Healthy trees?and how to keep them that way
Looking around at the beauty of sandy hillsides, lake shores, running streams and boggy wetland, nothing else defines the Northwoods like the trees. The variety of colors and textures, from the smallest saplings to the grand old giants, trees shape our yards and neighborhoods into the magic oasis we love.
Certified arborist Ted Foley of Foley’s Tree Service in Tomahawk has a lot of advice to pass along, but it all boils down to one idea: “If you care about your trees, be proactive,” he says. “Keep a close eye on them and take care of any potential problems as soon as possible.”
Coming out of a long, cold winter, many area trees are still suffering. “Cold weather caused cellular die-off in many trees,” he says. “It’s not always easy to see, but portions of trees have been killed, and are now susceptible to insects and fungus that threaten the whole tree.”
Apple and birch trees
Apple trees, especially, took a bad hit this winter, Ted explains. “They were weakened so much that they can’t fight off attacks. It’s been a weird summer, so far, too, with insects and fungus ready to move in. Many apple trees aren’t really zoned for this far north, anyway.”
The graceful, bright birch, so iconic to the Northwoods, shining against the deep pine boughs and blue skies, are also at risk. “If any trees are sacred to people around here, it’s the white birch and paper birch,” he says.
“They’ve been fighting off birch leaf miner and bronze birch borer beetles for thirty-odd years now. We can treat trees effectively if we catch it early, though, and there are also preventative measures we can take.”
Even though it is the roots of birch that are attacked by these insects, according to Ted, a careful eye needs to be kept on the very top branches of the birch tree for signs of infestation.
“Always look up,” he advises. “If you notice the leaves in the canopy are smaller and growing less densely, if you can see through them more easily, the tree may be going into decline.”
Woodpeckers and mushrooms
In one way, woodpeckers help tree lovers find damaged trees, according to Ted. “They are a great indicator of a tree in trouble,” he says. “You won’t see them going to a healthy tree, but if they are pounding away, it’s a sure sign that that tree has structural damage.”
Likewise, fungi-like mushrooms will be found on dead, weakened areas. “These can be signs of hidden damage and decay inside the trunk,” says Ted. “The canopy may look fine, but weakness is still present and that tree could come down.”
Woodpeckers eat ants, termites and other insects that move into an area of rotting wood within the tree. “A tree that otherwise may not look too bad can be ready to fall. If it’s close to a structure – house, garage, boathouse or dock – you should address the issue,” he says. “A high wind could bring it down; then you have a real problem.”
Oak wilt disease
Ted’s father, Jerry, started the family business in 1980. Ted worked with his dad from a young age and officially joined the business in 2001.
When a new tree disease, oak wilt, started showing up three years ago, the Foleys went into action. “We teamed up with a company in the Twin Cities,” Ted says. “We learned about how the disease was progressing in other areas, and are now ready to treat it as it arrives.”
Already, oak wilt has been seen in Vilas County and in the Tomahawk area, though not yet in Rhinelander, according to Ted. The problem has had devastating effects in southern Wisconsin, killing whole forests of oaks.
“It’s a fungal disease that attacks the vascular system of the tree,” he explains.
“Basically, it stops the flow of sap up from the roots and kills the tree. Once a tree gets it, it’s done. We can’t save it; in three months it will be completely dead.”
What a trained arborist can do, he says, is save nearby trees. “If we act quickly, we can prevent the spread. If not, any trees nearby will contract the disease through the roots underground.”
The most important action to protect healthy trees from oak wilt is inaction. “Don’t cut into any oak trees from April 1st to October 1st,” says Ted. “The disease is spread by sap beetles that land on spore mats growing on old firewood or infected trees.
The beetles pick up the spores then land on fresh wounds of a live oak, and that’s it. You’ll see the leaves start changing color and falling, and you know the disease has taken hold.”
Pruning, cutting, breaking or even bumping into an oak with a lawn mower will put the tree at risk. He especially advises against cutting down any oak that has died suddenly.
“You risk spreading it further,” Ted says. “You need to call in a certified arborist.”
Treatment involves injecting root systems of surrounding trees with special fungicide. “We treat two trees away from the stricken tree,” he explains. “It can move that fast.”
Education is the key to protecting Northwoods oaks, says Ted, and neighbors are advised to work together, since the disease knows no property line. Having a spray-on “prune sealer” product on hand is also smart, according to Ted, in case of accidental damage to any oak.
Construction project? Plan ahead
More and more, Ted and other arborists are being consulted before construction projects even break ground.
“It’s so important if you want to keep your trees,” he says. Trees that are in the way can be removed without damaging the trees a homeowner wants to save. Valuable trees can also be fenced off so they’re not damaged by construction equipment.
Ted has seen the heartbreak of dying trees, sometimes many years after construction is complete. “If we can plan ahead, we can treat the roots of trees which may suffer injury with nearby construction,” he says. “By applying special growth hormones to the roots, we can keep them going, keep those special trees from dying years down the road.”
Does homeowners insurance cover trees?
The short answer, according to Ted, is probably not. “Most homeowners policies only cover structures,” he explains. “And be aware that it doesn’t matter where the tree was growing. If your neighbor’s tree falls and hits your property, it’s your insurance – your deductible – that applies to your structure.”
Deductibles have also been rising steadily, he explains. “People used to have just $100 to $300 out-of-pocket costs, but now we’re seeing up to $1,000 deductibles.”
That makes it even more important to assess possibly weakened trees that may threaten property, he says. “Your insurance company won’t pay to have us come in and take trees down, but given the high deductibles and potential rise in premiums after you make a claim, it makes sense.”
Trees, especially large, healthy ones, definitely add value to your property, says Ted. “People who move up here from urban areas are especially appreciative of their trees,” he says. “Besides being beautiful, they add shade in the summer and block wind in the winter.
“We have buyers who ask us to check out the health of trees before they purchase a property,” he says. “Some home owners have me do a yearly walk-through to make sure everything is okay, and address any problems before it’s too late.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Boomers and Beyond and Northwoods Commerce magazines.