Profiles in Tree Care

arborist performing root work on a declining tree

On a sunny spring day in the Upstate, 3 generations of the Carl M. Osteen family gathered to feel the earth quiver under their feet, while we injected hope into the root zone of their ailing tree.

Before you is a treasure-trove of research that can save you thousands of dollars! We profile hundreds of sick trees we’ve treated in our own backyard (the Upstate). Not only do we share our successes (and the procedures used), we disclose our trials & errors along the way.

Though we only cover the basics, you’ll probably find there’s more that goes into nursing a sick tree back to health than you may have realized. From the links below, you may want to skip to an area of interest. Before we profile our own work, let’s look at a few examples of ‘tree care’ you might want to avoid.

Five Visually-impaired Mice

The owners of this large water oak received a ‘free tree inspection’ from a tree service. Eventually, 5 certified arborists found their way to their yard, arguing among themselves whether the left trunk has hypoxlon canker or not. It was decided this was not hypoxlon & an expensive treatment plan was proposed.

Less than convinced, the owners called another company who referred us. For a nominal fee, we performed a Level 2 Tree Risk Assessment & determined it poses a high risk to life & property, and recommended removal (we don’t remove trees or accept referral commissions). In our opinion, this tree can not be made safe & healthy. Why not?

Though we didn’t find hypoxlon on the trunk, we did notice the bark falling off (yellow arrows)! This is not good. Even a layperson would know this. Were these localized cankers, we would expect to see a wound response (woundwood growing around the margins). Instead, decay is spreading rapidly: note the dark, sunken areas (blue arrows) & mushrooms (Insert A). With diffused cankers, we expect the bark to keep falling off; that’s what rotting trees do!

Not only is the trunk’s strength reduced by decay, but weakly attached to a codominant (multiple) trunk, with a crack in the crotch (green arrow). Such defects are precursors to failure, and were it to fail, would likely fall on their home (Insert B). This is unacceptable!

If these ‘arborists’ were looking for hypoxlon, they could have easily found it on the branch above (Insert C); likely to fall while the kids swing on the tire. Would you want your children swing from this branch or have this tree lean towards your home? – questions every arborist should ask themselves.

Experts we contacted expressed disbelief at the notion of treating this rotting tree. One respected pathologist couldn’t understand why it wasn’t already sawdust, and opined this company better have good insurance.Rarely is a ‘free tree inspection’ free.

Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

Having a tree drop out of the sky can put a dent in most anyone’s picnic. But this didn’t happen to just anyone. It befell a homeowner after an arborist had worked on her tree. A tree with an obvious rotten top. It would have been nice if the arborist would have warned her, if not, removed the hazard. Just what did he do?

He sprayed for pests…while she watched from below, resulting in her hospitalization of 3 days, and having to spend thousands to have her pool decontaminated. Since, she’s been unable to reach the arborist by phone. And like many Carolinians, doesn’t believe in suing.

A responsible arborist wouldn’t have treated an unsafe tree, let alone spray a tall tree in a tight backyard. Especially a tight backyard with an uncovered pool & unprotected person. This oak should have been treated through the trunk after it was made safe.

Such narratives play to the stereotypical grizzled tree man wielding a chainsaw & driving an old, rusting pickup truck. Would it surprise you to learn this involved a large company, employing certified arborists, with an A rating with the Better Business Bureau? Possessing certification does not ensure an arborist is competent or ethical. And a company is not professional merely because it’s paid to perform a service.

An Accident Waiting to Happen

damaged trees

(A) A responsible arborist referred us to this homeowner. Because their large white oak had an untreatable bacterial infection, as well as advanced trunk decay-a high risk to several homes-we recommended immediate removal (we don’t remove trees).

A year later another responsible arborist recommended us to the same homeowner, but only after yet another (irresponsible) arborist unsuccessfully treated it.

The two responsible arborists stood to make a few thousand dollars removing this large tree, instead, they referred us to the homeowner. We stood to make a few hundred dollars treating this tree, instead, we recommended removal (we neither pay nor accept referral commissions). Such courtesies are rare in our profession.

(B) This silver maple, with obvious trunk rot, was ready to fall on the owner’s home. Even a layperson would know this. Yet an arborist recommended treatment. Is the arborist incompetent? Or did he stand to make more money treating rather than removing?

Trees Need Feet to Stand

tree feet

(A) Without seeing a visible root flare an arborist recommended treatment of this large chestnut oak. Upon unearthing several rotten flares, we recommended removal.

(B) Though this large willow oak was hollow, with conspicuous rotten flares, an arborist treated it for a lot of money, only to return a few months later to recommend removal (again, for a lot of money). Was it greed or conscience that got the better of him?     

A Little Knowledge Can Dispel A Lot of Fear

This widower had his huge water oak removed out of fear. The entire tree was cut & split. The butt & trunk were sound. Decay was found in one large branch (red arrow). But since this defect (yellow arrow) should have been obvious to an arborist, it could have been pruned. Also, decay usually moves slowly through a water oak. An independent hazard evaluation would have saved the owner many a sleepless night without having to spend 3 grand. Be wary of tree removal companies that offer free tree inspections.

A Tale of Three Brown Trees

three brown trees

(A) Shortly after the owners spent 4 grand to treat their severely declining white oak it died. Though the owners were warned there was little chance of bringing it back, an ethical arborist wouldn’t have taken the money.

(B) Upon determining the owner’s dogwood was dead, an arborist offered to treat his tree for $250. When asked, “How can this help?” The arborist replied, “It can’t hurt.”

(C) Brown in the summer landscape is not good. Especially if it’s a large white oak near a home. An arborist offered to remove this widow’s tree for 2 grand. Thankfully, her daughter convinced her to get a second opinion. We found the acorn weevil behind the defoliation. Within a month her oak was green again & has been fine the decade since.

For some mysterious reason, companies that do removals and preservation tend to lean towards the more profitable service. Unless you unreservedly trust your arborist, it makes good sense to get a second opinion. We have saved owners thousands of dollars & spared many a tree service from a lawsuit.

Irrigation and Understanding the Needs of Trees

(A) Most in-ground irrigation systems installed by landscapers cause more harm than good. They don’t understand the basic needs of a tree. What happens when an arborist installs an irrigation system? Similar results if he does not understand the basic needs of a tree. This large yellow poplar (right) died after an arborist installed an irrigation system. The oak will soon follow.

(B) The trunks & soil had been kept wet for years. Because this landscape was designed by one of the South’s most reputable landscape architects, the airport refused to follow an arborist’s advice. They eventually lost all of their zelkovas. Few trees tolerate wet feet; fewer LA’s understand the basic needs of trees.

Responsible Tree Care

(A) A responsible landscaper asked if there was any way we could save his client’s tree. The owner so prized his beech that he built his home 20 feet further back to protect it. Though it still declined, a sliver of hope remained. Not only would we have our hands full, but require the cooperation of all parties.

After a year of therapy, our patient responded well enough to justify pruning. We met with the landscaper’s preferred tree service on-site. We made clear the necessity of removing the largest dead branches without further injury to his tree. Every leaf is a miniature solar panel vital to its overall well-being. Only a veteran climber without climbing spikes was to be used. We passed their assurances unto the owner.

(C) We returned to find our tree butchered beyond belief. New spike wounds (blue arrow) zigzagged up the trunk alongside old scars (red arrow) left by another climber’s imprudence.

(D) Besides a dozen broken branches left hanging (representing a considerable portion of the leaf-bearing crown), we found horrific pruning cuts everywhere. The worst we’ve seen in years!

(E) Understory shrubs were flattened, the yard torn up, and 2 busted sprinklers sprayed water high into the morning air. It looked like a war zone. We were mortified!

Besides our hard-earned reputation, this was our client! A well-known builder & genuinely nice guy, with his dream home sitting prominently upon a hill above a historic golf course. We had given him our word. This was personal!

Unable to persuade the company to meet us on-site, we had dinner with them, bringing along several blown-up photos. Carefully, we went over everything requiring immediate attention. We left with their assurances they would get right on it.

(F) Several weeks later, after much prodding, we gave up on them (so much for assurances). We hired a responsible climber to un-botch this debacle, while we supervised. We filled in the ruts. The landscaper repaired the sprinklers. Needless to say, we can not recommend this tree service.

(B) Though we’re not out of the woods yet, after 3 additional treatments, the builder’s beloved beech is showing promise. This rehab was done at our expense. Not only do we stand behind our own work, we stand behind our referrals.

Tree Preservation; How It's Always Been Done

(A) Unfortunately, this is a story line that repeats itself over & over again: land development & building minus a consulting arborist.

(B) Direct injuries to the trunk & roots, and indirect injuries to the root zone, go mostly unnoticed.

(C) The unsuspecting homeowner has no idea of the damage that lies beneath their manicured landscape.

(D) Until the spring reveals thinning crowns, and each subsequent year, more dead trees that require costly removal.

(E) With an increasing number of angry homeowners threatening lawsuits, rather than involve a consulting arborist, more & more developers are opting to bulldoze all the trees & topsoil away; effectively sanitizing the landscape from all carbon-based lifeforms.

(F) More & more subdivisions are becoming little more than a plot of land with houses stacked on top of each other.

(G) & (H) Since not even grass grows well in this sterilized landscape, sod has to be imported. Soon, this leaning post (red oak) will have to be exported to the firewood lot (G).

(I) Nursery-pampered trees improperly installed are a poor substitute for the natives. Within 5 years half of these trees will likely be dead, and few, if any, will reach maturity during the owner’s residence. You can’t put back what once was.

The Upstate is a tree removal & landscaping paradise, often at the expense of the uniformed homeowner & a defenseless environment.

A Tree House Minus the Tree

(A) Considerable skill, effort & expense were expended to wrap their dream home around these 2 large red oaks.

(B) From their 2 upper decks, and in the shade of their antebellum oaks, the new owners could admire the world-class golf course below.

(C) Too bad the trees did not like the new living arrangement (note the thinning & browning crowns).

(D) Even if they moved their home, there was no saving their oaks. No doubt, some arborists would have tried. Fortunately, they called us first. These trees might have been saved. But we needed to have been here before the first blade dropped.

No Room at the Inn

root zone diagram

(A) Just as you can’t build upon a tree (and have it live long), you can’t pave upon a tree.

(B) Though this church was willing to unearth the tree’s root flares, they were less willing to give back its critical root zone. Century old oaks don’t pay tithes & offerings.

(C) For years their resigned oak tolerated its cramped living quarters.

(D) Until the need for parking space outweighed its right to live. Like the Tree of Life, there was no room at the Inn.

The Thin Red Line

inventoried trees after new home built

A thin red line is all that separates the living from the dying; stressed trees that will respond to treatment & declining trees that never will.

Possibly no arborist in the Upstate is better at making these decisions than Randy Cyr. Unfortunately, most of the decisions that affect the life of trees have already been made by developers, builders, utility contractors, landscapers & tree pests.

To Be, or Not to Be: That Is the Question

(A) We won’t treat a tree without first conducting a diagnosis & hazard evaluation. This involves more than merely “looking” at the tree. Why do some trees get a green ribbon, while others a red? These are some of the things we consider when making our decision. Though these are merely the basics, you’ve likely never seen an arborist do any of this before.

(B) Some symptoms are so obvious that further examination is unnecessary. Ambrosia beetle frass (red arrows) points to likely death within weeks.

(C) The many colors of hypoxylon canker (red arrows) points to likely death within months.

(D) Upon identifying dead & dying trees that won’t respond to treatment, we perform a hazard evaluation on the remaining stressed trees. Why treat a tree today that may fall on your home tomorrow?  “Sounding” (shown here) “is a practical and widely accepted field technique for initially establishing the presence or absence of internal decay in trees (Scientific Journal of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry 37(5): September 2011).”

(E) What happened before we arrived? A soil profile or core sample (shown here) provides us a record from the landscape below.

(F) Since soft-spoken soil animals (such as earthworms) make their abode in the soil, they can tell us what the lab analyst can not.

(G) Comparing leaves of like-species on the same site can prove useful. But what if all the trees are stressed? This owner believed his water oak (B) was healthy, until we provided a leaf sample from another site (A).

(H) While most leaf diseases are treatable & of minor concern, bacterial leaf scorch, which can be costly to treat with marginal results, is a major factor in forming our decision.

(I) While an incremental boring or cross sectional sample (shown here) records growth rate over the past years, a starch reserve test can reveal present vigor (note purple staining).

(J) A post hole digger sized hole the depth of the root-ball, filled with water, can reveal drainage.

(K) The extent of damage to root flares & large supporting roots, which may remain hidden until we bring in our supersonic air tools,  affect health & stability, and bear considerably upon our decision.

(L) When a tree has been predisposed, it seems like everything wants to pick on it. It would be irresponsible not to address present, as well as future pest concerns. We include 3 years of monitoring in our therapy program (unlike other companies that offer a one-time, hit-or-miss, cure-all). Oak borers are causing considerable structural damage to the inside of this water oak (red arrows).

We have shown some of the basics. We have other considerations we have not covered. We wanted to include you in our decision making process (without giving the store away). We don’t decide which trees should be removed. We believe the informed owner will make the best decision concerning their own trees.

We leave the timing of removal up to the owner. Each tree is an individual. Who’s to say how long a tree will live? Even a dying tree may provide a function in the landscape (unless it’s unsafe, or a brood for pests).

Where Do the Symptoms Point?

Owners & arborists can spend too much time chasing symptoms while overlooking the underlying cause. These symptoms point to the #1 killer of our urban trees. “Soil compaction is the single most difficult & harmful environmental or abiotic condition that a tree or shrub can experience (Dr. Nina Bassuk, Cornell University).”

Compaction, which reduces availability of air, water, organic matter, microbes, soil animals & root growth, is a much bigger issue than nutrient deficiency in most urban landscapes. Though, we as humans are small in size when compared to a large oak, nonetheless, we unknowingly beat our trees to death when we walk & drive over their critical root zone.

The Flowers Have No Juju

Tilling is the most effective way to bust up compacted soil. We see the tangible results in our gardens. But for urban landscapes, with turf-grass, hardscape, plumbing, roots & landscape decor, tillage may be impractical. For decades arborists have tried to relieve compaction using a number of methods & tools, such as vertical & radial mulching; achieving limited success. Every once in a while something new appears on the market, promising amazing results.

The ’90’s blew in the Terravent, and along with it, a royal promise to decompact & aerate compacted soils. The Terravent was a salesman’s dream. Easily pulled behind a compact car, it would literally sell itself. How could you go wrong using nitrogen to blow mycorrhizae (beneficial root fungus) into the soil? Especially, since plants love nitrogen, and mycorrhizae can increase root uptake by a hundred fold.

Too bad the trees didn’t buy into it. Research doesn’t support it’s claim to decompact & aerate, and mycorrhizae is already present in most soils. For the relatively few trees it may have helped, compaction was likely not the issue. I suspect there were amendments, other than mycorrhizae, that were helping the trees. It took Dr. Campbell a while to realize the flowers have no “juju” or cure (Medicine Man; 1992).

Even though production was halted in 2001, across the Upstate you can still hear the clanging of its metal probe, and the claims of salesmen that the Terravent works great on the Kew Gardens of England. This tree, as well as others we tested it on, either died or showed no measurable improvement (Dr. Don Gardner).

The Growgun

The Growgun is another tool that saw its heyday in the ’90’s & later went out of production. Unlike the Terravent, the Growgun required you tow along a heavy air compressor. It wasn’t flashy or as easy to sell. And like the Terravent, it didn’t decompact soil.

But in dye tests it performed more than 50% better than the Terravent. And for those of us who purchased one, it offers uses in the landscape that no other tool does. Solid particles, such as organic matter, porous ceramic (which can alter soil structure), and charcoal (which can alter pH & decontaminate toxins), can be injected directly into the soil. Inaccessible roots (such as those under hardscape) can be safely accessed.

We have helped thousands of trees that might otherwise have died prematurely. Today, our Growgun lies idly in our basement, along with several other tools that failed to perform as advertised. Every once in a while, we bring it out of the mothballs for the few unique uses that have proven effective (Michael Waters).

The Air-Spade

(A) When the Air-spade came on the market, not only did it offer more uses in the landscape, it opened up a whole new world under our feet. Converting compressed air into a supersonic jet-stream, we could now safely remove compacted soil (Billy Neighbors preforming a root collar excavation).

(B) We have unearthed horrendous injuries to the root flares & buttress roots on most every large tree we have inspected near structures. By knowing what we’re dealing with, we are better able to advice our clients. If a large tree is unsafe, you don’t want to spend money treating it.

(C) Volcano mulching is quickly dispatched.

(D) Even large flower beds can be easily leveled.

(E) Dry compacted soil is fractured (Lee & Billy Neighbors).

(F) Under the right conditions, we are able to safely air-till severely compacted soil while incorporating organics; nothing has proven more effective!

(G) We are able to get into some pretty tight areas with minimal disturbance to associate plants.

(H) A waterfall is protected with a drop-cloth.

(I) Surface roots can be efficiently exposed for safe pruning.

A Girdling Epidemic

(A) Millions of our Upstate trees are dying due to girdling; mostly caused by improper planting, compacted soil & piling mulch against the truck. Most everyone may do it. But make no mistake about it. Volcano mulching will eventually kill your tree!

(B) Anything that interrupts the vital flow of nutrients from the leaves to the roots can choke your tree to death. Landscapers often leave behind green nylon straps (yellow arrow), wire cages & burlap.

(C) This is the mess that volcano mulching creates. This maple’s own roots are choking it to death. When girdling gets this bad, it’s too late.

(D) Planting too deep causes rot below (yellow bracket) & eventually above ground (red arrow).

(E) Our strip malls are full of rotting trees.

(F)  After years of piling soil against their oak, it is now rotten below (yellow bracket) & above ground (red arrow), and presents a hazard to their home.

(G) Burying a tree in a flowerbed is a recipe for disaster.

(H) Another byproduct of volcano mulching: faded nylon straps (yellow arrows) tangled with roots.

(I)  Many of our street trees have outgrown their tiny planting beds & are now a hazard (decay; yellow arrows).

(J) Poor planning & poor planting (downtown Greenville). This small planting bed will eventually become one sold root mass. Will it choke to death or fall first?

(K) Will “volcano tarring” become the new fade? This tree will probably starve to death before it falls.

(L) If you can’t see the root flares (blue arrows), assume your tree is girdled. It may already be too late.

Girdling Solutions

(A) Degirdling can prove to be a formidable challenge.

(B) Surely, not for the faint of heart (some tools of the trade).

(C) Leaves turning early is one symptom of girdling (profile).

(D) The nylon straps & roots that were choking this maple were removed.

(E) While our profile is looking much better, our control doesn’t look so happy. Suppose we’ll find nylon straps & girdling roots beneath the mulch & soil?

(F) Our Air-spade reveals several girdling roots under the grass, mulch & soil.

(G) Hand & power tools were needed to remove these roots.

(H) With volcano mulching, you never know what’s waiting for you.

(I)  Fortunately, we were able to dispatch this man-imposed prison.

(J) Knowing which roots to prune & which to leave is a tightrope better left for an experienced arborist.

(K) Pruning the wrong root can kill and/or destabilize your tree.

(L) Like crown pruning, root pruning can be beneficial or harmful to your tree.

The Silent Revolution

(A) Mulch is the silent revolution that is taking the country by storm! But you can have too much of a good thing. In this Upstate park, rather than evenly distributing the mulch, it is piled too high where convenient, and not at all, where it’s most needed (the footpath below).

(B) So, what happens? All the trees die!

(C) Mulching done correctly can (eventually) decompact the soil & provide an ongoing source of fertilization. It’s only when ailing trees can’t wait that we recommend root zone therapy.

(D) Covering our tracks with the right mixture of compost & mulch is part of our therapy (cultural recommendations).

Missing the Trees for the Bushes

Even though the Upstate has received record rainfall, these oaks are dying due to drought, while the irrigated shrubs & turfgrass (foreground), and the undisturbed forest trees (background), flourish. Instead of an oasis, we have an Arabian sandstorm. What gives?

It was in view of having a yard full of large shade trees that the owner built his dream home here. But because this land was ‘developed’ without an arborist-supervised preservation plan, these trees are dying. We were hired to bring them back. Hence, we are in a rush to restore what the trees have been robbed of: a healthy root zone. We call this Rootzone Therapy.

Therapy can include the use of specialized air tools (A). But they work much better with sufficient moisture. This soil is bone dry. Though supplemental watering (irrigation) is badly needed, we struggle to persuade the landscaper. He has 30 years experience, a degree in horticulture, and is concerned about over-watering his shrubs.

To be sure, good horticulturalists are needed in the Upstate. But they are general plant practitioners (gardeners), while arborists are tree specialists (tree doctors). We further specialize in preservation. We are very good at it. Of the thousands we treated last year, not a single tree was lost.

While a boxwood might cost $20 to replace, a mature oak is irreplaceable, can cost thousands to remove, and be appraised for tens of thousands of dollars (B). It’s not right to pass this expense on to the owner or expect him (or us) to water these trees by hand (that’s why we have irrigation). If flooding is a concern, drainage tiles can be installed. We were hired to save these trees. Our success depends upon the cooperation of all parties. 

Follow-Up

Even though the Upstate has received record rainfall, these oaks are dying due to drought, while the irrigated shrubs & turfgrass (foreground), and the undisturbed forest trees (background), flourish. Instead of an oasis, we have an Arabian sandstorm. What gives?

One of the ways we monitor trees is by comparing the leaves of a treated tree (our profile), with an untreated tree (our control). Eventually, the neighbors wanted to know why these trees look so much better than theirs (silver maples).

Unexpected Benefits

One of the ways we monitor trees is by comparing the leaves of a treated tree (our profile), with an untreated tree (our control). Eventually, the neighbors wanted to know why these trees look so much better than theirs (silver maples).

The Watchman

While away robins keep an eye on things for us. Of course, it may be the new earthworms that is the real draw, since a healthy rootzone attracts worms (as well as other soil animals), and in turn, diligent mothers with hungry babies nearby.

A 3-Year Program

Our therapy program includes 3 years of monitoring after our initial inspection, treatment & cultural recommendations. Typically, this involves 2 visits a year to look for potential pest outbreaks, developing hazards, measure new growth, take photos & provide recommendations. Owners may request additional visits when they have concerns for their trees.

This sweet gum would have likely died if we had not intervened (a responsible tree service referred us). It lost most of its leaves in mid-summer & required the tree service to prune considerable dieback on the 3 main leaders (red 1 thru 3; A & B photos).

It looked pretty ugly after 1 year (B). At this stage, every leaf & twig are vitally important (note the long, gangly branch we left). You can prune it up pretty after it comes back. When a tree is this far gone, we usually recommend removal. But since this was an acute disorder (rather than chronic) that we caught just in time, we felt confident we could bring it back.

If you follow the red asterisk in the later 3 photos, you can see the gap closing quickly. Today, after 5 years, the gap has closed & her tree is ready for more pruning. Though this much crown loss is not typical, our treatment program, which requires minimal aftercare, is the norm for most of the trees we treat.

Labor of Love

If the last tree was typical, this huge southern red oak surely was atypical. Over the next 3 years we made 20 trips to this rural Greer address. Because the owners so love their tree & were willing to follow our recommendations, how could we stay away? This is not only the largest tree in their yard, but by far, the largest tree in the neighborhood.

When we first examined it (A), the crown was thin & full of dead branches, and the leaves were turning early (late summer). It had not been cared for for many years. Its twin (just behind it) had recently died. We had our hands full. But we did not anticipate all that would happen over the next 3 years.

After determining their leaning tree was a low risk to their home, and that it would likely respond to known treatments, we recommended a therapy program.

Everything that happens within the root zone can have a direct impact upon trees. While the critical root zone usually falls within the dripline, the roots can extend well beyond. Though we knew a pool was going to be installed a hundred feet away, we didn’t know the contractor would come within a few feet of the trunk!

After we saw their tree respond favorably in the spring of the second year (B), we brought in a tree service to remove the larger deadwood (after the leaves had fully formed). As long as risk is low, it makes sense to “wait & see” how an ailing tree responds before investing more into it.

Early that summer, we had to head off (systemically) a life-threatening beetle attack. Midsummer, we had 2 inches of mulch removed off a mulch-bed that was too deep. In late summer, we lost a quarter of its leaves due to a hailstorm. Early fall, we noticed the leaves turning brown due to bacterial leaf scorch.

In the spring of the third year (C) we started to treat for bacterial leaf scorch. In midsummer we got a call from a panic-stricken homeowner reporting that her oak’s leaves were now on her neighbor’s lawn! We got out there the next day & found the soil under the mulch bone dry, and recommended immediate flooding. The overhead irrigation system had been changed to drip hose during a week of record high temps (100’s). Within a few weeks clumps of new leaves started to appear in the upper crown of her tree. We caught it just in time!

The forth year (D) brought in the coolest & wettest spring/summer we’ve seen in years. While rain is usually welcome, spring-wood growth was 40% less than usual. Thousands of oaks across the Upstate put out their leaves later than normal. Like mulch, too much rain can negatively impact woody plants. Millions of trees & shrubs across the Upstate died from root rot.

Likely, their heritage oak would have died several times over if we had not intervened. And though it looks much better (D) than before (A), after 2 years of measured improvement (C & D), it has noticeably declined (especially on the right side; follow the blue brackets). Though it may not have recovered from that hot, dry week, the cold, wet spring/summer probably did more damage to their aging monarch. So, where are we now?

Their tree will likely continue to dieback until it reaches an equilibrium. At the end of day, each tree is an individual. And as an individual, responds in its own way. We still have a few tricks up our sleeve. We still have hope that we can turn it around. We shall see….

As we’ve said before, this was not the typical tree we treat. It has challenged us, as well as the owners. But it does show in dramatic fashion the need for the arborist to follow up & the owner to be actively involved, to successfully treat an ailing tree. Though few trees reach this size, nonetheless, it is a small part of the whole. It is dependent upon the elements & its associates; beneficial plants, soil animals & microbes, as well as the upright animals entrusted with its care.

If every tree we treated were like this, someone would go broke. Fortunately, the vast majority of the trees we treat respond predictably & favorably, so we have more time & resources for the handful that require special attention.

“I want to thank you for your knowledge, professionalism and caring about our trees. You have come to check on our “patients” many more times than any other tree doctor would have come. We care greatly about our trees and our role as caretakers, and we feel that you mirror our concern.”

Fondly,
Sue & Erin McInerney
Greer, SC

A Head Scratcher

This was something we had never seen before or since; high bole bark cracking. Two pin oaks planted side by side by the owner 20 years ago; one healthy, one sick.

Anyone can spray for obvious pests. We make it our practice to not treat a tree until we find the primary problem. Is this a biotic or abiotic disorder? With this tree, we weren’t even sure of this. Lower bole cracking can point to phytophthora, but who ever heard of cracking this high?

After eliminating everything it possibly could be, we involved our mentors, as well as arborists & foresters across the country. Many good theories were put forth but none proved conclusive. When you’ve diagnosed as many trees as we have & come across a head-scratcher, chances are good that others will scratch their head as well (could this explain Sherlock Holmes’ hair loss?).

Even though we were unable to find the source of the problem, the owner still had a very sick tree & wanted to save it. Dr. Bruce Fraedrich said it had to be biotic. Even though several samples failed to test positive for phytophthora, he felt it had to be phytophthora or a similar oomycete (fungus-like pathogen), and that we should treat it as such, rather than let it die, while continuing our search.

We treated the tree systemically with a broad spectrum fungicide that we use for phytophthora. The following year the cracking stopped & his tree is on the mend. We’re not out of the woods yet. His tree is now is fighting bacterial leaf scorch. The fun never ends!

Too Many Leaves?

This huge white oak is one of the earliest trees we treated with our Growgun. It had been starving under all that new pavement & we needed to access the roots. Before we could take a Year 3 photo, it was blown down by a severe thunderstorm. Besides the thin wall of the trunk, its exposure on a hill, and an 80 mile-per-hour wind gust, all those new leaves likely provided too much resistance. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Our On the Job Training would continue…

Stunted Spade Trees

The vast majority of trees we treat show measured improvement within 1 year & go on to become productive citizens in the community of landscape plants.

Since we’re able to access more roots on a small tree, we usually see a more dramatic response from our treatment. Many spaded & B&B trees struggle for years because of root loss, girdling & compacted soil. Such was the case with this spaded pin oak. One treatment, at a fraction of the installed plant cost, was all that was needed.

Five years later, this oak is now large, healthy, with no bacterial leaf scorch (although, it could use some pruning). When you meet the needs of a tree, it’s amazing how it responds.

A Typical Established Landscape

(A) This property is like so many established landscapes that have had the same lawn care service cut their grass, and the same tree service prune their trees, while their trees & shrubs have suffered from improper installation & soil compaction for many years. These cherries were buried & had been hanging on for years.

(B) Until someone came along that would take note of their plight & tend to their needs. It’s hard to believe this is the same tree. It seems to be making up for lost time! Forest trees grow fine in the forest. It’s when we bring the forest to the urban landscape that additional care is needed.

(C), (D) & (E) This pair of large willow oaks is what brought us to this property. The tree service that had been pruning them for years had noticed their decline & referred us.

(F) Though we were treating the willow oak, the rhoddies look much better this year. All plants within the root zone benefit from our root zone therapy. This is the best the owner has ever seen his trees & shrubs look. If this tree service had not granted the owner the professional courtesy of referring us, some of these trees might not be with us today.

Antebellum Oaks

(A) The owner of these twin 200 year-old white oaks was seeing more & more dead branches fall on her home. Dieback (red arrows) point to soil & root problems.

(B) Some buttress roots have massive construction-related wounds (yellow & red arrows). Because it may effect stability, we did not prune these decaying roots.

(C) Instead, we conditioned & amended the compacted soil, to give these giants the resources to slow the spread of decay, as well as grow new roots, branches & sapwood. On such large trees that are exposed to the elements, we don’t want to overdo it (like we did with that other white oak that blew down).

(D) A year later we saw new growth, but not as dramatic as we see on smaller trees. We noticed a large crack on a scaffold branch (as large as a medium-size tree), and had a tree service cable it.

(E) The new growth may not be as noticeable on these huge oaks, but the owner saw 3 feet of new growth on her smaller eucalyptus (red arrow).

(F) It’s a pleasure to work with stewards that appreciate their trees. 

Our Soil Amendments

An oak suffering from soil compaction & turf-grass typically responds well to our therapy.

Some of the soil amendments we use: amino acids, bark, bio-stimulants, carbohydrates, charcoal, chelated micro-nutrients, compost tea, fermented plant extracts, fish fertilizer, humic acid, kelp extract, mycorrhizae, natural wetting agents, pea gravel, peat moss, mushroom compost, porous ceramic, rooting hormones, sand, sugars, wood chips, worm castings & yucca plant extract. What to use & how to use it has taken years to learn.

While a few of these amendments can be purchased at your local garden supply store, if not your grocery store, other amendments (some not listed here) have to be shipped to us, and can run as high as $200 per tree for the product cost alone! We are not interested in purchasing designer amendments. We simply use what works.

Irrigation Gone Bad

This is not how a white oak should look in late May. The owners had in-ground irrigation installed to help the trees & turf-grass. Too bad the trees were not consulted. Fortunately, their tree responded well to our treatment. The owners reported more robins than they had ever seen before (healthy trees have healthy soil; healthy soil has earthworms; earthworms bring out the robins). Note how the transformer in Photo A (blue arrow) disappears in Photo B (yellow arrow). Another tree we got to in the niche of time.

A House Fire Scorches the Trees

This is not how a southern red oak should look in late summer. After a drought, a house fire scorched & browned their tree (note browning inside the crown; red arrow). While the dogwood (yellow asterisk) died, the red oak, as well as the other trees, came back marvelously after treatment.

A Chemical Spill Leaves Defoliation

This is not how a southern red oak should look in late summer. After a drought, a house fire scorched & browned their tree (note browning inside the crown; red arrow). While the dogwood (yellow asterisk) died, the red oak, as well as the other trees, came back marvelously after treatment.

HOA's and Street Trees

Possibly no established tree suffers more than the subdivision street tree, and no organization suffers more loss than the homeowner’s association. The homeowner leaves care up to the HOA, which leaves care up to the property manager, which leaves care up to the tree service; while presidents, managers & contractors change hats every few years.

The lowest bidder is awarded the contract. But because the underlying issue is not addressed & the work not clearly defined (specifications), the contractor does the minimum, which usually means pruning but a few branches, while leaving the majority (A – green arrow), and removing a tiny surface root (B – yellow arrow), while leaving the below ground girdling roots (blue & green arrow).

The way out of this morass is to hire an independent consulting arborist before a contractor ever steps foot in your subdivision. A consultant can get to the root of the problem & provide invaluable recommendations to better manage your trees & money.

A typical new home built on a wooded lot (A)

Our final case will be that of a typical new home built on a wooded lot that did not involve a consulting arborist during land development, building, utility installation, and landscaping.

There is a reason why you don’t see many large shade trees within a hundred feet of the older homes in your neighborhood. They likely did not have an arborist-supervised tree preservation plan. They probably were not unaware that such a thing existed. And even if someone had told them, they did not realize its full significance.

It’s most unfortunate to pay 50 grand extra for a pristine wooded lot,  to turn around & fork out thousands more each year to remove your precious shade trees. But the sooner you involve a competent & ethical arborist, the sooner it will go well for your trees & your pocketbook.

(A) A large oak like this can cost thousands to remove; more, if it’s dead; more, if it’s near a home; more, if it’s in the backyard. The removal cost of one tree can be as much as it takes to treat a dozen trees. They already had lost 1 large shade tree, a second, that would be dead within 2 weeks, and a third, that represented a hazard to their home. The sooner we got started, the better!

(B) Their home was practically built on top of this large white oak. The buttress roots were severed within a foot of the trunk. It died in between the time we gave our initial consultation & when we were given the green light to begin work.

(C) This large hickory was buried 5 feet!

(D) Before we started treatment, we had to conduct a root collar excavation, to determine if their trees were safe, or could be made safe.

(E) These large oaks have considerable decay in the buttress roots & trunk (yellow arrows) due to injuries sustained during land development & building. Because they lean away from the home (a low risk), will probably respond to treatment, and would cost thousands to remove, we recommended treatment. Each individual tree is a judgment call. We provide the recommendations, but it is the owner that makes the final call.

(F) This large red oak recently died. Note the chicken-of-the-woods mushroom (yellow arrow). This small maple (blue arrow) was spared during the removal of this large tree. Most tree services would have trashed this tree during removal (that is probably why we don’t recommend most tree services).

The lowest bidder is awarded the contract. But because the underlying issue is not addressed & the work not clearly defined (specifications), the contractor does the minimum, which usually means pruning but a few branches, while leaving the majority (A – green arrow), and removing a tiny surface root (B – yellow arrow), while leaving the below ground girdling roots (blue & green arrow).

The way out of this morass is to hire an independent consulting arborist before a contractor ever steps foot in your subdivision. A consultant can get to the root of the problem & provide invaluable recommendations to better manage your trees & money.

A typical new home built on a wooded lot (B)

(G) Though we treated 40 trees, we have chosen 6 that are representative of our root zone therapy program. It can be challenging to photograph so many trees in close proximity of each other, with varying types of lighting & background. Profile 1 (P1) will probably be our most challenging. This old chestnut oak has many of its roots buried several feet under the drive.

(H) With all the rain we had last year, conditions were most favorable for root rot, which shows in the upper crown. Though the crown has died back considerably (red arrow), we see new growth in the lower crown (yellow arrows). We will have our hands full going into the third year.

(I) & (J) P2 has improved.

(K) & (L) Though P3’s lower crown is thicker, it has died back some a year later (red arrow). We we will probably have our hands full with this tree as well. P4 looks much better.

A typical new home built on a wooded lot (C)

(M) & (N) P5 looks better. We thought we lost their sourwood. Sourwood are most intolerant of land development. After it lost most of its leaves, the owner was delighted to see her tree come back with many new leaves (yellow arrow). We use some potent soil amendments & utilize a number of tools to access as many roots as possible. This is another tree that will require special attention.

(O) & (P) P6 looks a lot better. The additional rainfall may have helped (since it has good drainage). But it’s likely not the only factor, since so many trees in their neighborhood died during the past year.

Almost all their trees looked much better a month ago. But unlike the previous months, September was dry & it showed in our photos taken the first week of September, as compared with these photos (taken the first week of October).

A typical new home built on a wooded lot (D)

(Q) & (R) It’s been a year since we started our treatment program. We have not lost a single tree (not even a newly installed dogwood that almost died due to flooding)! We’re not aware of another company that comes close to these results. Even companies that implement Tree Preservation Plans consider it a success if they keep 90% of the trees. None of these trees enjoyed such a plan.

When owners follow our recommendations, this is the norm. I’m sure there will be challenges over the next 2 years. But with our monitoring & the owner’s involvement, there’s a good chance they’ll keep most, if not all their trees, and for a fraction of the cost of removing 3 trees a year over the next decade.

“Several old oak trees on our property had sustained construction damage. We wanted to do all we could to save them. We began working with Greentree 2 years ago and have continued to use their services. Our experience has been nothing short of exceptional. Randy is dedicated, reliable and knowledgeable.”

Greg & Theresa Olesen
The Cliffs at Mountain Park
Marietta, SC

Before & After