CO-Horts Blog

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hort Peeves: When it's time to say goodbye

Posted by: Alison O'Connor, Larimer County Extension

Right now, Colorado is in the middle of Master Gardener and Colorado Gardener Certificate training. What I love about teaching our "newbies" is their eternal optimism. As a seasoned Extension agent, I can't say that I have the same outlook on certain landscape practices they do. That's not to say I'm a "glass half empty" person...I'm more of a realist.

The classes I teach for the circuit are the Science of Planting Trees and Care of Trees in the Landscape. And with both of these classes, we discuss trees gone bad. We have some great discussions about trees (and landscape practices) and there are always a few people who hold out the eternal hope that the tree will recover.

A tree that stimulates good discussion...keep it or make the final pruning cut?
I will note: some trees I have labeled as goners have come back and surprised me. Windsor, where I live, had an F3 tornado rip through the town in May 2008. Driving around after the storm, the trees looked horrible and I questioned if our forester should have removed more. Nearly 10 years later, a lot of those trees look pretty good...maybe a bit worse for wear...but their tornado scars give them charm.

So when it is time to say goodbye? Well, it's a hard decision. But think about the health and overall look of the tree as objectively as you can. Try to keep your personal feelings out of the equation, though I know this is easier said than done. Especially if the tree was planted to celebrate or honor someone.

Think about the following when accessing your tree:

1. Does it have proper structure and/or branching?
2. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Does it add to the overall beauty of the property?
3. What percent of the tree is in decline? If you prune out the dead branches, what will the tree look like?
4. If you change your cultural practices, is there a strong likelihood the tree will recover?
5. Finally, and most importantly, how much are YOU willing to invest in the tree, both financially and with your time?

And sometimes, all it takes is someone to tell you, "Cut it down!" Peer pressure does wonders.

Let's take a look at some trees that probably should be removed. Now, before you label me as a "tree hater", I'm a firm believer that we should encourage and promote good horticultural practices. The photos below are not examples of our finest work.

Is your intent to grow half a tree?
 The photo above is a case of planting two trees too closely to each other. In order to make them both "fit", one must be pruned. In this case it's the Austrian pine, which resulted in a tree that looks completely and totally awful. Best to remove one of the two trees...and my choice would be the pine, since the job is already half done.
Yellow...and dead!
Parking lot trees face so many problems: limited rooting space, hot temperatures and a lot of traffic from cars and shoppers. This was an Autumn Blaze maple in a grocery store parking lot in Fort Collins. Fortunately, this tree has been removed and nothing has been planted in its place.
The fix after a storm.
Mary Small, fellow blogger, sent me this from her neighborhood. Look closely at this photo and you'll notice that the branch on the right, which is a co-dominant stem, split as far as you can see in the photo. (Mary said it went even further.) The fix was to use black electrical tape and two hose clamps to piece the tree together. It's a bandaid fix and will not solve the problem. More than likely the hose clamps will start to girdle that branch and there will be even more issues. Remove both limbs, which may mean it's the whole tree.
Sunscald damage.
This one is more tricky and would require looking at the canopy and more closely inspecting the sunscald damage on the trunk. Has the tree started to seal over the wounds with callous tissue? Is there any dieback in the canopy? While the trunk looks terrible, sunscald is something that trees can recover from, but it depends on many other factors. I would give this tree the "wait and see". I would recommend pulling back the mulch from touching the trunk (and keeping it 6" away) and try to increase cultural practices. I would not recommend fertilization, as that could make the problem worse.
Trees should not levitate!
This one is easy, since the tree clearly is detached from its root system. This was in Windsor, and it took a surprisingly long time for the tree to be removed and sent through the chipper.
The homeowner must believe in miracles...!
This is just classic. Something happened to the main part of the tree and the homeowner decided to grow a water sprout/side branch as the main tree. Ok, be honest here. Does this tree look good? Would you want this in your yard? Here's the thing with suckers (from the roots) and water sprouts (adventitious growth on branches or the trunk): it is all structurally unsound growth. I would hazard a guess that this branch is not properly attached and would be prone to storm damage or wind. Make the final pruning cut at the base!
Five leaves and oh-so-pathetic.
Another one that is pretty obvious...but again, some might say they can "bring it around". Consider again if this tree is doing anything for the environment and our community.

I know it's hard to say goodbye. No one wants to cut down a tree, especially if it has a few leaves and only one living branch--because it's still ALIVE--there's hope! But be diplomatic and consider it a new opportunity where you can plant another tree in its place and start the cycle of life over. You can do it!


  1. This is so funny. I was just yesterday telling my friend that this tree in her front yard is pretty much dead. Its a pine of some kind that has only one green branch on it. I will get her to read this and hope it convinces her. And it will make me look like I know what I'm talking about. I am a master gardener in Indiana and love your blog. Thanks!

  2. My folks lost a huge shade tree they planted from a bare root due to the 2014 Colorado polar vortex but were in denial. There were just a few leaves on the tree the following spring. I am in the green industry and my own parents wouldn't believe me that the tree was gone and called me a naysayer. Along came a tree company and this "nice" man told them the trunk was healthy and it just needed pruning for $200. Again, me: "sorry but the tree is gone". My mom even tied yellow ribbons around the tree and wrote a fictional story from the tree's perspective begging to be saved from the chainsaw. Long story short, I didn't say I told ya so but, in the end, the tree did meet the chainsaw. You have to let people handle loss on their own timeline even when it doesn't make sense. Yes, you can plant a new tree but when you are in your 80's it is just another friend that got old and died so you need to have compassion, let them grieve and then maybe, in time, they will see the hope of a new tree. Sometimes a tree isn't just a tree and we need to have a lot of kindness and patience in these situations. So, let them call their children naysayers, tie their yellow ribbons and tell stories to honor the shade tree that was good to them for so many years before they say goodbye.

    1. I agree completely...and yes, trees to some are as valuable and personal as a beloved family pet. My mom lives in my childhood home and has several large oaks in her backyard. If she were to lose those oaks, I would be heartbroken. I support those who need the extra time and understand their pain. Trees are so much more than just those tall things in our yards. Compared to the photos I showed (which were mostly young trees), the tree in your parents yard was part of their life and history in that home. My condolences to them.

  3. This made me laugh! As do all your classes. Thanks.

    I was in the "cut it down!" group. Was surprised everyone around me felt strongly about waiting and seeing. It's just that the crab apple tree at the fairgrounds was so young, not sentimental (as far as I know), and the longer it goes, the bigger a problem it is to replace. Cutting down a tree too late when it was growing close to my house turned me into a realist.

  4. Thanks for sharing these memories with us. You looks like a good soul. I just checked all the images and all are abs fantastic. Wishing you a happy life.

  5. I have cut the sod out around my 27-year old honey locust tree, a ring about 30" out from the flare of the tree. This tree was the first we planted in our landscape, the spring of 1990. It has done everything we wanted it to do: spread its beautiful yellow leaves and given great shade to the west side of our house, which includes the living room and master bedroom. I'm so glad to have had your instruction about turf-around-the-tree. Already, just four days after, the locust looks so much happier. It hasn't started to leaf out yet, but it's usually a late leafer. Mulch will be applied nextweek, after the big snow and rain we're supposed to get tomorrow.