the climbing arborist

As noted in our introduction, David McNeill, founder of McNeill’s Tree Service, has been working as a residential climbing arborist for over 50 years. He began this career as a teenager in the California Bay Area and gained valuable, on-the-job experience through his mentor and employer, Ed Hobbs.

Fifty years has seen a tremendous evolution in arboriculture. He has commented many times “if we only had these tools when I first started climbing!” This blog page will be a forum for his insights and opinions on the climbing process, working with trees in general, the innovative tools now available, as well as sharing random thoughts and observations gained in his long, and still active, career.

Please remember as you read these posts, these are his thoughts and opinions on what has worked for him. He readily admits people will be different. Not everyone will agree with his opinions as body size and shapes, climbing styles and personal preference, all play a part in what works for each individual. There is no one answer. We are simply hoping this information may help a new climber, or even an experienced one, looking for new insights and tips.

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© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

Proper Water management

By Sylvia McNeill © 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

Proper water management is important for maximizing a tree’s potential its entire life. It is especially critical during the establishment period after transplanting. The big problem is knowing how much is enough and how much is too much. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Watering appropriately is as much dependent on your soil and your climate as it is on the species of plant you are watering.

Information on water requirements for a tree are often on the plant tag at the nursery. If not, a quick google search will bring up innumerable resources to provide this information.

Factors you need to know about your soil include: how fast the soil takes in water (infiltration rate), how fast it will drain (percolation rate) and how much water it holds (water holding capacity). These factors are determined by the texture of the soil (sand, silt and clay) as well as the amount of organic matter but can be confounded by compaction, common in the built environment.

Climatic factors include evapotranspiration. This is a combination of how much water is evaporating into the air from the soil and how much water is transpired from the tree itself. Humidity, temperature and wind all have a role as well.

Whereas a tree may become drought tolerant with age, young trees (remember they just had a bunch of roots cut off) need help even if they are considered a “drought tolerant” species. However, “drought tolerant” does not mean you never have to water. You will often see recommendations state “water until established” but if you live in an area with minimal rainfall, you may very well be watering every week Mother Nature doesn’t supply enough for that particular plant. The general guideline for an establishment period is one year for every diameter inch of trunk.

Some guidelines state 2 to 10 gallons of water per diameter inch of tree per week during establishment, transitioning to one inch of water per week in absence of rainfall.

Timing: You want to irrigate at a time when the water has the best chance to penetrate the soil prior to evaporating into the air. For a lot of us, that probably means early morning. If you water late in the evening and are in a warm, humid climate, this could promote fungal disease. Of course, if you are in a warm, wet and humid environment you probably aren’t augmenting irrigation and you STILL have issues with fungal diseases. At any rate, avoid watering in the heat of the day, especially if it is windy and you are using overhead sprinklers as you will lose a lot of water to evaporation.

Method: Overhead sprinkler systems are typically considered the least efficient due to the conditions I just stated in the above paragraph. Soaker hose systems delivery water in fairly precise manners but can be problematical for lateral distribution. Drip irrigation is favored by many but, I must confess, I am not a fan. It puts a measured amount in a specific area rather than full coverage of the root zone. And when it comes to trees, all too often the drip system is installed when the tree is initially planted…and never moved. (See photo below). Another problem with drip systems, or any system that is buried, is if they are not monitored and maintained, malfunctions are only noticed when the plant is stressed and/or dying.

If you are watering a garden, be it flowers or vegetables, a handheld, long-necked wand can minimize evaporation while allowing you to get precisely as much water you need, exactly where you need it.

Whatever method you choose, the entire root zone of the plant needs to be irrigated. A lawn needs the entire area watered. With trees the root zone goes far beyond the drip line. In maintaining small perennial shrubs, you may be able to get away with a drip system.

How much and how often: Water deeply and less often. This is one of those recommendations that is good most of the time. However, the texture of your soil (sand, silt and clay) will have a say in this matter. The premise for watering deeply is to encourage deep rooting of any and all your plants, including turf grass. If your soil is very sandy, you have to water more often and less at a time in order to keep the soil moist as the water will drain fast. If you have a nice loam (that ‘perfect’ combination of sand, silt and clay), you may incorporate the once a week and deeply regimen, i.e., the inch per week in absence of rainfall guideline. If you have heavy clay, you are going to water less often to allow the water time to percolate down through the soil profile.

How do you determine how much water you are applying? If you are using overhead sprinklers, the old tuna can trick is great: they have straight sides and are approximately 1″ tall. Get several (empty) cans and distribute them randomly in the area being watered. Water for 20 minutes. Measure the water in each can then add those totals together. Now divide that result by the number of cans used. Take that number, which is the average, and multiply by 3 to see how much water you would be putting down in an hour.

It is a good idea to check your soil prior to watering to be sure it needs it as well as the day after watering to see how far the water actually penetrated. Adjust your timing and amounts accordingly.

Single Rope System (SRS) Components

By David McNeill © 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

As mentioned in my blog, Tools of the Trade, I now climb using Stationary Rope Technique (SRT) with very rarely utilizing Moving Rope Technique (MRT). This blog will describe the components within my system.

A quick note on terminology: the technique is the style of climbing, the system is the combination of components used.

My preference is to keep things simple while maintaining a high level of efficiency, so the system I typically use is comprised of: a multicender, a knee ascender and a foot ascender. I generally use one of two multicenders. The other components are constants in the system.

The multicenders: Hitch Hiker 2 (HH2), pictured below on the left, is compact, rugged and does not bend the line to achieve friction. It is the only multicender that can do this. It is midline attachable. I will use this tool for the bigger, gnarly trees. The rope I prefer with the HH2 is the Samson Vortex 12.7 mm although the Yale, 11.7 mm, a good all-around rope, can also be used. The other multicender I use is the Akimbo, pictured below on the right. It is very efficient, compact and also midline attachable. I tend to use this on small to medium trees or trees with complex redirect requirements as it is easy and fast getting on and off the rope with no parts to drop. My preferred rope for the Akimbo is Yale, 11.7 mm.

Harness: TreeMotion Super Light (S. Light) with Petzl torse chest harness (shown in picture below). The TreeMotion is the best all around saddle and the light version’s waist belt buckle is easily cinched tight. This can be a big deal when varying weather requires different layers of clothing as the adjustment on most saddles can be a pain in the neck.

The Petzl torse, also shown in the picture below, has a single buckle that is fast to adjust, is a minimalist chest harness and gets the job done. It doesn’t cut into your shoulders or restrict movement.

Boots: Arbpro II, Clip-and-Step. A good climbing boot. Having the Clip-and-Step allows you to do away with the foot loop on a knee ascender, which is much better.

The knee ascender: HAAS Velox Ascent System – compact, self-contained, clip version (no foot loop). The foot ascender is Climbing Technology’s Foot Ascender which functions perfectly. The boots, knee and foot ascender may be seen in the picture below.

An SRS that suits you personally, allows an ascent that is smooth, minimizing bounce and, therefore, does not shock load your tie in point (TIP). It becomes as effortless as climbing a ladder.

Tools of the Trade

David McNeill

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the tools available in arboriculture. Frankly, that would be well beyond the scope of this blog. Nor is it intended to be a comprehensive history of the development and progression of arboriculture, although there will be some necessary retrospective explanations.

This is intended to introduce and/or discuss tools I have come across that made a significant impression and changed my ability to climb for the better. I have found these tools to have merit whether I continued to use them long term or not. I will reiterate: these are my opinions only.

When first learning to climb in the 1960s, we used ropes and saddles, not a lot of extensive equipment. Ascent was performed often by foot-locking, a technique that used upper body and leg strength and the coordination of capturing both legs of the rope between your feet. A skilled climber could ascend a tree very quickly.

Another technique was hip-thrusting, using a great deal of upper body strength. Both of these systems were used on a doubled rope; that is a single length of rope, thrown over a branch close to the trunk of the tree with both legs of the rope coming down to the ground. In hip-thrusting, one leg of the rope was attached to the climbing saddle and the other leg was captured to the first leg with a knot that allowed you to ascend and descend. That was called Doubled Rope Technique (DdRT). Some people have confused the term thinking it meant two ropes were used. That is not the case. This technique is now referred to as Moving Rope Technique (MRT). Friction hitch knots were typically used in MRT for ascent and descent.

It was during this time period, over a span of 40 years, my overuse injuries occurred. Day-after-day of ascending trees primarily using the arms and shoulders, handling the (heavier) chainsaws of that era in the trees took a heavy toll on my body.

There came a realization that I might have to give up climbing, a profession I had spent my entire life pursuing and loving. Then innovative arborists started coming out with new tools. Tools that allowed the use of the large leg muscles rather than focusing on the upper body. A main difference, and it was a big one, was these tools allowed the rope to stay stationary as opposed to moving as you advanced or descended the tree. This new-to-arboriculture technique is referred to as Stationary Rope Technique (SRT).

In MRT, the rope actually moves, meaning among other things, you need to stay aware of how it is moving, if it is getting caught up in brush causing the climber to become trapped in the tree, and it is possible to run out of rope coming out of the tree. With SRT the rope stays stationary. YOU move up and down the rope.

These new tools utilize SRT. For me, there was definitely a learning curve as I had spent over 40 years climbing in a specific manner, so muscle memory was strong. The new technique required some counter intuitive movements for me. But once I mastered them, there was no turning back.

These new tools were termed multicenders because they allowed you to go up and down the single rope without the use of knots, although some have been developed which do utilize knots. They also allow lateral movement throughout the tree for limb walking, some being more adaptable than others. The development of a variety of these tools has allowed a greater acceptance and utilization by climbers around the world.

The first multicender I tried out in 2007 was the Unicender (pictured below) designed by Morgan Thompson. This tool was fully mechanical, which I believe was actually a stalling point for wide spread acceptance by the climbing community. They were accustomed to working with knots.

When the Hitch Hiker (HH) came my way, I anticipated a greater acceptance from the climbing world as this tool utilized familiar knots. Invented and produced by Paul Cox, it wasn’t long before he produced a new generation edition, the Hitch Hiker 2 (HH2). To this day, it remains my “go to” climbing tool. (Pictured below)

There have been many fine tools developed since the HH2, but I found the ones that worked best for me. In certain situations, I will use the Akimbo (pictured below) developed by Jaime Merritt.

I will be discussing the full system I typically use in an upcoming blog.

© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

overuse injuries; the necessity of working smart

Recently, within the last year, my husband, David, started playing the transverse flute. For those not familiar with musical instruments, that refers to flutes held horizontal to the body. I know, most are probably thinking “aren’t all flutes held horizontal to the body?” Which is a discussion better held at another time.

Now everyone is wondering why on Earth I am writing a post on musical instruments on our blog page dedicated to the climbing arborist. As stated, David is an arborist, specifically a climber. With over 50 years of climbing and working in residential tree care, overuse injuries have compounded and taken their toll. Cortisone shots in knees are delaying the, perhaps, inevitable replacement(s). Self-physical therapy exercises are buying time on the shoulders. X-rays show the hips are still pretty good. But the hands and elbows were seriously damaged.

December 2018 and January 2019 saw carpal tunnel surgery in both hands and ulna nerve surgery for both elbows. Whereas these may sound somewhat innocuous, the nerve damage, particularly in the right arm and hand were extensive and may never recover. The surgery at least arrested further deterioration of the nerves, which is good.

The most significant improvement was seen fairly quickly in the elbows where the surgeries were able to restore the ability to bend his arms without the circulation in his hands being virtually shut down within 5 minutes, resulting in complete loss of feeling and use. This made it impossible for him to play a transverse flute and, as you can imagine, had significant ramifications at work.

Nerves take a very long time to regenerate, if they can, and the surgeons said to “give it 2 years” before determining final outcome.

How bad was the damage? He has no feeling in the last three fingers of his right hand to the point he cannot tell if he is putting his entire hand in a pocket or not without looking. When it is cold, it is that much worse. As in one of those quirks of nature, even though the fingers and hands are numb, cold intensifies the pain. The hands, particularly the right hand, become non-functional.

Remember he is a climber. Consider just how important it is to be able to tie a knot, handle your saw and other equipment, feel the rope, grasp a limb. Has this limited the work we are able to accept? Of course, it has. With no desire to become another dismal statistic on someone’s tree accident report, we are extremely discretionary on the work we now accept.

Where am I going with sharing this information? What I see and hear from young climbers and tree workers, and this refers mostly to the male species, is the confident attitude they can “muscle through anything”. It feels good to strain the muscles and perform strong feats. Yes, I know it does. But “working smart” does not mean “wimping out”. Try to find a tree worker/climber who has been climbing for over 10 years that isn’t living on pain killers, let alone one who have made it 20, 30 years or beyond. They all have the aches and pains from overuse injuries to go with the physical toll this profession demands.

But is that physical toll still mandatory? Many go to bucket trucks or mechanical lifts to lessen their physical output. But you shouldn’t wait until physical limitations dictate a change nor is it mandatory to give up climbing. The only reason David is still climbing is due to the innovations created by Stationary Rope Technique (SRT) systems. This style gained popularity and acceptance as the new climbing tools, referred to as multicenders, were developed. The new climbing techniques are more ergonomically sound. Using these tools correctly, it is possible to avoid many of the overuse injuries accepted as the norm in the past. These newer techniques utilize the large leg muscles as opposed to relying solely on the arms and shoulders.

For the young, up-and-coming climbers out there, it is not necessary to learn the “old way” first and graduate to the new. Start off correctly, safely and save your body for the long haul. War stories about injuries and subsequent surgeries shouldn’t be a goal in arboriculture.

© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

Terms to understand

Every discipline and industry have their own set of terms. Many of these terms are everyday words but become specialized within a discipline.

Arboriculture is no different. Sometimes it is helpful, even necessary, to know and understand the term in order to fully grasp the context of the discussion. Other times, well, maybe we have some wiggle room. Let’s take a look at a few.

Feeder roots vs absorbing roots These roots are small roots that branch off larger roots. The argument here is technically the correct term is “absorbing roots”. This is because roots are actually absorbing water from the soil in order to access not just the moisture but nutrients from the soil which enter the plant through this dynamic pathway. (This presumption goes with the premise that most roots are, in fact, in the soil.) These nutrients are essential to the growth and survival of a plant, but do not supply food. (Think vitamins and minerals in our diets. Important, but you need the bulk of the food as well, not just the vitamins and minerals contained therein.)

Many people call these small roots “feeder roots” leaving the impression the tree is taking up food to feed itself. Which, technically, is incorrect. The “food” for the tree are the carbohydrates produced in the leaves through the process of photosynthesis. https://mcneillstreeservice.com/2018/11/30/understanding-photosynthesis/

Now that is clear as mud, right? And is why you will hear so many people refer to “feeder roots” as opposed to “absorbing roots”…both lay people and professionals. This confusion is exacerbated by fertilizer propaganda which promotes “feeding” your plant or tree with their product.

It is a good idea to become familiar with both terms to understand what someone is trying to say, whether or not they are technically correct in how they are saying it. I generally let this one slide as opposed to correcting people, unless the conversation is specific to understanding the physiology of the plant.

Seal vs heal I have already written a blog on this one, https://mcneillstreeservice.com/2017/12/07/trees-dont-heal-they-seal/ so will keep this short. Trees seal. People heal. Now the argument here can go on f-o-r-e-v-e-r. But the premise is trees don’t reproduce tissue that specifically replaces lost tissue like humans do. They compartmentalize the injury, in essence walling it off from new growth, but the injury is always there. It is just encapsulated. I don’t get too fussed about using these terms interchangeably. Clients are more apt to use “heal” and I seldom correct them other than to explain the physiological difference between the two reactions to injury. Some professionals feel it is an indication of ignorance on the part of other industry professionals if heal is used as opposed to seal.

Vigor vs vitality From ISA Glossary of Arboricultural Terms 2006: “Vigor – overall health. Capacity to grow and resist stress. Sometimes limited in reference to genetic capacity. Vitality – overall health. Ability of a plant to deal effectively with stress.”

From A New Tree Biology, Shigo “Vigor is the genetic capacity of an organism to resist strain. Vitality is the ability of an organism to grow under the conditions in which it finds itself.”

Okey, dokey. I looked up several other sources for definitions of these two words; overlap and vague terminology predominated. Seriously, in my humble opinion, if you slip up and use one as opposed to the other, I think most people will get the gist of what you are trying to say.

If you are writing a technical paper or trying to impress the genetic capability of a plant as opposed to its innate ability to thrive in a non-native situation, then using the correct term will be more important.

Dirt vs Soil Dirt is soil without a job. You could say the same about rope vs line.

Whereas this is another situation I don’t get too fussed over when talking with a client, I will take the opportunity to introduce the subtleties within the concept of soil health, thereby emphasizing the better quality as a growing medium.

The photo below illustrates poor dirt as opposed to quality soil. This is compacted with little to no active biology.

The next photo shows a well-aggregated soil with plenty of live biology ready to go to work.

Variety vs cultivar Variety: a naturally occurring subdivision of a species. they will have distinct differences and can breed true to that difference. Cultivar: a shortened term for cultivated variety of a plant. This is a manmade variety; it cannot be reproduced naturally. The usual propagation method is asexual (cloned).

The following link to Iowa State Extension gives the clearest explanation of these terms I have found to date. https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/2008/2-6/CultivarOrVariety.html

Topping vs Reduction These are two terms to definitely understand as they pertain to pruning. Topping is a term that was commonly used in the past often involving the removal of a large portion of the canopy of a tree. The problem being there was no rhyme nor reason to the method or technique resulting in a great deal of long-term damage. This practice is now considered unacceptable, denoting work performed by a sub-standard tree care company.

Reduction is the systematic removal of limbs back to a point where the tree has a reasonable degree of ability to maintain the stem that is left. Reduction is often warranted when the height of the tree or horizontal stretch of a limb presents a situation where failure could cause injury or property damage.

The photo below, taken in 2019, shows a row of hybrid poplars topped several years ago. Many are declining and dying.

In January of 2013, this row of pines (shown below) was reduced in height due to close proximity to the house. The clients did not want to remove the trees but desired increased stability. To date, there is no sign of decline or dieback on any of the trees in this row.

Common concerns about newly planted trees

Perhaps it is simply human nature to want instant gratification. We plant a tree and, well, we want it to look beautiful and grow vigorously right away! We have this image of a mature, lovely specimen gracing our property, shading our patio, providing all those ecosystem benefits we keep reading about. Then reality sets in. It looks the same this week as it did last week. We have to be patient…Oh My Goodness!

If you purchased a ball and burlapped tree (BnB), it lost the majority of its roots in the process of preparing the tree for transplanting. These trees are initially grown in the field, then dug with a tree spade (less often by hand), the surviving root system is then wrapped in burlap. They can lose 85 to 90% of their roots during this process. If you purchased a tree in a container, its root system may be a twisted mess. See my previous blog Selecting A Quality Specimen to Plant.

No matter what method you purchased, freshly planted or transplanted trees will have an establishment period. The general guideline is it takes a year per diameter inch of trunk for the tree to establish. Example: If you plant a tree with a 2″ diameter trunk, it will take approximately 2 years for it to establish.

What does to establish mean? Primarily, the tree needs to develop a new root system as it likely lost a large portion of it during the transplanting process, as mentioned above. All of the water and nutrient uptake is through the root system; it has to redevelop. The more roots it lost, the longer it will take to establish. During that time, you are not going to see much going on above ground as a great deal of its resources need to go below ground. It should leaf out but those leaves may be a bit smaller, and you may not see much elongation in the twigs. Hang in there. Don’t panic yet. This is one of the major reasons we recommend planting bare root trees and/or going with smaller diameter trees. They will establish faster. The root-to-shoot ratio is much greater, enhancing its survival rate.

We hand dug this liner enabling us to save the vast majority of its root system. Transplanted to our property in 2011. Quercus robur x macrocarpa. English and bur oak cross.
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service
What that little liner oak tree looked like in 2019.
Quercus robur x macrocarpa
English and bur oak cross
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

Why we recommend planting a smaller tree: Using 1″ and 4″ trees as examples assuming they were planted close to the same time and are of the same species, the one-inch tree will establish in one year and be off and running while the 4″ tree will spend the next 3 years still working on its root system. In that 3-year time span, the 1″ tree has likely caught up with and is surpassing the 4″ tree in size and development. This is illustrated in the photo below.

One inch trees were planted in spring of 2009 (row on right side of photo); four inch trees were planted in fall of 2008 (row on left side of photo) This photo was taken July of 2009. The one inch trees are going gangbusters.
Populus deltoids ‘Daly poplars’
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

Not only is that smaller tree now a bigger, probably healthier, tree but it was a whole lot cheaper to buy and much easier to plant!

Planting a 4″ caliper ball and burlapped tree is heavy work.
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

In addition to developing a new root system, the new plant may be coming out of a nursery where it was being grown in soil-less media (if in a container) or in soil of completely different physical and chemical composition. (Another good reason for planting a bare root tree: neither of those issues will be a factor.)

Both soil-less media from the container and the soil around a BnB tree can present interface issues interfering with water uptake. Osmotic pressure can create a drought situation in the root zone if the soil around the root ball is wicking the moisture away from the roots.

Purchasing a quality specimen of a tree hardy to your area, suitable for the soils you have with a site that is suitable for the mature tree, and planting it correctly are all important steps in helping your new tree get off to a good start.

Then there is the after care. It will need to be watered appropriately. Which means you will need to monitor the soil around the root ball and the root ball itself until that interface has been breached and equilibrium has been established. As the tree develops, you still need to water appropriately. This will have to be adjusted for its growth and species requirements as well as environmental conditions and soil characteristics that determine how much and how often you will water.

A chronic mistake. People do not think to adjust the initial irrigation set up as the tree grows.
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

During the establishment period, and particularly that first season, your new tree may not look as good as it did in the nursery. This can be particularly shocking in the case of some conifers, especially pines. I tell clients to go ahead and get it planted then not to make eye contact for the first year. Well, you do want to keep an eye on it but it is definitely going to go through a stress period that will be a bit unnerving if you are unprepared. Pines may put out very little growth that first year after planting and look sparse compared to their appearance in the nursery. And deciduous trees and shrubs can desiccate, completely losing their leaves early. Check for new buds being set. If new buds are set, hang in there. All will probably be well. Give your new tree time; it will be worth the wait.

Quaking aspen

Populus tremuloides

Basic statistics: In the willow family, Salicacea. USDA Hardiness Zones 1 to 6 (you gotta love a tree that can go Zone 1!) General height from 20 to 50 ft; spread from 10 to 30 ft. Bloom is insignificant in early spring. Requires full sun and medium water. Typically has good fall color and attracts birds. Suggested use is for naturalizing as, otherwise, can be a high maintenance tree.

This wonderful tree gains its common name from the quivering attitude of its leaves in the slightest breeze. It also has the widest distribution of any North American native tree species. In fact, worldwide, there are only two other species of trees with wider natural ranges: the Populus tremula, European aspen, and the Pinus sylvestris, Scotch pine. (Silvics of North America, Populus tremuloides)

The quaking aspen is a pioneer species, which means it readily colonizes disturbed or bare soil. What that also means is full sun is pretty mandatory so it can be shaded out as other trees establish around it. This process is natural as they give way to successional species. It is considered a short-lived species; however, it is a colony tree establishing a clonal grove which can live a very long time indeed.

A natural aspen grove in the south valley of the Bitterroot Valley, Montana
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

High in the mountains of Utah there is an aspen grove which has been determined to be in the range of 80,000 years old with some estimating the age to possibly one million years. The jury is still out as it is difficult to actually determine the age of the root system of this mammoth organism. It covers an area of approximately 106 acres. Individual stems within this clonal grove average 130 years, determined by tree rings. There is also documentation in the Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research website of a 317-year-old individual located in rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Now consider the urban or residential landscape. Many of our clients in this area, the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, have the impression this tree only lives 10 to 15 years. The extremely short life of an aspen planted in the landscape is determined by the care (or abuse) it receives. They have specific needs in addition to their growth characteristics. Establishing a grove, gorgeous in their natural setting, is less than endearing when the homeowner desires a highly managed and immaculate lawn. This is not the tree’s fault. In my opinion, nursery personnel and/or landscapers need to inform the client of the characteristics of this tree. This is a better option than selling a tree to a homeowner who doesn’t have a clue as to what may happen or simply telling people not to plant this species.

When asked about the desirability of planting aspens, we always let people know if they have the space to let an aspen grow naturally, establishing a colony, they will have better success and a longer-lived tree than if they plant one as a specimen in the middle of their lawn.

If they then try to control the ramets (the young stems produced from the main root system) that come up by using herbicides, they are poisoning the parent plant as well. My article on aspens goes into this conflict in more depth.

Outward visible signs of aspen borer activity.
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service
What the inside of an aspen stem can look like from larval feeding by the aspen borer.
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

We also warn people this tree has the longest list of insect and diseases of any of our trees. That might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I believe this is one of the reasons it is listed as high maintenance. Again, if you let it be a grove, let it naturalize, you will have a self-perpetuating landscape where you only have to harvest the dead/dying trees that might be a hazard. If they can be left as habitat, so much the better. Plan your strategy for where this lovely tree would be best suited. Be honest with yourself as to whether you have the suitable environment for it.

Planted five, 4ft whips in 2012. Photo taken 2018. Just counted 56 stems in our mini-grove.
© 2020 McNeill’s Tree Service

What’s In a Name?

In a recently posted blog on Thuja occidentalis, I briefly mention confusion caused by common names.  As an example, common names for the Thuja occidentalis include Eastern white cedar and swamp cedar.  However, the Thuja occidentalis is not a cedar at all.  In fact, there are no true cedars native to North America.  The common names come from the fact that it smells similar to true cedars from the Mediterranean.  The North American trees most aromatically similar to true cedars belong to Cupressaceae or cypress family.  These include Juniperus, junipers, as well as the Thuja. However, not all members of the Cupressaceae are aromatic. 

Common names are colloquial and/or regional.  What someone calls a swamp maple back east may mean nothing to me in the west.  However, if they reference Acer rubrum, I know exactly what species of tree they are talking about.  These globally-accepted scientific names allow clear communication about specific species no matter where you are in the world, no matter what the native language is.   Which is exactly why scientific names were created; they cross all language barriers. 

The gentleman credited with formalizing binomial nomenclature (broadly meaning a name with two parts), was Carl/Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778).  The first part is the “generic” name, which identifies the genus the plant belongs to.  The second part is the specific epithet, which generally is a descriptive identifier.  Originally the specific epithet may have been several words describing the plant in detail but was shortened to a single word.  Putting the genus and specific epithet together gives you the species: a formal (also called scientific or Latin) name of a specific plant.

Learning these formal or scientific names is really not hard and actually can be fun.  Go ahead and learn the ones of the species you encounter, it really does save confusion and misunderstanding. 

Thuja occidentalis Arborvitae

Please note:  There are many nuances to using plants for food, beverage or medicinal treatment.  I may mention some of these with appropriate citations and/or references.  However, I have no professional experience and am not an authority in this area.  In no manner should any comments in these profiles be construed as recommendations or endorsement. 

Basic stats

Hardiness zones:  3-7 (7 is probably stretching it – they are a northern species after all)

Size:  Smallish to large – Really depends on the cultivar of which there are numerous. 

Growth rate:  slow to medium

Diseases/pests:  Bagworms, leaf miner, spider mites, heart rot and deer browsing. 

Cultural needs:  atmospheric moisture as well as soil moisture.  Prefers well-drained loam (well, who wouldn’t?).  Slightly acidic soil.

Longevity:  Long-lived in natural settings.  Specimen have been found over 1000 years old.    In landscape settings, we have seen 50 to 75-year-old trees still going strong. 

Side bar:  If you want to research old trees, check out this website:  Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research.  http://www.rmtrr.org/oldlist.htm

Pruning care:  This also depends on the cultivar, your personal preference and/or landscape design.  It is always best to select a cultivar that is going to max out in size for the space you want filled.  (This is actually a cross-the-board recommendation for many plants as it will minimize pruning needs, which will be beneficial for its health and welfare as well your pocketbook.) 

When allowed to grow “naturally”, Arborvitaes can become a majestic landscape statement as they mature, growing tall.
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Unfortunately, if planted too close to a structure, they are often shortened or sheared to contain them.
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Another reason people shear and/or shorten these trees is they simply think they should.  They see everyone else doing this and wrongly presume it is what the trees need. 

Availability:  I would rate availability as high.  If not already in stock, most nurseries should be able to order this species or the specific cultivar you need.   I have often seen them offered in balled in burlap and, generally speaking, they transplant well. 

The Arborvitae is an evergreen, meaning it retains green needles/leaves year-round.  (What that doesn’t mean is that those needles/leaves never drop.)   As a landscape plant, this species is very often planted in a tight row, creating a wonderful hedge which may act as a visual or physical barrier or as a delineation of space.  It may be incorporated in efforts at sound attenuation.

This Arborvitae hedge delineates an accessible parking area.
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Please note when I included deer browsing under the Diseases/Pests section above, this was not an incidental comment.  These trees are actually utilized in deer yards as browse during bad winters.  Here in our area, you can gauge just how bad the winter was on wildlife by how hard the arborvitaes were hit. 

Winter pruning courtesy of local deer population.
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If you don’t want them eaten, protect them with fences.  I have also seen success with chunks of Irish Spring soap and products such as Liquid Fence.  No endorsement is intended on specific brands; these are just products I have happened to use myself or have had clients who also have used them.  There are other products which might be just as effective.

Another alternative after the plant has matured, is to prune the lower branches off.  You will still leave the main upright stems for a multi-stemmed plant. The tree is fully capable of growing well past the height of browsing and the cleared trunk can take on a majestic look as seen in a couple of the previous photos posted this blog.

Common names include Eastern white cedar, Northern white cedar, swamp cedar, American or eastern arborvitae.  These common names give you a hint as to its native habitat which is northeastern US and southeastern Canada and it grows in moist environments.  In my neck of the woods, it is most often simply called an arborvitae. 

You may have noticed the other common names for this tree use “cedar”.  However, it is not a true cedar.  By the way, there are no true cedars, (genus Cedrus, family Pinaceae) native to North America.  The Thuja occidentalis is a member of the Cuppressacea which includes the junipers of which the Juniperus virginiana is typically the species used in aromatic wood projects such as cedar chests.  However, the arborivate is very aromatic as well, as any tree worker who has chipped one will attest to:  on-the-job aromatherapy. 

The name “Arborvitae”, meaning “Tree of Life”, is by far the most colorful and descriptive as it literally could be viewed as such.  Jacques Cartier, an explorer for France in the mid-1500s, is credited with bestowing this name.  The tale relates how his second voyage to North America was locked in ice for five months.  He and his men endured bitter cold and the swollen limbs, rotting gums, loose teeth and excruciating pain of scurvy.  They survived by drinking a decoction provided by Huron guides made from the bark and leaves of a tree the Indians called annedda.  The French called it l’arbre de vie; in English “the tree of life”, in New Latin “arborvitae”.  (This information is gleaned from a book by Sheila Connor, New England Natives, pg 51.  A really fun read!)

One of my trips this last year, presenting at Plant Health Care workshops, took me to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I stayed with a friend (who happens to be a plant pathologist); she attended the workshop as well.  While scoping out the venue, we met with the horticulturist who graciously introduced us to an approximately 500 year old Thuja occidentalis bonsai.  We were thrilled.  Trust me, a highlight of the trip.

Approximately 500-year-old Thuja occidentalis.
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