A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Backyard Tree Health: What the Layperson Should and Should Not Do

by Terence P Ward   


An arborist of Northeast Arboricultural Associates works on 
an old silver Maple tree at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub.
Trees are an incredible asset for any home. Aside from bestowing bucolic beauty, they reduce cooling costs, protect houses from sun damage, provide food and habitat for animals throughout their long lives, and often increase property values. The desire for tree-lined streets is so strong that a gardening center on Long Island once had a booming business planting and maintaining full-grown trees on the estate of the wealthy—until the number of power lines made it impossible to truck them to their destinations. With that option off the table, it’s all the more important to know how to care for those trees which are already growing, or small enough to bring home in a pickup truck or even a station wagon.

Armin Schwab-Hill, owner of Armin’s Tree Service, is a certified arborist, which means he’s taken the equivalent of a college degree in arboriculture through the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and keeps up with continuing education. There are times when consulting a certified arborist before trying something at home is the best option, for the health of the tree, your own safety, or both. When it’s time to call an arborist, the Cornell Cooperative Extension can provide a list of local ones, like Schwab-Hill, who have completed the certification process.

How and where a tree is planted is going to impact the rest of its life. Without humans, trees wouldn’t move around, and they would grow exactly where and how they need to to make the best of their environment. The first mistake humans make, says Schwab-Hill, is buying a tree at the nursery and driving it home at 50+ miles an hour. That dries out the tree and gives it quite a shock, on top of being pulled out of the ground in the first place. The trip home should be taken slowly, and it should be in the spring or autumn, when planting will be most successful. The hot, dry summer is a very tough time for a tree.

The hole dug for planting a tree should be at least twice as wide as the root ball, so that the soil backfilled into that hole will be looser and require less effort for the new roots to push through. Soil in yards is usually very compacted, leaving no room for the air pockets that allow for water to flow and encourage beneficial microorganisms. The loose soil allows for nutrients and water to get to those roots, and is so important that one of the tools used by arborists is an air spade—essentially a gun that breaks up the soil around a tree without damaging those roots, especially the hairlike tendrils that do the absorbing. Water is as important to a tree’s health as it is to a human’s, and most people don’t water their trees nearly enough. A sugar maple with a two-foot-diameter trunk can suck up 150 gallons a day. Schwab-Hill said that probably 85% of the tree problems he encounters are caused by environmental factors such as inadequate water and poor soil.

How deep to plant is determined by the root collar—the line that marks where the root cells end and the trunk cells begin. The roots, trunk, branches, and leaves are all different organs of the tree, and their cells have different needs. Trunk cells do not tolerate water well, so planting too deep can drown the tree. On the other hand, exposing root cells to the air can dry it out. Mulching around the newly-planted tree will protect the roots from winter’s cold and retain moisture better in the summer, while providing nutrients that simulate the leaf cover of a forest floor.

Mulch is something that every tree should have, and few people use properly. “Volcano mulch,” making a big mound around the base of the trunk, can lead to insect infestation and rot. Instead, mulch should be spread out over a much wider area, and not touch the trunk at all. Ideally, a mulch covering of four to six inches should spread out all the way to the drip line, the radius of the branches where the leaves drip runoff water. That will provide adequate nutrition and protection for the entire root system. When applying mulch for the first time, always remove the grass first.

Pruning trees is a tricky business. The prime safety rule for pruning is that if a branch can’t be removed while standing on the ground, it should be done by an arborist. “I’ve shown up at jobs where a tree is half down and the homeowner is in a cast,” Schwab-Hill said. That said, pruning of lower branches and smaller trees can be done without a professional. When to make the cut depends in part on the species of tree. Removing a branch at the wrong time of year can make the tree vulnerable to fungi or other pests that prey upon it, so getting a proper identification is the first step. No tree should be pruned in the heat of summer, if at all possible, but pruning in winter (when it’s solidly below freezing) will prevent unwelcome intruders. When removing branches, the cut should not go deeper than the branch collar, which divides it from the trunk or branch it’s growing from, or it probably won’t heal properly.

The reasons to prune can be for the benefit of the tree, or the humans living nearby. Branches can interfere with power lines, or allow animals access to the roof of a house, or prevent sunlight from reaching certain areas. Dead branches, if not removed, can pose a safety hazard or damage property when they come down on their own. Some pruning can be structural: for example, removing a branch that is too heavy before it falls off, stripping healthy bark with it and damaging the tree. Fruit trees are typically pruned at least annually, both to make sure the fruit is within reach, and to focus the tree’s energy on fewer buds to make larger fruit.
Mulch better. Water more. Prune wisely. Easy enough?


Sidebar: Farm Hub Bulletin

It’s a crisp, bright, clear autumn morning. The silver leaves on the giant maple shimmer in the sunlight. All of a sudden the sharp drone of the chainsaw pierces the quiet air. These are Peter Landau’s men from Northeast Arboricultural Associates, working on a hundred-something-year-old silver maple at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub.


Silver maples have a lifespan of 130 to 150 years. When the Gill family purchased the farm in 1937, the tree was already considerably large, making it at least a century old today. The towering tree has a central location—smack in the middle of a complex of barns and packing centers.


One of the arborists explained that the tree had a lot of decline, a lot of dead wood. They cleared this away, and they also decreased the crown of the tree (like wingspan for a tree) to take weight off the limbs. They’re final measure of preservation was to install cables as a support system to prevent the tree from splitting apart.


When the Local Economies Project purchased the land from Gill Farms in December 2013 to create the Farm Hub, they did so with a commitment to be stewards of the land. Aside from the extensive agricultural research and production that will happen at the Farm Hub, they are taking a holistic approach to caring for the land. The treatment of the silver maple is a great example of the underlying attitude that informs how the Farm Hub team is making decisions.


The Farm Hub is also hiring Accord-based business Appleseed Permaculture to consult and oversee the replanting of the riparian zone, along the Esopus Creek, which runs through the middle of the 1,255-acre property. A riparian zone is the margin between land and a river or stream. Replanting the riparian area with carefully chosen plants will help prevent erosion, and provide an important habitat for plants and animals.


All this along with the announcement of the Farm Hub’s first director: Anu Rangarajan. It would seem there is a lot going on at the Farm Hub.