Chris Ellwood, district manager from Davey’s West Columbus office, talks about knowing when to break up with your tree and the importance of having a certified arborist check your property.
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Doug Oster: 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, I'm joined by Chris Ellwood. He's a District manager in the West Columbus, Ohio office for the Davey Tree Expert Company. Because of Valentine's Day, which we just passed, we're doing breaking up is hard to do, Chris. When I say that, talk a little bit about this decision-making process because I'm sure in every case, it's completely different when you're looking at a tree.
Chris Ellwood: Sure. Absolutely. Thanks for having me back, Doug. Appreciate it. No one likes to break up with their tree, especially around Valentine's Day. Some of the things that we look for, in our office we say CIC. The letter CIC. Call professional, inspect the tree from the bottom up, and then consider the target or the species. Can I briefly walk you through that? Is that all right?
Doug: That sounds good.
Chris: Call professional. There's things that are outside of our wheelhouse, like I'm not going to work on my own brakes that transport my two young kids to and from places. Check for industry-standard credentials, ISA certification, TCIA membership, insurance, things like that. Inspect it from the bottom up. That's something that us as professionals are going to do, but the homeowner can do as well.
Let's pick on Colorado Blue Spruce. In the Columbus market, we do have a lot of Colorado Blue Spruce. They're very shallow-rooted. This winter has been a perfect winter for them to blow over. It freezes, it thaw, the soil becomes waterlogged, they're shallow-rooted. First things first, bottom up. Look at their roots. Look at their root flare, look at the trunk. Is there anything obvious? If there's a pitcher's mound like in baseball where one previously wasn't, roots have snapped and the tree's moved.
Next thing, going up the trunk. Are there any massive cracks? Is bark falling off, sloughing off? The next stop is the scaffolding branches. Are there any fungus on the branches? Are there any fungus on the base of the tree? Does everything look alive and healthy? It does depend what type of year you're looking at it. Of course, it's much easier during the growing season that's intuitive.
Lastly, check the buds. Are the buds present? Are they full of life? There's three main ways we check the buds. Bend the twigs, this is much easier done. Young trees, newly planted trees, if you want to make sure they're in your warranty period if you had a landscape company and are replacing them, bend the buds a little bit. They should bend and not break. What color are they? If they're gray and dull depending on the species, that could be a dead branch. It could be a dead tree. Lastly, we take our thumbnail and scratch them. If there's green, that's live plant tissue. If it's brown, that's not. That gets us to the eye of CIC.
Number three, consider the target in the species. This is one of the most common questions we get, when's it time to break up with your tree? It's species is dependent. A nice healthy oak tree over a house is fine if it passes certain inspections. A hollowed-out top silver maple next to your house is probably not fine to keep around. By targets we mean if the tree fails, what's it going to hit? Is it going to hit a shed, house, power lines, neighbor's fence, whatever it is.
It is species specific to-- there are trees that are stronger, trees that are weaker. It's a catalpa, for example, in Ohio, we have a lot of funky growing catalpa out in old farm fields. If they're away from everything, no harm in that. Let it go. That's the process that we use.
Doug: Let's talk about that catalpa tree because a lot of people don't know about that tree. I used to have a big one growing in my backyard when I was growing up in Ohio, and what an amazing tree. This one was right next to the house, but it's still there.
Chris: Catalpa is fantastic. The tips do tend to be a little bit heavy, so mostly-- that brings up a really good point, is there's the failure profile of a tree. Arborists have spent 100 years now classifying how trees fall apart either in storms or when they're dead and starting to decay how that happens. Typically, a lot of the times with catalpa, you don't have the entire tree blowing over, uprooting like you might a spruce tree. They're tip-heavy. They have big leaves, they have big seed pods. They tend to break on the tips. That's when we typically see storms come through how we see those typically break.
It stinks condemning a tree. We can use a resistograph, which is about 16 inch, very small one 8-inch drill that goes all the way into the tree. It looks like a part seismometer for earthquakes. Just scribbles on a piece of paper and from there, you can tell what's alive and what's dead. We use a sounding hammer. You can hear hollow wood depending on how you hit on it. For any listeners out there, catalpa is a beautiful tree. If you can find catalpa flowers in the spring, they're absolutely beautiful. They have massive leaves, really cool seed pods. They're a little on the dirty side, it's native to Ohio. Maybe it is a better tree for a little further away from the house.
Doug: I was going to say those seed pods were always a pain raking them up. They're huge, they're like 10 inches maybe longer.
Chris: I think a common name for it is cigar tree as well, but you might have to fact-check me on that one.
Doug: In my situation where-- Davey's coming about every six months, I always tell listeners I'm in this declining oak forest. For me, it wasn't so sad when the arborist looked up and said, "Did that thing leaf out last year?" It was a huge oak tree right over my garage. I looked up, and I'm like, "No, I don't think it really did leaf out very well," and he goes, "That's got to go." It's sad that a big old oak, but thank goodness-- He was coming for a completely different reason. Thank goodness that he looked up there because even though I do host this podcast, I'm not looking up as much as I should. It was more of a relief in my situation.
Another situation for me was I had a big pine tree drop on the house, but in the middle was a flowering crab apple. This flowering crab, I have looked out my window for 20 some years to see it every spring, and it got hit pretty good, but the arborist was able in that situation like, "Let's see if we can make some cuts." They wanted to remove it, but I said, "Could we prune it?" He took a look at it, and he said, "Yes, we can prune it." In that case, five, six years later, you wouldn't even have known that it was really hit by that pine tree. It can go either way, and that's why you have to have somebody on-site to look at it to make this decision, right?
Chris: Yes, absolutely. I think most of our clients we're speaking with are getting two to three opinions. I think that's a great thing because it does, unfortunately, point out bad actors. Depending on, again, the tree species, you might have some indicators. Pine oaks always gets chlorotic, which means the leaf during the growing season becomes a lime green color, an indicator of micronutrient deficiency. Doesn't mean the tree's dying, it means the tree's starting to struggle a little bit. Some people say, "Oh, that needs to come down." There's varying degrees of gray there, varying colors of gray regarding when and what, but you're right.
A lot of the times, if you are looking at your trees, you have a professional out, we give free assessments, you can catch a lot of that stuff early and that's when it really makes a difference. All too often, we've been called out to look at a tree and it has, again, I'll pick on pin oak, really large dead leaves. This is something that could have been prevented with mitigation seven years ago, five years ago, and unfortunately, maybe it is a little too late depending on the specific situation. Walk outside on a nice spring day before you get into your car to go to work, just look up briefly. It gives you a sense of peace and you get to check on your trees too.
Doug: I'm glad you brought that up because it's so important, again, to have somebody on-site to take a look at this and the way you're talking there, sooner rather than later. Don't wait. It's better to catch these things early because you got a better chance of saving the tree.
Chris: Absolutely. The earlier you have that information, the quicker industry-standard professional can come out and intervene, hopefully. Sometimes it is too late or it's not worth it, and that's discussions we're able to have per client, per tree, per situation, where the tree is in relation to some of those targets we mentioned a little bit.
Doug: In my case, no one else is going to be touching my trees except my Davey team. I'll tell you what, I've had some of the same guys working on these trees for over a decade. I love that when they come I can show them that flowering crab. I say, "Remember when we talked about this?" He says, "Oh yes, it looks pretty good." Or I'll say, "Look up, there's a mushroom or something up there in that tree." He goes, "Oh, that's not one to worry about." Or, "Oh, that's one to worry about, you better take a look at it."
It's great. Arborists will come for free, take a look around. It is heartbreaking though sometimes when a tree has to go, the top gets sheared off or-- I had a favorite tree outside my vegetable garden that when the sun would start to go down, it would just illuminate this orangish pine bark, but a bad storm came through and cracked the tree in two, it's got to go, it's a hazard. Yes, it's sad, but plants die. This is part of it.
Chris: Yes, it is part of it. I really like what you said a second ago. I've been at Davey for collectively about six years now. Some of our more senior staff over 20, I think our longest is 35 years on staff. It is fun and we feel it too when-- I've been to climbing trees to foreman to sales to district manager and it's fun to go to the same tree and be like, "Oh, I made that cut, I remember that tree." It's really, really fun. I agree, it's neat to build that client rapport, that client relationship, and be on the same property year after year, after year, and monitor how things are changing or what you can do to help or intervene as we've been talking about when it's needed.
Doug: It's a trust thing. My arborist-- I don't want to call him my arborist, but the arborist who comes here and his team, I trust them to do the work right and it's pretty amazing to me to watch the team work. When you have a huge oak, just giant, where you're using a bucket truck and all that and how they can cut that, all the pieces, and then leave and it doesn't even look like they were there, I think they're pretty amazing.
Chris: Absolutely. Our boar culture is great for that. I always tell people it's part art, part science. They're like, "What are you talking about?" I'm like, "To watch a really, really large oak tree, for instance, over a house come down with rigging ropes or tag lines or whatever or a crane, that's the artistic flair of the arborist aloft, and the science is they didn't break the rope. They've been paying attention to numbers and rigging forces and you still have a house that's intact."
Doug: [laughs] I often asked arborists about the good feeling of saving a tree, but let me ask you a little bit about the feeling of having to tell somebody, sorry, it's unsavable. It's got to come out.
Chris: It's a gut-wrenching feeling, especially if you have history with the tree, but building that trust, building that rapport, that goes a long way in helping make that decision. I personally tell new clients, "Listen, I know you're going to get two or three estimates, here's ours. If you see any red flags anywhere else, just give me a call. I'm happy to provide that guidance because you will get some extremely low or extremely high estimates." It's certainly not about the money, it's about the value and doing things right and taking care of the clients.
Even if with new clients, it doesn't end up at Davey business, we're always happy to try and offer that guidance. Some of these, I've seen clients cry before. Actually, we have one we're finishing this week where it was this individual's grandfather's house built by him, by hand, and the oak trees in the backyard were also planted by him, and it's time. Nothing lives forever, it's time. We're doing it in such a way where there's going to be about two 20-foot long by 3-foot diameter logs that we're going to put out in the front yard for a carpenter to use because they're adding an addition onto the house. There's going to be some really interesting woodwork from those oak trees.
Doug: Now that's a pretty cool story there. I'd say that's what trees mean to us. Whether you planted it or somebody else planted it on the property that or love, you plant a tree in memory of someone. We have a very special relationship with our trees and that's so nice that you're going to repurpose that wood. I think that would take a little bit of the sting out. I know it's disappointing and you want to honor those trees, but to leave it behind and use it for the house, that's really cool.
Chris: We've left small woodworking things before, we've built chairs before. We've given little discs, little pieces of branch to kids just to play with or turn into a frisbee or whatever, but you're right. Oftentimes when the tree does come down, we're discussing what the replacement is, depending on location, on the site specifically, what type of tree, and that helps looking forward. I forget who said it, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is today.
Doug: When you're thinking of species in particular, and everything, whether it's diseases or pests, it always changes. Is there anything in particular this spring you're going to be looking for? You just said blue spruce, and I know blue spruce have some fungal issue going on, at least over here they do, that I hear a lot about. Are there any species whether it's oak wilt or whatever it might be, that when you get called, you're like, "Oh boy, we've seen a lot of that."?
Chris: Most of your common for probably the eastern United States, elm trees, Dutch elm disease, emerald ash borer in ash trees, a little bit of oak wilt, pear trees being multi-stemmed and blowing into pieces. [chuckles] That's not a disease of course, that's an actual-- just a growth morphology of the plant.
Doug: All right, I want to stop you right there. Every arborist I know hates that tree, but they keep still putting them in developments. Talk about the tree and why it is not a good tree for people to plant.
Chris: Listen, if you have a pear tree and it's not going to hit anything, it smells very unique. I wouldn't say it smells good, it smells unique in the spring, lined against the street. I get it. There's cultivars. They end up being a non-native invasive species that decimate woodland habitat. They're actually illegal to sell in Ohio anymore, they've been banned. You can't get nurseries to stock them anymore.
Chris: The problem is in the '40s and '50s, they're super fast growing, they were planted everywhere. They do have a certain aesthetic appeal, but close to houses, they always end up being a nuisance and typically end up coming down. It's the multi-stemmed structure, creates something that arborists call a bark inclusion. As trees grow up in vertical height, they also grow out in diameter. When you have two stems that don't have a good point of attachment, they end up pushing against each other and usually one fails in a storm. That's the failure profile of Callery pear in central Ohio, is that it's going to lose a third of the tree at once because it has a weak point of attachment, usually in the wind, maybe with some ice on it. No, not much love for the pear tree.
Doug: [laughs] Yet, they still get planted over here. I'm glad that they don't plant them in Ohio and eventually, it will probably happen here too where we'll be able to stop this.
Chris: A note on when and if it's time to break up with your tree, have someone on your property. We often do this in our Davey offices, who's going to walk you through the whole process, not just, "Hey, here's $2,000 to cut down your tree," but how are they going to do it? Are they going to use a crane? Are they going to put equipment on your property? Are they going to drive over plywood to protect any underground utilities? Are they going to call the utility marking companies?
How long is it going to take? Is there going to have to be power shut off? Who pays for that? There's a lot of things to consider. What's insurance like? I've had a few clients ask about insurance, less ask about workers comp, but just really vetting-- Listen, breaking up with your tree is a hard thing to do and you're going to need some help and you might want to vet the person who's going to help you break up with your tree.
Doug: I'm going to leave it right there, Chris. That is good stuff and great advice. It was great to talk to you again and we'll catch you next time. Thanks so much.
Chris: Thank you so much.
Doug: Well, what can you say? Breaking up is hard to do, even with your trees. Now tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I am your host, Doug Oster. Do me a favor, subscribe to the podcast so you'll never miss an episode, and that means next week's show because we are highlighting arborists who are undergoing an intensive four-week training session with Davey. It's going to be fascinating. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.
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