The Twisted Twig

Tree Geriatrics: When does an asset become a liability?

By Roger DeGood - Guest Columnist

Some of our best friends in the landscape are our mature trees. Tall, stately, shade giving, they provide a sense of security and permanence. Surveyors used the largest specimens as benchmarks. These monuments served to locate the boundaries of property and assist in mapping and navigation.

Trees have a life that roughly parallels that of humans. Similar to ourselves, as they age they become susceptible to all sorts of calamities, both internal and external. Simply because of their longevity, their internal protective systems fail under the onslaught of weather, bugs, fungi, air pollution and physical damage. In short, like us humans, they just plain wear out.

So, here we sit in the shade, enjoying a lemonade never thinking that maybe that old crotchety (that’s a joke, son) silver maple that’s been dropping those annoying little branches and gutter-clogging helicopters for years has turned from a friendly beneficial asset to a major hazard to life and limb, not to mention that garage your neighbor uses to store his antique ’57 Chevy. So how can I tell what and if I should do anything?

First, understand that there is no perfectly safe tree (or anything else for that matter). It is the property owner’s responsibility to properly maintain the trees on his property. It is your responsibility to keep them clear of your house, your neighbor’s house and, should they overhang, the public thoroughfare. The only exception to this rule is the trees that are located in the public right of way. The local AHJ (authority having jurisdiction, i.e. city, village or township) will take care of those.

So how do I know if all is good or, after the next windstorm, I’m going to have to extract a large chunk-o-cottonwood from my upstairs bathroom? There are warning signs we can identify that point to some things that might not be all that conducive to continued tree health.

Basically, there are some big things that should result in a phone call to a professional.

• Large splits, cracks, broken branches or “widow-makers” (broken branches that are still hanging).

• Large physical damage or wounds to the trunk or major branches.

• Visible rot or fungi (mushrooms) on the trunk near the base. This would be characterized by missing bark and a spongy trunk.

• Excessive leaning in any direction but especially toward dwellings, structures, parking areas, utility lines or areas occupied for recreational use.

• Evidence of root damage due to recent construction, such as foundations, drives, and sidewalks.

• Trees that are located too near structures, utility lines or have overgrown their current locations.

• Evidence of Insect damage or disease. Changes in leaf color, structure, amount, or early dropping of leaves. Look for holes in the bark that look like a demented carpenter with a portable drill was practicing on the trunk.

What can I do in an immediate time frame? Basically, mitigate the risk if you can. Move that picnic table and swing set well outside the drip line of the tree, away from any leaning. Yes, I know it’s in the sun, but sunscreen is a lot cheaper than a trip to the ER! And don’t park your car under the tree.

Here are the “DON’Ts”:

• Unless you have extensive training in how to handle chainsaws and other mechanized trimming equipment, leave it up to the professionals. (i.e., “Hey, I can drop that sucker. Here, hold my beer!”)

• Do not do any trimming from any sort of ladder or stand. This includes the bed of your pickup truck.

• Limit your trimming to small branches easily reached from the ground with a pruning saw or loppers. See the Brochure Bank at Village Hall for pamphlets showing the proper procedures.

• Be sure to use the proper safety equipment, such as safety glasses and gloves, maybe even a hardhat.

• Oh, and be sure to stay away from ALL utility lines. Call the local power or communications companies immediately. They know how to safely rectify the situation, you don’t.

Winter is a good time to do a little walk-around-the yard inspection. The leaves are gone and the branches are much easier to see.

The ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) has produced an informative checklist. It is available at

Answering yes to any one of these questions might be reason enough to call an ISA certified arborist to determine if some sort of action is needed. For a list of ISA Certified Arborists in your area, visit A lot of times this does not necessarily mean the tree should to be removed. Possibly, the only things that may be needed are trimming or some good old-fashioned TLC.
Tree Geriatrics: When does an asset become a liability?

By Roger DeGood

Guest Columnist