Tree Food and what we are really doing to our trees

What is tree food?

I remember some things in my early childhood that formed my definition of food, and how and when to administer it. I remember finding a hurt bird that was obviously dying, and thinking that if I feed it, it would be OK. So, oblivious to the fact that this bird had a broken neck from hitting the window, I tried to feed it thinking that food will make him better. I was heartbroken when it did not respond to my compassion and died. Similarly, in the seventies, while working for a well renowned tree company, it was accepted practice to “feed” a tree when it showed signs of stress and decline. We would walk up to the obviously sick tree, and proceed to drill holes into the ground in the root zone, and pour chemical fertilizer with lots of nitrogen to make it green (tree food) into the holes. Then later, also similarly to my earlier bird experience, I was again heartbroken when we were back to remove the now dead tree.

So now, in hindsight, I can see that my idea of tree food and when a tree needs feeding was based on compassion and a complete lack of education. If I am to be mindful of feeding a tree, I need information so that my actions are actually helpful to the tree, not just my feelings of compassion.

What the mindful arborist does now

If the possibility of feeding a tree exists in a treatment program to help a declining tree, it needs to be a part of the treatment, not the whole treatment. The first thing to do when considering adding fertilizer, is to take a soil sample, and send it to a lab for a complete analysis. The soil is a very complex organic system that is perfectly balanced by all it’s parts. The soil analysis will determine if any of these parts are deficient, and the mindful arborist will prescribe the fertilizer that is the right formula to correct the deficiency. While often necessary, this is the reactive way to restore what is missing.

A more mindful beautiful

The proactive way, and by far the less expensive way, is to be mindful of what we do to trees that cause the deficiency in the first place. I am not saying we should or should not do anything, just to be mindful of what we do. For instance, we have a beautiful tree in our back yard, and we have a vision that it would look more beautiful if there was green grass all around it. So we proceed to remove all the debris like rotting leaves and twigs (the real food), maybe add some really good loam, and then plant grass. The grass gets established and suddenly we have a beautiful back yard.

The problem with this model, is the tree does not like this. In mindfulness, this is what we have done. First, the tree had all it needed before we did anything. It had decomposing organic material (leaves and twigs) in it’s root zone. It had a perfectly balanced soil decomposing this organic material into tree food, that needed nothing from us to sustain itself. Next the grass we planted and all the machinery we use to maintain the grass, compacts the soil squeezing out all the water and air the tree roots and in fact the whole perfectly balanced system needs. The roots from the grass now take up the space the tree roots previously occupied, further decreasing the tree’s ability to get food.

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Creating a need for a fix

As a result of doing what we think is a good thing to do, we have created a system that needs experts that cost money to sustain. Now we need landscape construction companies, lawn maintenance companies, irrigation companies, and yes, now tree companies to help our tree that has become sick from all the things we did in the first place. We actually create the need for us to pay for experts to fix what was perfect before we did anything.

Does this always happen? No. Should we then not landscape our yards? I am not saying this. All I am saying is to be mindful of what we are doing, and when we make a plan for our landscape, we have a mindful arborist on board to mitigate the impact on our treasured trees, without which, the landscape would be incomplete. The mindful arborist needs to be part of the designing team, not brought in after the plan has been made.

In my next blog, I will discuss what we can do to mitigate the impact we have on our trees when we create our vision of a beautiful landscape, and how we can work with the mindful arborist in the formation of our landscape design.

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2 Responses to Tree Food and what we are really doing to our trees

  1. Jack Schylling says:

    So, why are you suggesting that I remove all the dead leaves from under my apple trees?

    • Pierre says:

      Good question. The answer is that apple scab is a fungal pathogen that overwinters in the leaf litter. The spores will remain dormant until the spring. Then they will bloom and re-infect the tree. To compensate the tree for the loss of this organic material, compost can be applied to the soil, and gently worked into the top layer without disturbing the feeder roots.

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