Firmly Planted 

Trimming the tree, and everything else.

I've got trees on my mind.

Mostly, it's because I spent about half of this fine, mid-70s, low-humidity spring day pruning my backyard trees. I've got a policy: When I plant a tree, I'm going to do all the pruning myself, until the tree gets so tall that a man can't prune it from the ground. By doing all the early pruning, I end up with a tree just the way I like it. For good or bad, I've got a style. A tree-minded person could walk through my end of the neighborhood and tell which trees I've pruned.

About 15 years ago, I took up trees like some men take up golf. It all started when folks in my neighborhood decided that we needed some new trees on our medians. We planted about 20 little trees and most of them died. I figured it was my own ignorance that killed them. I hate and despise walking around ignorant, so I started working on my tree game. I read tree books, I talked to tree people, I thought about trees day and night. Before I was done, I knew trees by their Latin names. I knew their strengths and weaknesses, their leaves, nuts, and catkins.

These days, the neighborhood is about 1,000 trees richer, and there's no more room for trees in my yard. My head full of tree knowledge is mostly useless, except for days when a homebuyer hits me with a tree question. When that happens, I explain, "I'm not a tree expert, and I'm not charging you anything for this advice. Get the final word from a good tree man." Folks nod, and then I tell 'em everything they need to know.

Most of the time, people want to know what to do when tree roots heave a sidewalk or a driveway or cause cracks in a foundation wall. Amazingly, a lot of people think cutting down the tree will solve the problem.

Well, no. That's not right. You see, when you cut down a tree, the roots rot. If a big tree root pushes your driveway up six inches, and you cut down the tree, your driveway will eventually drop 12 inches. The same thing will happen to a foundation wall.

As far as I know, there are two ways to deal with tree roots that are damaging concrete slabs and foundation walls. The first is to do nothing. As a general rule, tree roots grow slowly. If the cracked slab or wall is still functional, it will probably stay functional for a long time. The second approach is careful pruning of the roots. Sometimes, a skilled arborist can prune roots away from a structure and not kill the tree. Often, though, messing with the roots means slow death for the tree. A dead tree, besides being ugly, is expensive. Rotten limbs can fall on your house, your car, or your head. I've got a puny old hackberry tree in my backyard now. When it finally crumps, getting rid of its rotting carcass will cost me as much as a good used car.

If you're wondering about the competence of a tree cutter, here's a quick test: If he tells you that a tree needs "topping," if he even uses the word "top" as a verb, he is a tree mangler, and he's trying to sell you a worse-than-useless service. Do not hire his sorry ass.

Just so you'll know: Topping is a pruning job that cuts the biggest branches back to stubs. This gives rise to a lot of weakly attached new growth and leaves the stubbed ends exposed to rot and disease.

Every good tree man knows the pruning rules of thumb, which go something like this: If you're going to cut a branch off a tree, do it before the branch is as big around as your thumb. Cut off a branch the same way you'd cut off your thumb -- that is, flush with the joint, without leaving a stub.

If you're buying a new house, keep an eye on the landscapers. I've watched 'em work, and they usually throw the trees into too-shallow holes then put about a foot of mulch on top of the root ball. These trees will die. You want the top of the root ball even with the surrounding soil, and no more than three to four inches of mulch. Mulch shouldn't be up against the bark.

You can e-mail Helter Shelter at

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