Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Blog

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Topped Trees Look Like

Topping is an unfortunately common pruning practice that ignores a basic tenet of arboriculture: pruning back to a natural branch juncture. Failing to do so leads to the onset of watersprouts - many small branches that emerge from dormant buds in the area of the cut. 

When a branch breaks in a storm, this new growth helps a tree to restore its canopy. When unnatural wounds that resemble branch breakage appear throughout the canopy, watersprouting happens at each of these cuts, and the tree is drained of energy from over-producing the sprouts. That makes the tree weaker and more susceptible to insect and disease problems. What's more, the sprouts create structural problems down the road. It is not uncommon for a topped tree to decline to the point of being unsalvageable. 

I've taken some photos of topped ornamentals I've seen around town in Larchmont and Mamaroneck for you to see below.

--Jeff Delaune, Almstead Arborist in Lower Westchester County, NY.

Topping to create a uniform, rounded shape is common on
ornamental trees like Pears and Crabapples, but ultimately
this leads to a messy, structurally unsound canopy.

Close-up of fresh topping cuts on a Crabapple

Close-up of an Elm that was topped a couple of years ago. Notice the
thick water sprout growth that emerged after the improper
cuts were made.

Here is a very clear example of water sprouts emerging from the
sites of improper topping cuts. Good reduction cuts will scale
back the size of  a tree while taking structure and growth
patterns into account.
Image: Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Friday, November 4, 2011

Branches Caught in Trees

After a storm where branches fall from trees, it's easy to feel that everything is squared away once the debris has been cleared from the ground. An arborist will tell you, though, that what's really important is to look up. The canopies of damaged trees may still be barely holding onto snapped and hanging limbs that will eventually fall. There may also be lateral cracks in branches, stubs left by fallen limbs that open the tree up to decay if they aren't pruned correctly, and structural problems where important branches have broken off.

Here's a trick for noticing hangers (snapped branches that get caught up in the canopy of a tree rather than falling to the ground). When you look up at the canopy of a tree, look for areas that are darker than the rest. Places where there is less light filtering through are often areas where a branch has fallen and its leaves are doubling up with the leaves that are naturally in that area of the tree. See if you can spot the hanger below:

Dark, shadowy areas in the canopy are
often indicators of a hanging branch that's
snapped but still caught up in a tree.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Tree Crew's Island Adventure

The New Canaan tree warden left me a message, "Got guys that can swim with chain saws on their backs?"

There's a park in town with an island and a large oak fell during Irene, and he wanted it cut up and left on the ground so it wasn't so visible.

"I know it's an odd request, don't know what to do."

I told him not to worry, there's not a lot we can't handle.

I put the Kayak on the roof the next Saturday and paddled out with the saws with a throw bag line attached. Leo pulled the boat back and got across, Alex did the same, we took care of the job and back over we went.

I had to itemize the invoice for FEMA reimbursement. We listed the Kayak as a "no charge" item and off it went.

"You guys make my life easy."

All in a day's work... You should have seen the look on the faces of the dog-walkers when we started loading the saws into the boat!

"Capt." Bob Bociek
Almstead Arborist & Branch Manager in Fairfield County, CT

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Storm and Flood Damage - Uprooted Trees

Hurricane Irene brought a lot of flooding our way, and for trees that posed the danger of saturated soil. When there is so much water that it isn't able to drain into the water table, the soil fills with more water than it would naturally retain. This loosens soil particles and makes the ground more malleable.

The majority of a tree's root system is typically anchored to the first 6-12 inches of the soil. It's also the part of the ground that bears the brunt of over-saturation in flood situations. When the soil loosens around the roots, it can lead to the uprooting of a tree. This is a problem we saw a lot of in the aftermath of Irene.

Photo from the International Society of Arboriculture.

This uprooted tree was sitting in saturated soil and  is a typical
example of the type of damage we saw from Hurricane Irene.

Uprooted trees obviously have the potential to cause a lot of damage
when they fall. In addition to property, they often take down power
lines and block paths like roadways. It's especially important to stay
away from damaged power lines and wait for professionals
to handle these situations.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Invasive Pest Alert: Emerald Ash Borer

This is the damage that
Emerald Ash Borer larvae
cause just beneath the bark.
The Emerald Ash Borer was recently identified in West Point, NY, making the threat to our Ashes in the NY metro area even more immanent. The insect was first found in Detroit in 2002 and has killed tens of millions of Ashes as it has moved east.

The Threat to Trees
Although they're easiest to identify as adults, Emerald Ash Borers cause the most damage as larvae. They live beneath the bark, eating away at the living cambium layer of the trunk and leaving "galleries" of removed tissue behind (see photo).

It only takes 3 years for a healthy tree to die completely from an Emerald Ash Borer infestation. Signs of decline include splits in the bark, capital "D"-shaped exit holes from where the borers exit the trunk, higher than usual woodpecker activity, dropping leaves throughout the growing season, and sparseness in the canopy.

What You Can Do
The Emerald Ash Borer
is iridescent green and
smaller than a penny.
The key to successfully saving a tree from Emerald Ash Borer is through preventative treatment. The best treatment currently available is an insecticide injection made directly into the trunk that provides protection from EAB for 2 years. If you have feature Ash trees on your property, this is definitely a course of action to consider.

Images: Galleries - Daniel Herms, Ohio State University, Borer - Howard Russell, Michigan State University,

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Water Molds Impacting Trees, Shrubs & Lawns

We've already mentioned in a previous post that this year has been particularly rainy (twice as wet as last year, in fact). In addition to producing a spike in insect activity, the weather has also been ideal for a set of diseases known as water molds (a type of fungi) that impact both woody plants and grasses.

Water molds spread via "swimming" spores that move easily through water. That means frequent rain and the resulting saturated soils both improve conditions for the pathogens. The movement of water above ground helps to spread the molds to new plants, and perpetually wet or damp soils allow them to thrive.

Phytopthora spp. is a set of water molds responsible for several very serious tree diseases, including Sudden Oak Death and Beech Bleeding Canker. It also affects Maples and other hardwood trees and shrubs, primarily in their root systems. Due to the especially wet weather this year, we've seen a lot of Phytopthora root rot in the landscape. In most cases, symptoms of decline above ground (small leaves, stunted growth, dead twigs) are traced back to the root system (where there is often discoloration, noticeable rotting, and sometimes lesions on thicker roots and even at the base of the stem). 

To preserve an infected plant, treatment for Phytopthora is critical. In addition to applying controls for the disease, making environmental changes that improve drainage and keep the root system of a plant from being saturated with water is incredibly important. (In fact, sprinkler systems can be just as damaging as heavy rains in this respect -- just one example of why it's important to take all of the factors in a plant's environment into consideration.)

Another water mold, Pythium spp. causes a number of diseases in turf-grass, including Pythium blight and Pythium root rot. Both of these diseases spread quickly and create irregular patches of brown grass on a lawn. With the blight, grass will often be wet or greasy first, turning later to a more dried out brown. You may also see fungal threads growing above ground on turn infected with Pythium blight. The root rot, on the other hand, is less obvious above ground, presenting as dead brown patches. The roots, however, are obviously rotten and discolored.

Ryegrass is especially prone to Pythium problems, as are bluegrasses and fescues. As with the Phytopthora, controls are available, but fixing drainage and irrigation problems is just as, if not more, important. Certain practices, like refraining from mowing grass when it's wet, will also help prevent the spread of these diseases.

- Ken Almstead, Arborist in Riverdale & Lower Westchester NY

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rainy Weather Means More Insects

Scale insect infestation
on a Maple
Have you been caught in a downpour or two this year? It might not surprise you to hear that we've had twice as much rain this growing season than we did in 2010. Here's a snippet from Cornell Cooperative Extension's July 2011 Newsletter for Professional Horticulturalists in the Hudson Valley:
According to the NOAA, March – May was the wettest 3 month period on record for New York State since weather recording commenced, 117 years ago! Here in Westchester County, we officially started taking 2011 seasonal records on March 15, and since that time, we have accumulated 20.90” of precipitation - with 5.95” of this precipitation having fallen in the month of June alone. When we compare these numbers with 2010, we note that we have accumulated over 2x the amount of precipitation (both for the month of June and the season) than we had received this time last year.
So, what does that mean for conditions in the landscape? A number of things, but let's stick with a major one for the purposes of this post.

More Insects
Lace Bug damage
to Azalea leaves
Mosquitoes may come to your mind first, but the wet, warm weather has also been ideal for a range of insects that impact all sorts of plants, including trees and shrubs. Scale insects have been especially prevelant this year, with heavy infestations showing up on Maples, Dogwoods, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Taxus (Yews), Cherries and Plums. Another prevalent pest this year is the Lace Bug, which gnaws on the leaves of both Azaleas and Andromedas. The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid has been especially active this year as well.

Untreated Hemlock Wooly
Adelgid infestations can be
fatal to trees in just a few years
Fortunately, while some are quite serious, all of the insect populations mentioned here can be managed with proper programs. However, it is definitely important to take action, and the sooner the problem is dealt with, the better. Why? The smaller the population, the easier the problem is to control. Plus, prolonged exposure to insect damage tends to negatively impact the strength of a plant in future growing seasons even if the problem has been corrected.

- Jeff Delaune, Almstead Arborist in Larchmont, Mamaroneck & Rye

Image Credits: Lace Bug by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,; Hemlock Wooly Adelgid by Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service,; Scale by Ronald S. Kelley, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pruning the Cherry Trees at Men in Black Headquarters

A thank you from the Men in Black
Set Department
Here's something a little out of the ordinary for us in the tree business...

The Set Decorators for the upcoming movie Men in Black 3 enlisted Almstead to prune three Cherry trees framing the entrance to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park (better know to fans as Men in Black Headquarters).

The request was for us to prune the trees back significantly to gain more visibility of the building while still maintaining a natural shape and not making fresh cuts large enough that they would be obvious on screen. While this job required a bit more meticulousness than usual, it's not unfamiliar territory for us. We call this type of work a "natural crown reduction" in arboriculture. In this case, the crew did a great job of removing about 25% of each tree's canopy while still maintaining their natural growth habits and avoiding that "just pruned" look.

Almstead crew pruning Cherries at the Triborough
Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park
In addition to the aesthetic benefits, natural crown reduction is also much better for trees in the long run compared to less subtle methods like topping (simply cutting back the edges of the crown to where you want them the same way you might shear a hedge). Making cuts at natural junctures in the tree and thinking about which branches are most important to its underlying structure keep future growth headed in the right direction, prevent stress reactions like water-sprouting, and minimize the chances of decay as a result of the pruning wounds. It's definitely the best way to reduce the size of a tree, even if your landscape isn't about to be Hollywood's next big star.

-- Chris Busak, Arborist in NYC & Lower Westchester

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is my Japanese Maple tree dead?

Buds formed during the Fall, but never broke
this Spring. This is a common problem with Japanese
Maples this year.
"Is my Japanese Maple dead?" has been the question of the week from my clients. I've gotten at least 4 calls about Japanese Maples that either didn't produce leaves at all this season or only have partially developed canopies. And I got a few calls about this last week as well.

Unfortunately, the trees I've seen are definitely dead. Those with at least partial canopies can be helped in some cases, but those without any leaves are not going to come back.

What happened?
These Japanese Maples all have buds that formed last fall, but they failed to break in the spring. All of the ones I've seen that failed were already withstanding less than ideal environmental conditions. For instance, soil is raised higher than it should be around the base of trees; girdling roots are strangling the root collar; limbs are suffering from improper pruning wounds; or the trees are facing new exposure to sun due to the removal of larger trees that were providing shade to these thin barked trees.

In Pelham, a client has two japanese maples of
similar age and size situated on her front lawn.
The one to the far right (no more than 25ft away)
is still alive and this one is stone dead.
That explains which trees were most susceptible to failure, but the real cause of their immediate or partial death was due to extreme fluctuations in temperature. This species in particular is prone to desiccation and leaf loss when this happens with the weather. Last year was a record hot summer followed by one of the coldest winters we have seen in some time. When tree failure occurs suddenly without signs of decline in previous seasons, it is typically due to environmental stresses (as opposed to insect or disease problems, which tend to take longer to cause this serious of a decline).

--Ken Almstead, Arborist in Riverdale and Westchester NY

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

London Plane and Sycamore Anthracnose

With the cool, wet weather we've been having this Spring, tree diseases have been showing up more than usual this year. Pathogens like Anthracnose fungus thrive in this type of weather and tend to peter out when it gets warmer and drier, so their window to cause damage is a lot longer than usual.

For instance, Anthracnose might usually harm only a small portion of this London Plane tree, but this year it is almost entirely leafless, with small, stunted growth where there are leaves. You can also see witch's brooming, where the tree is pushing out new twigs around spots that were killed by the fungus.

Trees can come back from these diseases, although they may need extra care and/or fungicide treatments. Everything should really be in full leaf by now, so if it looks like your tree is getting a slow start, it may be because of a disease like this.

- Ken Almstead, Arborist in Westchester and Riverdale

Friday, May 6, 2011

Air Spading Again! - White Oaks in Pelham

Removing soil from the root flare of a buried White Oak
in Pelham's Harmon Park.
These 6 White Oaks (Quercus alba) located in Harmon Park in the heart of Pelham range in age from 80 to 120 years old. The primary original root flares of these trees have been buried throughout many years, most likely in attempts to grow grass. In some situations, the soil was almost 2 feet higher than it should be on the trunks.

Originally, Almstead was contracted by the town to prune this grove of White Oaks (a very valuable tree species, especially in maturity). When I discovered the soil compaction and deep burying of the root systems, I recommended that air spading be performed in order to improve the health and extend the lifespans of these specimen trees.

An air spade uses pressurized air to remove soil while
not causing harm to the root system of the tree
(or an utility lines that may run underground)
Once we began air spading, it was obvious that secondary or adventitious roots were forming, which are not viable as a stable root system for trees this size, as well as girdling roots. In addition to removing the excess soil, these roots were pruned away.

We also performed vertical mulching throughout the critical root zones of the trees (out to the edge of the canopies). We used the air spade again, but this time to dig 3" diameter holes 10" deep. The holes were spaced at 3 foot intervals throughout the root zones. This is a great way to reach the entire root system without tearing up a whole lawn!

Adding compost and soil amendments to vertical
mulching holes. These 10" deep holes allow us to
feed the extensive root systems of large trees
without removing large sections of grass.
After digging the holes, they were filled with organic compost and a combination of organic soil amendments, including humus, molasses, seaweed extract, and others. These amendments all help to invigorate the natural biological processes that keep soils and roots healthy. We also added zeolite, which is an organic product that keeps air passages in the soil open -- this is a great additive because air is an essential element of healthy soils (not just water, which seems more obvious).

This was discovered by me and recommended to be performed for preservation of these trees when we were contracted to prune the grove of primarily oaks throughout the park area, town hall, harmon park and memorial park.

- Ken Almstead, Arborist in Westchester and NYC

Friday, April 29, 2011

Helping City Tree Roots Breathe Easy

Ginkgos in planters were buried in
2 extra feet of soil
We performed root crown excavations on three mature ginkgo trees exhibiting signs of poor health in midtown last week alongside NYC Municipal Forester Erin Maehr. The trees had been buried 2’ deep in soil for approximately 30 years. The excess soil was removed using an air spade (which loosens and removes soil using a stream of pressurized air).

On one tree, a grove of girdling and adventitious roots was found growing out of the trunk, including a 3.5” thick root growing approximately 11” above the trees natural root crown (where the trunk should be emerging from the soil if the tree hadn't been buried). Almstead staff member Leo perform root surgery by excavating and pruning roots using shears, loppers and hammer & chisel. We are very optimistic that with follow-up Plant Health Care services, such as deep root feeding with organic bio-stimulants, that these trees will recover and thrive as they once did.

Almstead Plant Health Care Technician
Leo and NYC Forester Erin at work
pruning the adventitous root system
After air spading, the trunk meets the soil at the proper
place. Many roots grew above the natural root system,
causing problems  for the tree.

Before we started to work, these trees were buried!
A large 3.5" thick root growing
approx. 11" above the tree's
natural root syste

- Chris Busak, Arborist in NYC & Westchester

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bringing Tree Work Home

The more cuttings I try, the better
chance we have for success
 I have a client living in Mt Vernon whose old Fir tree needed to be removed because of root decline and failure. The couple has been living with and appreciating the tree for so many years that they both cried when I explained the reasons the tree needed to be removed.

They asked me if there was any way to save the tree or to clone this one. I told them yes, we can try. I took a branch from the tree home, took cuttings from it, dipped them in a rooting hormone and replanted them in an attempt to propagate the tree. Now we're waiting to see what happens.

The final product (for this phase, anyway)
Fir cutting, just before dipping into
rooting hormone

- Chris Busak, Arborist in Westchester & NYC