We've all seen them, the old Sugar Maples that line historic streets and frame the oldest houses throughout New England. These massive tree trunks, often splitting off into several large leaders, creates a canopy that towers over the streets and homes below. Many of these veteran trees are as old, or older than the homes whose yards they share. These trees are a vital part of the landscape that is all too often overlooked until it is too late.
While many people spend countless hours mowing their lawns and manicuring their shrubs and flower beds, they often fail to look up and notice the health of their landscape’s most valuable asset- the trees. Although all tree species tend to suffer the same lack of acknowledgement, I’ll focus on the Sugar Maple because they are so often the most prominent, historical trees here in New England and they suffer unique various stresses in their environment.
As you drive down the road this spring, notice the number of mature Maples along your path. Look further to see which ones are declining. Most likely you will see many, and not see any replacement trees adjacent to these maturing Maples.
As a species, Sugar Maple decline is almost always associated with a root problem. These trees do not flourish in compacted warm soils, or with salt run-off from the streets. At some point, these conditions become too much for the tree to thrive and the decline of these old relics begins.
As a tree care professional, I am often called out to assess these old trees when the state of decline is well underway. It might present with the tips of the canopy being thin or dead, or a rotted leader that has spread into the main stem, causing significant structural issues. Quite often, at this point, it is too late to turn the health of the tree around and I’m left with either managing its’ decline or removing it entirely.
A much better scenario is when a mature tree has been cared for long before the crown begins to thin and the outer extremities no longer bear leaves. There are several treatments that can be done to reduce stress, increase vigor and improve the aesthetic value of these monumental pieces of our landscapes. The first is probably the most common-to prune. This periodic removal of deadwood and unwanted branches from the tree’s canopy will allow the tree to heal over their pruning cuts rather than allowing decay to settle into the main stems from the unpruned dead branches. Problem branches can also be removed before they interfere with parts of the tree crown’s shape. The periodic thinning and deadwood removal will set the stage for a beautiful and healthy tree.
A second tool for caring for these aged giants is yearly fertilization. To quote a colleague, “Fertilization is the single best thing you can do for a tree”. Too often, the compacted soils around the root system are lacking nutrients that are necessary for the tree to maintain its’ growth and vigor. By insuring that these Maples have the vital nutrients they need to continue to grow, the tree will not only be able to continue its’ normal functions, but also establish extended shoot growth. Most application techniques involve deep root feeding. Since most of a tree’s feeder roots are located in the upper 8” of soil, fertilization is attained by injection directly into the root zone of the tree, with the aid of high pressure water. This technique allows for immediate access by the tree and also helps to break apart compacted soil within the root zone.
For trees with seriously compacted soils and a lack of good organic matter, Root Invigoration can be another useful option. With this technique the soil throughout the root zone is loosened and fractured with a tool known as an air spade. Organic matter is then added to amend the existing soil and a layer of mulch is added along top to further reduce soil compaction, to provide insulation for the roots and to prevent moisture loss. Although somewhat extensive, this technique has proven very beneficial to alleviating stresses caused by root compaction.
Whether you have a failing Sugar Maple, or one in pristine health, we must remember that trees are living things and their lifespan will at some point come to an end. Oftentimes, these trees fall into a state of decline and become a hazardous condition or distraction from your landscape. While removal is inevitable for these old trees, we must also maintain a stewardship of planting new trees, both for us and for future generations. Since spring is the best time to plant new trees, I encourage my clients with old mature Maples, to consider planting some new ones that can become established well before the ancient ones need to be removed.
I encourage everyone to not only take care of the established trees you have, but also consider planting new ones- it’s good for us and for generations to come.
Mike D’Agata, Co-owner
Greater Heights Tree and Land Mgmt. Inc.