Jill Severn's Gardening Column

It's a good time to plant trees

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Fall is a good time to plant trees. Rain and cool weather will help them make a gentle transition from pot to earth, and by spring their roots will be established and ready for action.

But there’s a lot to think about when choosing trees: How big will they get? In the city, will they lift up sidewalks or be constrained by paved streets? If they are fruit trees, will you really use the fruit, or will it be left for the deer? Will your trees grow up into power lines? Will they be drought resistant? Careful research – not impulse purchases – are vital when planting the giants of the garden.

And here’s an issue to think about regarding the trees we already have: winter storms. In this era of climate change, the forecast for our region is hotter, drier summers (check), and stormier, rainier winters. This means a greater likelihood of storms with strong winds, and heavier – possibly much heavier – rain. We saw some of this already in 2007, when flooding was severe enough to shut down I-5 through the Chehalis basin. It’s been longer since we’ve seen the destruction of high winds, but that is also in our future as the climate changes.

So anyone who has trees that threaten power lines or houses should do something about that to save themselves and the neighbors from the danger of a power outage or a tree landing on the roof in the middle of a Seahawks game. For some, that means calling professional pruners now to get on their schedule.

Some of us confront hard choices about big beloved trees. For instance, at the corner of my back yard there is a venerable, healthy and huge fir tree. One friend advises me to take it down before it is blown down onto my roof; others are horrified by that idea. So far, I have sided with the horrified. On one hand, in a hotter climate, its shade is becoming more valuable. On the other, in a climate with more severe storms, it’s also more dangerous. The birds and insects it hosts would like it to remain. It sequesters a lot of carbon. And, a friend tells me I may be able to reduce its vulnerability to high winds by having its branches thinned.

It’s much easier to prevent dilemmas like that than it is to solve them. But over many years, people have planted little cedar, fir and other native trees as if they would remain mere shrubs. And many of those trees now tower over houses, disrupt sidewalks and driveways and threaten power lines.

Many non-native trees are similarly ill-suited to high density areas – and should actually not be planted within striking distance of even rural houses or other structures. That’s striking distance at the trees’ mature height, which takes some imagination when you’re dealing with a little sapling.

We all love big trees and many of us will live with the risks they pose rather than live without them. The birds, insects and squirrels will be happy; our insurance companies will not. And the day may come – possibly sooner than we think – when we will be placing emergency calls to those companies. Let’s hope we don’t have to make those calls from the hospital. 

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com

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Deane Rimerman

Thanks for another great article Jill...

A photo of a tree like that always makes me want to explain that with very careful and regular pruning that tree can live a long life and always look beautiful. And the urgency I feel to help is always strong because so many tree "services" are of the mind that trees can't be managed or made smaller once they get too big in the wrong spot and they need to be removed. Truth is with enough patience and commitment to regular detailed pruning a tree can be shaped into beautiful living art of any shape or size, much like the ancient practice of Bonsai.

I've worked on so many big trees that arborists have recommended removal because they say its a hazard and the only option is removal. But once you remove the liability part of the tree and then re-balance it and prune the tree smaller, and then prune it more as it responds to the work, you can grow the most beautiful of trees. Sadly, the status quo doesn't see it that way.

Whenever someone tells me they want to get rid a of a tree, I always say "I won't remove it for you, but let me prune it into something that looks totally different and is much smaller and if you decide you don't like it, then it will be far less expensive to have it removed because its smaller." When people agree to this they almost always end up keeping the tree in its new form rather than removal.

Saturday, September 18