Save Damaged Trees and Your Limbs, Too
Save Damaged Trees and Your Limbs, Too
I’VE done a lot of dumb things to shave a few dollars off the yard-maintenance budget, but I set a personal stupidity record six years ago when I strolled into my backyard with a borrowed chain saw and not a shred of safety gear or training.
I emerged intact, but only after nearly sawing into my thigh, risking my eyesight with flying wood chips and escaping a few other situations that I only now recognize as perilous.
So in approaching the splintered mess that Hurricane Sandy left in my yard, I vowed to be a little smarter. I sought advice from arborists, tree-removal experts and a chain-saw maven who helped me understand which damaged trees I should — and shouldn’t — cut, which ones I might save and how to identify the trees that might fall at the hands of Andrea, Barry, Chantal or any of next year’s storms.
The good news is that most reputable tree services will offer free evaluations and estimates, so it makes little sense to attempt a potentially hazardous tree removal before finding out how much it would cost to have it done professionally. And even if you have no fallen trees, these services will frequently help identify potential problems and offer tips on how to keep more of your trees upright longer.
Unfortunately, such consultations might also lead to your writing a check for removal or trimming or bracing services, but that’s a small price to pay for keeping your legs away from a chain saw blade.
Of the several dozen trees on our property in suburban Connecticut, at least seven were split or completely toppled by Hurricane Sandy, and another pair fell across the road from a neighbor’s woods and into our front yard. I figured that all but two were lost — one red maple that was bowed beneath a toppled shagbark hickory and another that dropped a huge limb from its canopy.
The question was, how to save them? And what to do with the others?
Not knowing the answer to either question, I asked Facebook friends for recommendations, then called Bartlett Tree Experts and A&L Tree Experts. Both offer free estimates.
When Abraham Monahan, an arborist with Bartlett, visited, he quickly declared the bent maple dead. Pointing to horizontal splits where the trunk was most severely bent, he said it wouldn’t spring upright again. (He also said vines spiraling the trunk would have limited its life anyway.)
Mr. Monahan was dubious that a typical homeowner would be able to make a similar diagnosis with much accuracy. “It’d be hard for someone to really know unless they were trained,” he said. “We can tell fairly easily.”
But he said there are ways to spot problems before storms make them worse.
Take vines, for instance. Mine are commonly known as “bittersweet,” but no matter the species, they can endanger trees in windstorms because they add weight and surface area to catch wind, snow or ice. The easy remedy: cut them at the bottom. (If the vine is particularly hairy and you are allergic to poison ivy, have someone else cut it. I took a handsaw to one a decade ago and itched for a month.) Another way to preserve existing trees is to clear dirt from the base of the trunk. The swelling on the trunk known as the root collar can rot if it is covered with dirt, as sometimes happens when developers plow soil into the base of the tree while clearing a lot. Mr. Monahan suggested removing as much dirt from the base as needed to expose the root collar.
One of my bigger hickory trees suffered from this problem, so I spent a few minutes shoveling around the base, and will ideally give the tree a few more years of life as a result.
Another bit of proactive tree maintenance involves identifying co-dominant branches, where the tree splits into two or more trunks of roughly equal diameter that eventually grow to an unsustainable weight. Homeowners can trim younger co-dominant branches with a handsaw or a pole saw.
The evenly forked trunks on my property were too fat and heavy for that, but most of them will eventually fall in a place of no consequence. A bigger one in my yard has the potential to take out part of my fence, and for that, Mr. Monahan recommended cabling the two trunks together, for a fee of between $150 and $300.
Both Mr. Monahan and Rick Anderson, the owner of A&L Tree Experts, said cabling is not a repair most people can undertake on their own. “Some homeowners have tried it, but they usually do more harm than good,” Mr. Anderson said.
He added that no trees that his clients supported with cables fell during Hurricane Sandy, while several that were left untouched against his recommendation fell.
Since the additional weight of snow and ice from winter storms in particular could stress damaged trees to their breaking point, now is the time for addressing problems. And although the big work is best left to experts, there are some instances in which do-it-yourself tree work is feasible. “Homeowners should just take all the precautions they can,” Mr. Anderson said. That, of course, starts with caveats about power lines, ladders and diligent planning. If you’re at all concerned about an unstable limb in the yard or a tree’s proximity to power lines, Mr. Anderson and others said, call a specialist first.
Whenever a tree falls, call your insurance company, said Scott Cullen, a Connecticut-based consulting arborist. He said insurers will often cover removal costs for trees that land on structures or vehicles, but not for those that land on the ground.
Similar rules apply to property damage that happens when a tree falls across property lines, said Richard H. Lewis, a partner at Salon Marrow Dyckman Newman & Broudy, a Manhattan-based law firm. State laws vary, he said, but in New York, “if your neighbor’s tree blows down and damages your house or car, or causes personal injury, it’s generally your problem.”
But if your neighbor had notice of the tree’s dangerous condition before it fell and you can prove it, “the neighbor would be responsible for any reasonably foreseeable damages,” he added.
Chalk up another reason for getting a written assessment from a tree service.
Once you’ve identified trees you want to trim yourself, plan carefully. Don’t approach big limbs that are precariously situated, Mr. Monahan said, and never try to cut a limb while on a ladder.
Along a backyard path where my children play, we approached a red maple with a 25-foot branch hanging by a shred, and its top branches resting on the ground at a sharp angle.
“This is how people get killed,” Mr. Monahan said. “People get up on a ladder and cut that spot where it’s attached, and it can snap back and hit the ladder, and now you’re falling from 20 feet up.”
We looked to the spot where someone would have fallen. Boulders.
On the ground, Mr. Monahan said beware of cutting severely bent trees at the base, as it could cause the bottom to snap back violently toward a person’s legs.
Those who use chain saws should, of course, proceed with even greater care. Rich Fiengo, merchandising supervisor for the Northeast division of Stihl, which makes chain saws, offered me an hourlong course in safety, and looking back on my earlier adventures, it’s a miracle I survived unscathed.
For the tutorial, I wore protective chaps that cost roughly $70. If a chain saw should land on the chaps, their fibers will jam the chain and stop it. I also wore a helmet, goggles, gloves and steel-toed boots. I wore what professionals wear, because they know better.
Among other things Mr. Fiengo taught me: Look closely for objects that could hit the chain on the other side of a cut. Stop the chain and clear your footing before a cut. Never cut above shoulder level, where you might lose control of the saw. Don’t cut with the tip of the saw, and avoid cutting branches that could take down other ones nearby.
Most of all, he taught me to move slowly, since the saw can be as dangerous as a loaded weapon.
After reading the Stihl manual closely, I did some solo cutting. I felt much safer, and my wife looked much less worried. (People who cannot arrange for professional tutorials should watch every minute of the Stihl on YouTube. Search for “Stihl — chain saw safety, operation & maintenance.”)
Many people use bow saws for trimming, but Mr. Anderson strongly recommended saws with a triple-edge blade, like those from Silky and Fanno, which are often sold at arborist-supply stores. I used a 300-millimeter Silky Zubat saw ($67) to cut through a five-inch section of maple in about 15 seconds. It was a bit of a revelation.
Once a tree is down, it can be a boon to those with fireplaces, assuming you have good tools to cut and split the wood and a place to store it for at least six months for curing. Of course, if you can see your woods with an arborist’s eye and do some preventive maintenance, it will be much nicer to have your next load of firewood delivered by someone not named Andrea, Barry or Chantal.