Sunday, October 5, 2014

Happy Little Trees

This piece was originally published in my column, The Magical Gardener, in today's edition of the Sunday Stew. Please be sure to head on over and read the entire edition, a delicious blend of spiritual flavors and nourishment for the soul.

Autumn has only just begun and here, on the east coast, we are in the midst of our first Nor’Easter of the season. Classically, a Nor’Easter can bring high winds and heavy rain or, in the winter months, snow. This storm pales in comparison to others I have experienced in my past 46 years. Yet, I still find myself periodically heading to the windows around my house to see how the trees are faring in the storm. I worry about them and do not want to see any of them injured or, worse, brought down. I cried for days when the old oak tree that stood guard in front of my house had to be taken down, after being damaged in Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy, several Nor’Easters, and, the final insult, a blow from its neighboring tree falling directly into it. If I only knew then what I know now, the grand old oak may have been saved.  But perhaps I can help others to continue to have, as Bob Ross used to call them, happy little trees.

Ensuring the long, healthy and happy life of a tree begins at the moment you decide to plant a tree. A tree should not be planted on or around your property just because it will look pretty in the fall. The local weather and soil conditions, its mature size, its proximity to a structure, and its maintenance and care requirements all must be considered first. Contact your local county cooperative extension office for a list of trees that are well-adapted for your specific location and conditions before considering the aesthetic properties you are searching for in a tree. Doing this may narrow the number of choices you have but it will save damage to the tree, your property and possibly a life down the road.

Many trees are not planted properly, leading to diseases, infestations, nutrient deficiencies and, eventually, death. You cannot just dig a hole and plop it in the ground. There is a method to planting a tree that allows for proper root, trunk and canopy growth and reduces the stress of the environment and weather on it. If it is not followed, the health and safety of the tree can, and most likely will, be compromised. Again, contact your local county extension office for information on how to do this.

Now, I am going to tell you something very important about tree planting and care, something that you must never forget. Do not volcano mulch a tree! What is volcano mulching? I know you have all seen it before in shopping centers or housing developments or even a neighbor’s front lawn. It is a horrible practice of piling inches and inches of mulch high up around and against the trunk of a tree, in what looks very much like a volcano. This can lead to improper root growth, decay and pests.  I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to go around the local shopping center pulling all the mulch away from these poor trees. I have some thoughts on why commercial landscapers practice this murderous technique but those are probably better left for another day. So please, please, I beg of you, do not volcano mulch!

An excellent habit to get into is that of inspecting your trees after storms, like Nor’Easters, hurricanes, or even powerful thunderstorms, pass through your area. Now you may not think that a branch breaking off during a storm can do much damage to the health of a tree but it can, and often does. This is the mistake I made with my own old oak. A broken branch is like an open wound. Diseases can find their way into the tree through a broken branch or a damaged trunk. Pruning or other “medical” attention may be required. Remember your friends at the extension office and ask them how best to proceed. In many cases, especially if the tree is very large or if personal safety is in question, you may need to contact a reputable tree service to address the injuries. Also, regular pruning can lessen breakage during storms as well as aid the tree in its overall health and growth.

If you live on the coast, your trees are faced with a unique issue not known to their inland friends, that of salt. Coastal storms, like hurricanes, bring salt spray on the wind and flooding surges of ocean water. Many trees on the Jersey shore were damaged during Superstorm Sandy by salt water. Salt, when in the soil, prevents the tree from taking up water and, when in the air, burns branches, needles and leaves. To lessen the damage done by salt, fresh water irrigation is required. Hose the whole tree and soil around it with fresh water thoroughly and often in the first days after the salt exposure. Now this may not be possible right after a major storm. Securing life and property is always the top priority! But when, and if, life begins to return to normal, you can turn some attention to your poor salt-laden trees.

Do not forget a little magic goes a long way. When planting a tree, hold a welcoming ritual for it. Bless it for a long, healthy and happy life. When pruning it, talk to the tree, comfort it, and let it know why. Trees are proud beings and sometimes they cannot understand why the simple human is cutting away a majestic branch. Just ask it. It will tell you! When storms are approaching, go to each tree, place your hands on it, and tell it to stand tall through the storm. I often did this for my ailing oak, calling upon deities of earth and sky to protect it and keep it from further harm, to keep it standing. It worked for the most part but finally, sadly, it became clear that it probably would not stand through another onslaught of wind, rain, ice or snow and my oak was taken down.

In true Nor’Easter fashion, the rain is slowing down now but the winds have picked up slightly. Again, I am at my windows checking the trees. They are swaying under its chilly breath. I am keeping an especially close eye on an old oak in my neighbor’s yard, one that is showing some signs of neglect. I will have to either talk to the neighbor or sneak into their yard with pruners in hand and magic in my heart. I just want happy little trees.

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