Category Archives: Tree Care

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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 #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.

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

What Topped Trees Look Like

Topping is an unfortunately common pruning practice that ignores a basic tenet of arboriculture: pruning back to a natural branch juncture. Failing to do so leads to the onset of watersprouts – many small branches that emerge from dormant buds in the area of the cut.When a branch breaks in a storm, this new growth helps a tree to restore its canopy. When unnatural wounds that resemble branch breakage appear throughout the canopy, watersprouting happens at each of these cuts, and the tree is drained of energy from over-producing the sprouts. That makes the tree weaker and more susceptible to insect and disease problems. What’s more, the sprouts create structural problems down the road. It is not uncommon for a topped tree to decline to the point of being unsalvageable.

I’ve taken some photos of topped ornamentals I’ve seen around town in Larchmont and Mamaroneck for you to see below.

–Jeff Delaune, Almstead Arborist in Lower Westchester County, NY.

Topping to create a uniform, rounded shape is common on ornamental trees like Pears and Crabapples, but ultimately this leads to a messy, structurally unsound canopy.
Topping to create a uniform, rounded shape is common on ornamental trees like Pears and Crabapples, but ultimately this leads to a messy, structurally unsound canopy.
Close-up of fresh topping cuts on a Crabapple
Close-up of fresh topping cuts on a Crabapple
Close-up of an Elm that was topped a couple of years ago. Notice the thick water sprout growth that emerged after the improper cuts were made.
Close-up of an Elm that was topped a couple of years ago. Notice the thick water sprout growth that emerged after the improper cuts were made.
Here is a very clear example of water sprouts emerging from the sites of improper topping cuts. Good reduction cuts will scale back the size of a tree while taking structure and growth patterns into account.
Image: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Branches Caught in Trees

After a storm where branches fall from trees, it’s easy to feel that everything is squared away once the debris has been cleared from the ground. An arborist will tell you, though, that what’s really important is to look up. The canopies of damaged trees may still be barely holding onto snapped and hanging limbs that will eventually fall. There may also be lateral cracks in branches, stubs left by fallen limbs that open the tree up to decay if they aren’t pruned correctly, and structural problems where important branches have broken off.

Here’s a trick for noticing hangers (snapped branches that get caught up in the canopy of a tree rather than falling to the ground). When you look up at the canopy of a tree, look for areas that are darker than the rest. Places where there is less light filtering through are often areas where a branch has fallen and its leaves are doubling up with the leaves that are naturally in that area of the tree. See if you can spot the hanger below:

Dark, shadowy areas in the canopy are often indicators of a hanging branch that's snapped but still caught up in a tree.
Dark, shadowy areas in the canopy are often indicators of a hanging branch that’s snapped but still caught up in a tree.

A Tree Crew’s Island Adventure

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The New Canaan tree warden left me a message, “Got guys that can swim with chain saws on their backs?”

There’s a park in town with an island and a large oak fell during Irene, and he wanted it cut up and left on the ground so it wasn’t so visible.

“I know it’s an odd request, don’t know what to do.”

I told him not to worry, there’s not a lot we can’t handle.

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I put the Kayak on the roof the next Saturday and paddled out with the saws with a throw bag line attached. Leo pulled the boat back and got across, Alex did the same, we took care of the job and back over we went.

I had to itemize the invoice for FEMA reimbursement. We listed the Kayak as a “no charge” item and off it went.

“You guys make my life easy.”

All in a day’s work… You should have seen the look on the faces of the dog-walkers when we started loading the saws into the boat!

– “Capt.” Bob Bociek, Almstead Arborist & Branch Manager in Fairfield County, CT

Storm and Flood Damage – Uprooted Trees

Hurricane Irene brought a lot of flooding our way, and for trees that posed the danger of saturated soil. When there is so much water that it isn’t able to drain into the water table, the soil fills with more water than it would naturally retain. This loosens soil particles and makes the ground more malleable.

The majority of a tree’s root system is typically anchored to the first 6-12 inches of the soil. It’s also the part of the ground that bears the brunt of over-saturation in flood situations. When the soil loosens around the roots, it can lead to the uprooting of a tree. This is a problem we saw a lot of in the aftermath of Irene.

Photo from the International Society of Arboriculture.
Photo from the International Society of Arboriculture.
Uprooted trees obviously have the potential to cause a lot of damage  when they fall. In addition to property, they often take down power  lines and block paths like roadways. It's especially important to stay  away from damaged power lines and wait for professionals  to handle these situations.
Uprooted trees obviously have the potential to cause a lot of damage when they fall. In addition to property, they often take down power lines and block paths like roadways. It’s especially important to stay away from damaged power lines and wait for professionals to handle these situations.
This uprooted tree was sitting in saturated soil and  is a typical  example of the type of damage we saw from Hurricane Irene.
This uprooted tree was sitting in saturated soil and is a typical example of the type of damage we saw from Hurricane Irene.

Water Molds Impacting Trees, Shrubs & Lawns

We’ve already mentioned in a previous post that this year has been particularly rainy (twice as wet as last year, in fact). In addition to producing a spike in insect activity, the weather has also been ideal for a set of diseases known as water molds (a type of fungi) that impact both woody plants and grasses.

Water molds spread via “swimming” spores that move easily through water. That means frequent rain and the resulting saturated soils both improve conditions for the pathogens. The movement of water above ground helps to spread the molds to new plants, and perpetually wet or damp soils allow them to thrive.


Phytopthora spp. is a set of water molds responsible for several very serious tree diseases, including Sudden Oak Death and Beech Bleeding Canker. It also affects Maples and other hardwood trees and shrubs, primarily in their root systems. Due to the especially wet weather this year, we’ve seen a lot of Phytopthora root rot in the landscape. In most cases, symptoms of decline above ground (small leaves, stunted growth, dead twigs) are traced back to the root system (where there is often discoloration, noticeable rotting, and sometimes lesions on thicker roots and even at the base of the stem).

To preserve an infected plant, treatment for Phytopthora is critical. In addition to applying controls for the disease, making environmental changes that improve drainage and keep the root system of a plant from being saturated with water is incredibly important. (In fact, sprinkler systems can be just as damaging as heavy rains in this respect — just one example of why it’s important to take all of the factors in a plant’s environment into consideration.)


Another water mold, Pythium spp. causes a number of diseases in turf-grass, including Pythium blight and Pythium root rot. Both of these diseases spread quickly and create irregular patches of brown grass on a lawn. With the blight, grass will often be wet or greasy first, turning later to a more dried out brown. You may also see fungal threads growing above ground on turn infected with Pythium blight. The root rot, on the other hand, is less obvious above ground, presenting as dead brown patches. The roots, however, are obviously rotten and discolored.

Ryegrass is especially prone to Pythium problems, as are bluegrasses and fescues. As with the Phytopthora, controls are available, but fixing drainage and irrigation problems is just as, if not more, important. Certain practices, like refraining from mowing grass when it’s wet, will also help prevent the spread of these diseases.

– Ken Almstead, Arborist in Riverdale & Lower Westchester NY

Rainy Weather Means More Insects

Have you been caught in a downpour or two this year? It might not surprise you to hear that we’ve had twice as much rain this growing season than we did in 2010. Here’s a snippet from Cornell Cooperative Extension’s July 2011 Newsletter for Professional Horticulturalists in the Hudson Valley:

According to the NOAA, March – May was the wettest 3 month period on record for New York State since weather recording commenced, 117 years ago! Here in Westchester County, we officially started taking 2011 seasonal records on March 15, and since that time, we have accumulated 20.90” of precipitation – with 5.95” of this precipitation having fallen in the month of June alone. When we compare these numbers with 2010, we note that we have accumulated over 2x the amount of precipitation (both for the month of June and the season) than we had received this time last year.

So, what does that mean for conditions in the landscape? A number of things, but let’s stick with a major one for the purposes of this post.

Scale insect infestation on a Maple
Scale insect infestation on a Maple

More Insects

Mosquitoes may come to your mind first, but the wet, warm weather has also been ideal for a range of insects that impact all sorts of plants, including trees and shrubs. Scale insects have been especially prevelant this year, with heavy infestations showing up on Maples, Dogwoods, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Taxus (Yews), Cherries and Plums. Another prevalent pest this year is the Lace Bug, which gnaws on the leaves of both Azaleas and Andromedas. The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid has been especially active this year as well.

Lace Bug damage to Azalea leaves
Lace Bug damage to Azalea leaves

Fortunately, while some are quite serious, all of the insect populations mentioned here can be managed with proper programs. However, it is definitely important to take action, and the sooner the problem is dealt with, the better. Why? The smaller the population, the easier the problem is to control. Plus, prolonged exposure to insect damage tends to negatively impact the strength of a plant in future growing seasons even if the problem has been corrected.

Untreated Hemlock Wooly Adelgid infestations can be fatal to trees in just a few years
Untreated Hemlock Wooly Adelgid infestations can be fatal to trees in just a few years

– Jeff Delaune, Almstead Arborist in Larchmont, Mamaroneck & Rye

Image Credits: Lace Bug by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,; Hemlock Wooly Adelgid by Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service,; Scale by Ronald S. Kelley, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation,

Pruning the Cherry Trees at Men in Black Headquarters

Here’s something a little out of the ordinary for us in the tree business…

The Set Decorators for the upcoming movie Men in Black 3 enlisted Almstead to prune three Cherry trees framing the entrance to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park (better know to fans as Men in Black Headquarters).

The request was for us to prune the trees back significantly to gain more visibility of the building while still maintaining a natural shape and not making fresh cuts large enough that they would be obvious on screen. While this job required a bit more meticulousness than usual, it’s not unfamiliar territory for us. We call this type of work a “natural crown reduction” in arboriculture. In this case, the crew did a great job of removing about 25% of each tree’s canopy while still maintaining their natural growth habits and avoiding that “just pruned” look.

A thank you from the Men in Black Set Department
A thank you from the Men in Black Set Department
Almstead crew pruning Cherries at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park
Almstead crew pruning Cherries at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park

In addition to the aesthetic benefits, natural crown reduction is also much better for trees in the long run compared to less subtle methods like topping (simply cutting back the edges of the crown to where you want them the same way you might shear a hedge). Making cuts at natural junctures in the tree and thinking about which branches are most important to its underlying structure keep future growth headed in the right direction, prevent stress reactions like water-sprouting, and minimize the chances of decay as a result of the pruning wounds. It’s definitely the best way to reduce the size of a tree, even if your landscape isn’t about to be Hollywood’s next big star.

— Chris Busak, Arborist in NYC & Lower Westchester

Is My Japanese Maple Tree Dead?

“Is my Japanese Maple dead?” has been the question of the week from my clients. I’ve gotten at least 4 calls about Japanese Maples that either didn’t produce leaves at all this season or only have partially developed canopies. And I got a few calls about this last week as well

Unfortunately, the trees I’ve seen are definitely dead. Those with at least partial canopies can be helped in some cases, but those without any leaves are not going to come back.

Buds formed during the Fall, but never broke this Spring. This is a common problem with Japanese Maples this year.
Buds formed during the Fall, but never broke this Spring. This is a common problem with Japanese Maples this year.

What happened?These Japanese Maples all have buds that formed last fall, but they failed to break in the spring. All of the ones I’ve seen that failed were already withstanding less than`ideal environmental conditions. For instance, soil is raised higher than it should be around the base of trees; girdling roots are strangling the root collar; limbs are suffering from improper pruning wounds; or the trees are facing new exposure to sun due to the removal of larger trees that were providing shade to these thin barked trees.

In Pelham, a client has two Japanese Maples of similar age and size situated on her front lawn.  The one to the far right (no more than 25ft away)  is still alive and this one is stone dead.
In Pelham, a client has two Japanese Maples ofsimilar age and size situated on her front lawn. The one to the far right (no more than 25ft away) is still alive and this one is stone dead.

That explains which trees were most susceptible to failure, but the real cause of their immediate or partial death was due to extreme fluctuations in temperature. This species in particular is prone to desiccation and leaf loss when this happens with the weather. Last year was a record hot summer followed by one of the coldest winters we have seen in some time. When tree failure occurs suddenly without signs of decline in previous seasons, it is typically due to environmental stresses (as opposed to insect or disease problems, which tend to take longer to cause this serious of a decline).

–Ken Almstead, Arborist in Riverdale and Westchester NY

London Plane and Sycamore Anthracnose

With the cool, wet weather we’ve been having this Spring, tree diseases have been showing up more than usual this year. Pathogens like Anthracnose fungus thrive in this type of weather and tend to peter out when it gets warmer and drier, so their window to cause damage is a lot longer than usual.


For instance, Anthracnose might usually harm only a small portion of this London Plane tree, but this year it is almost entirely leafless, with small, stunted growth where there are leaves. You can also see witch’s brooming, where the tree is pushing out new twigs around spots that were killed by the fungus.


Trees can come back from these diseases, although they may need extra care and/or fungicide treatments. Everything should really be in full leaf by now, so if it looks like your tree is getting a slow start, it may be because of a disease like this.

– Ken Almstead, Arborist in Westchester and Riverdale

Helping City Tree Roots Breathe Easy

We performed root crown excavations on three mature ginkgo trees exhibiting signs of poor health in midtown last week alongside NYC Municipal Forester Erin Maehr. The trees had been buried 2’ deep in soil for approximately 30 years. The excess soil was removed using an air spade (which loosens and removes soil using a stream of pressurized air).

Ginkgos in planters were buried in 2 extra feet of soil

On one tree, a grove of girdling and adventitious roots was found growing out of the trunk, including a 3.5” thick root growing approximately 11” above the trees natural root crown (where the trunk should be emerging from the soil if the tree hadn’t been buried).

Almstead Plant Health Care Technician Leo and NYC Forester Erin at work pruning the adventitous root system.

Almstead staff member Leo perform root surgery by excavating and pruning roots using shears, loppers and hammer & chisel. We are very optimistic that with follow-up Plant Health Care services, such as deep root feeding with organic bio-stimulants, that these trees will recover and thrive as they once did.

After air spading, the trunk meets the soil at the proper place. Many roots grew above the natural root system, causing problems for the tree.
A large 3.5″ thick root growing approx. 11″ above the tree’s natural root syste.
Before we started to work, these trees were buried!
Before we started to work, these trees were buried!

– Chris Busak, Arborist in NYC & Westchester

Bringing Tree Work Home

The more cuttings I try, the better chance we have for success.
I have a client living in Mt Vernon whose old Fir tree needed to be removed because of root decline and failure. The couple has been living with and appreciating the tree for so many years that they both cried when I explained the reasons the tree needed to be removed.


They asked me if there was any way to save the tree or to clone this one. I told them yes, we can try. I took a branch from the tree home, took cuttings from it, dipped them in a rooting hormone and replanted them in an attempt to propagate the tree. Now we’re waiting to see what happens.

The final product (for this phase, anyway).

– Chris Busak, Arborist in Westchester & NYC