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IN THE YARD: Best advice for trees is to leave them alone and let nature take its course

IN THE YARD: Best advice for trees is to leave them alone and let nature take its course

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Trees are living beings.

They breathe by taking oxygen through their roots and then exhaling carbon dioxide through their leaves.

They eat by taking in nutrients through their roots, processing these elements through photosynthesis in the leaves, and then distributing the resulting sugars throughout the whole tree. They drink a lot of water through their roots. They even have a vascular system similar to our blood veins and arteries to move their life-giving materials around.

They just don’t have a heart or a brain.

With all these similarities to other living things, it follows that they also have a life span, a period of years from when the seed first germinates and then reaches maturity.

So how old is old when we talk about trees? It depends on the tree. Most people tend to think that trees will live forever. They plant a tree in the front yard and figure it will be there forever unless somebody cuts it down or it falls in a catastrophic weather event. To be sure, this happens to most landscape trees we have. But what if nothing happens to it, will it live forever? No, it will not, sorry. Different trees have different life spans.

Look at oaks for example. We think of all oaks as very long-lived beings that have witnessed history for hundreds of years. This may be true of white oak trees that are capable of living up to 350 years. When I come across a freshly cut white oak stump that looks as though it lived for a long time, I like to start at the edge and count the growth rings toward the middle. I get to see how big it was at different points in history.

In World War II, it may have been a large tree, dominating the environment around it. It may have been a sapling in the revolutionary war. It may have been located along a road where it saw George Washington passed by. It may have marked a property corner when the land was first surveyed in the late 1700s.

Red oaks, on the other hand, do not live nearly so long. I learned when I studied forestry in college that red oaks do not usually live more than 150 years. Indeed, I have found very few large, old red oaks that lived more than 125 years. They still lived long enough to witness some history, and they have an interesting story to tell.

Most pine trees will not live to be 100 years old. Their metabolism just burns out too soon. The same goes for maples. Yes, there are cases where these trees have lived much longer but it is not reasonable to expect that much from them.

Most of the popular landscape trees, especially those that flower, live less than 100 years. Crepe myrtles may be an exception depending on which variety it is. Old-fashioned varieties live longer. Flowering pears typically only make it to about 30 years, except Bradford pears that break apart in summer windstorm after 15 years. The modern varieties of dogwood are also about a 35-year tree. That dogwood that granddad planted in the years 50 years ago was probably a sapling dug up in the woods nearby and they do tend to live longer.

So why is this knowledge important? What good is it? It is important to understand this information when managing the old trees. When people call me to ask what they can do to make their old trees live longer I tell them to just leave them alone and let nature take its course. Research by several universities and some highly respected tree-care companies has taught us that most of what we do to help the old, over-mature trees actually speeds up their demise. You need to understand that these old-timers are living in a delicate balance with the environment around them. Disturb things too much and you just might kill the tree.

Fertilizer can be especially bad. Feeding a 100-year-old oak tree is like giving an overdose of vitamins to a 95-year-old person. The fertilizer speeds up their metabolism and their old, worn-out system simply cannot handle it.

If you have one of these old trees in your landscape, just leave it alone. Remove dead or broken limbs from time to time for safety purposes. Then just enjoy the tree for as long as it lasts.

Always remember, when a tree is planted, it will eventually either fall down or die. It may be years, decades, or more than a century but it will eventually expire.

Enjoy your garden.

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For questions or to suggest a topic for this column, email

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