All posts by Almstead

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 4)

Pest and disease control

The healthier your lawn is, the more likely it is to resist pests and diseases. Some pests, however, can be hard to avoid—particularly white grubs. Grubs are the larvae of beetles (primarily Japanese beetles and masked chafers) that develop in the ground. When the population of grubs is significant, you will start seeing brown patches in your lawn, particularly toward late summer. To make matters worse, grubs are a delicacy for some animals, such as skunks and raccoons. Sometimes the problem goes unnoticed until you see holes dug in your turf one morning. Grubs like sunny areas with moisture, and are not often found in shade or in dry lawns.

If you see brown patches in your turf, you can lift up a piece of turf where the brown patch meets green lawn and look at the roots to check. The grubs are white and C-shaped. It only takes about 10 grubs per square foot of lawn to cause visible damage.

If you catch the problem early, or if you see a large adult population of beetles,  Almstead lawn technicians usually perform a summer lawn treatment.  Although mid-summer and fall treatments are sometimes effective, June is the best time to prevent grubs from damaging your lawn.

There is also an effective organic treatment for grubs which we use, which utilizes milky spore, a grub-killing bacterial powder. However, this only works on Japanese Beetle grubs and must build up in your soil over time to work. We can test your lawn to identify what type of grub is living there.

Other insects, such as chinchbugs, can be damaging to lawns. When you see yellowing patches, or grass blades that have been notched and nibbled, we try to identify the insect responsible and narrowly target it with the appropriate control.

Lawn diseases are usually fungal. Fortunately, they are not common. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to diagnose and can spread quickly. If you suspect your lawn is suffering from disease rather than insect damage, it’s wise to have a sample taken and analyzed in order to determine the right treatment.

The best prevention for lawn disease and pests is maintaining the health of the lawn. A well-nourished, watered, well-mown lawn becomes a self-sustaining system that is hostile to predators.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 3)

Weed Control


There is no universal definition of a weed. You may be content to see clover among the grass stalks in your lawn, while someone else reaches for the Roundup. Some people carefully scrutinize their lawns and remove any undesirables with tweezers while others are content as long as the weeds are green. Is it enough to eliminate the crabgrass and broadleaf weeds and leave some clover mixed in your lawn? Or do you want a lawn as luxuriant as a golf course green?

Frankly, having a completely weed-free lawn is setting the bar rather high, and will require frequent application of weed control products. Since most herbicides are synthetic, a totally weed-free lawn is not compatible with an organic-only care philosophy.

There are two major categories of weed control: pre-emergent and post-emergent. The pre-emergent treatments prevent seeds from germinating. This helps control weeds like crabgrass, which begin from seed each year. There are several kinds of synthetic pre-emergent products available. Pre-emergent herbicides won’t do much to get rid of plants like dandelions that overwinter in your lawn and spread through roots.

Post-emergent herbicides target broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, plantain and ground-ivy.  Some can be applied to the entire lawn; others are made to squirt directly onto the offending weed.  The herbicide will be absorbed into the weed and kill it off, roots and all. Be careful – it will kill anything it touches with leaves, including your annuals and perennials.

There are no comparable herbicides in organic care. Ideally, as you create a healthier environment for grass, it will become harder for weeds to compete. Weeds tend to thrive and out-compete grass in compacted soil—which is why annual core aeration is a good technique. There are organic vinegar-based  spot-herbicides that can be sprayed on weeds—but they can kill grass as well, if you’re not careful. Perhaps the best organic practice is to pull weeds by hand. There are several hand tools designed to remove weeds; just make sure you extract the entire root or the weed will grow back.

How often you apply weed controls depends upon your philosophy and your budget. Although pre-emergent controls are usually applied in early spring, the post-emergent controls can be applied as you notice the weeds appearing. You can just use them in the areas where weeds are apparent. They are usually applied when the lawn is dry; they need a few hours free of rain or watering. When Almstead provides lawn care to our clients, we typically offer two applications of pre-emergent herbicide in spring, and then follow up with monthly inspections, applying post-emergent controls as necessary.

Hand-pulling weeds is usually easiest when the ground is moist. If you intend to compost the weeds, make sure you turn your compost pile often and that it gets warm enough to kill the seeds (over 131 degrees). Otherwise, you’ll wind up cultivating them rather than killing them.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 2)


How you nourish your lawn depends a lot upon your “turf philosophy.” A wide range of choices are available, from totally organic to traditional synthetic products—and combinations in between.


Whatever your philosophy on type of care, it’s useful to begin by having your soil tested. The cost is nominal and it’s easy to do: There are both mail-in and drop-off labs you can use. Once you have a soil analysis, you can fertilize with the products that are right for your property.

In fertilizing lawns, less is often more. Too many people (including landscapers sometimes, unfortunately) dump large amounts of products on lawns, without understanding what the turf actually needs and can absorb. The goal is to create a healthy lawn ecosystem, which will ultimately lead to less use of soil amendments. (See the earlier post about the value of core aeration and composting.) When you add too much of some synthetic fertilizers, it will either wash through the soil unused or actually damage the turf by “burning” the grass.

One of the advantages of organic products is that they are far less likely to damage turf. Organic fertilizers break down slowly and gradually release their nutrients to improve the structure of the soil. This means that it will take longer to see results from organic products; the soil improvements from organic fertilizers will ultimately lead to improved turf, but it could take a couple of seasons. In order to expedite this process, some organic lawn care specialists (including Almstead), “brew” Compost Teas that contains live beneficial microorganisms. This liquid compost can be used to add these organisms directly to the soil, offering a boost to the organic soil improvement process.

One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How much and how often should I fertilize?” This depends on your lawn goals, available time (assuming you’re doing it yourself) and budget. In general, 2 pounds of nitrogen is the right amount for per 1,000 square feet of lawn in our area, but soil testing may modify that proportion for your property. The rule of thumb for timing is to fertilize around Memorial Day and Labor Day—and that’s not a bad plan. We have many clients who are happy with the results of a twice-per-year fertilization program. On the other hand, more frequent fertilization visits allow us to narrowly target the growing cycle of the lawn and tailor nutrition to weather and conditions. So we also offer a six times/year schedule (organic, traditional or mixed). That level of attention usually leads to a lawn that looks lush, plush and close to perfect.

Patience and consistency are important in developing beautiful turf: your lawn won’t go from scrub to velvet in a single season. Consistent care, including proper mowing and watering, will help your lawn look great.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 1)

Prepping and Mowing 

Having a beautiful lawn requires attention. Over the next few weeks, our blog will cover a few of the most important dynamics of creating lush, green turf.  We’ll begin with lawn prepping and mowing and then cover fertilization, weed control and pest/disease control.


Creating a healthy lawn is a process that starts with choosing the right grass seed for your location. The first thing to understand is: grass doesn’t grow in the shade. While some grass is more tolerant of shade than others, it will still need several hours of dappled sunlight in order to look good.  Often it’s possible to thin out trees to permit enough light to reach the lawn. If the area is permanently in shade, you might want to forget about planting grass there, in favor of ground cover, hardscape or mulch.

Several varieties of grass are commonly planted in our area; each has its own strengths and drawbacks. There is no “right” grass for all lawns. The right grass for you depends on your soil, sunlight and priorities: do you want a lawn that stays green into fall? Or grass that can take a beating from active play? Or a lawn that can survive with less water?

Kentucky Bluegrass is popular and durable but doesn’t like shade. Fescue and perennial ryegrass are also common in our area, and are more shade tolerant. Most lawns are planted with a mix of these grasses, and different grasses will dominate different areas of your lawn.

It’s often useful to begin your lawn program by checking for soil compaction. Try inserting a long screwdriver into the turf. If it doesn’t easily go in 6” deep, the soil is too compacted to encourage your grass to grow. You’ll want to use a core aerator to pull plugs from the soil and stimulate the roots to grow. This will also help to avoid thatch buildup. If you don’t use a professional for this task, rent or borrow an aerator: the spike shoes and hand tools you see advertised really don’t do the job.This is typically a fall activity, because the plugs may contain weed seed that you don’t want to encourage to grow.

Top dressing with a thin layer of compost in the spring will also get your lawn off to a good start. (This can also be done in fall.) Overseeding can help fill in bare patches.

One of the most important parts of lawn care is mowing. Proper mowing actually encourages your lawn to grow thicker and stronger, by channeling the growth energy into the roots. We recommend setting your lawnmower at 3” – 4”. Maintaining a lawn at less than that makes the lawn very vulnerable to drying out and scorching.

Many people are using mulching mowers now, too, which distribute the grass cuttings back into the lawn, where they decompose, releasing their nutrients back to the soil. Most experts recommend mowing about 1/3 of the length of the blade every time you mow. For mulching mowers, this will keep the cuttings short enough to sink back into the lawn.

The Right Way to Prune Trees

Pruning small trees is not difficult, but it does require care and knowledge. There are many reasons to prune trees, including: to trim away dead or dying branches, to provide healthier air circulation among the branches, to keep them clear of obstacles or buildings and to highlight their natural beauty. 

correct pruning cut

Although most trees can be pruned at any time when it’s necessary, late winter is the time I recommend, before the tree needs to use its energy for growing. Also, for deciduous trees, you get a better look at the tree structure without leaves. Before you pick up the pruning saw, take a good look at the structure of the branches. If you see branches rubbing together or crossing, one should be pruned away. Are there dead branches that need to be removed? Are there signs of disease?

The timing of pruning sometimes depends on the purpose of your tree. For example, if you intend to harvest fruit from your apple or pear tree, pruning after the fruit is harvested is recommended. If the fruit tree is ornamental, pruning in winter or after flowering is fine.

The first rule of pruning trees is safety. If you need to climb a ladder, make sure that it is firmly situated. For small trees, a pruning saw and loppers should meet your needs. Don’t use a chainsaw, unless you have safety training. The same goes for climbing. Any reputable tree care company (such as Almstead), requires many hours of training and certification before we let our crews perform this kind of work.

 When pruning tree limbs close to the trunk (as opposed to outer branches that are pruned back to a fork or a lateral bud), it’s important to understand the role of the branch collar. The branch collar is the junction where the branch meets the trunk; it is a swollen ring around the bottom of the branch that looks more like the tree trunk than the branch. Never prune the branch flush with the trunk: you should leave the branch collar intact. Ideally the pruning cut is made just beyond the branch collar. If you’re in doubt, leaving extra branch is better than damaging the collar. 

The reason for this careful treatment of the branch collar is to help the trees heal themselves. Trees have the ability to compartmentalize damage. The branch collar will seal off the wound made by pruning; if the cut was made correctly, in a couple of years, the wound will be healed. It used to be common to paint something over these wounds to seal them; now we realize that the tree will do the job better if left alone. 

The Biggest Mistake You Can Make Pruning Shrubs

For most of us, pruning shrubs is a do-it-yourself project. Unfortunately, the results are not always satisfactory. This is especially true in the long-term: often a shrub looks good right after pruning but becomes progressively less attractive in the following seasons. What went wrong?

One key mistake is usually responsible: not knowing your plant. 

You don’t need to be a botanist or an arborist to understand the basic requirements of your shrubs. Observation, coupled with a little research, will provide you with a pruning plan that will enhance the appearance of every shrub in your landscape, while promoting their long-term health.


One of the first things to learn is when to prune. Late winter is the ideal time to prune most shrubs—but there are exceptions such as lilacs and azaleas. The rule of thumb is to prune in winter unless the shrub flowers in June or earlier; these should be pruned after flowering. You only need to do the research on your plants once, then you’ll have a pruning calendar for the future. For most landscapes, two or three pruning times a year will meet the needs of every plant.

Another important thing to know is what your shrub or tree should look like. Unless you are an extremely skilled and committed pruner, you will want to enhance the natural shape of the shrub rather than coerce it into an artificial form. Even in something as common as a hedge, maintaining a formal shape is much more labor- and knowledge-intensive than maintaining an informal one that allows for the natural forms of the shrubs.

Plants such as roses, forsythia and viburnum, which are so common in our gardens, are often pruned incorrectly. A few seasons of shaping forsythia into a ball by shearing off the ends will leave you with a shrub that has few flowers and many brown, woody stems. Pruning canes from the base (the correct method) will lead to a beautiful drift of yellow flowers.

In fact, there are really no plants that can be simply sheared into the shapes we want. For hedge plants such as boxwood, arborvitae and yew, which are often sheared, pruning is necessary as well. Is the hedge or ornamental beginning to show woody dark places instead of lush greenery? This will only get worse, unless you let some light inside the hedge and prune to promote new growth. (The need for sun is also why the top of the hedge should be narrower than the base.) Ideally, after shaping the plant each year, you will judiciously prune some branches, promoting new inside growth. If this hasn’t been done in several years, it may be time for a serious rejuvenation pruning.

Pruning evergreens, like pine and spruce, requires hand pruners rather than shears. These trees and shrubs should not be pruned beyond the current year’s growth. If you wish to maintain their size or shape them, careful annual pruning by trimming the new candles is a must.

Woody deciduous ornamentals, such as lilac and Japanese maple, require gentle pruning to refine their shape. Some, such as lilacs, will need to be “de-cluttered” of the nest of crossing branches that can limit airflow and encourage diseases. Others, like Japanese maple, will need an occasional snip to correct any branches that depart from the desired shape. For an ornamental such as laceleaf Japanese maple, begin by envisioning what the tree should ultimately look like: a series of fans, gently overlapping but maintaining separate layers. Carefully trim out any limbs that touch the ground or fall on the layer below. If you’re not sure, wait until next year and see how it looks then—you get another chance.

Although learning to prune properly can seem daunting, it is also rewarding. Mistakes are rarely fatal to your shrubs. Observe your plants and see how they respond to your pruning. Every year, you will improve—and so will your landscape. And of course, if this isn’t a job you want to do yourself, an arborist can help you keep your landscape in top shape.

Pruning Cane Plants

Now is the perfect time to get out your pruning shears and attack your rose bushes! Although it seems like winter still stretches out interminably before us, spring is actually approaching. Now, just as plants begin to break their dormancy and their buds are beginning to swell, is the time to prune most cane plants. Regular pruning promotes healthy growth and lush flowering in cane plants.


Many of our flowering shrubs can be categorized as “cane plants.” These plants continue to send up new shoots from their bases, where they typically have formed a clump. Roses and forsythia are our most common examples; the group also includes bamboo, kerria, weigela and deutzia among others.

rose-pruning-cutBefore you reach for your pruning shears, there is an important first step: take a good look at your shrub. What do you see? Are there dead canes? Even in winter, dead canes will appear different from live ones: they will look shriveled and blackened.  These will be the first things to prune away.  Now take a longer look and envision how you would like your plant to ultimately look.  Forsythia, like many cane plants, has a gently weeping shape. Pruning should enhance the beauty of this shape. Although clipping forsythia into a hedge is fairly common, it does not highlight the beauty of the plant. I recommend putting down the hedge clippers in favor of pruning shears.

In general, we prune cane plants by removing the canes close to the ground. When we prune, we are actually helping the plant by “de-cluttering” it.  Old canes often give the shrub a stiff structure, rather than a graceful form. Removing canes that are touching or crossing will open up the plant visually and allow for air flow as well, helping to prevent disease. We are also helping to keep the plant at the size we want – rather than the 10 or 15 ft. in height it might want to achieve on its own!

The actual process of pruning isn’t difficult. Using CLEAN pruning shears or loppers, get down close to the ground and remove the dead canes, along with any puny or diseased ones. Then remove the canes you’ve identified that are cluttering the plant.  If you have a bush that hasn’t been regularly pruned, you may wind up removing a major portion of the plant.  If you prune annually, removing about 1/8 to ¼ of the plant is typical.

If you are pruning an older plant, especially one that hasn’t been recently pruned, you may need to use a small pruning saw to remove some of the old wood in the center of the plant. This can be a challenge (especially on thorny rose bushes), but it will improve the appearance and health of your plants. These old, hardened canes often clutter up the center of the shrub, and flower very little.

Most canes don’t flower in the first year (roses are the exception here). Forsythia, for example, will not flower on new wood; they begin flowering the second year, then they flower profusely for a few years and start to slack off. This is true for some climbing roses as well. Removing older canes regularly and encouraging younger canes to grow will maximize the flower production on your bush. Also prune away the ends that are touching the ground: on a vigorous bush like forsythia, they’ll root, causing an unruly clump.

The guidelines above work for roses as well. For hybrid tea roses (the most common roses in our gardens), we also prune back the individual canes.  Leave only strong branches on roses, and prune so that they are growing outward; cut at a 45° angle just above a bud facing outward.  Roses are prone to fungal diseases and adequate air flow will help keep them healthy.

You should also prune away any suckers on your rose bushes. Suckers are shoots coming out from the roots; they are common in grafted plants such as older roses.  Uncover the sucker with a trowel and nip it away where it meets the roots.

One of the great things about cane plants is their vigor: they’re hard to kill. If you’re overenthusiastic in your pruning, you may lose a season of bloom, but they’ll likely come back stronger and better next year.

Why You Should Prune Your Trees in Winter

When spring comes, we think of all the things we should do in the garden, such as pruning. But winter can be a better time to prune for several reasons.

Pruning in winter is like having an x-ray. In winter, deciduous trees have cast off their coverings, giving us a much better view of their structure. We get a clear picture of the entire tree, allowing us to identify weak branch connections, cracks in limbs, unsafely crossing limbs and dead wood. Winter is the ideal time to uncover and address the structural flaws that can eventually lead to branch or tree failures.

The structure of this tree is revealed by winter.
The structure of this tree is revealed in winter.

Winter storms are dangerous pruners. High winds and wet snow put tremendous strain on branches. Broken branches should be professionally pruned so that the cut can be in the right place to promote the natural healing process that trees employ. We recommend that you identify and remove dead or cracked branches before winter does its own pruning, which can be dangerous for property, people, and the tree.

Your yard won’t mind. Pruning and removing trees is easier when the ground is frozen. A tree care professional can typically move heavy equipment closer to the trees they are working on without harming lawns or herbacious perennials and annuals. Removing dead trees is often simpler when surrounding trees are bare. Plus, your family will experience less inconvenience when they’re usually indoors anyway.

Make spring more beautiful. Many of the flowering trees and shrubs we love, like apples, cherries, and magnolias, have already formed their buds for spring flowers by the end of fall of the previous year. By selectively pruning in winter, we can improve the saturation of flowers and fruit they have in the growing season. Winter is a busy pruning season for orchards! Proper pruning techniques are important, whether on a shrub or tree. If you do your own shrub pruning, make sure you pick the right season for each shrub and use the proper techniques. For example, pruning early flowering shrubs now (like azaleas) will lead to fewer blossoms.

Before you prune your own trees, make sure you understand proper pruning techniques. Correct pruning, whether to remove dead wood or to improve a tree’s structure, is much more than just picking a spot and sawing away: the placement and execution of a proper cut actually helps the tree with its healing process.

When trees require pruning of high branches or a power saw is needed, it’s time to call a professional. A professional tree care company, like Almstead, has the right tools, equipment and safety training to do the job.

Beating Heat Stress

We are at the peak of summer, and the weather can have a toll on your trees, shrubs and lawn. Extended periods of heat and humidity, along with bright sunshine, warm nights and inadequate rain can lead to summer stress on your landscape.

Arranging a soaker hose to cover the critical root zone of a tree is a great method for the slow, saturated watering that’s best for trees.

Horticulturally speaking, the first place many people notice the effects of heat stress is on lawns, which have the good sense to go dormant and wait it out. We definitely recommend a combination of over-seeding and core aeration this fall to help rejuvenate your grass as the summer comes to an end. However, lawns are actually faring better than many trees, although the symptoms may not be as obvious.

Plants are constantly losing water through tiny holes in their leaves through a process called transpiration, and when it’s hot, the rate of that water loss increases. Add to that a lack of adequate rainfall, and the result is often stressed plant material. The problem facing trees is that they’re really big, and they do not have the luxury of going dormant in hot summer months, like lawns. Instead, trees have a lot of active leaves, so they lose a lot of water, and their roots are searching to replace that water in some pretty dry ground.

Trees suffering from heat stress face problems with producing new growth, healing wounds, and fighting against diseases and insects. If they’re stressed enough, they eventually run out of energy to support their existing growth and begin to decline (sometimes irreversibly). Newly planted (within the last 2 years) and mature trees are the most at risk for serious decline, and we’ve seen both this summer. Some trees that are most prone to heat stress and drought include Birches, American Dogwoods, and Japanese Maples.


Signs of heat stress in trees tend to develop toward the top of the canopy first, so property owners don’t often notice it right away. They include smaller leaf size, leaf scorch (browning and/or yellowing), wilting, and sometimes loss of foliage (a particularly bad sign). 


So, What’s the Solution?

The best way to fight heat stress in trees is through a combination of proper irrigation, mulching, and organic soil amendments.


Proper irrigation means focusing water on saturating the root zone of a tree. Sprinklers may be good for lawns, but they aren’t going to get the job done for trees. A properly placed soaker hose is a better solution. Treegators are ideal especially for young trees, which run a high risk of suffering heat stress. With a traditional garden hose, it’s also possible to set the flow to a trickle and move the mouth of the hose around to four or five different areas of the root zone over the course of the day.

Treegators are bags with tiny holes that slowly release water into the root zone of a tree.

A good line of defense against hot weather conditions is to apply a layer of mulch around trees and plants. Light colored mulches are better at reflecting sunlight and keeping the soil cooler in summer. Mulch also reduces evaporation of water from the soil and reduces the need to water constantly. However, to be effective, mulch needs to be applied correctly.


We recommend a depth of 2-3 inches of mulch for trees and shrubs. It should also cover a diameter of 3-4 feet around trees (to the tree’s drip line ideally) and not pile up against the stem or trunk flare. If you have any questions about mulching, please speak to your Almstead arborist.

Soil Care:

In terms of soil care, organic amendments increase a tree’s drought tolerance without spurring new growth that it can’t afford to support (which is the result of synthetic fertilization of heat stressed plants). Also, by using a soil needle injection method for applying soil amendments (as opposed to a soil drench), we can break up compacted ground and introduce better flow of nutrients, air, and water into the root zone. In addition to Almstead’s organic soil care services our arborists are always glad to advise you on irrigation practices, and we also provide watering services for plants out of reach of irrigation.

To formulate a heat stress survival plan for your trees (and shrubs, and lawn), please schedule a complimentary consultation with your Almstead arborist.

Protecting Elm Trees Against Dutch Elm Disease (DED)

Elm trees were once the pride of New York cities and towns, with their over-100 feet heights, wide trunks and overarching spreads. Since the 1950s, however, millions of Elm trees have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease, a fungal infection that originated in Asia but was first described in Holland in 1921 (hence the name). It began appearing in elms in the United States in the 1930s.

The disease is carried from tree to tree either by bark beetles or directly through the merged roots of two or more adjacent trees. Once a tree if infected it has no chance for survival. As a tree fights the infection, because of internal scarring, it loses the ability to transport nutrients and water through its trunks and slowly dies in a few months.

Although there is not much that can be done once an elm tree is infected, there are preventative measures that can be taken to protect these magnificent trees.

Quick Removal of Diseased Trees and Branches

It is important to remove infected trees as quickly as possible to reduce the breeding sites for the elm bark beetle and contain its spread. If the wood from infected trees is being stored for firewood, the bark must be removed from the pieces and destroyed. Branches with flagging symptoms should be removed with the cut made 5-10 feet behind any visual symptoms. Speak to your Almstead arborist about removing trees and branches that have possibly been infected with DED.

Inoculating Elm trees against DED

ten six

We have found that inoculating Elm trees as the best way of preventing Dutch elm disease. Over the past few years, Almstead has employed this method to successfully treat and prevent infection in hundreds of elm trees in our area.

We select multiple injection points in the root system of a tree and circulate a fungicide mixture simultaneously to all entry points using a pump. The concentration of the mixture is calculated based on the circumference of the trunk as well as the height and spread of the tree.

The tree does the rest. It takes in the control solution to all its branches. Depending on the size of the Elm, this can take over 5 hours. The treatment is 99.5% effective and will last for 2-3 years depending on the size and condition of the tree, at which point it will have to be repeated.

one two

For more information on Dutch Elm Disease and other pathogens that commonly affect plant life in our region, we recommend visiting

Preserving Old Trees During Construction – Part 1

Almstead was brought in to consult on preserving Sugar Maple trees — that are approximately 75 years old — during the construction of a new home in Riverside, CT. These beautiful old trees will definitely add to the value and aesthetic of the property once the construction is complete. In the meantime, it’s our job to make sure that they stay healthy and safe. In general, Maple trees have a high level of adaptability to environmental change.

We found major soil disturbance within the drip line of the tree caused by the blasting of ledge rock and the excavation for construction and the installation of utilities.

Over the course of the next year, Almstead will monitor the site and ensure that the trees are healthy, and looking their best, after the construction is over. In addition to consultation, our services will include root and crown pruning, fertilizations, soil amendments and air spading.

We will post photos and updates on this project here in the coming months.


(Top ) Blasting of ledge rock was done in preparation for construction. You can see the fault line and exposed roots that have resulted from the rock blasting. 

(Bottom) Before and after root pruning — Almstead will be pruning the roots as well as the crown. We will also be treating the tree with cambistat growth regulators and custom fertilizations during and after construction to help preserve these trees throughout the process.

Worm Power

“I doubt that there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world.”   –Charles Darwin on earthworms

Most people know that earthworms are a sign of healthy soil. Worms process the soil, making it more tillable and creating better conditions for root development. Earthworm castings – the waste produced as they churn through the soil — are a buffet for beneficial microbes and provide nutrients that nourish roots. As soil improves and becomes richer in organic matter (think compost), the conditions become better for earthworms and the cycle of soil improvement continues.


In addition to promoting healthy soil, scientists have evidence that earthworms actually suppress soil diseases. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station researched the effect of earthworms on vegetables grown in soil infested with soilborne plant pathogens. When earthworms were added to the soil, disease pathogens decreased by 50 – 70% and plant weights increased by 60 – 80% versus the control group. Though more research would be necessary to determine whether the worms directly destroyed the pathogens or if they promoted the presence of healthy microbes that populated and defended the root zone, the beneficial effect of worms on plant growth was impressive.

So how do we encourage earthworms to populate our lawns and gardens?

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible, unless it is compacted. General tilling of the soil just disrupts the worms’ environment. Let them do the tilling for you.
  2. Keep the soil “sweet.” Worms don’t like acidic soil so amend the soil with lime, if necessary, to raise the pH. Worms also need calcium, which is usually absent from acidic soils. Your turf will do better with a higher pH as well as applying a spring or fall lime soil testing to see where it is required.
  3. Feed them. Worms thrive on decaying organic matter. In the urban landscape, we usually remove the leaf litter that nourishes worms. Adding compost and mulch, and leaving grass clippings, will provide them with what they need to thrive.
  4. Minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical residues will slow the buildup of the worm population. Transition to an organic-based or organic lawn care program and incorporate organic soil and PHC programs into your landscape.


Soil Care at Almstead

At Almstead, soil improvement is a top priority of our arborists and technicians who care for trees and lawns. We custom-blend top quality compost for top-dressing both lawns and plants – providing a jump-start for your soil. We also custom-blend Compost Tea, which is alive with beneficial microorganisms. Compost Tea can be applied as a drench or soil injection, so the microbes enrich the soil without disturbing it.

It’s almost impossible for earthworms to move through compacted soil. In these situations, we use an AirSpade to remove areas of compacted soil.  We then backfill these trenches with rich compost. This loosens up the soil and gives a base camp for worms and beneficial organisms to gradually penetrate and improve the surrounding soil.  Your arborist can measure levels of soil compaction throughout your landscape in order to formulate a plan if needed.


Are Emerald Ash Borers Expanding Their Diet?

Are Emerald Ash Borers Expanding Their Diet?

The recent announcement that the Emerald Ash Borer has arrived in Peekskill NY brings new urgency our local fight against this invasive insect. We strongly urge anyone who is the custodian of a healthy ash tree to consult with your arborist about the options for preserving the tree BEFORE the insect arrives in your area.

Ash Tree
The stately ash tree is one of our dominant forest trees, as well as a popular specimen tree used extensively in urban planting.

Since arriving in Michigan in 2002, the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis)
has cut a devastating swath through the Central and Eastern United States, killing tens of millions of ash trees — destroying over 99% of the ash population in many areas. There are currently over 8 billion ash trees in the U.S. The loss of these trees represents an environmental disaster and an economic one as well: the impact is estimated to reach $10 billion in the next 5 years.

Until recently, Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) damage had been confined to the ash species (Fraxinus). Now, researchers from Wright State University in Ohio have found evidence of EAB infestation in white fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus), a species closely related to ash trees.

The white fringetree is a native understory tree found throughout the Eastern U.S. Although fringetrees are not important to the lumber industry, the trees fill an environmental niche in forests and are also popular as ornamental trees. In addition to the specter of another species-wide devastation, the appearance of EAB in white fringetrees causes concern because it may presage the migration of EAB to other tree species. Ash trees and white fringetrees are both members of the broader olive genus which includes common shrubs such as lilacs and forsythia.

White Fringetree
The white fringetree is named for the delicate flowers that cover it in spring.

How EAB Destroy Trees

EAB can fly about ½ mile in search of an ash tree to host their eggs. Unlike most species of boring insects that prefer to lay their eggs in already damaged trees, EAB will choose healthy as well as stressed specimens. They lay their eggs on the trunk and leave them to dine on the ash. As the larvae develop, they bore into the ash tree, carving serpentine galleries as they gnaw into the tender cambium just beneath the bark. Once infested, ash trees typically die within 2 to 3 years, as the damaged cambium becomes incapable of supplying water and nutrients to the branches.

Although EAB will relentlessly expand their territory every year, they have often had help in increasing their range. People unwittingly moving firewood have transported EAB to new locations, causing the epidemic to move even faster.

Emerald Ash Borer Larva
The serpentine galleries carved in the cambium nourish the larvae but kill the tree.

What Can We Do?

At this point, EAB has no natural predator in this country – unlike in Asia where it originated. Scientists are studying several species of wasp that prey on EAB in its native range for possible control, but no solution seems imminent.

Meanwhile, we have the ability to save individual ash trees. Keeping ash trees healthy will boost their immune systems and help them resist any opportunistic pests. Systemic injections will stop EAB larvae from damaging a valued ash tree. Depending upon the treatment chosen and the timing, a single treatment can provide control and protection for 2 to 3 years.

Investing in preserving specimen ash trees has multiple benefits. In addition to maintaining and enjoying an individual iconic American tree, every ash tree that survives the onslaught of EAB will act as a genetic reservoir for repopulating this beautiful species after the EAB is – hopefully – controlled or eradicated.


Why Leaves Change Color

Autumn is here and, as the Simon and Garfunkel hit song goes, “the leaves that are green turn to brown.”  In the New York Metro area, we are lucky to be treated to a fireworks display of autumn colors. Few places have the variety and intensity of color that we see in the foliage of the Northeast. Aside from entertaining us, nature also has another purpose in painting so many trees with these intense hues.


Different fall colors occur for different reasons. The orange and yellow pigment (carotene and xanthophyll respectively) in leaves doesn’t suddenly appear – it has been there all along, only disguised by the intense green of chlorophyll. During the summer, trees use their leaves to make glucose, which gives them energy to use and to store for the winter. Leaves are solar panels for trees; the leaves of deciduous trees add tremendous surface area for collecting sunlight. Photosynthesis uses this sunlight, along with carbon dioxide and chlorophyll to manufacture glucose. As trees segue into winter, they can no longer replenish the moisture that evaporates from their canopies, so they turn off the tap and starve the leaves of water. As the green chlorophyll ceases production and fades, the yellows and oranges that have been there all along become visible.

Reds and purples come from anthocyanins that form when glucose is trapped in the leaves. There are theories about what benefit this provides to the tree. Some scientists feel this allows leaves to remain on the branches longer, providing the tree with added nutrients. Others think that as red and purple leaves decay the anthocyanins make the ground inhospitable to competing species.

Brown leaves contain large deposits of tannins, a waste product of photosynthesis.

When Color Change is a Warning Sign

Although color change is natural for deciduous trees, premature color change is often a warning sign. When trees accelerate the process of shutting off their leaves for the winter, it is usually in response to some stress such as disease or lack of water.


Sometimes only a single branch will turn color.  This is a signal that the branch is injured or there is disease present. An arborist can determine the source of the problem and suggest recommendations to rectify it before it develops further or results in the loss of the tree.

— Ken Almstead, CEO

Protecting Trees from Lightening Strikes

Whenever we see a tree damaged by lightening, it makes us wonder about the potential for danger on our own property. Fortunately, lightning protection is fairly easy to install, and dramatically reduces the risk to the tree and your property.

There are 25 million lightning strikes in the U.S. each year. There’s no way to determine how many strike trees, but it is estimated in the tens of thousands. Anyone who hikes in our area only needs to look carefully at the tall trees to see signs of lightning damage.

As we all know, lightning is attracted to tall objects — a category that certainly includes trees. Some species of trees are more vulnerable to lightning strikes than others (oak, elm, maple, poplar, ash, spruce, pine and tulip tree are species more likely to be hit than, for example, beech or birch), but none are immune.

Lightning can damage or kill an otherwise healthy tree. It can also jump from a nearby tree to enter your home through wires or pipes – the same way as if your house had been hit directly. The National Fire Protection Association says in its Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems:

Trees with trunks within 10 ft. of a structure or with branches that extend to a height above the structure should be equipped with a lightning protection system because of the danger of a side-flash, fire or superheating of the moisture in the tree, which could result in the splintering of the tree. It might be desirable to equip other trees with a lightning protection system because of a particular tree’s value to the owner.
Source: NFPA 780

Protecting special trees and trees close to your home will keep your property safer and increase your peace of mind. We install lightning rods that are inconspicuous, safe for the tree and able to accommodate tree growth for many years. If a tree is hit by lightning, the lightning cables are designed to channel the current away from the tree (and any buildings) and into the ground where it can safely dissipate.

— Ken Almstead, CEO

 lightning-striking-tree1 lightning-striking-tree2 lightning-striking-tree3

Our Hornbeams Grace “9/11 Memorial” at Horace Mann School


In September 2002, Almstead planted two European Columnar Hornbeam trees at Horace Mann School as part of a 9/11 Memorial. These trees were specially chosen for their columnar form — and we have pruned them periodically to keep them looking natural but also mimic the shape of the Twin Towers — to remind visitors of their significance at the Memorial.

Last week, twelve years later, an entirely new student body gathered to remember 9/11. The Hornbeam trees, which were about 7 feet tall when they were planted on 2002, are now over 30 feet tall. Hornbeams can live for more than a century and these trees will be there to help future generations of Horace Mann students learn and remember.

Read an article about the 2014 event on the Horace Mann website here.

— Ken Almstead, CEO

Why Are There So Many Grass Seeds?

What we call “lawn grass” covers a variety of plants from several genera. We typically divide lawn grasses into two broad categories: cool-season and warm-season. In our area, cool-season grasses are grown almost exclusively, since our winters are at the limit of tolerance for warm-season grasses. Four species account for almost all of the seed planted in our area: Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue and fine fescue. The roots of these grasses start growing when temperatures reach about 50 degrees; the shoots start growing quickly when the temperature is in the 60s. As the thermometer reaches 80 degrees, growth slows and the grass becomes dormant in high summer heat.


As you can see from the accompanying table, each variety of grass has different characteristics. The first important distinction is between sun and shade. Unfortunately, there are few plants that will grow in both full sun and deep shade—including grasses. So if you have a typical lawn (a grassy patch surrounded by trees), you probably have full sun at the center and shade at the edges. This is why sun/shade mixes were developed.

Grass requires sun. When we refer to “shade,” we really mean at least four hours of dappled sun daily. If you get less sun than that, you can sometimes prune your trees to allow more light to reach the grass. If you have deep shade, a ground cover such as pachysandra or mulch is a better choice.

While a sun/shade mix is generally the best choice for the varied conditions of a lawn, you may want to choose a single grass to meet the conditions of a specific area. When you’re filling in patches in the shade, you could use fine fescue alone or a shade mix. Similarly, a sunny spot will do well with Kentucky bluegrass or almost any mix.

Sometimes sun vs. shade is not the only consideration. If you have kids frequently playing on the lawn, rugged quick-growing tall fescue may be a better choice. This is also a good choice for a slope, and has the benefit of better drought tolerance. However, because tall fescue is a coarser grass, it doesn’t have the silky appearance that a fine grass has. If you want a strong, low-maintenance lawn, a blend of 65 percent tall fescue (combined with 15 percent perennial ryegrass and 20 percent Kentucky bluegrasses or something similar) is a good choice.

The grass that we grow for our lawns was originally brought from Europe along with the animals that like to eat it; these grasses quickly replaced our native grasses. As many of us have become more interested in native plants, there has been renewed interest in buffalo grass, which originally covered the Great Plains. Buffalo grass is a warm-season grass, but can be grown in our area. Except for seedheads, it stops growing at 4 to 6 inches, so it requires little mowing. There are some problems in planting buffalo grass, however: it requires full sun. It is also killed by traditional lawn weed controls; hand weeding is usually necessary.

Salted Evergreens

Fallen trees have been removed, power has been restored, and people are back in their homes. For those of us in Westchester County, the effects of Hurricane Sandy have passed. Or not.

pine salt damage

Since mid-November, I have been seeing an unusual level of salt damage to evergreens. While winter road salt always has a bad effect on many evergreens, the damage I’ve noticed recently is far more extensive. One of the effects of Hurricane Sandy was to carry salt spray from the ocean and drop it throughout our area. The northeast winds gave many of our shrubs a thorough drenching of salt water. Throughout the towns bordering Long Island Sound, we have been seeing extensive salt damage, particularly on the northeastern and eastern facing sides of evergreens. Many white pines that were near the ocean are entirely brown and desiccated on their eastern sides. This is true of plants several miles inland as well.

How can you tell if your evergreens have experienced salt damage? Take a look. If the plant or tree was green last fall and now has browning needles and dry tips, salt is a likely culprit. When salt coats the foliage of a plant, it draws moisture out, causing a burned effect.  Warming temperatures after the storm can also have this effect. If damage is extensive, the plant will die. If the buds are brittle or broken and easily snap with light pressure, the entire branch is probably dead. Once needles are brown, they never return to green again. However, I caution people to wait until spring before making any decision on removing the plant. This type of damage is new to us, so we don’t have a clear idea of how the plants will rebound.


Is there any way to restore a damaged evergreen? Maybe.  If green needles are mixed in with the brown, cross your fingers  and hope that the plant will rebound on its own. If the plant is heavily desiccated, including the buds, we can go back into the canopy and feather prune to where we find green cambium. This is labor intensive, but it can force the dormant lateral buds to grow out. Not all evergreens can be forced this way; there’s little we can do to assist plants such as hemlocks or others that won’t respond well to severe pruning.

I usually recommend several applications of anti-desiccant spray to broad-leaf evergreens during the winter; it can also help needled evergreens retain moisture.  I find it makes a big difference in our area, not just for salt burn but for winter burn in general. The freeze-thaw cycle that we go through in the New York Metro region is extremely tough on evergreens. (Does 5° one week and 45° the next week sound familiar?) A plant health care professional (such as Almstead) can take care of this; they will have the equipment to reach tall shrubs. If you apply the anti-desiccant yourself, make sure it’s on a day when the temperature is above freezing. Also, be aware that certain anti-desiccants should not be used on some evergreens such as cypress, arborvitae, cedar or juniper. Read the label and know the species of plant you are treating: conifer leaves can be broad-leaf, needle, scale-leaf or awl-like, and can’t all be treated the same way.

Salt in the ground is a different problem. Since Hurricane Sandy gave us a one-time application, any salt in the soil should dilute with the spring rains and snow melt. You may want to delay fertilizing this spring if you use a generic, synthetic fertilizer. This type of fertilizer contains salt; hold off until we’ve had some thorough soaking. Organic humates will bind the salt in the soil; there are actually products designed for this type of soil, geared to areas that experience seasonal flooding.

A sudden salt drench from a hurricane is unanticipated. If, however, you live near the water (or near a heavily salted road), choosing salt-tolerant plants is wise. Some plants, such as black pine, blue spruce and Chinese juniper will tolerate a lot of salt. I always recommend choosing plants that are comfortable in your location rather than trying to maintain a plant outside its natural environment.

– Ken Almstead, arborist and CEO

Recycling Cypress

One of my favorite places to work – and to visit —  is Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural center in the Bronx. This beautifully designed park is a garden for all seasons. Visiting there should be on every New Yorker’s to-do list.

Work begins taking down these 35-40 ft.cypress trees.
Work begins taking down these 35-40 ft.cypress trees.

We were recently asked to replace several cypress trees in one of their gardens. The trees had grown too large for their location and needed to be removed. 4 foot tall replacement trees had been nurtured on-site, grown from cuttings of the mature cypresses to be removed.  The smaller trees will look more proportionate to the rest of the garden and not obscure the view of the Palisades.

This job was different from most of our tree removal because we were asked to take down the trees in as large sections as possible.  Unlike in forestry, where trees are often cut for lumber, in urban forestry we typically take down trees in 2-4 ft. sections: we don’t often have the room to drop an entire tree; also the smaller, cut sections are easier to manage through tight spaces and into the chipper. However, since cypress is an unusually valuable tree, the trunks would be taken to the woodworking shop facilities at Wave Hill where they will eventually be used in one of their upcoming projects.

I’d like to digress for a moment on the history of cypress trees. Cypresses have been admired and ultilized for thousands of years. They are an old-world Mediterranean tree, whose tall, narrow beauty was used to grace important public and religious sites. The wood was also valued for its lightness, strength and lack of sap. Ancient Egyptians used cypress to make coffins for their mummies; Plato inscribed his code of laws on cypress because he thought it would last longer than brass.

Today, cypress remains a valued wood for its resistance to rot, lack of warping and the beauty of its grain and hue. America has many native cypresses.  The ones at Wave Hill are Lawson Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana).  Though called a “false” cypress, the genus is generally considered part of the cypress family.

Here are some photos from the job:

removing cypress
We began by limbing up the tree by removing small branching


anchoring cypress
Then we rigged the bare trunks by anchoring them with a line to another tree.


roping cypress
We felled the last trunk by steadying it with ropes from the ground, allowing a slow, controlled progression to the ground.


cypress cleanup
Wave Hill wound up with some beautiful cypress logs, up to 20 ft. in length.

Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist

Tree Removal Panic

No one wants a tree falling on their house. As we all know, Hurricane Sandy brought down thousands of trees throughout our region, causing extensive damage to property. Many people are now looking at the trees surrounding their homes and wondering which will be the next to go. At a recent meeting of Almstead arborists we found ourselves discussing a new phenomenon: Tree Removal Panic.

Source: Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service,
Source: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Over the last few months, we’ve had many calls to remove healthy trees. Sometimes the tree’s owner is concerned about the potential damage of the tree falling, other times neighbors feel threatened by a tree and are lobbying for removal. How do you decide how risky a tree is?

The first thing to remember when you look at your trees is: these trees already survived Sandy. Hurricane winds provided a stress test for trees which many failed; the ones that survived have proven their resilience. Nevertheless, it’s best not to take the health of a tree for granted, especially a large tree that could do damage if it fails. An arborist can evaluate the condition of your trees by inspecting them for signs of disease or decay; we call this a “Tree Risk Assessment.”   Trees don’t need to be completely disease-free in order to be stable; it’s important to evaluate the amount of damage inside the tree as well as the location of any weakness. In some situations, we actually “look inside” the tree by using an instrument called a Resistograph. By boring tiny holes into the trunk, we get a map of the amount of decay inside. We are able to evaluate the level of risk associated with the tree based on this knowledge.

Armed with the knowledge gained from an arborist, the decision to keep or remove a tree is ultimately yours. It’s a question of how much risk you are willing to take. No arborist will guarantee a tree against failure, any more than a doctor will guarantee that your health will remain perfect. We each have to determine the level of risk we’re comfortable with, and weigh the pros and cons. Trees serve many purposes: they offer shade and keep our homes cool in summer; they provide habitats for songbirds and animals; they screen us from neighbors or eyesores; and they are immensely beautiful. They also protect us in many ways. Though a tree may fall on your roof in a hurricane, it may also shelter your home from your neighbor’s falling tree – or his airborne lawn chair. It is up to each of us to decide the cost/benefit balance for keeping a tree.

It’s also important to remember that falling branches are more common that falling trees. Judicious pruning can substantially reduce the likelihood of branch failure. Finally, be aware that many communities have local ordinances that prohibit removing healthy trees from private property. If your tree is at risk of failure, an arborist can help document the reason for removal and get the permit from your local government.

I sometimes ask my clients, “Can you experience the experience?”  In other words, if a tree were to fall on your house, would it be unendurable or worth the risk? How large is the tree? What would it fall on? A huge tree poised over your child’s bedroom is a different situation than one that might land on your garage.

As in other areas of our lives, we each have a comfort zone with regard to risk. For most of us, the small risk associated with being surrounded by healthy trees is outweighed by the joy they bring us.

Seeing Inside a Tree

As an arborist, my preference is caring for trees rather than removing them.  However, sometimes there is no choice, particularly when a broken or diseased tree is in danger of harming people or property. Unfortunately, most of these trees do become removals.

Many trees live long lives with imperfect health. They experience damage from insects or disease, but manage to compartmentalize it and continue to grow and even thrive. Often we are able to help these trees with improved nutrition, better soil, and insect or disease control; their lifespans can improve by decades due to some extra care.

Recently, one of our clients asked us to evaluate an old walnut tree. The 150-200 year old tree is on a beautiful estate in Larchmont, accompanied by some of the original larches that gave the town its name. The property has a long history of homeowners who care deeply about the trees, and the current owner obviously continues this tradition.

It was clear that the tree had some substantial decay, but the homeowner was hoping that the damage wasn’t extensive enough to warrant removal yet. So the question was: how do we determine whether this magnificent tree had reached the point where it was too dangerous to remain? This was the time to employ one of the tools of our trade, a sophisticated piece of equipment called a Resistograph.

The Resistograph allows us to chart the density of a tree, millimeter by millimeter. A tiny drill bit goes into the wood of a tree and transmits a graph indicating the resistance the drill bit encounters. This gives us a map of the tree core. We use this data along with other information to calculate the level of risk associated with the tree’s potential failure.

chema in a tree

Trees are amazing structures that can continue to stay alive and grow with much of their heartwood rotted away. Because trees have their water and nutrition transport system close to the bark, the inner part of the tree serves little purpose – except to provide the core strength that keeps several tons of branches and leaves upright. Unfortunately, we had to tell this client that the walnut tree had lost so much of its core that it was no longer safe.

As you can see from the picture, the Resistograph told the truth: this tree was essentially EMPTY.  The 4’ diameter hole could easily accommodate our crew member. If you suspect one of your trees may be hollow or simply want to perform Risk Assessments for trees which you may be concerned about, Almstead arborists have the training and tools needed to gather that information so homeowners can  make a properly educated decision.

–  Jeff Delaune, Arborist

A Swinger of Birches

One of our clients sent us this photo of birches in the snow along with this poem by Robert Frost. We always like being reminded of the natural beauty and sense of wonder that brought us to the profession we love. Perhaps most arborists begin as “Swingers of Birches?”


by Robert Frost 1874–1963

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

How Trees Respond to Drought

Although we all know that trees need water, scientists are still discovering new information and implications about the process that allows trees to “drink.” Thanks to recent scientific research, we now have a greater insight into the mechanism of tree death from drought and a new appreciation of how vulnerable trees are.

Trees draw water through their roots and into the thread-like channels of their vascular system that distributes it to their most remote needles and leaves. In order to photosynthesize and grow, trees need to open the stomata (pores) on their leaves to take in carbon dioxide. As they do this, water evaporates. The water loss creates a suction effect that goes down all the way to the roots, where the water is replenished, similar to drinking through a straw.

A Longleaf Pine showing the effects of drought

When water is unavailable, this suction pressure increases, and air is drawn in. The air bubbles clog the channels and make it harder for a tree to get fluid to its leaves – like drinking from a broken straw. This “hydraulic failure” is the reason trees die from drought.

In addition to hydraulic failure, drought can impact a tree’s ability to open its stomata. Even when water is again available, some leaves are unable (or slow) to return to their work of photosynthesis, causing further dieback.

Dr. Brendan Choat from the University of Western Sydney and Dr. Steven Jansen from Ulm University in Germany lead a team of scientists that have studied hydraulic failure in trees worldwide. The results of their research show that about 70% of tree species have very little margin in the amount of drought they can endure before they experience hydraulic failure. Surprisingly, this was true for species that grow in marsh as well as desert. The implications of this research are that a small change in the drought level of an area could have serious consequences for large numbers of trees.

Watering trees in times of drought is extremely important. Even the largest tree typically has its roots concentrated within the top 12” of soil. They have no ability to suddenly find water when that layer is dry. Trees will respond to drought by dropping leaves or needles, and then having whole branches die. The damage can be irreversible.

Sophisticated systems are now available to monitor the moisture content of soil and automatically adjust watering to the appropriate level for plants, lawns or trees. These irrigation systems are now common in arid regions and have been found to reduce total water consumption. Giving trees the right amount of water at the right time can prevent hydraulic failure and also prevent the unnecessary waste of water in landscapes by up to 60%. I believe we’ll see this technology introduced in the northeast over the next decade as water for our landscapes becomes a more precious commodity.

Hurricane Sandy Is Still Causing Damage

The last two weeks have been among the toughest of the 20 years I’ve been an arborist. The combination of the hurricane, the snowstorm and the broad and long-lasting power outages is unlike anything I’ve encountered before. All of us at Almstead have had too many opportunities to witness the violence of nature, as we’ve removed hundreds of trees that have damaged houses, cars and other property.


Looking up at these trees, you can see that one is leaning dangerously.
Looking up at these trees, you can see that one is leaning dangerously.

Although Sandy has passed, the damage is ongoing. We’re still receiving calls from people who have trees or branches falling, or threatening to fall, from the damage caused by the storm. This is a good time to take a walk around your property, looking up. Many trees have cracked branches that need attention: some need to be removed before they fail, while others with minor stress cracks can be saved by cabling. It’s also important to check that any previously installed cables are still in place.

Follow-up pruning may be needed for branches that snapped or were improperly pruned by an emergency service. When pruned correctly, trees usually create a natural barrier against decay; improper pruning leaves a wound that is much more likely to lead to further problems. You should also look for any trees that have shifted root plates or other signs of movement.

As we work to clean up the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, we’ve noticed that many of the fallen trees and branches had defects that probably would have been identified by a qualified arborist. So don’t panic and start removing all the trees from your property; while it’s true that no tree is guaranteed against the violence of a hurricane, healthy, well-pruned trees have amazing resilience. The trees on your property have shown they can survive a hurricane! With a little attention, they will probably continue to provide beauty and shade for another generation or more.

Arborists are trained to identify tree problems before they occur, which is just one reason to have a certified arborist inspect your trees. This is a good time to contact an arborist to inspect your trees for any potential problems.

–Ken Almstead, CEO and arborist

Salt Damage to Turf and Trees

One of the effects of Hurricane Sandy was coastal flooding. The result is that many areas of turf and trees have been either submerged in salt water or deluged with salt spray. While coastal plantings are usually salt-tolerant, many areas further inland have received a dose of salt that can be toxic to grass, plants and trees. The effect of salt is so damaging that it was used as a weapon in ancient times to destroy an enemy’s crops.

When the soil’s salt content increases, roots find it harder to take in water. At elevated salt levels, water within the root can actually be drawn out of the plant, causing wilting.  Neither sodium nor chlorine is generally good for plants (trees take the small amount of chlorine they need from the atmosphere).  The sodium will displace essential nutrients like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, making them unavailable to the plants. At the same time, the roots take in the chloride ions and transport them to the leaves, where they accumulate and interfere with chlorophyll production and photosynthesis.

Grass damaged by sea salt
Grass damaged by sea salt

“The solution to pollution is dilution” is an adage that is appropriate here.  Since salt is water soluble, it can be further diluted and washed through the soil by adding more water. Water your turf and plantings until the soil can’t absorb any more, wait for it to drain completely, and then water again. Keep it up until the ground freezes.

If your Almstead turf specialist suspects that there is too much salt to be eliminated by dilution alone, he will probably test the soil to determine the level. If the salt level is too high, we usually add gypsum to the soil through core aeration. We also have organic amendments containing humates that can speed up the process. With early action, the effects of Sandy’s salt water bath should be mitigated by spring.

Protecting Your Evergreens with Antidesiccants

Many of you with rhododendrons in your yard can tell the temperature outside by looking at the droop of their leaves. Rhododendrons are highly thermotropic plants: their leaves move in response to the temperature. As the thermometer falls the leaves begin to droop and curl; when the temperature goes well below freezing, the leaves are tightly curled and pointing straight down.

Rhododendrons respond to cold weather.
Rhododendrons respond to cold weather.

It’s hard to believe that these leaves will unfurl and rise again in response to warmer weather – but shrubs and trees are remarkably resilient. There are times however, when they can use some extra help.

As winter approaches, I recommend applying antidesiccants (also called antitranspirants) to most broadleaf shrubs. This is not a remedy for the curling leaves of your rhododendron – those leaves are supposed to curl and actually help the plant survive the cold. The stomata (the tiny holes on leaves that allow the escape of moisture) are tightly closed, preventing any moisture loss. The problem for broadleaf evergreens is not the cold, but the warmth. When a winter thaw occurs, your rhododendron leaves will straighten out, rise up and start sweating (actually transpiring). Because of the frozen ground, the roots may not be able to replace this water loss. Add some chilly winds, and the moisture loss can be dramatic. This is where leaf damage and loss — and even plant death – may occur.

The antidesiccant adds an additional oily or waxy coating to the leaves, keeping the moisture inside. Many evergreens in our area are especially vulnerable to winter damage, particularly holly, rhododendron, cherry laurel, skip laurel, mountain laurel, Japanese skimmia, leucothoe, aucuba and boxwood. I recommend using an antidessicant on these plants in early winter. We try to spray the plants with antidessicant on a dry day when there’ll be no precipitation and the temperature is above freezing (around 40 – 50 degrees is good); you shouldn’t apply the spray in freezing temperatures.  It’s important to coat both the top and undersides of the leaves. Antidesiccants are typically organic and biodegradable; they will wear off the leaves by spring.

Rose canes and hydrangea stems will also benefit from the spray, as will young trees with thin bark. Some evergreens with needles do not need antidesiccants; plants like arborvitae and spruce can actually be harmed by it, or at least lose their blue color.

When a winter thaw occurs, as often happens in our area, another coat of antidesiccant will help the evergreens stay hydrated until spring.

-Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist

Post Storm Cleanup

Anyone who has trees – and a few who don’t – is now faced with post-Sandy cleanup. While you’re surveying the trees and branches that have fallen on your property, don’t forget to look up. As you clean up your yard and get back to pre-storm life, it is important to carefully scrutinize the surrounding trees.

These crossing branches can indicate a  shift in one of trees.
These crossing branches can indicate a shift in one of trees.

Many branches that snap off in the wind don’t make it to the ground right away. They can be hung up on the lower branches of a tree or powerlines. These branches could drop to the ground because of a gentle breeze, a frisky squirrel, or just the passage of time. If branches are hanging on an electric line, stay clear and call your electric utility. If they are in a tree, stay clear and call Almstead.

Look at your trees carefully. Has there been any shifting? If you are familiar with your trees, you may notice a change in their outline against the sky. Take a good look at the roots for any sign of upheaval. If a tree’s balance has shifted, it could fall without the aid of a hurricane. Sometimes stress cracks will appear that make the tree vulnerable to failure. Also, any tree that has been cabled or braced should be checked to see that everything is still intact. An annual inspection by an arborist is always a good idea, but it is even more important after a major storm.

This cracked soil indicates a shift in the roots.
This cracked soil indicates a shift in the roots.

It is often necessary to follow up storm damage with additional pruning. Branches that have been snapped or ripped off – or incorrectly pruned by an emergency service – are much more likely to decay. Following up with proper pruning cuts is better for the health of the tree.

When cleaning up after the storm, we don’t recommend that you use a chainsaw unless you are trained and are wearing protective clothing: our tree crews wear glasses, gloves and chaps. Chainsaws are dangerous even in experienced hands; there is always a danger of the log or the saw springing back. Our advice is to call us to cut up any large branches or fallen trees.

Leaves: Move ’em or Mow ’em?

All the beauty of autumn eventually lands on our lawns. Pleasant childhood memories of jumping into piles of leaves are quickly supplanted by the drudgery of raking them — or herding them with a leaf blower. Yet there is another option: mowing them.

If you have deciduous trees, you have leaves falling – often a lot of them. Whether you manage them yourself or hire someone to take care of them, it’s time for all of us to think about how (and where) we dispose of our leaves. Most of our communities here in Westchester have leaf recycling programs.  We put our leaves by the curb, either loose or in bags, and local government collects them. Some communities have a facility for turning the leaves into mulch or compost onsite while others truck the leaves away to larger facilities that are often hundreds of miles away.

The cost of leaf collection and disposal is causing many of us to question whether we’re spending money and squandering resources in order to get rid of something that is actually valuable – leaf mulch. Many communities are discussing whether to stop collecting leaves entirely, a move that would improve their budgets. (Leaf collection can cost a municipality hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Several university studies have demonstrated that mulching leaves in place does no harm – and may do a lot of good.  Mulching leaves returns nitrogen to the soil; lawns need nitrogen to be green.  If you currently apply nitrogen to your grass, mulching will allow you to use less.

Norman Rockwell: Grandpa and Me Raking Leaves
Norman Rockwell: Grandpa and Me Raking Leaves

Mulching mowers have become increasingly common both for do-it-yourselfers and for lawn care companies; these mowers were designed to return grass cuttings to the lawn where they decompose and return their nutrients to the soil. The mowers do a good job of shredding leaves as well, with the same results.

So how do you begin? Start mowing. Studies show that, even when mulch is piled 4 to 6 inches high, the lawns do well.  It’s safe to say that our lawns will usually benefit from as much mulch as all the trees in our yards can produce. If the mulch is so deep that the grass isn’t poking through though, it’s probably time to redistribute it.

As you probably know, different trees have leaves that differ in their chemical makeup, for example oak leaves are more acidic than maple. One of the benefits of mulching with a mower is that the leaves are shredded where they fall: beneath the tree that grew them and will benefit most from their decomposition.

One place where you may have to take out the rake (or the blower) is your perennial bed. If your bed is bare for the winter, you can wait until the first hard frost and then mow right over it. More typically though, our beds include shrubs or perennials that have attractive winter forms: for these locations, you’ll need to remove the leaves, shred them and then pile them back on. A thick layer of leaf mulch on these beds will help to insulate them from temperature fluctuations over the winter. It’s important to shred the leaves rather than leaving them whole, however, because a thick layer of whole leaves will inhibit growth.

Whether you choose organic or traditional lawn care, leaf mulching is a good strategy. The shredded leaves nourish, insulate, keep the grass greener longer, reduce the need for soil amendments, increase beneficial microbial activity and actually make the turf feel springier. So you improve your lawn, help the environment and save money.

–Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist

High Flying in Manhattan: Removing a Backyard Tree by Crane

A property management company for whom we’ve done a number of difficult jobs, inherited a large dead tree when they took over a new location. They called us to remove the problem.

A neighbor later told me that the tree had been dead for 4 or 5 years. Because of the tree’s condition and location (in back of a row of brownstones in the Upper West Side), traditional forms of removal were not an option. So, we hired and worked with a 40 ton crane. The crane was parked on the street in front of the building; from there it could reach over the top of the buildings into the back yard and hold, and then lift, sections of the tree over the buildings.

cranecutting down

A neighbor later told me that the tree had been dead for 4 or 5 years. Because of the tree’s condition and location (in back of a row of brownstones in the Upper West Side), traditional forms of removal were not an option. So, we hired and worked with a 40 ton crane. The crane was parked on the street in front of the building; from there it could reach over the top of the buildings into the back yard and hold, and then lift, sections of the tree over the buildings.


There was a problem with trying to remove this tree using traditional methods. Usually, we would use the main part of the tree as an anchor to support and lower pieces as they were cut. The cut pieces are dropped from their location until they are caught by the rigging we install. But at the moment they are caught, there is stress put on the trunk of the tree. If the stress is too great, the trunk will break and the whole tree — climber included — will come crashing down. We couldn’t take that chance with this tree. The climber was able to tie sections of the tree to the crane, make the cut, and have the crane bear the weight away. This way there was no shock to the trunk.


We do crane removals frequently, but this is the only one I have seen or heard of in the city where we had to reach over the top of a posh brownstone!

— Chris Busak, Arborist

Transplanting 6 Tons of City Trees

Weekends are quieter than weekdays in Manhattan’s financial district so that’s the best time for moving a tree through the crowded city streets. Trane Construction Company at 55 Water St. needed to make some renovations to their site which would displace two large Callery Pear trees. A new location was chosen at a public school on the island side of the Manhattan Bridge.

pruning trees
Early Saturday morning: pruning to reduce the canopy size and improve the overall branch structure.

Work began on Friday night when a crew came in to break up and remove the sidewalk cement surrounding the trees. The City of New York would allow for the closure of the sidewalk only until 7 p.m. on Saturday, so the pressure was on!

Our Almstead crew began early the next morning, painstakingly digging a trench around the base of the tree, excavating 5 feet down to get as much of the root structure as we could. We knew what the size of the new sidewalk planting pit would be, and pruned the roots to form a root ball as large as possible. City trees rarely have the luxury of developing an extensive root system; they struggle to survive under adverse conditions. Our job was to give these trees the best start possible in their new location.

We also pruned the trees so the canopies would be smaller – making less work for the smaller root structure. We wrapped the root balls in burlap and tied them to keep them intact. We also gently tied the canopy together to prevent damage on the journey.

Digging out a tree. Because of the existing  curb 2’ from the trunk, we elongated the root ball to retain as much root mass as possible.
Digging out a tree. Because of the existing curb 2’ from the trunk, we elongated the root ball to retain as much root mass as possible.

Then we brought in heavy construction equipment to lift the 6,000 lb.trees from their holes and carry them to their new home. We took them on a 25-block journey through the streets of Manhattan – past the South Street Seaport, under the FDR Drive – accompanied by an NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation escort.

We placed them in their new holes and filled in the remaining space with high end compost, specialized soil, organic biostimulants and additives to increase water retention in the soil and promote healing and rooting. Finally we covered them with a 4” layer of hardwood mulch to further protect them from temperature fluctuations and inhibit moisture evaporation from the soil.

We’ll be stopping by every 2 to 3 days to make sure the trees are well watered and not showing any ill effects from their journey. We have designed an ongoing Plant Health Care program for the next two years to give these pear trees the best start possible in their new home. We hope to see them thrive in front of the school.

–       Chris Busak, Arborist

Unwanted Pest #1: Bronze Birch Borer

We have gotten to the end of our list of the Most Unwanted Insects. For #1 we chose the Bronze Birch Borer (Agrilus anxius).

unwanted birch borer

Why did we choose the Birch Borer for the #1 spot rather than the insects that can destroy an entire tree species? (i.e. the Emerald Ash Borer or the Asian Longhorned Beetle)  Because it’s HERE. NOW.  And because, as arborists, we’re dealing with damage – often fatal — from this insect all the time.

We all love birch trees. The bright, white, striped paper bark birch is often the first tree we recognize as children. As an understory tree, white birch can light up the forest. Seeing a birch grove in the snow is breathtaking. And other birches, such as river birch with its curling peek-a-boo bark revealing a salmon-colored trunk, are popular planting choices as well.

The problem with birch is that they are really not meant for our landscapes.  Under the best circumstances, birch trees don’t have lives as long as most of our other trees. And our yards and parks are not the best of circumstances. Birch trees grow best in slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil.  They like sun on their faces but not on their feet. They don’t like pollution. When they don’t have the right conditions, they become stressed; this makes them more vulnerable to both insects and disease. The attacks of insects like the birch leafminer and aphids or diseases like rust and mildew further compromise the tree’s health.

This is where the Bronze Birch Borer comes in. The Birch Borer lays its eggs beneath the bark of the birch tree – and prefers to have its path cleared by another insect or other damaging agent  first. So Birch Borers rarely attack healthy trees, but can be deadly to trees already experiencing some decline.

As the Birch Borer larvae emerge they ravenously eat the underside of the bark, gouging out galleries as they munch. These channels cut through the phloem of the tree, interrupting the tree’s ability to transmit water and nutrients.

Larva and gallery of the Bronze Birch Borer Source: David G. Nielsen, The Ohio State University,
Larva and gallery of the Bronze Birch Borer
Source: David G. Nielsen, The Ohio State University,

Because the larvae grow beneath the tree bark, often the infestation goes unnoticed until the tree canopy starts to yellow, at which time it can be too late to save the tree.  It takes aggressive treatment to halt an attack of Bronze Birch Borers. In an infested tree, the trunk can be injected with a control that can help to stop the larvae from developing. The trunk can also be sprayed with a substance that helps to prevent new insects from colonizing the tree. The correct treatment depends upon the health of the tree, the degree of infestation and the time of year.

Not all birch species are equally vulnerable to Bronze Birch Borer. The River Birch, in particular, seems to resist the insect, while the Silver Birch is particularly susceptible. Ultimately, the best way to prevent the Bronze Birch Borer from killing your trees is to keep your Birches as healthy as possible.  Birches need deep watering  — weekly, at least.  Although the leaves need sun, the roots must stay cool, so a layer of ground cover or mulch will help to insulate them from the heat.

We recommend checking Birch trees frequently for signs of pests and disease. Any yellowing leaves or dieback could indicate a potentially fatal problem; early intervention can sometimes avert a fatal infestation.

Unwanted Pest #2: Asian Longhorned Beetle

We’re almost to the end of our series on the Most Unwanted Garden Pests. This is villain #2: The Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB). 

unwanted alb

The ALB (Anoplophora glabripennis) doesn’t live in our area (Westchester, Bergen and Fairfield counties) – yet. And hopefully, it won’t. Intensive eradication efforts are ongoing in New  York City, Long Island, Massachusetts, Union and Middlesex counties in New Jersey and Ohio, the areas where ALB is currently residing. The USDA is taking an aggressive approach to this mission – any tree infested by ALB is cut down and burned.

Why is the ALB so despised? Because of the deadly outcome of an ALB infestation and the extensiveness of their diet.  In our area, we’ve had several species of trees virtually eradicated by insects or disease over the last century: the American Chestnut by chestnut blight, the American Elm from Dutch elm disease, and – currently – several species of ash trees from the Emerald Ash Borer. But the Asian Longhorned Beetle has the potential to decimate several widely growing tree genera in our area, including maple, birch and sycamore. In addition to the loss of these beautiful trees, the economic impact on our hardwood forests would be immense.

The story of the ALB’s infiltration into the U.S. sounds like a spy movie. Someone notices a suspicious looking insect. They call a government agency. The insect is identified as a stowaway assassin from China. Soon after, the Feds swoop in and destroy the insects along with any possible hiding place. They search the neighborhood looking for more insects and any possible shelters – and in a slash and burn frenzy, cut down any trees that could harbor these terrorists.

Yet this dramatic response seems to be yielding results. The ALB appears to have been eliminated in the Chicago area, and it looks like New York and New Jersey may soon follow. Massachusetts is still battling hard and finding new ALB hideouts.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) actually acts like Homeland Security for invasive pests. They have intercepted ALB in warehouses in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.  And their Canadian counterparts have intercepted the ALB in several provinces there.

Asian Longhorned Beetle Exit Holes Source: Kenneth R. Law, USDA APHIS PPQ,
Asian Longhorned Beetle Exit Holes
Source: Kenneth R. Law, USDA APHIS PPQ,

One thing that works against the ALB is its size and striking markings. The beetles are over an inch long and colored like a Mardi Gras mask. In several cases, an ALB was identified when someone saw it and said, “What IS that thing?”  When a tree is infested with ALB, the exit holes can make it look like it’s been strafed with a machine gun.

Right now, the best chance we have of defeating the ALB is public awareness. So if you see a large, gaudy beetle, call for backup! This USDA site will give you more information: (It’s worth visiting just to see their CGI beetle!)

Unwanted Pest #3: Hemlock Wooly Adelgid

If you have hemlocks in your yard, you probably already know of the Hemlock Woody Adelgid (HWA). This tiny aphid-like insect has been attacking and killing hemlocks throughout the eastern United States.  The devastation it causes makes it #3 in our countdown of Most Unwanted Landscape Pests. unwanted adelgid Both the Carolina Hemlock and the Eastern Hemlock are victimized by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This insect doesn’t restrict itself to weak or stressed trees – healthy trees can be infested as well. Although a tree can survive an attack from the HWA, continued infestation is deadly, robbing the tree of the needles necessary for survival. There are no preventive measures for HWA; hemlocks should be inspected frequently for signs of infestation. You aren’t likely to see the adelgids:  they are so tiny they are almost imperceptible. But the signs of their presence are unmistakable: little dots of cotton appear along the base of the needles where they meet the wood. These cottony blobs are protecting the HWA eggs. When the crawlers emerge, they will latch on at the base of a needle and start draining the hemlock of its vital fluids. Obviously, a single adelgid doesn’t drink much; but as the population grows, the cottony balls extend along every branch, harboring millions of thirsty adelgids. Within a few years of infestation, the hemlock is usually dead. Some of our beautiful, native hemlock forests have disappeared because of this foreign invader.

Hemlock with wooly adelgids. Source: John A. Weidhass, Virginia Polytechnic Institute  and State University,
Hemlock with wooly adelgids.
Source: John A. Weidhass, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

Fortunately, this is an insect that we can successfully battle. Both foliar sprays and systemic controls are available that can give us the upper hand against these insects. There are several factors that should be considered in order to determine the best course of treatment, such as the size of the tree, the extent of infestation, soil and weather conditions and proximity to streams or ponds. Your Almstead arborist will evaluate how these factors impact your hemlock and propose a method for combating these evil adelgids. In the future, there may be biological controls for HWA. Currently, experiments with predatory insects and fungi look promising, especially for forests where the cost of treating individual trees is impractical. For now, careful monitoring and early action are the best safeguards against Hemlock Woody Adelgid.

The Secrets of Compost Tea

Last month, Almstead had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on Compost Tea and Air Spading for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Arborist Dan Dalton and I, along with compost tea brewing specialist Russell Wagner and lawn technician Marc San Phillipo and several other Almstead professionals, really enjoyed being able to share our knowledge and experience with others interested in organic tree and plant care.

The workshop was intensive. We covered both the science behind Compost Tea brewing and the practical issues and hurdles to creating a brewing business. I’ve been involved in Almstead’s evolution into organic care from the beginning and believe that products like compost tea are win-win: healthier for the lawns and trees as well as the environment, friendlier to consumers, and safer for everyone.

Michael Almstead, August 9, 2012.  The Compost Tea Workshop was held on the beautiful  campus of Rye Country Day School.
Michael Almstead, August 9, 2012.
The Compost Tea Workshop was held on the beautiful campus of Rye Country Day School.

Brewing high-quality compost tea is an involved, scientific and careful process. Compost tea is NOT a slurry of compost and water. It must be carefully balanced to meet the nutritional requirements of the plants it’s meant for.  It contains living organisms that have to be kept alive through constant aeration – both while the tea is brewing and in the truck delivering it.

Continual aeration is a necessity for compost tea.
Continual aeration is a necessity for compost tea.

We have a mini science lab in our Compost Tea brewing facility, where we examine everything going into the tea. We want it loaded with beneficial organisms, both bacteria and fungi; we add them, and make sure they are live and happy (and in the proper proportions) in the tea before we apply it. We also make sure that no damaging organisms are sneaking into our mixture.  This quality control is vital to brewing compost tea – without it, you’d  just be delivering a truckload of dirty water.

We have a rather substantial Compost Tea brewing operation here at Almstead. Compost tea is an organic way of adding nutrients and microorganisms to the soil – sort of a jump-start for soil to rejuvenate itself, making it more attractive for worms and other beneficial organisms, and keeping the process of soil development going. And it dramatically cuts down the use of chemicals, a plus for both for the environment and for people who are exposed to their lawns.

Russell Wagner microscopically checks our Compost Tea  for the proper microorganisms and fungi.
Russell Wagner microscopically checks our Compost Tea for the proper microorganisms and fungi.

Dan Dalton taught the segment on soil properties. He emphasized the necessity of understanding the chemical, physical and biological elements of soil in order to create a compost tea – sometimes augmented by other organic amendments – that facilitates the right soil profile. This goes way beyond simple pH – it includes factors such as adjusting the particle size of soil components and encouraging symbiotic fungi that help keep damaging organisms away from tree roots.

We create different teas for lawns and for trees because of their varying requirements. Lawns need a higher ratio of bacteria, while trees require more fungi. For large locations (like a college campus or business park) we can create a Compost Tea based on soil testing. Sometimes we add specialized ingredients like nematodes or mycorrhizal fungi to meet their specific needs.  We talked in general about recipes for compost teas – but the formulae that Almstead has carefully developed for our clients remains a closely-guarded company secret.

Dan Dalton describes the nutrient cycle.
Dan Dalton describes the nutrient cycle.

Our NOFA presentation also included a demonstration of air spading. Air spading (using compressed air to loosen soil around tree roots) is a wonderful tool of organic tree care. There are several methods we can choose from, depending upon the results desired. Essentially, by using the air spade, we can loosen and/or remove compacted soil. We fill in with looser soil and amendments, allowing the tree roots to “breathe,” encouraging them to grow and giving them easier access to the nutrients and water in the soil.

Russell performed air spading on one of the Rye Country Day School campus trees. Since fibrous roots are concentrated in the top 8” of soil, compaction can deprive a tree of both oxygen and nutrients. First , he excavated the critical root zone around the trunk, easing soil compaction and allowing examination of the roots for signs of girdling or disease; then he air spaded out radially from the trunk (like slicing a pie).  These slices were filled with compost and other soil amendments to provide the roots with easy access to oxygen, water and nutrients.

The participants examine fibrous roots exposed by air spading.
The participants examine fibrous roots exposed by air spading.
Marc San Phillipo demonstrates soil injection  of compost tea into the root zone.
Marc San Phillipo demonstrates soil injection of compost tea into the root zone.

Mark San Phillipo also demonstrated the soil injection of compost tea into the root zone. Compost tea can also be used as a soil drench.

By the end of the day, the workshop participants seemed to leave with a new appreciation for these important tools in organic plant care.

– Michael Almstead, VP  & Arborist

Unwanted Pest #4: Scale

Our reverse countdown continues. #4 in our list of the most Unwanted Landscape Pests is Scale. 

unwanted scale

Scales are tiny insects, less than ¼”, that do almost nothing – except suck the life out of plants. There are 7,000 different types of scale insects, broadly divided into armored and soft.

Scales live boring lives. A female insect attaches herself to a leaf or shoot and begins to feed. She lays eggs beneath herself (some scale insects mate while others can reproduce without outside help) and provides shelter while they develop. “Crawlers” emerge and start to seek out their own locations. After a few days their mobility is over: they hook onto a plant and begin sucking — forever.

Woolly Pine Scale Source:  Terry S. Price, Georgia Forestry Commission,
Woolly Pine Scale
Source: Terry S. Price, Georgia Forestry

Although immobile, scales have protection. Armored scales create a hard protective covering, basically a shell. In fact, some scales are referred to as oyster shell, while others look like small pearls. Soft scales are covered in a waxy coating; they often appear as fuzzy white dots of fluff on a plant. Most release fluids as they suck; this sticky “honeydew” can cause even more problems by attracting other insects or mold – and dripping on anything below.

Scales are so tiny that they are rarely noticed until the population has increased to troublesome size. But, en masse, they can harm or even kill plants – even trees. Their lack of mobility causes them to feed in ever-increasing numbers on their host plant.

Scale’s armored or waxy coating makes them difficult to kill. They are only vulnerable to insecticide sprays during their brief crawling stage. Thorough drenching in horticultural oil or insecticidal soap can also combat scale. Finally, systemic treatments are available that cause the tree to repel the feeding insects.

Magnolia Scale Source:  Brian Kunkel, University of Delaware,
Magnolia Scale
Source: Brian Kunkel, University of Delaware,

There is no single treatment for scale insects – nor do all scale insects need to be removed. Almstead arborists and technicians examine every tree to determine the most appropriate treatment, based on factors including the type of scale, the stage of development, and the size of the tree. 

Most Unwanted Pest #5: Elm Bark Beetles

Our reverse countdown of the 10 Most Unwanted Pests continues with #5: the Elm Bark Beetle.

elm bark beetle

Elm Bark Beetles are mass murderers, responsible for the devastation of the American Elm population – up to 99% of elms have succumbed in some areas. Once the go-to urban tree, the rows of stately elms that lined our streets and shaded our parks have disappeared due to the Dutch Elm Disease transmitted by these beetles.

European Elm Bark Beetles (Scolytus multistriatus) and the Native Elm Bark Beetle (Hylurgopinus  rufipes) make their home – and their meals – beneath the bark of trees. The beetles penetrate the bark and bore through to the sapwood. Once inside, they gouge out galleries for their eggs. The larvae develop beneath the bark of the tree and expand the galleries to eat the underside of the bark.

The hungry Elm Bark Beetle larvae gouge out these galleries as they feed. Image: Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service,
The hungry Elm Bark Beetle larvae gouge out these galleries as they feed.
Image: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Unlike most bark beetles that target soft-wood trees, the Elm Bark Beetle targets the hard-wood American Elm. The beetles typically lay their eggs in elm trees that are already weakened or beginning to decay. This means that Elm Bark Beetles would never have made our Unwanted list on their own: their larvae rarely do substantial damage to a healthy tree, and controls are available to fight these infestations. It is the adult Elm Bark Beetle that is causing so much such fatal damage. Although most of their lives are spent in weak trees, they fly to feed on healthy trees as part of their life cycle. They carry the fungus that transmits Dutch Elm Disease from the failing tree to its healthy neighbor.

Once the fungus enters the elm tree it starts to clog up the tree’s xylem – the aquaduct system inside the tree. The tree responds by trying to seal off the infected xylem tubes with its own clogging mechanism: this is why one of the first signs of Dutch Elm Disease is a yellowing patch of canopy as a branch stops providing water to it.

Elm tree branches affected by Dutch Elm Disease. Source:  USDA Forest Service - Northeastern Area Archive, USDA Forest Service,
Elm tree branches affected by Dutch Elm Disease.
Source: USDA Forest Service – Northeastern Area Archive,USDA Forest Service,

Can Dutch Elm Disease be stopped? Not currently. But individual trees can be maintained in good health for a long time – and a fortunate few never succumb. The first step in prevention is keeping elm trees healthy. Beetles are most attracted to trees that are already stressed, so a regular program of watering and fertilization is important.  Dutch Elm Disease also spreads less quickly in a well-watered tree – greater hydrostatic pressure can help slow it down.

There are also inoculations that can slow the progress of Dutch Elm Disease. The earlier the better.  So it’s extremely important to monitor elm trees for any signs of infestation or canopy yellowing. In the early stages, pruning can remove infected branches before the disease spreads to the rest of the tree.

Finally, if you have an elm tree that is beyond saving, it should be removed immediately. The wood must be disposed of appropriately and the stump removed. The roots should also be severed if other elms are near, to prevent the disease spreading through root connections.

Unwanted Pest #6: The Evil Weevil

Number 6 in our countdown of America’s Most Unwanted garden pests is the Black Vine Weevil.

unwanted black vine weevil

The Black Vine Weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus ) is a root feeder. Although adults will damage foliage, the most serious damage is done by larvae feeding on roots. The insects’ diet includes hundreds of shrubs and ornamentals, including yew, hemlock, some rhododendrons and other broad-leaf evergreens like azalea, mountain laurel and euonymus. Adults can also feed on deciduous and herbaceous plants.

When shrubs fail to put out new foliage in the spring or new foliage quickly yellows or dies, one of the first suspects is this evil weevil. Another indication is the characteristic crescent notches on the leaf margins made by adults feeding. The adults are active at night throughout the summer. The non-flying insects are about  ½” long, slate grey to blackish-brown with pitted wings and a short snout.

Prevention and Control

One important step to prevention is carefully examining new plants before bringing them home. Since adult insects are unlikely to be seen, the leaves should be checked for signs of damage.

If you begin to see leaf damage on your shrubs – or stunted growth – call your Almstead arborist for an inspection. Often, by the time the damage is noticed, the plant’s health has been seriously compromised.

Biological controls for Black Vine Weevil are beginning to be available. Nematodes (little organisms that make weevils look big) are ingested by the weevils; they then execute an Alien-worthy switch and kill their hosts. Although this biological control is promising, chemical controls are presently the usual choice for dealing with these pervasive pests. Treatments are most effective on adult populations before they begin to lay eggs. That puts the timing of treatments around late May, with repeat applications through the summer if necessary. (These weevils can have several generations per summer.)

If you didn’t treat for Black Vine Weevil this year and are wishing that you had, consider a fall treatment to reach overwintering larvae, which are found in the soil.

Unwanted Pest #7: Aphids

#7 in our series on America’s Most Unwanted garden pests is the all-too-common aphid. Aphids otherwise known as plant lice, are tiny soft-bodied, sucking insects. With over 4,400 types of aphid worldwide, they are the most common garden pest. Most aphids only target one kind of plant, while others have a much broader diet.

unwanted aphid

These tiny (1/32”) pear-shaped insects can be winged or wingless and almost any color. A colony of aphids can cause substantial damage to plants, trees and shrubs including yellowing or curling leaves and stunted growth. In addition to sucking the juices from plants, their saliva is actually toxic to many plants. Aphids often transmit fungi and disease to the plants they infest. 

Aphids with their ant bodyguards Source: E. Bradford Walker, Vermont Dept. of Forests,  Parks and Recreation;
Aphids with their ant bodyguards
Source: E. Bradford Walker, Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation;

In the process of feeding, aphids secrete a sticky, sugary liquid called honeydew — which can rain down from the trees on anything below it, like your car or lawn furniture. Given the size of an aphid, when there’s enough honeydew to drip from a tree, you know that there is a huge population feeding above.

The sweet honeydew is attractive to ants. Many sugar-eating ants actually act as body guards to aphids: they protect them in order to milk the aphids for honeydew. In addition to the damage aphids cause directly, the honeydew can make plants more susceptible to fungi, like sooty mold.

Potato Aphids Source: David Cappaert, Michigan State
Potato Aphids
Source: David Cappaert, Michigan State

Inspecting plants for aphids is the first step towards controlling this pest. Many aphids are well camouflaged to blend with the plants they target. Their coloring – along with their tiny size – means aphids are often overlooked until they are so numerous that they coat the plant. Aphids are a preferred food of beneficial insects like ladybugs, predatory wasps and lacewings; a sufficient population of these species can keep aphids under control.

If aphids have populated a plant or shrub, a stream of water from a garden hose can sometimes dislodge them; although flying aphids are likely to return, crawling ones often won’t make it back to the plant.

Because of the potential damage from aphids, as well as the diseases they transmit, it is wise to begin controlling aphids at the first sign of infestation. Almstead arborists offer both organic and traditional methods for control. Often a single application in spring is sufficient to keep aphids in check.

Most Unwanted Pest #8: Tent Caterpillars

Our countdown of the Most Unwanted arbor pests continues with #8: the Eastern Tent Caterpillar (and a similarly domiciled pest, the Fall Webworm).

unwanted tent caterpiller

Although many insects can be difficult to identify – or even detect – the tent caterpillar is not. One day you look at your tree and notice that something has actually pitched a tent there. The tent looks like an industrial version of a spider web: thick, white and slightly opaque. If you look carefully, you may see the newly emerged caterpillars celebrating their good fortune.

A single tent is not an infestation – yet. But often, if you continue your examination of the tree, you’ll find that it’s turned into a caterpillar campground. An infestation of tent caterpillars can defoliate – or eventually kill  –  a tree.

These insects are native to our (NY/NJ/CT) region. The larvae emerge in spring and construct a tent for their dormitory. They emerge daily to feed on the leaves of their host tree. Their favorites are black cherry, choke cherry, scrub apple and many species of ornamentals in the family Rosaceae (including serviceberry, hawthorn and many more).

A tree with several colonies of eastern tent caterpillars can be completely defoliated by the hungry grazers. Most trees can withstand this for a single season, but a repeated assault can leave the tree without the resources to survive.

For a residential tree, the unattractive appearance of caterpillar tents and the resulting defoliation are reason enough to try to remove the pests. For a smaller tree, Almstead arborists can selectively clip off the egg masses in the fall, or remove the caterpillar tents in spring. For a large tree, it is more practical to apply a control to prevent the larvae from emerging.

Just as tents in your tree in spring usually indicate tent caterpillars, similar tents in the fall are usually a sign of Fall Webworms.  Black cherry is their preferred tree but they are also common on alder, apple, beech, birch and oak.

Fall Webworm Damage Courtesy of  Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service,
Fall Webworm Damage
Courtesy of Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service,

In June and July, moths lay their larvae on the underside of leaves and cover them with scales. As the larvae grow, they eat the leaf tops; the tents are expanded as they move to new branches. It’s possible for the tent to envelop an entire tree and for the webworms to defoliate it completely.

The webworms don’t typically kill trees, since trees have already stored up most of their nutrients by the time the defoliation occurs. However, the effect can be grotesque. Your Almstead arborist can discuss alternatives for shutting down the tent city in your tree.

Unwanted Pest #9: Japanese Beetle

This is the second villain in our countdown of the Top 10 landscape pests in our area:


Japanese beetle

Beautifully glowing with green and blue iridescence and coppery wings, the Japanese Beetle doesn’t look like it should be despised.  But Japanese Beetles have earned their unsavory reputations by having populations that quickly grow out of control and damage almost every part of our landscape.

And summer is Japanese Beetle time: this is when the adults emerge from the ground and start dining on our plantings. With a diet that includes over 300 different plants, our yards are their buffet. They devour the soft leaf tissue of our plantings, often leaving only the leaf ribs behind. Since July is also their time to mate, a few Japanese Beetles can turn into a mob when they release pheromones that attract other beetles from a mile away or more.

In late July through August, the females lay their eggs in our lawns. It takes less than two weeks for the larvae to develop into grubs and start gnawing their way through the grass roots. These grubs are the single most damaging lawn pest we have.

There are a few different ways to control Japanese Beetles. Certainly the simplest is to remove them by hand — and if the beetles have confined themselves to a single rosebush, it’s possible to curtail their population this way. However, if they’re munching through your Birch tree – or you have no interest in hand-picking beetles – you probably should consider a more sophisticated solution. We usually recommend applying a low-toxicity spray to the most susceptible plantings, repeated 2 or 3 times over the course of the summer.

The grubs represent a different challenge. Because Japanese Beetles are very mobile, it’s possible to have lots of grubs beneath your lawn, eating the grass roots and creating dead brown patches, without seeing many adults. We have several options for treating grubs. When we confirm grub activity (we do this by lifting the soil and looking), we can apply a grub treatment. One annual application usually controls all kinds of grubs, including Japanese Beetles.

There is also a purely organic approach that targets only Japanese Beetles.  Milky disease is caused by a bacterium that infects Japanese Beetle grubs. We can apply Milky Spore powder to a lawn to control the Japanese Beetle grub population.  The Milky Spore continues to infect the beetles for several years.

One warning: many sources sell pheromone traps for Japanese Beetles. These traps work well – at attracting Japanese Beetles to your yard from all around the neighborhood. So don’t buy these traps – unless they’re a gift for your neighbor!


Almstead Arborist, Gary Norman, Preserving Trees in Greenwich

One of our arborists, Gary Norman, was recently featured in the Greenwich Daily Voice for his work in preserving trees in Greenwich. Three 150-year-old trees planted in front of Greenwich Academy are among the ones he has worked to protect and preserve.

 “It’s rewarding to have the opportunity to keep historic trees in good health by protecting them from pressures such as disease, microclimate change and construction,” says Gary.

In fact, it’s not just large construction projects that can damage trees – home construction can be deadly as well. Fortunately, the majority of construction damage can be mitigated with the guidance of a qualified arborist along with the full involvement and cooperation of all parties involved in the project: from architects to subcontractors to landscapers. The process begins with identifying the trees to be preserved. Next, we try to protect the tree from the construction process. This includes making sure the tree is well fertilized, watered and mulched and protected by fencing. We try to minimize the compaction of soil over the tree roots – ideally the fence includes the entire root zone. If it is necessary to cut the roots, an arborist can usually sever them with far less impact to the tree than a contractor.

New grading and drainage can leave this tree thirsty.
New grading and drainage can leave this tree thirsty.

Gary, like all our Almstead arborists, has had a lot of experience with this process. “Most people are aware of the most obvious effects of construction, like damaging the tree trunk or compacting the soil,” he notes. “But there are other effects that are more subtle. For example, cutting down surrounding trees can leave a tree suddenly exposed to sunlight and wind – conditions that some trees can’t thrive in. Another problem is changing the grading or drainage: these improvements can literally leave a tree high and dry, without enough water to nourish it.”

We all need to adapt to change at times, including trees. Conscientious care from an Almstead arborist can help these trees have the best chance for survival.

Unwanted Landscape Pest #10: Birch Leafminer

Today we’re starting a series on America’s Most Unwanted — or really the NY/NJ/CT region’s Most Unwanted — Landscape Pests. So we’ve selected Almstead’s top 10 unloved insects that plague our landscapes. Some of them are killers (of trees or shrubs), while others just turn a beautiful planting into a shredded mess.



The countdown begins with the Birch Leafminer. This is an insect with narrow dietary preferences: Birch trees, particularly Paper Birch, Grey Birch and European White Birch. The Birch Leafminer is a European import; unfortunately its natural predators didn’t come across the sea with it. In some areas of the U.S., the European wasps are being released to help keep the Birch Leafminer population under control.

In its adult form, the Birch Leafminer is a sawfly — but it is the larvae that really wreak havoc on the Birch leaves. These hungry little Leafminers actually insinuate themselves between the top and bottom of leaves where they munch their way along a serpentine path. As these paths intersect, large portions of the leaves start to turn brown.

Birch Leafminer Damage Source: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,
Birch Leafminer Damage
Source: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

You’ll typically notice Leafminer activity in the tops of Birch trees — since the Leafminer mothers choose the tenderest new leaves as the best place for their larvae to survive. Whole sections can turn brown due to Leafminer activity. Though the brown leaves are unsightly, and won’t regrow during the same season, Birch Leafminers are not generally tree killers. However, if an infestation repeats itself over several years, the cumulative damage can be too much for the tree to survive.

By the time you are aware of Leafminer activity, it is usually too late to alleviate the damage for the season. As part of an Integrated Pest Management approach, our Almstead arborists  recommend early application of controls to prevent the larvae from emerging in the next season.

Integrated Pest Management Explained

We sometimes take it for granted that everyone understands what Integrated Pest Management means. It is one of the cornerstones of our tree, plant and lawn health care programs. But, since many of our clients have questions about the practice, let me give you a little more information.

Decades ago, when synthetic pesticides were developed, they were used liberally. And they were effective at killing pests – but they killed many beneficial insects as well. This means that the natural balance in the area where they were used was severely disrupted. The whole food chain was interrupted, and often the birds disappeared along with the bugs.

The concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) arose from a desire to work within the natural order. So, rather than saying “We’re just going to eliminate all aphids”,  we ask the question, “Are these aphids being controlled by their natural predators, like lady bugs and praying mantises?”  Or “Are there certain plants that need to be protected, because they are particularly vulnerable to aphids?” If the aphids are growing out of harmony with their natural predators – perhaps on an especially alluring rosebush — we step in with a very targeted treatment to manage their population, either by killing the adults, or more likely, preventing the larvae from emerging. So rather than indiscriminately spraying insecticide all around a garden, we will apply horticultural oil (to prevent the emergence of larvae) to the aphid-loving rosebush.

Integrated Pest Management isn’t always organic – but increasingly, we find that natural or bio-rational products are best for these narrow-focused targets.  And we’re always exploring organic options wherever possible.

So how do we know what to use and when? One of the fundamentals of Integrated Pest Management is inspection.  Our technicians go out and inspect our clients’ properties several times a year, and then use products that specifically respond to any observed insect or fungal threats.

An Almstead arborist shows a client how we inspect plants
An Almstead arborist shows a client how we inspect plants

And managing insects through applications is just one tool for keeping plantings healthy and beautiful. We can also limit the spread of insects or diseases through selective pruning of infested branches as well as by improving the overall health of plants (and their resistance to pests) by improving the soil.

Ken Almstead – CEO, Arborist

Tree Neural Networks — Think Avatar ….

If you saw the movie Avatar (and apparently, most of us did), you saw how the planet Pandora was composed of a gigantic neural network. Life, health, knowledge, strength — everything could flow through these connections from one tree to another, and to the other living creatures that could tie into the network.

This shows root graft between two Oaks. Oak Wilt is easily transmitted this way.
This shows root graft between two Oaks. Oak Wilt is
easily transmitted this way.

So often, science fiction is based in reality. Trees unquestionably maintain a network beneath the ground. As an arborist, you ignore that network at your peril — because diseases can be transmitted from one tree to another through root grafts. Trees of the same species are often able to connect their roots and establish a back and forth flow of nutrients and fluid — and some potentially deadly stuff as well. Which is why, when we consider how likely a diseased tree is to infect others, we need to think of the connections below the soil as well as well as more obvious methods of transmission (like insects). Dutch Elm Disease is a prime example. If there are nearby trees of  the same species, we try to sever those root connections by removing the diseased tree, roots and all. Then we inoculate the remaining trees and hope we got there in time.

There is more and more evidence that these neural networks allow trees to work cooperatively. If a tree is stronger and better situated — perhaps where water is more available — it can actually send fluids over to its thirstier cousin. And the same seems true for nutrients and beneficial fungi. “A little more phosphorus over here, please.”

Here’s a link to an interesting video made by Professor Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia. She suggests that these underground connections are sophisticated enough to be actually called communication.

– Michael Almstead, VP and arborist

Don’t Squash That Worm – He Works for Me

Every gardener knows the benefits of earthworms: they are little humus-creating machines that recycle organic material as they travel, aerating and enriching the soil as they go. Worm castings (excrement) –  and eventually the worms themselves  – decay and release nutrients back into the soil. Grass, plants and trees all benefit from the activity of worms.

It’s tempting to try and improve your soil by adding more worms — and there are plenty of places willing to sell them to you for this purpose. But soil that is inhospitable to your own worms is not going to be any more attractive to imported worms – and you wind up with some really expensive dead worm fertilizer.


There are ways to make the soil more worm-friendly, and that can start a cycle of soil improvement. Aerating compacted soil can help to make a better environment for both your worms and your plants. In addition to core aerating lawns, our Almstead arborists also use compressed air (with a tool called an Air Spade) to loosen soil around tree roots or heavily compacted places. Tree and plant roots are able to receive more water through the aerated soil – and moist soil is also worm heaven. The other thing that worms (and plants) need is nutrition. That is one reason that we enrich soil with compost and leave a thick layer of mulch on top: the worms will eat the organic material and then recycle it through the soil.

Healthy soil is not just filled with earthworms – it also contains beneficial bacteria and fungi. All these organisms, along with the roots of trees and plantings, interact to perpetuate a cycle of healthy soil creation. Here at Almstead, we like to help this process with applications of Compost Tea — a carefully-balanced, liquid compost. We brew our Compost Tea from top quality leaf and twig compost and add organic nutrients like worm castings. We nourish the beneficial microorganisms with humates and fish oil to create a nutrient-rich liquid that helps to jump-start tree, lawn, plant (and earthworm) health.

Ken Almstead, Almstead arborist and CEO

Should I Plant Birch?

The Birch is one of our iconic American trees. Many species of Birch can be found growing wild in our forests (the Paper Birch, Yellow Birch and Grey Birch to name a few). So it’s easy to believe that — like many native plants — a Birch would be relatively disease and pest resistant.  Wrong.

In the suburban garden, a Birch is essentially an ornamental tree. When planting a Birch, the first consideration should be where to site it. A healthy Birch can easily reach 40-50 feet in height, so give it some  room. Birch need full sun (or close to it) —  BUT they also need cool moist soil. If you think of them in their native habitat — such as an Appalachian valley — their trunks and leaves would grow above the low-lying vegetation that insulates and protects their roots. So when you plant a Birch in your yard, the shallow root system needs the same protection. A thick layer of mulch helps to even out the temperature and retain soil moisture; this is a tree that definitely needs water in dry weather, since the roots lie in the top layer of soil.

black birch canker

Birch trees are also susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, such as the Bronze Birch Borer and the Birch Leafminer. It also is susceptible to several fungi. Careful pruning of Birch is very important since opportunistic fungi can enter an unhealed wound. The picture above shows a bleeding canker on a Black Birch — a sign of seriously declining health. Unfortunately, this client consulted us too late to save this tree, although it doesn’t have to be taken down immediately. Part of the problem for this tree was too much mulch piled around the trunk — mulch is good for the roots but NOT directly around the trunk.

So given all these issues, why do we continue to plant Birch? It’s obvious. Just look at the picture below.

istock birch
— Ken Almstead, Almstead Arborist and CEO

Hate to Say We Told You So …

In our last blog post (Prune in June) one of our arborists discussed the incredible amount of growth we’ve seen this year on many trees. His warning about the importance of lightening the load on some of these trees was right on target — as this unfortunate beech tree found out.

This Beech tree lost half of its canopy when a major branch split from the weight of unusual spring growth.
This Beech tree lost half of its canopy when a major branch
split from the weight of unusual spring growth.

According to the owners, the tree had been declining somewhat over time. This spring, for the first time in years, its foliage was lush and magnificent. Then – CRACK. The owners were lucky that it missed their house.

In all honesty, pruning alone wouldn’t have prevented this damage — the tree  needed to be cabled and braced because of the size and weight of the “branch”  (really a second trunk, which is never a good idea for a big tree). For a typical tree however, pruning some of the branches could remove enough weight to prevent this kind of damage.

What is the future of this tree? Not good. While it might survive the loss of the branch (with a little help from Almstead), aesthetically it’s lost half of its canopy. I wouldn’t be surprised if, within a few years, the owners opt for removal.

– Jeff Delaune, Almstead arborist, New Rochelle

Prune in June


The incredible spring growing season we’ve had here in the New York area has produced a thick, heavy canopy for our trees and shrubs. In many cases, this is too much of a good thing. We’ve been seeing a lot of trees that have too much leafy weight to be safely supported by the branches, making them vulnerable to snapping off, and putting stress on the tree’s health. We’re also still finding branches damaged by last fall’s storms either hung up in other branches or ready to break off.

And there are several other good reasons to “Prune in June.” Selective pruning helps to maintain your plantings by stimulating healthy new growth, enhancing the form and beauty of your trees or shrubs. Right after the spring growth is also the right time to prune to create a thicker privacy screen. And of course, selectively pruning the tree canopy will allow more light to reach your lawn, shrubs and perennials.

 –   Alan McCullough,  Almstead arborist and Branch Manager, New Jersey

Getting to the Root of Things

Almstead was asked to do some work at St. John’s University recently.  They had done some construction about 7 years ago in a lovely quadrangle with 8 mature pin oak trees.  They worked around the trees, then resodded the  lawn. The grass looked fine, but the pin oaks, which had remained during construction, weren’t thriving.

St. John's University, Queens, NY
St. John’s University, Queens, NY

This is something we see commonly:  after construction, everything  LOOKS great, but the soil has been compacted around the tree roots by feet and machinery (which can happen even without construction on a busy campus). Eventually, the trees start to decline as their feeder roots struggle to grow and find nutrition in the dense soil. Above, you can see the tree closest to the building is starting to look stressed, lacking a full canopy.

An Almstead crew cleaning up after pruning
An Almstead crew cleaning up after pruning

We had several tree care jobs to perform here, so we brought in several different crews: one group did tree trimming, another did air spading, and another took care of the hydraulic soil injection.  That way, we could lessen the disruption to the campus.

Our tree trimming crew worked on identifying and pruning diseased and dead branches  – important for the health of the tree, but also for the safety of people walking on campus.

We also removed the sod and performed air spading around the roots. The aid spade loosens the soil and blows it away from the roots using compressed air – without damaging the roots. There’s no risk of nicking the roots – or a utility line – as could happen with a traditional spade.  We can check for any other problems (insect or disease) while the roots are exposed. Then we just fill the soil back in, sometimes adding some extra amendments to keep the tree healthy.  In fact, last year, the University needed to run a water line through the root zone of this group of trees. We worked with the contractor and uncovered the roots with the air spade. We made clean cuts in the roots where necessary as he ran the line through.

An Almstead Plant Healthcare Technician performs  hydraulic soil injection
An Almstead Plant Healthcare Technician performs hydraulic soil injection

This year, we’re performing hydraulic soil injection of custom blended fertilizer and soil additives for these oaks, to help them stay strong. (There’s Leo in the picture on the left, giving a tree its vitamins).

With some care and extra attention, these oaks should be there for several generations of future students.

– Ken Almstead, Almstead arborist and CEO