Gardening Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day Trees

Trees: Wanted, Dead or Alive!

20170810B Philip Harding, geograph.org.uk
Although dying, this tree is still playing a useful role in its environment. Photo: Philip Harding, geograph.org.uk

Trees are essential parts of our landscape. We cherish them for the beauty they give to our gardens and cities and the way they filter and clean the air we breathe and bring the temperature down a few degrees in the heat of the summer. Just seeing them has been shown to make people feel better and relax, lowering heart rates and reducing stress.

And trees are long-term investments. Some can live 1,000 years or more … but very few do.

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City trees are often short-lived. Photo: Kgbo, Wikimedia Commons

City trees, which have to battle pollution, poor soil, poor drainage, insufficient soil volume, salt buildup, branches ripped off by tall trucks, slamming car doors and vandalism, to mention just a few inhibiting factors, have an average lifespan of only about 15 years according to one study, although another allows them 25 years.

The outlook for trees grown in home gardens and parks is much better: more or less 100 years for maples and beeches and 75 years for most oaks and spruces. Even naturally short-lived species, like paper birch and mountain ash, ought to be good for about 25 to 30 years.

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Tree owners will often go to any length to keep a declining tree alive. Photo: Evelyn Simak, geograph.org.uk

However, no tree lives forever. Many begin to decline as they reach the limits of their average lifespan: major branches die back and aren’t replaced, wounds no longer heal well, the trunk becomes hollow, etc. Desperate homeowners can sink a fortune into trying to keep a dying tree alive: insecticide or fungicide treatments, careful pruning, props, fertilizations, watering, etc. and yet they often continue to decline.

And trees sometimes die or decline well before they should. Just like some people die young, so do some trees. That’s just life! They could be infected by a disease, have been hit by lightning, suffer root damage due to vehicles parked on their root system, etc., but most often, there is no clear explanation.

Essentially, when you plant a tree, your hope and expectation is that it will live and thrive as long as you inhabit your home, but sometimes it simply doesn’t. And when you buy an older home with older trees, the chances of gradually losing some of them increase.

Now That It’s Dying

20170812A Des Blenkinsopp, geograph.org.uk
A dead tree left standing can still be useful. Photo: Des Blenkinsopp, geograph.org.uk

When a tree is dead or in serious decline, the first reaction of most homeowners is to have it removed. That’s a wise and legitimate decision if there is any danger the tree could hurt people or cause damage to property when it falls. Also when it carries a disease or insect that could spread to and kill surrounding trees (Dutch elm disease, emerald ash borer, etc.).

But what about an older tree gradually declining in the far corner of your yard, well back from the house or parked cars, or in a forested area?

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Pileated woodpecker nesting in a dead tree. Photo: Skeeze, Pixabay

Declining, dying or dead trees (snags) are a vital part of any thriving ecosystem. One third of all woodland birds nest in holes or cavities in dead trees, including woodpeckers, owls, and wood ducks. Bats (already severely threatened in many areas), flying squirrels, raccoons and many other mammals also depend on them. Birds of prey use them as lookouts and food handling points.

A host of insects and mushrooms feed on dead wood, sight unseen … and they in turn feed birds and mammals.

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Even when a tree falls, it continues to contribute enormously to its environment. Photo: Akabashi, Wikimedia Commons

Even when a dead tree falls, it contributes to the environment. As it crashes down, tearing limbs off neighboring trees, crushing smaller ones, it opens a light gap in the forest, allowing understory trees to grow and thus the the forest can renew itself. The trunk, if left to lie where it falls, slowly decomposes, feeding and hosting a wide range of animals and fungus of all sorts when it does. Plants and mosses grow on the fallen tree and some trees species even sprout there before going on to become forest giants in their turn.

Wherever possible, the ecological thing to do is leave dying and dead trees standing. And even when they fall, do move the trunk off a path or road, of course, but try to leave it nearby to gradually rot away and enrich the soil.

Where possible (again, I repeat that there are places where you can’t legitimately leave a dead tree standing), just leave the tree to die gracefully … but do think of planting a replacement!20170810F Eng Clkr-Free-Vector-Images

Trees are always wanted, dead or alive!20170810F Eng Clkr-Free-Vector-Images

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “Trees: Wanted, Dead or Alive!

  1. Pingback: You’re Afraid Your Tree Is Dying? – Laidback Gardener

  2. Glad I read this today. I rejoined the arbor day foundation and picked a bunch of river birches as my free 10 trees… and a few other ones in a separate order that I could put in the front and sides or give away.

    I’m in zone 9 (though I left an option for zone 10 stuff just because of the crazy heat in the summer here) and have some areas of the back where I’m not really doing anything with the land. I’m on 2 acres and have planted some stuff here and there in the yard, mostly in the front. But if I can get a good scythe and knock down all that growth as the weather turns cooler and figure out how much space I can work with, that patch of tore-up, weeded over patch of nada can easily hold some river birches.

    There’s no fence back there, but there is a line of trees and shrubs left to grow as the border to the yard and a kind of privacy screen. But I’d like more trees back there to really fill it out, and make it into a mini-forest, and give the birds and squirrels plenty of food back there so they don’t tear up my garden come spring time (hee hee). And then I’ll have a more manageable separation from dog and human roaming space vs. wildlife space.

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