A few weeks ago I was on Beacon Hill to run an errand, and snapped a quick shot of the Shaw Memorial elms in the rain:

RS cropped Shaw Elms

Looking across Beacon Street to the Shaw Memorial; the two elms flanking the memorial are being managed to retain their trunks’ stability.

It was a soggy, cold day, and I was fast getting soaked, so I didn’t cast around for a better shot.  These elms have been standing on Boston Common, across from the Massachusetts State House, for centuries now.  This State House (for a long time known as the “New State House”, so as not to confuse it with the original State House on Court Street) was built between 1795 and 1798; the elms date at least to that time, if not to a couple of decades before then.

Elms are a fast growing tree, and before the onslaught of elm bark beetles that brought Dutch elm disease to these parts, Boston Common had a thriving population of elms.  (For a good look at the role of the American Elm in history since colonial times, see Tom Campanella’s fine book, Republic of Shade.)  The elm stand has been so reduced that now only a few specimens remain; I remember in the summer of 1997 or ’98 watching as a row of elms below the Common cemetery was taken down, tree by tree, as the disease raced from one end of the row to the other.

Henry Davis, owner emeritus of Lowden Tree (now part of SavATree), was landscape consultant to the Friends of the Public Garden for over forty years, and he was responsible for developing the treatment regimen that aimed to save elms as long as possible.  Using a combination of pruning and tree injections, he was able to preserve quite a few elms for quite a long time, including these Shaw Memorial trees.

The trees are rooted in the sloping ground now covered by Augustus St. Gaudens’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, which commemorates the first documented black regiment formed in the north during the Civil War.  The memorial, which includes a two-story retaining wall and St. Gaudens’s relief sculpture, is itself flanked by two broad granite stairways.  The elms rise out of a vault under the memorial; maintenance on the lower trunk and roots is performed from inside the vault.

These elms are actually rooted several feet below the memorial's floor grade, in a vault built into the Common's slope.

These elms are actually rooted several feet below the memorial’s floor grade, in a vault built into the Common’s slope.

If you saw the last post in this blog, you may understand the thinking behind maintaining the Shaw Memorial elms in this way.  These two trees are two of the oldest trees on the Common, and stand as witnesses to American Constitutional history.

A few days after I took the first photo, I spoke to Norm Helie, who now guides the Common’s tree maintenance.  Norm told me that he had just had further top weight taken out of the Shaw elms, and the pruning cuts had removed tissue down to sound wood.  I made my way down to the Common, and took some more photos — on this day, a demonstration in front of the State House prevented me from repeating the rainy day shot angle, but I was able to get a photo of the new cuts and the State House, to boot:

Here's what the elms look like with still more weight taken out of their tops.  Retrenchment pruning of veteran trees is radically different from structural or maintenance pruning of younger trees.

Here’s what the elms look like with still more weight taken out of their tops. Retrenchment pruning of veteran trees is radically different from structural or maintenance pruning of younger trees.

Here’s a really good post from Claire Corcoran, who’s a Boston ecologist and member of the Friends of the Public Garden Board of Directors. I’ll be posting photos of the ancient Shaw Memorial elms (they date to colonial times, and are two of the very oldest trees on the Common) soon; in the meantime, Claire’s piece is an excellent read.

Friends of the Public Garden


I am an ecologist and unapologetic tree hugger, and I spend much of my time in parks looking up at the trees’ canopy. Now that the autumn leaves have mostly fallen from the trees in the Common, the Mall, and the Public Garden, the natural forms of the trees are revealed. Some of them are beautiful and iconic of the species – the classic vase shaped form of the American Elm, for instance, which is instantly recognizable from any distance. The bushy, spreading form of an open grown Red Maple is distinctive, as is the characteristic branching of the Horsechestnut tree, which always reminds me of an athlete flexing his muscles. The old Japanese Pagoda tree’s graceful lines are more akin to a ballerina than a weightlifter. During the dormant season, the many varieties of “weeping” forms are clearly visible as their branches trail down towards the ground – cherries…

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Team Friends

For the last two years, Toby Wolf and I have been working for the Friends of the Public Garden in Boston, developing and implementing plans to renovate the Boylston Street Border, a 10.5′ wide planting strip along Boston Public Garden’s perimeter, between Arlington and Charles Street. It has been an exciting project to shepherd along: we have improved drainage (one puddled area was so bad we called it The Marsh), transplanted mature trees and shrubs to improve their growing situations, added bench pads and benches so visitors can enjoy the garden from among the plants, and we have added in a wonderful array of small trees, ornamental shrubs, a few perennials, and quite a few spring bulbs and ephemerals. Our idea has been to work with the existing rhythm of the border plantings, and to augment it in a way that increases screening from the street while it adds a pleasing show to walkers both inside and outside The Garden. With a Pilot Planting done last year and Phase Two just completed, we have finished the border’s western half, and it looks great:

Boylston Street Border Pilot Area, Boston Public Garden, renovated in 2013 and blooming in Spring 2014.  First we had all trees and shrubs pruned, and then we transplanted broadleaf and needled evergreens, added benches, improved drainage, and augmented existing plantings with more evergreen and deciduous shrubs, hosta and astilbe, and thousands of spring bulbs and ephemerals.  Renovation will continue until the entire 840-foot long border has been rehabilitated.

Boylston Street Border Pilot Area, Boston Public Garden, renovated in 2013 and blooming in Spring 2014. First we had all trees and shrubs pruned, and then we transplanted broadleaf and needled evergreens, added benches, improved drainage, and augmented existing plantings with more evergreen and deciduous shrubs, hosta and astilbe, and thousands of spring bulbs and ephemerals. Renovation will continue until the entire 840-foot long border has been rehabilitated.

As I say, the project has been funded and made possible by the Friends of the Public Garden, who are a delight to work with.

And now I have a new, quite personal project with the Friends, and it’s a doozie: I’m going to be running the 2015 Boston Marathon as part of Team Friends! For the next five months I’ll be training and raising funds for the Friends and their work in Boston Public Garden, Boston Common, and on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. It’s going to be a great adventure; I have wanted to run a marathon — this marathon — since I was twelve, when I started running. I had to shelve that ambition when I had eye surgery at age 25. Twenty-nine years later (you do the math), this past June I began running again, and realized that my ambition hadn’t died. The Friends offered the opportunity, and I’m taking it. What could be better than to run, raise funds for a cause I truly believe in — the care and fostering of green urban parks in general, and the Public Garden and Boston Common in particular — and get to participate in one of international running’s most renowned events?

For the training period, I’ll be posting photos and notes on some of the parks’ holdings of trees and shrubs, as well as the stray hardscape feature as well. As is the way with any park or garden, life moves right along, and change happens from moment to moment, month to month; I’m looking forward to tracking some of that change in this blog.

If anyone reading this post would like to support my marathon efforts, the Friends and I would welcome any donations. The Friends have raised a high bar for my fundraising; I’m aiming to reach the $10,000 mark by January 1, 2015, so I can concentrate from then on in on training and the race itself. To read more about the marathon and Team Friends, and to make a donation, click on this link.  All donations are fully tax-deductible (great for year-end accounting!); any corporate donation over $1,000 will get a company logo weblink on the Friends’ website (great advertising!), and unless you want to, you won’t be put on any solicitation/mailing lists. I will be so grateful, and so will the Friends.

(Even if you choose not to donate now, please watch this site; you should see some cool examples of well-tended trees in the next few months.)

RS beech buds


Word just came in today from Dan Tremblay of Broad Oak Tree & Shrub Care in New Hampshire about the death last week of Jeff Ott, a Portsmouth arborist who was dedicated to trees and the teaching of best arboricultural practices.  Jeff wanted landscapers, landscape architects, and contractors to know what it took to plant and tend a tree properly, and understood that he was in a position to teach them.  

Here is a link to his obituary:  http://www.jvwoodfuneralhome.com/sitemaker/sites/WOODFU3/obit.cgi?user=1340230Ott

All condolences and sympathy to his wife and family.

Big-leafed update

Last week I drove past the Paulownias I wrote about in 2009, and realized that they deserved another blog post.  In the four years since that post, all three trees have shot up.  

I kept trying to shoot an image with the two paired trees in it, minus the utility lines, but it wasn’t doable without risking life and limb.  The trees have grown higher than the house and the utility lines, and have easily tripled (at least) in size.


Two paulownias planted four years ago now shade almost the entire front yard.



The smaller of the two trees measures perhaps 12″ DBH.  The once-sunny walkway is now almost entirely shaded.



It’s a little tricky to see, but the right-hand tree is larger than the one to the left.  Directly behind it stands a large Japanese maple; in the 2009 post you can see the maple’s fall color, and compare its trunk size to the now-towering Paulownia’s. 

Air-tool transplanting is continuing here in Massachusetts; while it hasn’t yet become commonplace, arborists in this part of the world are conversant with the techniques, and some firms have been routinely been moving trees bare-root for the last few years.  Leahy Landscaping of Lynn, MA, has a team of transplanters, led by Mass. Certified Arborist Bob Dobias.  Bob recently sent me some photos of a project his crew carried out this past summer; they moved a beautiful 14′ Fastigiate Beech in Salem with air.  They relocated the tree from a location right next to a building to a spot further out on the property, where it can now grow to its full potential.  Here are the pix Bob sent:



This tree has been growing nicely next to a condo entry, but was likely planted there when it was a much smaller specimen.



Bob has exposed the topmost roots, and is working his way underneath the root mass.  Note that he’s wearing ear protection and has dust barriers set up around the work area.


Fastigiate Beech is a narrow tree, and while a blowout to the dripline frees most of the roots, some root mass still had to be cut.  Bob reports that his crew cut one root that was growing under the driveway.


Nice root mass on this tree.  The time had arrived for this tree to be transplanted; notice that the roots to the right are shorter and have been redirected down by the presence of the building wall.  A tree that grows for too long this close to a wall might not be as readily moved as this one — not because it can’t be dug out, but because the root mass has grown too asymmetrically for the tree to stand well away from the wall.



The Beech being introduced to its new home.  According to Bob, the crew could have lifted the tree by hand, but decided to use the machine to minimize hazards to it.  For the actual move, they tied the tree to the forks; this shot, it has been untied and is being guided into the planting hole.



And from a different angle.  The hole receiving it could be a bit wider, to make the backfilling and mudding in easier, especially as there are no obstructions around it.



With the tree placed in its new home and backfilled, the crew waters and muds it in.  Leahy added better loam for backfill, and secured the tree with duckbills, to insure stability while it grows into the new location.



Proud Leahy crew and Fastigiate Beech.  The Beech should now be able to grow a little fuller both above and below ground on the side that had faced the building.  The transplant operation took about six hours from start to finish.

Bob reports that the tree has experienced some stress from the move, but he expects it will equilibrate crown and root growth and leaf out well next year.  We’ll keep an eye out for more pix next year, to check its progress.

Fastigiate Beech moved by:

Leahy Landscaping, Lynn, MA

Arborist in charge:  Bob Dobias, MCA

Crew:  Alfredo Esteban, Shane Corcoran, Greg Beatrice




Katsura update

Last February I wrote about the bare-root transplant of a large Katsura tree (Cercidophyllum japonicum) at UMass, beautifully executed by the pros at Foti Landscape and Tree. Matt Foti just sent me a photo he took last week of the tree, which has settled into its new home nicely.

Though the crew kept a large slug of soil under the tree’s butt for the move, Matt told me that they did some excavation at the root flare, as they always do, to check for girdling, circling, or damaged roots. (I hadn’t noticed the excavation when I first saw the transplant photos, but if you click back to that post you’ll notice it.) The crew found a girdling root and removed it — and clearly, from this current photo, the tree didn’t skip a beat.

Even in a backlit shot on a very hot day this tree is looking happy.

Even in a backlit shot on a very hot day this tree is looking happy.

ImageLearn when to hire a pro for your home landscape at Scott McPhee’s Elm Bank workshop.  Photo courtesy of Bert_M_B via Flickr.

In the shrub pruning class I teach at the New England Wild Flower Society some student always asks me about pruning trees.  Unless we’re talking about nipping up the end of a low-hanging branch, or working on a small ornamental tree, for the safety of both tree and owner I usually recommend hiring a professional arborist to do the work.  For those who have questions about when to know what’s easily and safely done by Joe or Sally Homeowner, and what ought to be taken care of by an arborist, Scott McPhee of Hartney Greymont will give a talk this coming Thursday, July 11, called Trees In the Home Landscape.

Scott will discuss the tasks can be easily and safely accomplished by a homeowner, the tasks that really require a pro, and how to tell the difference.  An expert Hartney crew will demonstrate on a standing tree some of the principles that Scott is discussing, and then will demonstrate the tree’s removal.  It should be an excellent talk.

Location: Elm Bank, the headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, in Wellesley, MA.

Date:  July 11, 2013

It’s that time of year again!  This Friday is Arbor Day across America, and for Massachusetts arborists it’s the Arbor Day of Service.  Arbor Day of Service is a program developed by the Mass. Arborists Association several years ago.  For it, the MAA “partners with local tree wardens, community leaders, and civic organizations to identify worthy projects in need of professional tree care”.  Tree companies and individual arborists pick the project they want to participate in, and donate their time to plant, prune, and care for trees on the selected sites.  It’s a great program; various organizations which otherwise might not be able to carry out the needed work at one time benefit from the Arbor Day of Service blitz approach, and the arborists team with one another to give back to their communities.   Last year the arborists donated over $250,000 in services in that one day to the communities and organizations they chose.

To read more about Arbor Day itself, check out the Arbor Day Foundation website.  To find out more about the MAA’s Arbor Day of Service, take a look at the MAA website, which also has a signup sheet if you’re a member and haven’t yet put your name in to work on one of this year’s projects.

The two projects I’m most aware of this year are at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA (worth visiting whether you’re there to do pruning or tree care or just to enjoy the site and gardens) and at Boston Common, one of the nation’s oldest common open spaces.


I suspect this Boston Common pruning took place some time before the MAA started the Arbor Day of Service.   Still, it’s good to see the tradition circle back to the Common…

This year’s New England Grows featured a talk by Jim Flott, who discussed the bare-root transplanting of large trees.  Jim talked about root-washing, something he has studied, practiced, and taught, on his own and with the late Bonnie Appleton of Virginia Tech.  He spoke about the history of bare-root transplanting — until the middle of the 1900s bare-rooting was the primary way to transplant trees — and about bare-rooting with air tools.  It was a great presentation; this abstract by Flott and Appleton covers a lot of the territory Jim discussed, and it’s worth a read.


Bare-root transplant with air tools — 12″ caliper London Plane tree, moved in late July 2009 in Wellesley, MA.

After Jim’s talk in one of the large auditoriums, he moved to a smaller room for an ‘Speaker Unplugged’ session, where people could ask him questions and exchange information.   As had happened at New England Grows three years ago, when Matt Foti discussed bare-root transplanting with air tools, someone asked about the effects of bare-root transplanting on a tree’s taproot.

How does bare-root transplant affect a taprooted tree?  The answer, both from Jim and from Matt, is that taproots are rarely an issue.

A taproot typically forms when a seed germinates; the baby taproot emerges first from the seed, growing down and anchoring the seed in the soil.  Next, the cotyledon shoot emerges and grows upward.  As the cotyledon starts to photosynthesize, root hairs branch out from the taproot, and the root volume grows and spreads.  The depth of roots is determined in part by available moisture and in part by soil type.  Typically, organic soils — which hold water and allow good cation exchange — rest at the top of the soil profile; mineral soils underlie the organic horizons, and are much less hospitable to roots.  Here in New England soils may be quite thin, and are often underlain with rock.

So taproots here will serve that useful anchoring function early in a tree’s life, but soil conditions and the plant’s own tendencies will promote the outward, rather than the downward growth of a tree.  In fact, the overall growth of tree roots tends to be outward, rather than down; the old image of a root mass volume and form mirroring a tree’s crown volume and form has been proven false.

We know that trees tend to develop their roots in the top 18″ of soil; the larger the tree, the deeper that zone may go, but typically it extends no more than 3 or 4 feet below grade.  Some thick roots on very large trees may extend vertically down in this zone, if soil conditions permit, but many more run horizontally away from the tree’s trunk.  The anchoring function of that original taproot, if it remains, is replaced by the anchoring provided by a much broader and more extensive mass of roots growing out and (to a much less extent) down.

As I wrote in an earlier post (with thanks to Linda Chalker-Scott for its title):

It’s helpful to keep in mind another factor when thinking about taproots and transplanting trees.  More often than not, a large tree being transplanted was planted out years earlier as a B&B plant, or possibly moved into place with a tree spade.  Both methods would have cut any taproot in the initial planting.  When the end of a root is cut, the tree tends to send shoots out from just above the cut end.  In a vertically oriented root, the new shoots are apt to extend horizontally from the cut end, and feeder roots would similarly extend out horizontally.  The situation may well be different for a tree that has grown from seed in one place, that someone now wants to transplant bare root, but for most landscape trees the taproot issue is moot — whatever taproot may have existed when the tree seed germinated has already been cut, and the tree has adjusted for its loss.

A carrot grows downward, with rootlets out to the side and foliage above ground. A tree is not a carrot. Photo by obenson in Flickr.

This beech tree was moved last fall, having been transplanted once about 20 years ago. See how the root mass extends far out horizontally, with a relatively shallow depth.

This is one of the thickest roots extending vertically from the beech’s trunk. This root was cut in the earlier (20 years previous) transplant; note the resultant root growth just above the cut.