Archives for posts with tag: maple trees

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.


I’m beginning to think that the Perseid meteor shower is nothing but a hoax, an elaborate practical joke pulled off by astronomers to keep all of us awake all night.

Based on the promise of as many as 90 shooting stars per hour, Rachel and I stayed up well past our bedtime tonight to see if we could catch a few of them.  The viewing conditions were good, for a change:  no moon and only the occasional wisp of a cloud (there was complete cloud cover during last night’s peak).  In fact, the night was unusually ideal with warm temperatures, low humidity and—blissfully—very few insects.

But there were also very few meteors.

Part of the problem for us is that we have a limited view of the night sky.  We live in the woods and there is only a small clearing where the house, pool and garden are located.  The surrounding trees are very tall and their height is accentuated by a rise in grade to the north of our house.  Consequently, lying on a hammock by the pool, we were gazing upwards almost as if at the bottom of a pit or opaque bowl.

A further complication is that we live only 60 miles or so from New York City.  It may seem like a great distance—over an hour’s travel by car—but at faster than 186,000 miles per second, the millions of lumens produced by the city’s buildings, billboards and streetlamps arrive in an instant.  There is little to obstruct the rays and a high concentration of particles in the air to diffuse them.  As a result, our southern sky is constantly aglow, even on moonless nights.

Yet another problem is that we are not night owls.  Staying up late is difficult enough but getting up in the middle of the night is next to impossible.  In previous years, I’ve set an alarm for 3:00 am or thereabouts, the time at which the constellation Perseus (from which the meteors appear to originate) is overhead.  But often it is chilly at that hour.  And even when I have roused myself and made my way outdoors, I have never really awakened sufficiently to appreciate what I was seeing.

Instead, we settle for late-night viewing, after 10:00 pm until around midnight.  At this hour, Perseus is still low in the northeastern sky, behind a high screen of maple trees.  Therefore, we miss (I presume) the bulk of the meteor shower.  I always imagine that a fireworks-like display of shooting stars is whooshing this way and that (yes, I know that meteors are actually silent) as we strain our eyes in vain, the scene obscured from our sight by the dense foliage.  Or maybe there is nothing there.

So, we didn’t get the lightshow we were hoping for; in an hour and a half of viewing, we caught sight of two satellites and a grand total of four meteors (to be fair, they followed the long, slow trajectory for which the Perseids are famous).  On the other hand, we did get a pleasant evening together outdoors, in the sweet summer air, listening to the comforting background music of the crickets and cicadas.

Driving north on the New York State Thruway, on the way to Saratoga Springs, I noticed that several clumps of brown leaves pockmarked the foliage of the many normally verdant trees that line the right of way.  It looked strange—the lush green of the deciduous forest is one of the characteristics that distinguish summer in the northeast from other, drier, places I have known, such as the Central Valley of California where I grew up (everything turns straw-colored there).

At first I wondered what could be afflicting the trees, most of them maples, which I think of as resistant to disease and insects.  And then it came to me:  the brown and drying branchlets are sites of 17-year cicada eggs.  Female cicadas gnaw shallow notches in the branches into which they deposit their eggs; the notches cause the branches to die.  This phenomenon is considered the only significant downside to the emergence of the insects which otherwise cause no permanent damage (even if they do create a mess).

I do not recall observing any dead branches after the last cycle (in 1996) but I have noticed a few on some of our trees this time around.  Luckily, the condition is temporary and the trees should return to normal next year.

A recent article by Pamela Doan in the June 21, 2013 issue of The Paper (see “When It’s Okay to Kill a Plant”) led me to some further reflections on tree removal.  I share the writer’s angst over removing a tree—or any other plant in the garden, for that matter—and, like the author, I also agonize over the decision (see, for example, February 6, 2013).  I agree that there are several factors to consider and believe that removing a tree should not be undertaken lightly.

One issue she did not address is that often, removing a tree improves the conditions for the trees that remain.  For example, we live in a deeply wooded area where there is little to check the growth of the trees.  Each year, thousands of maple seed whirligigs twirl to the ground and many, if not most, of them germinate.  I (and my aching back) know this because hundreds of seedlings pop up in our gardens and patio areas every spring.  I must pull them out like weeds lest the house be swallowed up.

A proportionally larger number of seedlings sprout in the woods where there is no one to pull them out.  Instead, they take root firmly, continue to grow unabated and, with the passing years, become taller and larger.  They all crowd together like riders on a subway train, producing a dense canopy of sun-seeking branches above and a deeply-shaded understory below.  Commuters lucky enough to get a seat on the subway during rush hour know how it feels to be beneath the tangle of outstretched limbs.

The trees produce elongated trunks as they push their leafy tops higher and higher in search of a clear view of the sun (imagine the subway riders standing on tiptoe to read the advertisements that form a frieze along the sides of each car).  The trees wind up over-tall, spindly and top-heavy.  Aesthetically, they are lacking and the inefficiency of their shape cannot be good for their health.  Also, the preponderance of maple trees crowd out other varieties, reducing the diversity of species (probably 3 of 4 or 8 of 10 trees around us is a maple).

In a better world (or, at least, a better woods), I would take the same approach to the maple trees as I do with the radishes and beets:  thin early, thin often.  A larger spacing would lead to fuller trees that would not need to grow as high to gather their solar radiation (and they would look better) while still shading the forest floor.  Fewer maples would allow other tree varieties—oak, elm, poplar, even evergreens—a chance to increase their numbers and would make the entire woods less susceptible to harmful diseases or insects.

Like the crowding on rush-hour mass transit, it is a situation that is not easily changed.  I have often surmised that we could spend a week with a chainsaw, pruning and culling, and hardly make a noticeable difference in the local population density, never mind the entire woods or beyond.  Instead, we will take it tree by tree and consider the possible beneficial impacts—incremental and local though they may be—that could result from a tree’s removal.

I’ve found that the best way to assess the impact of the removal of trees is not to do it at all, at least not consciously.

If, after a tree has been trimmed or felled, I do not notice anything different, then usually I conclude that removing it was the right thing to do.  This has happened in the past when a tree was removed while we were away.  When we returned, we did not immediately realize that the work had been done.

Alternatively, if I do become aware of the change, it becomes a question of how I become aware of it.  For example, if I get the feeling that something is missing, that there is an unnatural gap in the treescape, it can mean that the removal was too extreme or not well chosen.  Luckily, this has not happened to us very often and fortunately, when it has happened, the surrounding trees eventually grew in to fill the void.

If, however, I get a feeling of openness—sunlight or airiness where there was none before—or notice a new and exciting view, previously obscured, then we probably made the right choice.  This was the case today.

With the two trees gone, the garden remains in the sun until after 6 o’clock, an extension of the growing day of at least three hours.  As an added bonus, we can now see a vignette of the surrounding mountains, framed by the remaining trees.

We finally arranged for our tree guy, Jerry, to come by with one of his helpers to remove the two maples that shade our garden in the late afternoon (see February 6, 2013).  We had meant to get this done before the trees sprouted their leaves (it would have made less of a mess) but didn’t get around to it.  Now that the garden is in full swing, though, we need the extra solar exposure.

When Jerry removes a tree near the house, he follows a very careful and elaborate procedure.  First, he cuts off the outer branches, then he tops the tree, and brings the trunk down section by section.  Sometimes, as a final step, he removes the stump by grinding.  The stump-grinding equipment is truck-mounted so accessibility is an issue; consequently, we have several stumps on our property.

Jerry chips all but the largest branches and takes the rest away.  When we have needed firewood, he has cut the trunk into appropriate lengths and left it for me to split and stack (see, for example, February 5, 2012).  Tree removal is a very labor-intensive activity but when Jerry and his crew are done, the only signs of their having been there are tire tracks and a scattering of sawdust.

The same approach would not be practical for today’s project.  The trees in question are just outside the border between our pool area and the surrounding woods, a transitional zone between order and chaos.  They are over 100 feet from the road and their bases are on a steep slope.  The trees could be cut down in the same way but removing the branches and wood would require an unjustifiable amount of effort.

So instead, we will leave the downed trees in place.  And if we are going to do that, there is no reason to cut them into pieces.  Bringing them down in one fell swoop (each, for a total of two fell swoops) is more appropriate.  (I had hypothesized that felling trees was the literal origin of the saying, “one fell swoop,” but my research revealed otherwise.  Fell can mean cruel or fierce while swoop in this context refers to the sudden dive of a bird of prey.  Given the sound a tree makes when it is felled, I like my story better.)

Felling a tree with a single cut at the base is much more difficult than it might at first seem, especially if the direction in which the tree will fall is of concern.  In fact, it can’t be done reliably with only one cut.  If the saw is not properly aligned with the direction the tree wants to fall (due to the location of its center of gravity), the weight of the tree will close the kerf as the tree starts to lean and that will bind the blade.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I know this from firsthand experience.

Most often, three cuts are needed.  The first two cuts are made on the fall side of the tree to remove a wedge of the trunk.  This forms a hinge about which the falling tree will rotate.  The third cut is made on the side opposite the wedge and if all of the cuts have been done properly, the tree will start to fall due to gravity before the final cut makes it all the way through the trunk.

Geometry cannot be ignored, however, and even if the cuts are made correctly, the tree still might want to fall in another direction.  Based on Jerry’s assessment, this is the case with our trees, both of which are leaning slightly uphill, towards the pool.  Obviously, this is not the direction we want the trees to fall.  To counteract the trees’ gravitational tendencies, Jerry attached a rope near the top of each one to pull them in the direction he wanted them to fall.

Getting the ropes into the trees took a certain amount of finesse.  For the first tree, Jerry knotted the rope to a length of lightweight line—string, almost—at the end of which was a small beanbag slightly bigger than a Hacky Sack.  He carefully launched the beanbag up and into the tree with an underhand motion, aiming for a branch high on the trunk.  It took two tries but the second toss sailed through the crotch and dropped back to the ground.

Using the lightweight line, Jerry hoisted the main rope up to the top of the tree and back down.  Then, he formed a loop (tree work requires as much knotting skill as sailing, it appears) and cinched the rope around the tree trunk.  His helper took the free end downhill (the direction we want the tree to fall) until the rope formed about a 45-degree angle with the horizontal.  There, he anchored the rope to another tree trunk.

Using an in-line winch called a come-along, the helper took out the slack in the rope and then applied some tension.  At this point, Jerry starting cutting the notch on the fall side of the tree.  After confirming that the rope was taut enough to prevent the tree from shifting in the uphill direction, he completed the notch.

Then, the dramatic part began.  The helper continued to winch up the rope while Jerry commenced the final cut.  As the helper cranked up the tension, we could hear the tree trunk creaking and see it starting to list downhill.  When the tree was leaning by about 15 degrees from the vertical, there was a loud crack as the trunk gave way.  Both Jerry and his helper moved back and with a loud thwump, the tree fell to the ground, precisely where Jerry had intended it.  Quite a spectacle!

The second tree had several branches extending almost horizontally from the trunk.  Jerry judged that these outriggers would interfere with a clean fall so he decided to cut them off.  He strapped on a lineman’s belt and climbing spikes and scrambled nimbly up the tree, pulling two ropes with him.

When he got near the top of the tree, he tied himself off with one—his safety line—and looped the other over a branch to use a belay line for the cut branches.  I have described this process before (see October 31, 2011) and it is particularly elegant when Jerry rappels between locations, his chainsaw and pruning blade dangling from his belt.

After trimming and dropping the protruding branches, Jerry returned to earth.  He freed himself from his safety line, knotted a loop in it and cinched it up to use as the tension rope.  His helper again marched the end of the rope downhill and, following the same procedure as before, he and Jerry brought down the second tree, felling it almost exactly parallel to and on top of the first tree.

Described this way, it seems like it would take a long time to perform all of these steps.  But after only an hour and a half, Jerry and his helper were packing their gear up and heading to their next project.

This past Christmas, we sent bottles of Crown Maple Syrup to some of our friends and family.  Rachel had read about the producer, located only an hour north of us, in a food magazine and we thought the syrup would make a nice gift from a Hudson Valley source.

We didn’t get any for ourselves, though, figuring that a visit to the farm would make a fun field trip when the weather turned warmer.  Well, the weather is still cold—it feels more like winter than spring—but the sap has started its annual run.  We looked up the location, programmed it into the GPS/GIS and set off into the woods.

The home of Crown Maple Syrup is Madava Farms in Dover Plains, New York.  After driving north on the Taconic State Parkway, exiting onto a county road and then turning off onto a one-lane dirt road (soft from recent rains), we were expecting to arrive at a small, rustic farm like the one we visited in Vermont two years ago.  However, when we reached Madava Farms’ front gate—with its shiny stainless steel and geometrical design—we started to get the idea that something else was in store.

Instead of a centuries-old farmhouse, we found (at the end of a newly-paved driveway) a large, gleaming retail and production facility that includes a shop, restaurant and tasting room (in addition to the machinery necessary for distilling maple syrup) housed in an attractively-styled wood-framed structure (maple, naturally) reminiscent of an Adirondack hunting lodge.  It also made me think of some of the glitzier wineries in the Napa Valley.

The property is only a year old and was built by a wealthy energy investor.  That the founder is a graduate of the Harvard Business School is readily apparent.  The syrup is well-branded, there are high-end foods and related products (e.g., cookbooks) available for sale, and a variety of activities on-site (tasting, tours, dining, hiking).  Clearly, the business plan is to create a maple-syrup-based experience and not just to sell product.  It is also clear that they are succeeding.

Part of me recoiled from what initially felt like heavy-handed marketing.  But after walking around and observing the operation and its staff, I quickly came to appreciate its quality.  First and foremost, the syrup is very good.  We tasted their dark and medium amber products and both were smooth and clean-tasting.  Further, the syrup is attractively packaged in clear glass bottles that might remind some people of single malt scotch.

Although there was a high risk of pretentiousness on the part of the staff, we did not observe any (even if there is some unrestrained pride; no sin there).  The woman pouring samples in the tasting room was friendly, solicited and answered questions enthusiastically and was very knowledgeable about the production process.

And I have to admit that I am a sucker for architecturally-exposed industrial equipment.  The facility includes holding vats, a UV sanitizer, a reverse-osmosis water extractor, three-stage evaporator and the bottling line, all constructed from stainless steel, connected by precisely arranged and carefully labeled PVC piping and accessed by grated catwalks and viewing platforms.

And that’s just inside the main building.  Outside, the maple trees—which produce the sap from which the syrup is made—are interconnected by a network of small-diameter tubes which feed into larger distribution lines which in turn deliver the sap to distributed collection houses and, finally, into the holding tanks.  The tubes appear to levitate horizontally about four feet above the ground (on closer inspection, I found that they are supported by thin steel wires under high tension, strung between stout trees to carry the loads with very little sag) and are under vacuum pressure to keep the sap running (even when the weather is not conducive) and protect against leaks.

Before leaving, we bought a Maple Stick (puff pastry crisped in the oven with well-caramelized maple syrup) and started to plan a return visit.  Based on the length of the line, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the maple experience.

As discussed before (see, for example, June 10, 2012, part 2), the trees around our house and garden are constantly growing and because they are so closely spaced, they are growing not outwards but upwards.  The result?  Their canopy is getting higher and denser and we are falling ever more deeply into the shade.

Last year, I observed that the solar panels on the roof (with which we heat the swimming pool) do not get any direct sunlight until sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and move back into the shade starting as early as 2:00 pm; by 4:00 pm, the upper panels are completed shielded by trees.  This greatly diminishes their effectiveness at heating the pool water.

The planters have a longer solar day (see June 20, 2012) but even in the garden, shade begins to have an impact as early as 4:00 pm as the shadows start to creep across the west planter.  The area to the west of the planters, where we plan to grow squash this year, is fully shaded by 3:00 pm.  This may not be enough sunshine for a vegetable as needy as zucchini.

There’s not much we can do about increasing the morning sun—all of the trees to the east of us are on a neighbor’s property—but we do control the woods to the west.  In particular, there are two tall maples just outside the pool fence that are casting most of the afternoon shadows.  They will have to go.  We are fortunate that the ground slopes down steeply just beyond our pool and many of the trees that might otherwise be a problem need not be considered.

Widening the exposure of the solar panels, on the other hand, will require more drastic action.  The main culprits in their obstruction are the old oak tree that hangs over the west side of our house and a huge maple about twenty feet beyond it to the west.  Each is very tall and has already lost its lower branches.  And because they are on the edge of the woods, the two trees have reached outwards with their upper limbs, unlike their more constrained siblings located further into the woods.

Both of these trees have caused us trouble in the past:  We had the maple cabled many years ago to restrain a splitting trunk; the oak tree most recently dropped two large branches on the house and patio after a snowstorm a year and a half ago (see October 30, 2011, part 2).  So far, we have limited our approach to pruning but at this point, any pruning we might do would leave only barren (and funky-looking) trunks.

No, if we do anything they must also be removed.  But doing so will leave a noticeable void behind.  I’ve been resisting it for years because I know I will feel their loss.  A ranger at Yellowstone National Park once asked us (while we were gathered around a campfire) whether we had ever had an experience with rocks.  It took me a few years to grasp what she was getting at—the idea that the natural environment has a presence, an identity—and even if I have not had any experiences with trees, per se, I definitely feel their presence.  Losing these two will be a sad event.

And it will be a big project.  We brought in our long-time tree man, Jerry, to take a look at all of the trees we are planning to take down.  He’s done a lot of work here (see, for example, October 31, 2011) but this would be larger than any other takedown he has done for us.  The two maples at the end of the pool will simply be cut and allowed to fall down the hill (much more difficult and dangerous than it sounds) while the larger maple and oak will have to be carefully broken down, branch by branch and section by section.  Removing the wood once the trees are down will be a major undertaking all by itself.

It will be a great sacrifice but I think it will be for the greater good (of the house, garden and environment).