When is enough, enough? I can hear my mother’s voice, “how many times do I have to tell you…”, I see it while recreating, working, shopping, walking, exercising, absolutely everywhere. You have seen it, and at times we have all done it. If it continues, the future of an important urban resource and the most beautiful artwork known to mankind could be extirpated. Quality of life for these organisms depends on layman and professionals alike pulling together to banish this menace from a world desperately clinging to each of us for salvation. Now wait one minute you say, take a breath and count to three. In deep through the nose and out through the mouth. We need not languish over something as simple as mulch, but I fear this situation has reached and is hovering at epidemic proportions, threatening the survival of trees, young and old, everywhere. 

Last time I wrote an article of this flavor, a few clients labeled me condescending and accusational. That hurt a bit. I admit it does sound like I may be “throwing stones”, but that was and is never the intent. I apologize to those clients for not being a better communicator and your points on the “Tree Food” article were well taken and stimulated me to think further about that topic. I remember when my friend and former business partner, Craig Herwig and I, first began Northern Virginia Arborists, Inc. in 1983. We made a pact that along with supplying the Washington, DC area with the finest tree care available, we would also dedicate some time to educating our clients, to the relevancy of a tree’s system and its connected organisms. It was then and is now, within the Care of Trees, that desire that sets us apart from many others. A tree is simply a small part of the big picture, and the attribute of connection is what makes those individual parts work. Education should be a fun and provocative part of any successful company’s mission, no matter what the industry. I remember a college history professor I once had spent more time discussing Benjamin Franklin’s lascivious ways than he did Ben’s signing of faded documents. He was funny, entertaining and provocative, which in turn stimulated us to learn. So, will you forgive me for sounding like your 6th grade teacher?

My point, for which I know you plead, comes in two parts. Both are observations, learned through listening and experience with a dash of speculation. The first is this; picture an elephants foot. What does it look like? It looks like the trunk of a tree where it enters the ground. The giant’s foot, is wider than its leg as is a tree’s trunk narrower than its flare. Do you always see that flare on a tree? I fear not, which is point #1. If you cannot see the buttressing flare of a tree, where the tree meets the ground, something is wrong. Think about it, walk through the woods. Whenever I need an example of a “tree thing” I take a mental walk through the woods. The answer is generally in front of you. Look at the trees, each has a flare at its base, always exposed, a big, beautiful footprint, and just as ours, different from all the rest. Have you been to a bald cypress swamp? Can you see those knees sticking out of the water? Keep your eyes closed and imagine a beech forest in winter. Before you look down, remember how a snowfall sounds through the still-attached dried leaves? Now look down at that beech. See those separated knees or flares where it meets the ground. That is the natural, normal way a tree should look. This area of a tree may very well be the most important of all the tree’s parts. The trunk flare attaches to the “root crown” and both form the tree’s integrity, or ability to stand. And… trees do look better standing than they do lying on their side! I never got much pleasure from big stumps.

By burring this area of the tree we allow decay organisms to take hold of the wood and the “inner bark”, called the phloem making it impossible for the tree to do what it should, get bigger every year. So, when mulching and backfilling our new trees with soil, let’s stay away from that woody trunk flare and even excavate some of the nursery’s dirt away from the trunk. Many times trees and shrubs come from the grower with dirt too high around the flare, so let’s pull that away also. Once again, as we simulate the attributes of the natural forest we begin to look at the urban forest in a different light, which brings us to point #2. Trees that grow as a member of a community have a better chance of being successful than those forced to grow alone in our habitual donut of mulch.

How’s your rock and roll trivia? Remember the 70’s group, Three Dog Night? They sang about this phenomenon over 20 years ago. It goes like this; “One is the loneliest number that you’ll do, two can be as sad as one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one, ahhhh”. I never knew the Three Dog Night dudes were cool enough to be into horticulture. It shows really cool insight on their part. I have always thought music and trees went hand in hand. How’ bout these classics, “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me”, “Lemon Tree”, sung by none other than Treenee Lopez! And who could forget this romantic prom piece, “Autumn Leaves” that got us baby boomers where we are today.

Anyway… trees do incredible things when they grow in a contiguous situation and with this tidbit I will leave you to think. When trees grow together in a situation applicable to suitable root growth where root systems can physically reach each other, they will graft their roots and beneficial fungi to allow the sharing of appropriate micro-elements with their neighbor; incredibly, not only like neighbors but trees of different species, as well. Author, Cal Zimmer visualizes the situation as sailing by an iceberg, thinking that what you see is all you get. By only visualizing the tree above ground, we are missing the big picture. Scientist Suzanne Simard states in Zimmer’s article, “once we sever these links, we affect the stability of those ecosystems”.

Maybe we need to think of tree planting as a partnership amongst trees, not just with us. It is difficult enough to build an urban forest, to take trees completely out of their natural environment and ask them to yield to our whims and desires. The more we listen to what trees have to say, the more successful we become as caretakers and stewards. Rather than one tree in a donut of mulch, how about a group of trees that can work together within a mulch bed. “No man is an island”, so the saying goes. The Animal and Plant Kingdom’s are, in general, filled with gregarious organisms and have survived that way for millions of years. It never ceases to amaze me that the less we contort and contrive and the more we work within a tree’s predictable ecosystem, the more we all succeed, making people and trees happier. Have a wonderful holiday season!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.
Back to Articles
The Pruning School 16 Berkeley Court Sterling, Virginia 20165