When Trees Become Lethal

Hurricane Sandy has shown us it's not just old and dying trees that we should worry about

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Tracy A. Woodward / The Washington Post / Getty Images

A tree felled by Sandy in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

And then they kill us. A large number of fatalities from Hurricane Sandy were caused by falling trees—two teenage boys in North Salem, NY; a man killed in Pearl River, his family injured; a young couple walking their dog in Brooklyn.

We all know we’re supposed to be careful about old and dying trees, but somehow there’s nothing worse than paying a large bill to remove a maple on its last legs. With Sandy creating winds up to 90 MPH, many of the trees that fell weren’t old; all over the tri-state area, young trees have snapped in two, or dropped large limbs. So like this storm itself, whatever we thought we knew about trees and how to protect ourselves may in fact be changing.

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The biggest problems are twofold: healthcare for trees, and planting viability.

People tend not to prune, feed, and stay on top of tree health. Trees can be expensive to maintain, but it is critical that they be cared for. Rot begins to spread, and once it is working its way unseen through a trunk or a limb, trouble can hit by surprise. People also hire pruners who are cheap but who don’t know what they are doing, and bad pruning jobs, with limbs lopped off midway, contribute to bad tree health.

And then there’s the places we plant them. As a rule, in this day and age, large trees shouldn’t be hanging over a house, unless you don’t mind living dangerously. Trees near a house are okay, so long as they have lots of space for their roots. But all too often we’re squeezing trees into lousy spaces, especially trees on the strips next to sidewalks in cities and towns alike, or the trees growing out of rocky outcroppings, whose roots are compromised.

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What usually makes these trees vulnerable is poor drainage. The ground gets very wet, water doesn’t drain properly because there’s nowhere for it to go, and then the trees lose their footing, so to speak. Up and over they go. Tree roots are surprisingly shallow. If you go look closely at an overturned tree, you’ll be amazed at how little root system there is for such a big creature. Especially if the roots have been constricted by substructure concrete for roadbeds. Trees need to spread their roots to be more stable.

Stick with trees that are suitable for the area you live in; trees that aren’t hardy in freezing temperatures may look okay for a couple of winters, but their growth will be compromised and you’re asking for trouble down the line. And even though we all love instant gratification, you are better off choosing a smaller tree and letting it establish itself over time into its patch of earth rather than trying to plant a large tree whose roots might not take hold for a while. Don’t stake your trees for too long; trees need to sway in the wind and make other adjustments to weather conditions — it actually helps their root systems grow more stable.

We need to learn how to better live with our trees and move away from our simplistic understanding of them. Yes, trees are pretty and useful but they’re also a responsibility that too often people shirk. We’re well aware that cars can be dangerous and take safety precautions not to drive recklessly or in risky conditions. We have to show similar respect to these giant, powerful beings around us. They do so much for us. Let’s do more for them.

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