One afternoon in 2010, as I sat at my desk at home, I heard a series of cracks and pops followed by a thud that shook the entire house. A few weeks before, I’d noticed shelf fungus at the base of one of our three mighty 70-foot oaks. The crown of the tree looked perfect, but that fungus concerned me, so I called an arborist to come take a look. The arborist didn’t make it in time.
I mourned the loss of that tree and its peaceful, solid presence in our yard. I’m a brazen tree-hugger and have always held trees close to my heart. (In fact, I developed a massive, swooning celebrity crush on Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords after he compared the “most beautiful girl in the room” to a tree. Sigh.*)
Ben bought our house in 1991, partially because of the three spectacular oaks in the yard. The fallen oak we lost in 2010 had sequestered carbon, filtered the air, and helped off-set the urban heat island effect. It provided free air conditioning for the house and served up food and shelter for a large numbers of birds and insects. In fact, research has found that oaks top the list of trees that support the greatest number of butterflies and moths (534 species!). The canopy of the oak that we lost that day looked beautiful, but once down we could see rotting in the trunk core. It would take seven years before we got the most likely answer to the cause of this untimely tree death.
Enter NERD: During the warm months, it’s not enough for me to get out in the daytime with my binoculars and camera to search out fascinating winged creatures. I also do it at night, with a headlamp, observing the moths and other nighttime bugs and larva that get active after sun-down. An amateur entomologist has a whole other world available in her viewfinder at night.
One night this June, I noticed a lot of crawling activity in a crook of a limb of one of our two remaining old-grown oaks. So I pulled out a ladder and got as close as I could to the bug party. A strong cloud of fermentation hit my sniffer like a sock full of marbles. I found a slick wet tree crook teeming with carrion beetles, moths, ants, and some roaches. Mucus oozed from my tree and even looked white and bubbly in one spot (click on pics for close-up):
The tree looked infected, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t freak out too bad, though, because this year I had a secret weapon: T.J. Dutton, owner of Crown Root and Soil tree preservation and sustainable landscape plant care.
I’m not here to brag, but that won’t stop me either. The Botanical Gardens at Asheville, where I’ve worked the past 10 years, attracts the cream of the crop volunteers. The people who seek us out have such a deep connection with our mission: the care and preservation of plants native to the Southern Appalachians. When T.J., a certified arborist, and his family moved to town, he found the Botan and struck up a friendship with Jay Kranyik, our garden manager. Not long after that, T.J. volunteered to doctor our national champion paper birch and his deep, holistic knowledge of trees impressed us all.
After finding the wound on my oak, I sent out an SOS to T.J., and he came right over.
“This isn’t your problem,” he said, looking at the carrion beetles dancing in tree goo. “This will resolve itself. I’m more worried about the roots — on both your oaks.”
The problem: T.J. explained that the dirt around the bottom of my oaks went too high up the tree’s trunk. When people plant trees too deep or dirt/mulch collects too high around the tree, the tree’s roots will not spread properly. They will start growing too tightly around the bottom of the tree, weakening and girdling it.
The solution: T.J. instructed me to soak the trees’ roots for a couple of days before his next visit. This would help keep the dust down while he worked. To remove the dirt around the base of the tree without damaging the roots, T.J. would use a pressurized “air knife” attached to a hose, powered by a a generator on his truck. I didn’t get pictures of the before, but here’s how it looked after T.J. worked on Oak #1 and had just started the Oak#2:
The surprise: When T.J. started working on the trees, we discovered the source of the problem. Someone, early in the life of these trees, had encircled them with rows of bricks, guaranteeing that the trees would eventually strangle themselves with their own roots:
We unearthed not just one row of bricks around the trees, but multiple layers of brinks. As T.J. blew away the dirt with his air knife, Ben and I carted the rich soil to raised beds in the yard. We’ll recycle the bricks for another project.
I thanked my lucky stars that I had T.J. to help us with our mighty oaks. However, he couldn’t finish the second oak on the first visit. It had suffered the worst brick-induced root girdling and would also need serious root pruning. The next pictures show T.J. in action when he did return:
Back in the day, I used to groom dogs for a living. Sometimes people would bring in the most neglected dogs — covered in matted hair, fleas, and ticks. It infuriated me that people would do that to an animal. But, as a groomer, it gave me so much pleasure to take on a horribly matted dog — cutting their hair, pulling the ticks out of their skin, and nursing the sores that I would inevitably find under a filthy coat. It brought such relief to the poor animal, and I so loved helping the dog. I could see that same sense of joy in T.J. and his work. Our trees have the chance to flourish! YAY!!!
T.J. expects our oaks to make a full recovery from the root treatment and tree surgery, and I am so grateful to him.
In her wonderful memoir “Lab Girl,” scientist Hope Jahren writes about the importance of planting and nurturing trees. “Remember that you are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world.” Once you plant a tree, “check it daily, because the first three years are critical.” Put aside a few dollars every month for tree care, and make the tree part of family traditions. After caring for a tree, “you’ll have a tree and it will have you.”
You can reach T.J. at:
*Don’t worry! Ben Gillum** is aware of my celebrity crush and puts up with it with good humor. My sweet Ben knows that he’s the most beautiful tree I have ever seen with a kebeb. (You’ll have to watch the video to get that one.) **See Ben Gillum today for all your real estate needs!