As arborists and tree care workers, the benefits of trees seem obvious. Residential landscapes, acreages, shopping malls, industrial tracts, sports fields, apartment complexes—anywhere people reside, work or recreate are good locations for trees. In fact, shade, increased property values, erosion control, lowered energy costs, noise reduction, mitigation for wind and dust, aesthetic appeal in all seasons and fuel for heating homes are often thought of community resources; for some, the source of bragging rights over the town down the road.

For these reasons and more, we want trees in the landscape, the customers want trees in the landscape, and neither of us wants to cut them down if we don’t have to. So, when the notion of tree removal presents itself, it’s wise to consider various options to avoid taking specimens out of the landscape.

What’s the problem?

In some scenarios, trees are cut down when it’s simply not necessary. In order to prevent the loss of benefits to the property and clients/landscape users, the first consideration is to identify the actual concern before the chain saw starts revving.

Targets are usually part of the problem. Targets are humans or objects of value that could be damaged by falling trees or branches. When tree removal issues are raised, it most likely has something to do with a target. If the target can be moved, it should be considered in order to retain the value of the tree.

Just like other procedures involving acting on a client’s request, tree removal requires effective communication to determine the exact nature of the problem. Many legitimate reasons exist for the removal of a once-valuable specimen, such as:

  • Concern over the degree of lean, especially if a target is present;
  • The raising of a sidewalk or driveway due to root expansion;
  • Damage done to a house foundation from tree roots;
  • Extensive droppage of litter on a deck or pool;
  • Existing defects such as decay, cracks and co-dominant leaders;
  • Unacceptable levels of shade and reduced air movement on a golf course green;
  • Blockage of highly desirable views, i.e., oceanfront property, park, forest;
  • Limbs that have grown into overhead power lines;
  • Original spacing that was way too close together that now threatens the survival of the remaining trees (this is common in windbreak and screening plantings);
  • Extensive, difficult-to-control pest problems such as with thornless hawthorn with aphids, leaf miners and cedar hawthorn rust.

Reasons for removal

Problems involving a desire for tree removal are commonly multidimensional. Common factors that affect the decision to remove a tree include:

  • Surrounding trees: If nearby trees are plentiful, the removal of one problematic specimen is a small concern. If the tree is the only one in a large front yard, then all sorts of ramifications exist, from leaving the landscape wide open to creating a sudden need to change out all of the existing understory plants—a condition or development known as “the suddenly sun syndrome.”
  • Client’s budget: Taking down a large tree is expensive. If the client is Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, the cost of removal is much less of a factor than if they are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s still important to consider all of the options, but cost can be a greater or lesser factor depending on the client’s resources.
  • Site usage: City parks have a high degree of liability in that they are used from sunup to sundown by a variety of people that are usually unaware of what is going on overhead. Cemeteries and rights-of-way are used to a lesser degree and present a different set of conditions.
  • Tree condition: Are there defects such as cracks, decay and girdling roots present? Generally, the greater the number of flaws, the greater the need to remove a tree. On the other hand, three defects that are extensive in nature and have been degrading the stability of a tree for several years pose a much greater concern than the same number of flaws that are just beginning to develop.
  • Perceived value: Defects aside, some species are considered to hold higher value than others. Oak, hickory and Kentucky coffee tree are generally in greater demand than willows, cottonwood and tree of heaven. A second component of this factor is unrelated to tree species; instead, it involves human action. Trees that were donated by community leaders lend a historic value to a specimen. Likewise, trees that add symbolic value to a property by their presence are valuable, such as a ponderosa pine that was planted near the entrance next to the Whispering Pines subdivision of a town in eastern Colorado.

Alternative options

Tree removal jobs often fall into a clear black and white category. However, sometimes it’s not so clear; sometimes there are options that will keep the tree in the landscape, allowing the customer to continue reaping the benefits, while greatly reducing the objectionable issue that was initially raised. Some of these options are:

  • Move the target: In some situations, a storage shed, bench, garden, swing, patio or similar item can be relocated to lessen the need to remove a tree.
  • Modify the target: This may be only a temporary solution. In the case of a fence being broken or disfigured by an expanding tree trunk, it could be modified to accommodate the growth. In most cases, this change is only a delay of the inevitable, but if it’s a high-value tree growing on the property of a client that will move to another house in a year or so, it’s a possibility.
  • Re-route an object affected by the tree: If a tree is causing disruption by raising the asphalt or concrete of a golf course cart path or sidewalk, a change in the path might be in order. This would be especially important if the tree in question is a memorial or historic tree.
  • Remove dead wood: If the problem is falling branches, removing any dead wood is an option. In some situations, trees that have been neglected for several years can simply be pruned to eliminate the dead branches that have become a nuisance instead of removing the entire tree. Many clients, especially ones that have never owned a home and have just moved from an apartment, don’t understand how a tree grows and how to care for it.
  • Remove one or two problematic trees in a grouping: This is a good option if a target isn’t present on the site. If three trees were planted in a group and the middle one has become problematic, consider removing the center tree to retain the value of the outer two.
  • Heavily prune: This can also help to get a new tree started nearby. If only a portion of a tree has developed extensive defects, it’s possible to remove half of the tree, especially if it’s a decay-resistant species such as oak or walnut. This strategy is less likely to be valid if the tree is a cottonwood or silver maple, which are prone to developing rot pockets at the site of the cuts. If this option is implemented, it’s crucial to eventually remove the problematic tree to favor the newly planted replacement.
  • Change what’s planted underneath the tree: Switch the turf or ornamentals underneath the canopy to ones that are more shade and surface root tolerant. If the issue is too much sun blockage, it’s possible to shoehorn in some ground covers in between surface roots to introduce shade-tolerant species, replicating Mother Nature, and to keep the roots cool and less stressed. Another option is to replace large sections of the landscape with ground covers and reject the notion of turfgrass in that part of the landscape altogether.

Right plant, right place

No discussion of problematic plants would be complete without a few thoughts about right plant, right place. If none of the above options are viable to retain the tree on the property, inform your clients to consider room for growth, potential pests, targets, adjacent plants, etc. when they plant new specimens in the landscape. Doing so is an important part of prudent, common sense tree care.

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