Gardening Grafting Public Gardens Trees

Vandals Attack Trees in Public Garden

Main gate at Halifax Public Gardens
The main gate to the Halifax Public Gardens opened to a scene of horticultural horror on June 25, 2022. Photo: Daryl Mitchell, Wikimedia Commons

I was horrified by the news. I’m a great fan of the Halifax Public Gardens, an extraordinary public park and garden that I visit every time I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada’s east coast metropolis. And much of its charm come from the extraordinary trees that decorate it. Well, vandals broke into the Gardens on the night of July 25 and 26, 2022 and tried to kill 30 historic trees, ranging in age from 50 to 200 years old.

The first report I heard was on CBC radio and it just mentioned “damage.” So I thought, “a few branches broken off, maybe some bark peeled off. Most trees can handle that. It won’t be that bad.” Then I heard the word “girdled” and my blood ran cold.

It’s the one word you don’t want to hear when it comes to a beloved tree. For girdling is not just superficial damage. it leads to the tree’s death. And it is only used to kill a tree, to make sure it can never come back.

What Is Girdling?

Two examples of girdled trees.
Vandals girdled these trees and 28 others at the Halifax Public Gardens. Photo: Halifax Regional Municipality

Girdling, also called ring-barking, involves is the complete removal of a ring of bark all around the trunk. The bark is where you find the phloem, the outer transport tissue, the one that carries sugars from the leaves that manufacture them to the roots below. With the bark gone, no more carbohydrates will be able to flow down to reach the roots.

Bit of Botany

Just a quick note to help you better understand girdling. Something you were taught in high school biology, but have had plenty of time to forget!

Sap rich in sugars flows down from the tree’s leaves to its roots via the phloem, tissus just inside the bark. Water and minerals, on the other hand, are pumped up from the roots via the xylem, found in the cambium and the sapwood. So, if the bark and phloem are removed, sugars can no longer reach the roots, yet the leaves and buds can still get their fair share of water coming up from the roots via the xylem.


If the xylem, the inner transport tissue, is still intact (and it usually is in girdling), water and minerals can still flow up to the branches and leaves. Therefore the tree often looks fine at first. In fact, for over a year, you’d be unlikely to suspect what is about to happen. And that will occur suddenly, most likely in the second year, when the roots have used up any sugars that they had stored. Then the tree will suddenly die. Just like that! Apparently healthy one day and full of dying leaves the next.

All that’s left to do is to cut it down.

Arborists often use girdling to kill trees that sucker abundantly. That’s because it kills the suckers along with the roots, using up all their stored energy. Or because the owner wants the tree to keep standing after its death, perhaps as animal habitat. You never use girdling on trees you want to see live!

Who Dunnit?

200-year old weeping beech
The magnificent 200-year old weeping beech, the pride of the Public Gardens, is one of the victims of the rampage. Photo: Halifax Public Gardens

Who were these vandals? That’s the million-dollar question.

The police presume that there was more than one person involved. First, because much damage occurred in relatively little time. And secondly, carrying tree surgery out in the dark of night would slow anybody down!

The culprit apparently used a hatchet to strategically hack away bark from each tree. That’s hard work. Plus, you have to know just how far to go, and no further. And someone would have to have held a light.

Planning this attack therefore required someone with good knowledge of arboriculture. Believe me, I’ve girdled a tree before and it takes a lot of effort and concentration.

The park closes at night. That’s how the vandals were able to work undisturbed.

And Why?

For me, this is the main question. Who would hate the City of Halifax or its people badly enough to want to kill 30 otherwise healthy and beloved trees in a public park? It has to be revenge of some sort. Otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense!

After all, no one will make a profit from this. It’s not as if a sneaky developer killed the trees so they could buy up the land cheaply after. The Public Gardens is the city’s main park. The space will not simply end up on the development market because 30 trees die. The park will continue to be a park, no matter what.

There’s really no logic behind the whole situation.

Can the Trees Be Saved?

A bIrch tree whose trunk is wrapped in burlap
A bIrch tree temporarily wrapped in burlap to keep disease spores off. Photo: Alice Munro

Usually, girdled trees simply die. For safety reasons, the only logical thing to do in a public park would be to cut them down. However, there are a two possibilities I can think of that might save them.

First Possibility

The first possibility for saving a girdled tree is that, if the job weren’t well done and even a single strap of live bark still linked the bark on either side of the ring, the tree could grow new bark from that, eventually coming to wrap right around the tree. I’ve never seen that happen on a huge tree (and some of these are giants!) However, I’ve seen starving voles leave a single thread of live bark on a mature apple tree after a winter attack and the tree recovered completely.

So, since the vandals attacked at night, in the dark, maybe, in their rush and partially blinded by lack of light, they missed a few spots. Then the bark could grow back.

bridge grafting
Illustration of bridge grafting. Source: L.H. Bailey Hortorium

Second Possibility

The second possibility would be to do a bridge graft. This is a graft of strips of live bark placed so that they reach from the bark below, then over the wound to join the living bark above. The bark has to be from the same species of tree. You could even use pieces of bark from the wounded tree itself to patch together a path that stretches from the top to the bottom.

If bridge graft takes, it will allow sap to flow again. The tree can then recover.

You can find information on bridge grafting here: Restorative grafting.

Currently, four trees deemed unrecoverable have been removed. In other cases, there appears enough bark left intact for the tree to survive. So, the authorities have only cleaned the wound and don’t plan to carry out any further interventions. But the majority will undergo bridge grafting later this summer.

Whatever decisions are made, dealing with this disaster will cost the Halifax Regional Municipality hundreds of thousands of dollars. Already, security cameras have been installed throughout the park and there will be 24-hour tree monitoring. The park also intends to plant substitutes for certain doomed trees.

And the park will take years—likely decades!—to recover its beauty. It’s just so, so sad!

All my sympathies to the people of Halifax!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

13 comments on “Vandals Attack Trees in Public Garden

  1. Terri Corazza

    My first trip by air, my first trip to the east coast. I chose beautiful Nova Scotia. This garden paradise was a must for the family. We innocently asked “Do you have beavers”? I cannot believe the desecration of a wonderful, glorious, link to our past a living tree. SHAME on whoever YOU are. STOP NOW. Control yourselves have some dignity. God Bless these dedicated worker ANGELS. Our thoughts are with you at saving these living relics. Thank you.

  2. Given the direction of the world – or, rather, the direction we’re being pushed in – re. surveillance EVERYWHERE, I can’t help but think that THAT is exactly the motive behind this travesty… In other words, the perfect excuse to install LOTS of surveillance in a seemingly innocent park. The CCP-style social credit scores are being rolled out in many countries, and to “properly” “calculate” each person’s score on a moment-by-moment basis REQUIRES SURVEILLANCE, EVERYWHERE.

  3. Raisa ghersi

    Certainly a very sad information. Every day there is more vandalism against nature and all its creatures. What kind of human beings are those? May all the trees that it is possible to save be saved.

  4. Carel Two-Eagle

    What happened is horrible, BUT.. In this modern age of vandals, criminal mischief, and C A M E R A S, E V E R Y W H E R E, why had night vision cameras with silent alarms been there already? “The Park or The City didn’t have the money”? As if!
    They didn’t budget the money. The guardians were lazy. IF the creeps who did this are ever caught, which I doubt unless they brag and are overheard (check Facebook, Twitter, etc, you who don’t think much, let alone “ahead”), I trust some vigilantes will girdle them.
    Meantime, I learned about “bridging”, which may be useful to me on my trees.

  5. My sympathies to every nature lover in Halifax, and all who care about their lovely greenspace.

    My Grandpa had some luck with burlapping some trees that a spiteful hunter tried to destroy when he was ousted from Grandpa’s woods. Fortunately, the tire tracks of the vandal’s truck and debris on his boots led to his arrest. Probably 30% of the younger trees managed to survive.

    Fourteen healthy, lovely oaks, maples, black walnut, black cherry, beech and tulip trees were ruined. Grandpa managed his woods carefully. The hunter knew about timber; he purposefully selected the finest. Some were seedlings when only First Americans tended the land.

    And yes, that hunter had help. It takes furious dedication to girdle trees over 3′ wide.
    Timber estimate in 1977 was $1,000 – $3,000 each. Today it would be a total loss of $70,000 – $210,000+ for all of them. Not chump change!

    Can’t imagine the loss of those trees to Halifax. Not only is there timber value, but aesthetic as well. There’s the years of labor of the gardeners, not to mention the cost of buying, planting and caring for replacements, and the pleasure time it will rob from the community before they reach the grandeur of the originals.

    Then there is loss of habitat for the animal life that depends upon those trees for food and shelter.

    And the memories of children laughing and chasing around those venerable trunks.

    This makes the Halifax’s trees priceless!

    Those vandals knew something about trees. That’s what makes it truly painful. Someone taught them, or provided the information they implemented.

    Real effort needs to go into tracking them down, as many serial killers start by destroying, property, vegetation and animals. This could be the start of even more serious crimes.

    So very, very sad!

  6. Just disgusting. I shake my head daily, wondering, what is wrong with some people!

  7. Jean Dendy

    I may be misremembering, but I think this is the exact act that precipitated the term “vandalism.” It’s from when the Vandals conquered the Roman empire in the 5th century and cut down the olive trees in the Iberian Peninsula for no good reason even though they take 200 years to grow. There was no logic. They did it for fun. I’m looking for corroboration of this on Wikipedia and can’t find any. Might be hogwash. Whoever they are, they’re truly vandals.

  8. Gladys Drew

    This was a very disgusting and tragic thing to do. I hope that the grafting will be successful for the trees that are eligible for it. Thank you for reporting on this sad event.

  9. Incomprehensible! Thank you for this information and your insights. I’m grateful to hear that some of the trees may survive. Still…so sad.

  10. Phil Reilly

    I have many unpublishable expressions about this attack! Why be the perpetrator of death to iconic and majestic trees in a public park? The irrational motives (perhaps deemed criminal) behind this attack is beyond my comprehension! Here’s hoping someone in the “know” will feel the need to reveal the who’s and why’s of this event!

  11. Christine lemieux

    Thank you so much for this information. I am so relieved to know there is hope for some of the trees.

  12. MB Whitcomb

    No words.

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