Pruning

Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

Tall spruce dying near a housse.

By Larry Hodgson

Last week, I had a mature spruce tree taken out. 

It was already there and fully mature when we moved to this house 28 years ago, and since the house is about 70 years old, I assume it’s close to that in age, probably planted by the first owners shortly after they bought the house.

To be honest, I never really liked that tree … nor its two brothers, planted in a line right next to the house. They’re far too big to be so close to the building: I have had to cut off many branches over the years that tried to take over our main walkway to the house as well as those that were rubbing against the walls or the roof. Plus, they put my garden (I took out the feeble excuse for a lawn previous owners’ had tried to maintain 25 years ago) in deep shade, constantly shower it with cones and needles, dry out the soil with their dense, shallow roots and steal most of the minerals. Gardening under them has been quite a challenge, but one I’ve succeeded in overcoming. (I used the experience as a basis for one of my most popular books, Making the Most of Shade.)

Still, I’d come to accept that big spruce as “part of the décor.” Any planning I’d done over the years took the tree into consideration. And it did give a cool spot where we could sit outside on hot summer days. I was “all right with it,” I suppose. Sort of like a neighbor who can be annoying sometimes, but friendly enough, whose foibles you’ve come to know and feel comfortable with.

Yes, Trees Do Die

Now, a white spruce (Picea glauca) can live for 200 years or more, but this one wasn’t going to. The once vigorous annual growth had slowed to nothing over the last few years and last summer, branches in the top began to die back. While there was still some green growth near the top this spring; by early September, the top (10 feet/3 m) was entirely dead and branches just below that were dying. It was mostly dying from the top down, but even the lower and middle branches were looking thin. 

What was killing it? I don’t know. I’m assuming some sort of fungus. Nor do I care, really. In a forest, Ma Nature takes out a tree here and there all the time for no obvious reason. And that is what was happening in my own personal forest.

Live and Let Die?

In another place, like a natural woodland, I could have left the tree standing for woodpeckers to dig into and animals to nest in, but this tree is far too close to the house. 

In my estimation, the trunk was solid (something that was confirmed when it was cut), so there was no real danger of it falling, at least not for many, many years. By my wife was less confident. In fact, she was close to being in panic mode. For her, a dead tree only a few feet from the house was a constant danger. She wanted it gone

Well, there are plenty of other trees on our lot, both young and mature. One less wouldn’t do much damage to the local heavily modified ecosystem. So, I let my wife win this one.

Therefore, I set out to obtain a tree removal permit from my municipality and find a trustworthy arborist. After all, I needed someone competent make sure this tall tree would come down without damaging my house just below.

Getting the Job Done

The tree was in bad shape. You can see here that even the lower and middle branches had lost most of their needles.

Watching an arborist and his assistants cut down a huge tree in such a restricted space something quite impressive.

The arborist hooked himself around the trunk (already bare of the lowest branches for some 20 years, long ago shaded out by the upper ones) and up he went, removing the branches one by one from the bottom to near the top, letting them fall onto the ground where his assistants gathered them and dragged them down to the street where they tossed them into the wood chipper they’d placed there. Soon the needles and branches were shredded into tiny pieces and blown into the back of their truck. 

The top of the tree has been cut and will soon be lowered to the ground.

When he got close to the top, he wrapped a rope around the trunk, sawed it off with his chainsaw, then lowered it to the ground. 

Sawing the trunk, section by section.

From then on, he fixed the rope around a section of trunk, sawed through it, then lowered it for his acolytes to haul away in the back of their second vehicle, a pickup. (We didn’t want the wood.)

Less than 90 minutes later, they had cut the trunk right to the ground (I didn’t ask for their stump removal service: I’ll just put a pot on the stump next summer to hide it) and were cleaning up. Fast and efficient! 

Regrowth Following Devastation

The shade garden under the tree looks like a scene of horror… but I know it will recuperate fully.

Obviously, falling branches and pounding feet had left the ground underneath the tree, a naturalized shade garden of mostly native plants, with a few variegated garden plants for extra ornamentation, in a mess, with crushed and broken vegetation everywhere. I had only requested they be careful to not damage a small tree, a pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), situated only feet from the trunk. I had planted it a decade ago as an eventual replacement for the spruce (I must be clairvoyant!) and they carefully respected that request, dropping branches everywhere but there.

But I’m not concerned about the mess. The tree came down in early fall and the perennials were well on their way towards dormancy, already having absorbed the solar energy they need for next year’s growth by then. I just left the torn leaves and crushed stems where they lay, a bit of extra mulch for next year. I have every expectation they’ll all be just fine next spring.

Under the ground in that sector, there are also thousands of mostly self-sown spring bulbs. I’m not concerned about those either. They were safe underground. They’ll be back come next spring as if nothing had happened.

What impresses me is all the sunlight that now reaches the soil. This part of the garden has been dominated by the dense shade of an evergreen for at least 50 years. And surrounded by other trees, including spruces. All the perennials and bulbs had been growing in just about the deepest shade you can imagine. Next spring, most will find themselves in sun. Well, not full sun, but dappled sun, with plenty of shade from the house (the garden is on the north side of my residence), but still quite an improvement. 

I’m actually expecting most of the plants to grow much better in the future. No green plant “likes” deep shade. Shade-tolerant plants do as their name suggests: they tolerate it. They would all prefer more light.

There will be more moisture for them as well (spruce roots really suck up water!) and minerals.

I won’t be planting another spruce or other conifer to replace the one lost. The replacement tree, the pagoda dogwood, is already there and although spindly now, will probably fill in considerably now that the spruce is gone, what with all the extra light it will receive. It’s a much smaller tree that will never get tall enough that we need to be concerned about it damaging the house when it falls. 

So, goodbye spruce: it’s been, if not a pleasure, at least an interesting experience! But your time had come. My garden is now ready to move on.

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.

16 comments on “Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

  1. I have a friend who gets a piece of a tree he removes & dry it to make a letter box or some other small useful piece to remember the tree.

    • What a great idea! I’ll save that for the next time I lose a tree!

    • It is very rare for a historic tree to be removed from what had once been the grounds of one of the Missions in California (there are not many of such trees left), but when it happens, such trees are sometimes cut into small pieces that are turned on lathes to become small artifacts that can be sold as a fund raiser. Suckers from historic redwoods can be grown into new trees (although they are not as pretty as modern garden cultivars).

  2. Pamela Whitcomb

    Wise of you to let your wife win this one!

  3. We had to have a venerable oak and maple taken down several years ago. We were able to get some lumber from the trees and now have two tables with maple tops and oak legs. You can read my post The Felling of the Oak here: http://www.coldclimategardening.com/2017/02/26/the-felling-of-the-oak/ if you’re interested. It was quite a project and you’re right–it’s fascinating to watch a skilled arborist at work.

  4. Ann Evans

    This is a very interesting post. Is your book, Making the Most of Shade, readily available in the U.S.?

  5. Such an interesting story re removal of your spruce tree! We too had a large branch of a walnut tree removed this past summer and was enthralled watching the skilled arborist.

  6. Even unwanted trees are unpleasant to remove. I recently cut down one of two flowering cherries that I never liked, but revered because they had been there since before World War II (when so many flowering cherries in America were cut down). I did it myself because there was not much left of it. The trunk was like cardboard. We had left it there for far too long, and could not leave it any longer. It is one of the more unpleasant aspects of the work that my colleagues do, even though they enjoy their work very much.

  7. Patricia Evans

    Our next door neighbors had to have a huge old maple tree removed about 6 yrs ago after half of it fell on their shed. It was indeed fascinating to watch it being removed. It had lots of spreading large branches still in full leaf. Each branch section was roped and then carefully directed where to fall, Took all day.

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