Remembering Tom Schelstrate

I am bereft to learn of the passing of Tom Schelstrate, an educator who never stopped learning and who helped everyone in the room, woods or park more deeply understand trees, even when they seemed confusing.

As a student who helped to inaugurate our new training modules in 2018-2019, he asked what may have seemed to be impertinent questions, but no one ever interrupted him—or the answer. His queries were insightful, even when he seemed most flummoxed.

Professor Schelstrate endeavored to learn tree identification from their leaves and collected a notebook full of them that he carried to each tree walk. His prize may have been the leaf of an American chestnut tree that instructor Emily Ferguson noticed during a walk in Glencarlyn Park. Emily handed the cherished leaf to Tom, knowing he would treasure it even if he never saw another living American chestnut.

In the classroom, Emily mentioned that one tree has three different leaves, and Tom was aghast. “How will I ever learn this if one tree has three leaves?” he exclaimed, declaring what every other Tree Steward student present was thinking.

Tom, your questions made every tree encounter better for your having asked. I wish you peace in repose among chestnuts and sassafras, mighty oaks and elms, maples and sycamores, every tree you learned and have yet to know. When we join you, we expect a lesson.

Jo Allen
Training Committee, 2018-2019
Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria

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Decision Making for Tree Lovers: Assets and Liabilities

By Nora Palmatier

Oaks in my backyard
Oaks in my backyard

Tree Stewards have heard me brag about the huge oaks in my backyard, especially since the Quercus falcata became not only the Arlington County Champion but also a Specimen Tree, entered on the property deed and needing County permission to remove.  It has a Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) of 60 inches, which means I can stretch out on the ground beside it with toes touching a buttress root while hands over my head can barely touch the opposite side buttress root.  The fact that a Quercus alba (DBH 30 inches) shares the same mound and stretches almost as tall is another bragging right. 

This year, the white oak is gorgeous and full. The southern red oak is, well, even a tree lover would call it scraggly, and quite a few large limbs show no greenery on the tips (Qf to the left in the photo above, Qa to the right).  I think everyone on the Tree Steward list serve has read about the high incidence of oak decline and most likely guesses what the arborist from Bartlett Trees said. He commiserated with me and gave two choices:

  1. Remove the dead limbs (sheds, fences, play areas, and a house could all be considered “targets”), and treat the borers. No promise that one would not need to prune more limbs each year or how long tree would not be considered a risk. Given the height of tree and safety for climber, this would cost about the equivalent of a nice vacation for us. 
  1. Remove the tree now at a cost of three times the one-year pruning and borer treatment. 

I immediately swung into the denial part of the grief cycle and contacted experts who have taught us Tree Stewards.  Eric Wiseman, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Urban Forestry, Virginia Tech, is director of the Big Trees Virginia program that keeps track of state champions. I emailed him asking if there was research proving that the largest champion trees took much longer to decay (and thus were safer) since they had such huge trunks. Nope. 

I do not have any specific research that I can direct you to on this topic. Although I don’t follow the literature on this topic real closely, I feel confident in stating that controlled studies of oak decline in urban settings is scarce, particularly when it comes to evaluating treatment response and recovery rates. Oak decline has been studied quite a bit in natural forest settings, but those studies mostly revolve around examining the causes of decline and describing its epidemiology, and don’t get into treatment because it is rarely feasible to treat ailing oaks in natural forests. And obviously the environmental context is completely different, so it’s hard to extrapolate to urban areas.   When trees lose vitality, they lose their defenses against borers. It’s analogous to an elderly person becoming more susceptible to secondary infections when in poor health. Just like with the human, you have to control that secondary infection (the borers), but also treat the primary sources of poor health, which in this case may be soil and root health.”

He did suggest contacting Arborist Guy Meilleur with Historic Tree Care in Apex, NC, and the website filled me with hope! The Case Studies of Historic Tree Care had photos of trees bigger than my oak that were carefully preserved for decades. Guy Meilleur is also a great writer, so I spent hours perusing the site.  Like most tree lovers, he knew how much my oak meant to me and provided information on rejuvenating the soil. He would not be up in Northern Virginia for several months, and he did refer to significant loss of red oaks and asked about “targets” around my oak, which made me rethink my optimism. 

Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad also responded to my plea for assistance, but she offered no magic cure: “I’m happy to come by, but here’s my two cents and I doubt that it would change on site.  As you know we saw crazy numbers of oaks fail last year of oak decline.  The stresses on the trees lowered the trees’ ability to defend itself, and borers were found in large numbers in many of them. Yet the borers are not the cause of death or even of the tree’s decline. So, there is no question that they do actually cause some harm and primarily as the holes become entry sites for wood decay organisms. Also, if i thought that pruning would somehow invigorate the tree then yes, I would prefer that option, but I don’t think that pruning will do more than just extend the eventual removal of the whole tree.  So ask about leaving a 15-18′ snag for wildlife and what would that cost.”  

Photo of the borer holes

Virginia Department of Forestry Arborist Jim McGlone called after getting my anguished email.  His response was the 60 inch DBH Quercus falcata was declining because it was 60 inches, meaning it had matured to its fullest after a long life. He referred to the session he does on tree physiology, which discusses the impact of stressors such as drought, flooding, crazy weather impacts the xylem, phloem, leaves’ stomata. and roots. It’s a complex system. This was a learning I did not want to hear, but it does bring us back to the basics: trees are living beings, and they do die.

I needed closure, so I did what we Tree Stewards recommend and contacted an expert arborist not connected with a tree service.  Consulting Arborist Ed Milhous came out and did a high tech assessment  — he tapped a rubber mallet all over the red oak’s trunk which resulted in a hollow, drum sound. Then, he tapped the white oak which gave a firm, solid thunk. The red oak was full of decay and rotten inside while the white was in good shape.  He then stood back and examined the canopy, pointing out where dead branches started and those nearby with sparse leaves. Together we reviewed the surrounding neighbors’ yards with sheds, playground, fence, and patio all under large limbs. Should the entire tree fail, it had four houses it could impact, including a direct hit on our bedroom! The conversation turned to ways to minimize tree removal cost with options to leave a 20 foot snag, placing large limbs at the back of the property instead of hauling away, checking ability to salvage for local wood workers in such a tight space, and waiting till winter to minimize impact on the white oak and landscape.

Arborist Ed Milhous assessing tree

I did not truly learn anything new, and the first arborist’s suggestion to remove is what we will do. I clearly went through the rage, denial, and bargaining to end at grudging acceptance. My new goal is to research and interview companies to ensure that the Quercus alba is not damaged during the removal of its long-time partner. I will keep you updated on the process.

Oh, and I still believe mature trees are a valuable asset to one’s landscape in most situations. But I have a greater appreciation for their becoming liabilities!

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Tree Stewards Used Leap Day to Free Trees from Ivy

Red and white oaks, black gum, hickory and tulip trees can grow straighter because 40 volunteers removed invasive English ivy from the base of their trunks on Leap Day.

Led by Tree Steward intern Romana Campos, members of Arlington’s Trinity Presbyterian Church were joined by Tree Stewards, Arlington Regional Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia to free 126 mature trees from their heavy ivy burdens on a cold Saturday morning. Some volunteers mulched an additional 60 trees on the church’s campus on North 16th Street.

The work helps to fulfill Trinity’s mission as an “Earth Care Congregation,” according to Campos, who is a church elder, and Diane Allard, who heads the grounds ministry. Work had been scheduled in two shifts, from 9 a.m. until noon and from 1 to 3 p.m., but with such a robust volunteer turnout, most work was completed by 11 a.m., when workers enjoyed brunch in a church social hall.

Campos said she learned the importance of rescuing the mature trees from English ivy from Tree Stewards Nora Palmatier and Don Walsh, who consulted with her about obtaining a tree from Arlington’s Tree Canopy Fund, which is administered by EcoAction Arlington. Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria have been promoting care of mature trees for a decade, most recently with their “Mature Trees Are Valuable Trees” campaign. One of the most ubiquitous threats to trees is English ivy, which has been targeted in the Tree Stewards “Choking Hazard” campaign.

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a non-native ground cover still sold by garden stores despite its tendency to smother the ground, shading out more valuable native plants. Immature on the ground, ivy seeks to climb, and trees are nearby targets, especially in woodlands like the four acres that surround Trinity Presbyterian Church. Once up the tree trunk, the ivy matures, flowers in August, and bears fruit in late fall. Birds eat the berries and spread ivy far and wide.

On tree trunks, ivy can kill trees by holding too much moisture next to the trunk, where pathogens can take hold, and by climbing into the canopy, blocking light that trees need to conduct photosynthesis that feeds the roots. In addition, ivy in tree canopy often adds so much weight that otherwise sturdy branches bend downward, weakening the tree’s structure.

Killing ivy is relatively easy. Ivy is carefully cut at the base of the trunk and very gently removed from a foot or two of the trunk without disturbing the bark to create an ivy-free window. Ivy is easily uprooted by hand pulling at the tree’s base to form a “life ring” a few feet wide around the trunk. Ivy remaining on the trunk will turn brown, die and fall off. The on-ground life ring must be maintained every few years to prevent the vine from heading skyward again.

To learn more about non-native invasive plants in Northern Virginia, here are resources from Arlington and Fairfax counties:

Posted in Invasive plants, Mature Trees Are Valuable, Uncategorized

Tree Stewards in the News: TLC for Trees at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington

Tree Stewards Romana Campos and Diane Allard led an ivy cleanup at an Arlington church this past month.

The activity is currently featured in an article in the Arlington Connection!

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Oh Deer! What the overpopulation of deer means for our natural areas

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Deer are not just eating your hostas. They are munching many important native plants and killing young trees by rubbing the “velvet” off their antlers. So far, some local governments have avoided the “Bambi” issue, but as the population of white tail deer explodes, gardeners, naturalists and tree lovers seek solutions to deer destruction.

On Sunday, March 8, at 6:30 pm at Arlington Central Library, learn how deer are devastating some of our most prized natural areas from two noted local naturalists.

For more on overpopulation of deer, you might like:

For how one nearby county is coping, read this:

Here are some interesting observations of deer behavior, even if you’re not a hunter:

Posted in Continuing Education, Events | 1 Comment

Getting a Grip on Pruning Tools

How heavy is a 2-inch tree branch? Heavy enough to rip the protective bark from the tree trunk if it’s cut wrong, exposing the tree to harmful fungi, bacteria and insects that could eventually kill it.

Russell Bailey of Alexandria practices using a pruning saw.

Russell Bailey of Alexandria practices using a pruning saw.

About three dozen of the 42 people who are training to become Tree Stewards volunteers learned how to prevent that with what’s called the 3-cut method. First, they cut about halfway into the underside of the offending branch about a foot from the bark branch collar, where the branch attaches to the trunk. Then they cut the top of the branch clear through a few inches farther out, removing most of the weight of the branch and stopping the bark from tearing at the spot where they made the first cut. Finally, they sawed just outside the bark branch collar, where the tree is primed to grow protective wood over the pruning wound. They learned that no sealing material should be put on the fresh cut since the tree itself will cover the injury to prevent pathogens from entering.

Trainees learn to use pruning tools. Photos by Jo Allen

Trainees learn to use pruning tools. Photos by Tree Steward Jo Allen

Trainees, accompanied by several Tree Stewards with pruning experience, practiced wielding pruning saws and bypass pruners to perform functional pruning on trees near Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington on Saturday, Jan. 11, as part of an Introduction to Pruning class taught by Hugh Robinson, who leads volunteer pruners in Arlington. His experienced group has pruned trees at all of Arlington’s public libraries, many of its 185 parks, and several of its public schools.

Training continues Sunday, when the group will learn structural pruning and practice it on young trees at Abingdon Elementary School in Arlington. A final pruning session will be held on Saturday, Feb. 8, in Douglas Park. Check out the course syllabus here.

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TSAA Syllabus 2020, Updated Jan. 15, 2020

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Here’s How to Help Your Sickly Oak Trees

The following guidance was developed by Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church urban foresters with participation by Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria and Arlington Regional Master Naturalists.

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30 More Trees Planted at Polk Elementary School

Fifty-four volunteers spent Indigenous Peoples Day planting 30 more native trees at Alexandria’s James K. Polk Elementary School, completing the second of three efforts to add 100 new trees to the school grounds.

Volunteers from Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria worked alongside teachers from the school, whose colleague Steve Neeley headed up the effort by educators. Other volunteers included a large contingent from Northern Virginia Volkswagen operations and several people from the Alexandria community who had been recruited by Tree Steward Bonnie Petry.

Petry and Tree Stewards Lynn Gas and Jane Seward sparked the tree-planting plan more than a year ago, engaging Neeley from the school and Alexandria natural resources officials Bob Williams and Rod Simmons plus city arborist John Marlin. The first 33 trees were planted by volunteers in April and are thriving despite the recent drought because they were watered during the growing season. Without additional rain, watering will need to continue for all the new trees until the ground freezes and resume next spring.

Former mayor Allison Silberberg greeted the volunteers to thank them for helping Alexandria move toward her goal of increasing the city’s tree canopy. She and Tree Steward Jo Allen took pictures, and here are some of their views of the day.

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Four Mile Run Park Gets 50 New Trees

Alexandria’s 60-acre Four Mile Run Park has 50 new trees planted Friday, Oct. 4, by Intus Windows staff and clients—plus the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States—with inspiration and mentoring by Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria.

Intus, which makes energy-efficient windows and doors, launched a “One Window One Tree” campaign In 2018 to take action to combat climate change. The company, which has a local office in the Merrifield area of Fairfax County, has a factory in Lithuania, and its two U.S. CEOs are Lithuanian. So it was only natural that Ambassador Rolandas Kriščiūnas would turn out not just for opening remarks but also to plant trees.

Alexandria officials on hand were Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, City Council members Del Pepper and Mo Seifeldein, and former mayor Allison Silberberg, who spurred city tree planting when in office and has supported Tree Stewards and Intus at previous plantings.

Intus brought more than 50 employees and 10 clients to the park and installed the 50 trees within 90 minutes. Tree Steward Bonnie Petry organized the planting and logistics with help from city natural resources staff members Bob Williams and Rod Simmons, arborist John Marlin and auger-runner Dion Bates. Because of the extended drought, some of the planting holes were opened with a massive auger. The Intus crew used pick-mattocks and shovels to dig the remaining holes in the parched soil.

Petry has long championed adding more trees in the heavily used park, where she and other Tree Stewards have planted trees at least three times in recent years. She worked to have the city buy the trees and approve the planting. Petry and nine other veteran Tree Steward volunteers supervised the planters, and seven of the current class of 30 Tree Steward trainees helped with logistics early in the day.

Here are some views of the day from photographer Travis Morgan.

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