cabling as needed, air-spade or root collar excavation work, initial soil amendments and fertilization, pest treatment if needed — regular maintenance inspection and pruning moving forward will become less costly.”
These days, we’re keeping a close and caring eye on our new trees but also spreading the wisdom of tree maintenance to our neighbors every chance we get. While we certainly can’t tell them when or how to care for their trees, it makes us feel better knowing we’re doing our very best to help save the trees that are still standing and making our neighborhood one of a kind.