Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Plants that are Best for Wet Areas

October 27, 2022 Season 2 Episode 41
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Plants that are Best for Wet Areas
Show Notes Transcript

Robert Spartz from Davey’s Quad Cities office talks about trees in wet areas, the importance of using a certified arborist and what employee ownership means to him while we celebrate Employee Ownership Month through the month of October.    


In this episode we cover:  

  • What Robert thinks about when encountering wet spots (1:30)  
  • How trees can mitigate wet situations (2:17) 
  • Right Tree, Right Place: Trees that can survive (and thrive) in wet areas (2:55) 
  • Planting trees close to your house (10:20) 
  • What trees Robert suggests planting (12:35)  
  • Dealing with flooding and existing trees (18:10)  
  • Importance of using a certified arborist (20:10)  
  • The feeling of saving trees (21:30)  
  • What employee ownership means to Robert (22:40)  


To find your local Davey office, check out our find a local office page to search by zip code.  

To learn more about the best plants for flooded areas, read our blog, Plants Good for Flooding and Wet Areas (By Zone).  

To learn more about plants absorbing excess water, read our blog, Thirsty Plants: Which Plants Absorb Excess Water in a Yard? 

To learn more about Right Tree, Right Place, read our blog, Climate Change Projections: The Impact and Why You Should Care.  

Connect with Davey Tree on social media:
Twitter: @DaveyTree
Facebook: @DaveyTree
Instagram: @daveytree
YouTube: The Davey Tree Expert Company
LinkedIn: The Davey Tree Expert Company 

Connect with Doug Oster at

Have topics you'd like us to cover on the podcast? Email us at We want to hear from you!    

Doug: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's Podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each week, our expert arborists share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists favorite trees and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at The Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer.

This week we have a return engagement from Robert Spartz. He is the district manager for the Davey Tree Expert Company in the Quad Cities office. Whereabouts is that Robert Quad City, I think Minnesota, is that right, or am I on the wrong part of the map?

Robert: Yes, we're a little bit south of there. We're where the Mississippi bends a little bit, straight west, almost of Chicago, if you line up on a map. From there, we're right on the Mississippi River. It's called the Quad Cities, but there's actually five major cities that encompass the Quad cities itself.

Doug: Not only are we getting a tree lesson today, we're also getting a geography lesson. I need it because I don't know where anything is except Pennsylvania, where I live in Ohio and the other states around me. Today we're talking all about trees that love wet feet. When you go to a property and you see a low spot or a soggy spot, what's the first thing you think of when you talk to the client?

Robert: First thing I think of is there a way that we can also improve drainage as well too? Depending on the property itself, is there high water table, which really we're not going to be able to do a lot about? Is there a river or creek running in their backyard that might affect that as well too? Then also a lot of these newer established homes, where is the drainage going to, and is that causing a lot of our problems as well too? How can we remediate that and fix the problems that are being caused? A lot of times that can be with planting a proper tree or a shrub, or maybe just even a plant in the right spot.

Doug: Can that a tree mitigate wet situations? How does that work?

Robert: Yes. Not only will the tree absorb the water through its root system, it'll also help improve the drainage throughout the soil by creating more pore space in the soil, allowing more water to pass through, and percolate deeper into the soil itself too to help get rid of it quicker as well that way.

Doug: Is there a way to clarify what kind of soil you can plant in? Are there certain spots where if you can't get that drainage out of there, you're like, ''Listen, there's no sense in even putting a tree here because it's never going to work because it's just too wet?''

Robert: I would say that's definitely not the case. There's trees, for instance, like a bald cypress that can literally live in standing water. I would say a lot of our soils out here are composed of, maybe three to maybe at most five inches of nice top soil after construction. Then beyond that, they're building these foundations of the homes on solid clay because they don't want a lot of shifting. Once you get down below that three to five inches, you are hitting some pretty hard soil, which is going to be very hard for water to break through that. Planting a proper tree will help take up a lot of that water for you, and fix the problem as well too.

Doug: Tell me about that bald cypress. Those are cool trees.

Robert: They have an evergreen appearance during the growing season. They look a lot like a spruce or potentially like a pine. Then during the fall season, they turn a nice, rusty red color, real beautiful tree in the fall time as well too. They can grow south as well as in the northern regions as well too. They have a wide range of where they can go. As far as my list goes, as far as preferred trees, I actually have them, they're in my top five list of trees to plant just in general. It's hard to find a tree that doesn't have a lot of insect or disease problems, and this is one of the few trees out there that we can say that for.

Doug: With about cypress, does it have to have wet conditions to thrive, or can it grow anywhere?

Robert: In theory, yes, it can grow anywhere. With any tree especially a newly planted tree, the water requirements are going to be a little bit higher for a tree like that in the beginning. Drought tolerance, probably a little bit less, but the tree can definitely thrive. I would say my recommendations would be to not plant this tree that's going to be high up on a hill where it's going to be real dry, the sun's going to be hitting it, and the chances for water to settle in.

It's kind of going back to the old moniker of the right tree in the right place. I would never plant a bald cypress somewhere where it wasn't going to get at least some amount of water at some point.

Doug: What kind of other trees should we think about if we do have a wet area? Basically, for each one, how wet should it be, or does it matter? Let's go through them, like you said, right tree, right place. What else do you recommend when you find a spot that has a little bit too much water?

Robert: One of my strongest recommendations I have, and this is going to be more for the northern regions, maybe more in the Midwest, places that have oak trees as native trees and things like that, will be a swamp white oak. That's a really strong water loving tree as well too, beautiful bark features, and also just a good looking tree and grows a little bit faster than most other oaks in general as well too. Probably not as fast as our pin oak, but still a steady grower.

The water requirements for that are going to be a little bit higher. I've been able to see those growing maybe in areas where it's a little bit drier as well too. They will definitely tolerate more of a standing water situation over a longer period of time. Something like that's a great option.

Getting into maybe some great recommendations for trees that maybe shouldn't be planted as close to a home or a sewer line, along those lines, then we're getting into our weeping willows, and our river birch trees, which are great water trees. Based on those two, you're probably not going to find two better trees that are going to soak up water. Just know that they are fast growing trees. Fast growing trees are not going to live as long. A willow will definitely do the job for you. If you do have a very boggy area, and definitely a standing water situation, will almost turn that into a non standing water situation.

Make sure they're far enough away from your home, in the far back of your landscape or something like that, if you're going to choose to plant those.

Doug: Talk about the willow because like you said, you don't want that anywhere near-- it's searching out water. You don't want that near, especially old clay, tile boy, willow gets into that and it wants water.

Robert: They will basically destroy your water lines, your sewer lines. They will find a way in, they will basically, in a sense, crush that pipe, make a hole. I've heard a lot of horror stories about tree roots just completely encompassing the inside and basically backing up sewage to the point where you go to flush your toilet and it's not going anywhere. Then you got to call in the real experts to take care of that.

If you do run into that situation, I know there is a product that you can flush down the drain to kill off those tree roots. Basically in a sense kind of disintegrate them, which is a temporary fix. Willows grow very quickly and they will put those roots out again very quickly. That's something that you're better off to, like I said, make sure you got the right tree in the right place, rather than having to deal with the consequences of that down the road.

Doug: Is the river birch as aggressive?

Robert: Definitely not. Still a tree that is going to be seeking out water, it is going to do a lot better in a water situation. Typically, what we tend to see with river birch that aren't planted in the right areas, we also get a lot of sclerosis problems with them too, which is the yellowing of the leaves because of improper nutrient uptake. From that standpoint, no, I don't see them being as aggressive as the willow trees.

Doug: You brought up a great point about trees closer to the house, and I always hear from people that are always worried if they put a tree close to the house. In general, most trees won't be doing that, it's certain trees that are so searching out that water?

Robert: Yes and no. My general recommendations are within 15 to 20 feet of your house, you probably shouldn't have a large overstory tree growing near your foundation. Every tree does want some amount of water to survive and be healthy. If the only place that they can get that water is close to your house, they're going to be growing there, and eventually, at some point those roots could get large enough that they could cause some cracking and some seepage into your foundation. Definitely a concern there.

In that recommendation, I would probably try to push you towards there's some good shrubs that are water-loving, such as like a cranberry bush viburnum, a summer suite, red twig dogwood, something along those lines that is still going to absorb a lot of water closer to your house. Maybe you have poor drainage or your gutters are weak, and they're putting water over the side. Those are some shrubs there that might be good.

There's a few perennials that are good as well too, like de lilies or purple cone flowers that love to be in a very moist situation. Those are a couple other options that you could look at outside of that.

Doug: That red twig dogwood, that's a cool plant, especially for winter interest, right?

Robert: Yes. Obviously, with its color is red, the cane's on it. The only thing is you do need to prune out. Usually, I recommend once the canes get to be about one inch in diameter, you prune those old ones out to allow for the new growth of the new ones as well too.

Doug: That's a great tip, I didn't know that. Is there anything else tree-wise on your list that you were thinking when you stumble onto a spot on a property that doesn't have the drainage that should be there?

Robert: Being a tree guy, my thing is always if we can, always plant more trees. Even if it's not just for water, just for the environment as well too, but some of the other trees just go through a quick list of about four or five of the other trees that I think are good. Again, most of these are going to be for mostly northern climates where I'm at in the Midwest, such as hackberries, Sweet Gums, black tupelo, which is a pretty rare tree that not a lot of people have heard of. It's also being called a black gum, great red foliage. I know a lot of people are looking for red foliage trees, black tupelo or black gum would be a great option for that.

Sycamores or London plain trees almost similar, very close to the same trees there. A pin oak, depending on how the oak quilt situation is in your area, pin oaks can be a very fast-growing tree that love water as well too.

Doug: All right, tell me about that sweet gum. Where are you going to cite that, and talk about the importance of citing that one specifically with those little seed things that you step on with your bare feet, and it's like having a Lego when you step on your kid's Lego or worse?


Robert: There's no doubt, I do have a seven-year-old son, so the Lego thing definitely hits home. My policy in my house is if I step on a Lego, it's going in the trash, so they stay pretty cleaned up around here. The Sweet Gum itself, definitely is a tree that-- we go back to what I've talked about already is right tree in the right place. Obviously, you don't want to have that in your front yard hanging over a driveway, sidewalk, somewhere where it's high traffic. You want to have that somewhere off to the side or out in the back. They do have a spiky ball type of fruit seed coating that definitely could ruin your day, if you're not wearing the proper footwear.

If your kids are out running around the yard without any shoes on, probably not a great tree for you to plant. It does have a good pure metal shape to it, looks really good, has just a nice leaf shape too. I think that's what draws a lot of people to it as well. Just keeping it out on the outskirts of your property. Probably not overhanging your neighbor's yard either because you might run into some problems there.

Doug: The black gum, black tupelo always comes up when I talk to arborists. Rd right now in the north here, when that thing turns, I'm not sure if there's anything more spectacular than that tree as far as it's fall color.

Robert: Yes, they're very pretty. My personal favorite is a tree that we seem to be declining a lot in our area due to the changes, but sugar maple is definitely up there on tops of fall color. The black tupelo, that brilliant reds, a lot of people are planting these Freeman maples. The most common variety is the autumn blaze maple, which we're starting to see a lot of problems come from that variety of tree. A lot of phytophthora, bleeding canker, a lot of girdling roots, a lot of improper planting. Also, structurally, I would say now that a lot of the pear trees have disappeared from landscapes, they've become one of our most popular storm-damaged trees as well too.

Not that I dislike maple trees, but the newer varieties of maples seem to have a slew of problems that I try to get people away from, and go more towards the native varieties of trees that can be better long term.

Doug: Is there another maple that you would recommend, or we go in a different direction as far as species?

Robert: If we're back on the topic of water, red maples are still a pretty good option as far as water-loving maple trees, not really a lot of great options. Your silver maples are fast-growing, weak trees, they will provide shade very quickly. There was a trend probably 40 to 50 years ago where everybody was planting silver maples, and now the trend is the freeman maples, the autumn blaze varieties. Not a lot of real great varieties out there in the maple land right now, some of your doorways are probably your best option. Maybe a red maple is one of the better types of red maples that you could plant right now.

Doug: I have a town right next to the township that I live in, where maybe once every three to five years when the weather's right, they get flooded out. When we're thinking of our trees, our existing trees, what should we be looking at there if we do get a flood?

Robert: There's a couple of things that I'm going to point out here. The first one would be if you are experiencing long-term flooding or just settling water on a tree that maybe isn't tolerant of a lot of water, first, you should probably have a certified arborist come out and inspect the tree, make sure there's no problems that might arise. Maybe they could come up with some mitigation options to help with future water. The things that you're going to look for, the signs that you're going to look for on a tree following heavy water or flood are going to be exposed roots. Are we dealing with a lot of erosion? Is this going to lead to the tree potentially being uprooted at some point?

A lot of times we deal with evergreens getting uprooted after the winter and the snow falls and then it melts, and then the soils are really soft and none of the other trees have any leaves on them. Something like that, maybe you have to maybe guy-wire that tree or something in the future to get some stability to it. Are we seeing premature fall color? Usually, that's a number one sign for anybody that knows trees. A certified arborist is, if that tree is turning color earlier than every other tree in the area, you probably have some sort of problem going on with that tree that needs to be corrected.

Wilted or discolored leaves as well too, along that same lines. That's going to be some sign of some flooding damage. Also, any dieback in the canopy, it could be an insect or a bigger problem as well too with the root system, but that all could come back to the flooding damage that it's gone through already.

Doug: People, I don't think they understand that a Certified Davey arborist will come for free to look over what's going on there and then give you recommendations, and as a certified arborist, as an ethical code to be a scientist coming there, not somebody just trying to make a few bucks.

I had a conversation the other day, Robert, where this woman was telling me all about her tree. I said, "Is it still alive?" She's like, "Yes, but it's failing." I said, "Well, get a certified arborist out there, because if it dies and it's a big tree, it's going to cost you a lot more to get rid of that tree because they're not going to be able to climb it."

Robert: The old saying is, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So get ahead of it, stay ahead of the game, and get your trees inspected. As you mentioned, Davey Tree will come out at no cost to you and give you a professional inspection of your trees. If there's any diagnosis or anything that we can do to help out, we'll surely provide a prevention plan, or maybe something to help correct the issues that you're going through.

Doug: I ask this question a lot because I work with Davey Arborist on my own property. In fact, I feel that I'm keeping Dave in business with as many trees I have here, but just talk about that feeling of being able to go out there, diagnose something, and telling people that, we can save it. I think that's one of the coolest things about being a certified arborist.

Robert: When I initially got into this field that was my thought, urban forestry, I can go out to visit properties and speak with homeowners, that a lot of times don't have a lot of information on what trees are, or how to help them out, or what they can do to help them out. That's the best part of my job is being able to inform people, inform the general public of things that they can do to make this world just a better place to live in. Not only that, but keep their landscape looking beautiful.

It's one thing that I really like to hang my hat on this job, and one thing that really keeps me going as far as on a daily basis.

Doug: Good stuff. Before I let you go, I've been asking this question, what does it mean for you to be part of an employee-owned company like Davey? What does that actually mean for you?

Robert: I've been with this company for 15 years now. I've been doing the employee stock purchase plan for, I think, 12 years now of that 15 years. I pretty much tell everybody, "I wish I would've started after the initial year." There is a year initiation period before you're able to start purchasing the Davey stock. It was something that I wish I would've done a lot sooner. It sounds like two years isn't a lot of time, but to me it is. From that aspect the sooner that we can get in and start investing in ourselves, investing in our company, investing in the future of Davey Tree. That's what it's really all about to me.

We've grown to be a very large company in the 15 years that I've been here. It comes from people who have the same attitude and mentality as myself. That we're all here working as a team, and we all want the same thing. We all want to be a successful company. That in the end, when we are done with everything and we're retired, we feel like we've done our part for this company, and we've tried to do everything that we can the right way.

To go back to Davey Tree's old motto and still continues to be the motto today is, "Do it right, or not at all." That's what I think a lot of what I live by, and I try to extend that on to the employees that I work with in Davey Tree as well too, and just live with that motto every day, and them lead by example.

Doug: Great stuff. Robert. On that note, I'm going to let you go. As always, just great information and fun to talk to you again, and I'm sure we'll talk soon. Thanks so much.

Robert: All right. Appreciate you having me on, Doug. You have a great day, sir.

Doug: You too, my friend. Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Next week we're going to talk about why it's so important to prepare your trees and gardens for winter, and do me a favor, subscribe to the podcast, so you'll never miss a show. As always, we'd like to remind you on The Talking Trees Podcast. Trees are the answer.

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