Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Arborists' Work on Historical Properties - Fallingwater

August 19, 2021 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 1 Episode 32
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Arborists' Work on Historical Properties - Fallingwater
Show Notes Transcript

Dick Till from Davey's South Pittsburgh office is joined with Ann Talarek, horticulturalist at the historic Fallingwater house, as they discuss  the important work arborists do on historic properties. The Fallingwater house was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s and is considered a National Historical Landmark.

In this episode we cover:

  • Ann's job at Fallingwater (1:02)
  • Dick's job working with Fallingwater (2:57) (15:06)
  • Hemlock woolly adelaide (3:55)
  • Famous plants at Fallingwater (6:47)
  • What it's like working on a historical property (8:30) (12:59)
  • Favorite trees on the property (9:55) 
  • Working with Davey (13:41) (15:42)
  • Visiting Fallingwater (16:07)

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To learn more about the Fallingwater house, visit the website,

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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each episode showcases one of Davey's certified arborists sharing advice with everyone about caring for your trees and landscapes. We'll talk about everything from introduced pests, seasonal tree care, deer damage, how to make your trees thrive, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more, because here at the Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer.

Well, folks, I have a special treat for you today, two long-time friends of mine, our guests, and they both work at one of my favorite places in the world called Fallingwater. If you don't know what Fallingwater is, it is Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece. I'd like to introduce you to Ann Talarek who is a horticulturalists at Fallingwater and a certified arborist. Hi, Ann. How are you?

Ann: Hi, how are you?

Doug: I'm doing great, and Dick Till, who is Assistant District Manager a little South of Pittsburgh, has worked out at Fallingwater for a few years. Ann, start off and tell me a little bit about your job as being the horticulturalist for Fallingwater.

Ann: Well, I started with the Conservancy in 2006. I've been the horticulturist at Fallingwater since 2007. I oversee all of the grounds, all of [unintelligible 00:01:22] managing the planting [unintelligible 00:01:25] here, in case of removal, volunteer coordination.

Doug: Tell me a little bit about walking around this historic house. When you're looking at the trees, you're looking up, you're not looking at the house, you're making sure that these trees are going to stay in place, right?

Ann: Oh, for sure. We're selective about every pruning cut. That goes down to our shrubs as well. We are very aware of our forest setting and the importance of taking care of it.

Doug: What's different compared to us, as homeowners, if we had a tree that we might not like its location, or we might not like what it's doing, we don't have this historic provenance to the tree. Talk a little bit about balancing that.

Ann: We really don't mess around with anything that is not going to affect our visitors or the aesthetic experience of Fallingwater. We keep the forest intact, unless it's a target for a visitor, or death, or a building, we just leave nature alone. As far as taking care of the house, every season, we do an inspection to make sure there's nothing hazardous. That's several times a year. The Director of Operations and myself will put a list together of things that we're watching, and then we consult with Dick and make a game plan for every season.

Doug: Dick, how long have you been working down on the Fallingwater property?

Dick: Well, let me think. When I first started 38 years ago, the other guy that did tree fertilizing and myself were down there fertilizing trees. We were on the property for quite a few years, and I'm not even sure, probably for the last 15 years or so, we've been down there least once or twice a year to do some safety pruning tree work and inspections, and also some treatments on the trees to try to keep them healthy and safe.

Doug: Yes, Ann, let's talk a little bit about that. Because I'm lucky enough to be able to see Fallingwater once or twice a year, and I get to see it through Ann's eyes. I feel like I'm like a Trekkie only for Fallingwater. I get the behind-the-scenes look at the house and the plantings and everything. I know there's a lot of hemlocks there. In the East here, this hemlock woolly adelgid is a serious problem. Are you seeing that on the property?

Ann: Oh, for sure. Fallingwater sits on a 5,000-acre nature reserve, though, we have old-growth hemlocks on the upper part of the reserve, all along Bear Run. Our hemlocks are keystone species to keep the Bear Run as an exceptional value stream, which is the highest-rated stream quality in Pennsylvania. We take that very seriously. We first noticed Adelgid in 2008. I consulted actually the Biltmore down in Asheville, and they gave us a protocol of how they were treating their hemlocks because their forest was much worse than ours, surrounding that property.

Then we got a game plan, Davey resources did a tree inventory for us and then we have all of our hemlocks, they're numbered along with the visitor experience from the highway down to lower Bear Run. We concentrate monitoring around the house, and then fan out. We've been through treatments and volunteer days, using tablets that we can use away from the water, have a pretty good handle on at least keeping it at bay. Then when we do have cold winters, that'll kill them off a bit too, and that gives us a little breathing room.

Doug: Dick, talk a little bit about that dealing with that hemlock woolly adelgid from your point of view.

Dick: Yes, they're pretty stubborn down there. For the past couple of years, we've done different treatment of trunk treatments. Now if it's far enough away from the stream, and small enough that you can spray it, we can do that also. Like Ann was saying, if you get a cold hard winter, it helps knock out the weak ones. These warm winters, not just the adelgids, but aphids and lace bugs, any of the sucking insects, all the different scales.

That's the other thing we have to look at on those hemlocks. A lot of the ones that get the woolly adelgid also have an elongated scale. They're just as damaging, if not more damaging than the woolly adelgids. It's a full-time job. I get a phone call from Ann, and she'll say, ''I found them here. I found them there.'' She's pretty good at identifying them. They look like snow on the trees and you know you got a problem.

Doug: Ann, what would be the most famous plants at Fallingwater? Would it be the rhododendrons as we're walking down to the house, or what would it be for you?

Ann: Oh, it would definitely be a rhododendron for sure. It's the dominant middle canopy species surrounding the whole site, by far. Hemlocks are also important, but as far as acreage, again from [unintelligible 00:07:15] down to the house and beyond, it would be our rhododendron.

Doug: Yes, when you make that walk down to the house, and you look over those rhododendrons, you happen to be there when they're blooming, it's spectacular. What are the issues in dealing with those, Ann? Are they pretty self-sufficient, or is it something you have to watch?

Ann: For the most part, there are some diseases and pests, they work their way out, some are aesthetic, we get azalea gall a lot. We all pitch in and break the-- usually on new leaves. This year, we didn't have that problem at all. A lot of fungal issues. Dick will come out and make recommendations. It's all about timing with fungal problems, then 9 times out of 10, I forget or don't notice it, and it's too late then we have to catch up the next year, but it all depends on how bad the infestation is.

Doug: Yes, you're barely seeing anything, it'd be very easy to miss, If you're looking to your left and the plant startles you with what's going on, then yes, call him right away. Dick, what's the feeling for you as far as working at a place like Fallingwater? For you, is it another property that needs to be maintained, or does it have a special meaning for you, like it does for me?

Dick: Definitely has a special meaning. Like I said, especially since I was first working there over 30 years ago, and even my guys that come down there, there's usually a core group of guys that like to go down, and we'll go down there for three days in the wintertime. They'll put them up in a house and they take pride in what they do there. It is an honor to work there with all the history and everything involved. It's definitely a special place to work.

Doug: What kind of other stuff do you guys do there?

Dick: Well, I think mainly for the safety of the house and for the guests, I know we have some trees that are cabled together to help support them, and just trying to keep the trees healthy and looking good and safe. Whenever we walk on the trails, we're always looking up and looking at a big dead limb here, a leaning tree that might fall on the trails. Safety is paramount there.

Doug: Now, when people come down to Fallingwater, the house is the main attraction, but are there any favorite trees that you guys have over the years that you look at all the time?

Dick: The one we look at the most whenever I go down there is a big hemlock right behind the house. I forget how big in diameter that hemlock is, but it's definitely one of the biggest hemlocks on the property. It's right down near the creek, it has its roots down in the water. Didn't we measure that one time, Ann? Isn't that 90 feet tall or something?

Ann: Yes. Well, we actually have a surveyor, he is a professional surveyor and he's one of our educators. We surveyed it in 2007, and it was 13.9 feet. I think that was the DBH, and it was 127 feet tall. I know that that tree is on the National Historic Register of trees, and it's a PA champion tree for Fayette County. That doesn't mean it's the largest in Fayette County, it's just, we were the only ones that took the time to crawl down there and measure it. That is a beautiful tree. My favorite tree is the redbud on the hillside, which took-- There was a giant white oak tree that was, I think it was a white oak.

Dick: Yes, [unintelligible 00:11:20].

Ann: It was the heart of the hillside, which the step canopy was designed around, and when that was removed, the redbud took over and became the centerpiece of that hillside. It's old, and we're constantly babying it, and putting these weird natural braces up to keep the lateral limbs from collapsing. In the springtime, it's absolutely beautiful.

Dick: Yes. When that big white oak had to come down, that was probably over 25 years ago, we had two 100-ton cranes in there, we had to reach over the house. The tree was so hollow and so big, if it would have come down, it would have just been disastrous. It was right between the main house and the guest house. Boy, when that was cut down, it really changed the appearance of the whole scene there.

Doug: It has to go, Ann, it obviously has to go, but in a way, is it sad to see something that was there for so long that people looked at for all those years to see it go?

Ann: Oh, absolutely, any tree. We just had a tree taken out of a parking lot area, and it completely was a giant 90-foot white oak tree that was hazardous, but it completely changed the landscape, at least, for us. I think our visitors, this is their first time they don't notice. Those of us that are around every day, any removal, any tree that falls, is a big impact to changing the dynamic of the landscape.

Doug: Is there any pressure there, Dick, working on a historic property like that, or you know it's all going to work out, this is your job?

Dick: There is. Yes, every now and then, especially when we started finding the leaf disease on the rhododendrons near the boardwalk, and had to treat those, and make sure it didn't spread into the whole stand of rhododendrons there. Just when we're testing the trees, and they're dependent on our expertise to tell them if the trees are okay for now, and hopefully, they'll be there for a while.

Doug: Ann, talk a little bit about working together with the team at Davey.

Ann: Well, it's nice, because they know the landscape very well. Especially the crew that comes down there, they know what to expect, as Dick knows, setting up any kind of work here, even if it's just climbing, is time-consuming and very tedious. When we have a removal near the house, it could take a day and a half just to make sure that none of the rhododendron are smashed and the tree disappears like magic, when it's hardly anything like that. It's very, very meticulous. It's nice to know that the same people are coming down and know what they're getting into every time they're doing whatever kind of tree work we need to have done.

Dick: Well, a lot of times, we don't know what we're getting into, and Mother Nature throws us a curveball. There's been times when guys are working one day, and they're done for the day, and they go to their cabin for the night, and they wake up in the morning, and there's four or five inches of snow, and they got to brush everything off the trucks and put the chains on the trucks to get back to where they were. Mother Nature can fool us every now and then.

Doug: Dick, talk a little bit about the fun part of going down to Fallingwater. You get to get away from the city, you get to stay down in Fallingwater for a couple days. Let me hear about that.

Dick: Yes. The guys who do that, like Ann said, they're the same core group that goes down there. They take pride in it, and they actually look forward to it, of course, they look forward to that much working around here, but they asked me all the time, "Hey, did you talk to Ann recently? When are we going down?" Yes, they really look forward to it.

Doug: Ann, there's actually a storied history between Fallingwater and Davey, right?

Ann: Yes. Actually, the Kaufmann family, the original owners of Fallingwater, use Davey Tree in the Pittsburgh office. We have correspondence dating back to the '30s, between the Grounds Crew and the Davey office in Pittsburgh. Yes, it goes back to the original owners of Fallingwater. It's a long time.

Doug: Well, every time I go down, I make Ann take me to a certain view of the house, what is it called?

Ann: The bird's eye view.

Doug: Oh, you got to see the house from up above. It's amazing. If you're going to go to Fallingwater, call first, right, Ann?

Ann: Yes.

Doug: You've got to set up your tickets in advance so that you can see this amazing place.

Ann: For sure. Really plan it in advance. At this point, interior tours are rapidly selling out throughout the rest of the season. The grounds are open, and that is also an amazing experience, but to see the interior of the house and to be able to get an interpretive tour is really special.

Doug: The most famous view, though, of the house is from down below, right, Ann?

Ann: Well, we call it the iconic view. It's across the stream from the house. That's the famous picture where everyone wants to get a picture taken. It's a pad of bedrock, and the soil is very compacted. We have to constantly be testing the soil to make sure the pH is under control because it's mostly oak and hemlock, so we want to keep that pH a little on our lower side.

We do some soil health tests, we ship it off to the Davey lab, and then we make recommendations as far as aeration, fertilization, and then also keeping that view open. All the trees are reaching for the sun, and in that gorge, probably what would you say, Dick, every two to three years? We cut them back. The crew, they go down there with a radio, and we shake branches, and slowly edit out the branches that are hindering maybe the column of the windows or a key feature of a balcony, that sort of thing.

Dick: A pretty important part, the view there keeping that trimmed away and keeping those trees healthy, because like you said, that's every calendar, everything you ever see about Fallingwater, that's where the picture's taken from.

Doug: Dick, I know you've worked down there on the outside, have you ever gone through the house as a normal person?

Dick: No, I never took the official tour, but every now and then, if somebody is working on the outside, we'll take a shortcut through the house. I've seen most of it here and there, and especially when they want to take a look from inside the house, when you're looking out, we want to keep certain trees cleared, so I've got to get the perspective from inside the house, what it looks like. I have seen it, most of the house there, and it's not the way I would design a house, but it is definitely unique, and it's really neat just knowing all the history there.

Doug: Are you questioning Frank Lloyd Wright?

Dick: [laughs]

Doug: You don't get a tour. Ann, put him on the no-tour list, keep him out of the house, you work on the trees. Because I'm telling you, every time I go, Ann, how many times have I been there? I don't know.

Ann: You were just here last week.

Doug: Yes, I was there last week. Every time I go, I see something new. Dick, you're not allowed in that house ever again. You're going to have to stay out with the trees. Ann and Dick, thank you so much for your time. Ann, what you're doing down in Fallingwater, it's just wonderful. Thanks for letting me see it through your eyes, and get to see some of the plantings around the house and what they mean to you.

Ann: Anytime, Doug.

Doug: Thanks, Dick.

Dick: You're welcome, Doug.

Doug: Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. It's coming up on prime time tree planting season, and next week I'm talking with two arborists, one from the west, the other from the east about their all-time favorite trees. It's going to be fun. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.


[00:20:54] [END OF AUDIO]