How to be a keeper of trees

People who love and work a lot with trees tend to call them by name and know their places of origin, preferred habitats and common pests or other problems. They also know how to address an immediate issue and help guide a tree to health. To care for trees in this way is a skill that comes from training and experience.

You might think most people could prune or fertilize a young tree or help revive an ailing one. And you will find many tree services listed in the phone book. However, not everyone in the business understands the complexity of trees — soils, effects of the surrounding environment and how to know when to use life-saving measures and when to start over.

If you are fortunate enough to be a caretaker of trees, learn how to provide early and regular care so trees can get established and grow old. It’s also important to become familiar with what healthy trees look like so when a change occurs, you will notice and treat it immediately. A change in appearance may be natural, but it also may signal a problem. If a problem arises or trees reach a height and age that are beyond your capacity, it’s time to call an arborist or someone else who has the knowledge to assist you. An arborist is trained in the art and science of planting, caring for and maintaining individual trees.

Consider the search for an expert similar to finding a doctor for a family member. Ask questions, look for certifications and experience, and get second opinions if in doubt. You want to feel that you are paying for sound advice and not just promises. Here are a few Internet resources to help you learn about responsible tree care practices:

* The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has fact sheets, Internet links and other materials about growth characteristics and care of trees. Visit for more information, or call your extension office to talk with a master gardener or the home horticulture agent.

* The International Society of Arboriculture’s Web site,, is packed with information about selecting, buying and planting trees, care for trees, recognizing hazards and avoiding problems, in addition to services an arborist can provide and how to select one.

* The Arbor Day Foundation, at, provides a tree guide, planting information and an online (although simplified) pruning demonstration.

* The North Carolina Arboretum, in addition to other public gardens, is an excellent place to see and learn about trees in their full form. The Great Trees for Landscapes program at the arboretum is on the Web site at, in material at the visitor-education center and promoted through regular garden tours. The program provides design, planting and care information for more than 15 trees, an excellent way to get started.

These resources provide a beginning. There are many circumstances in which learning about trees and seeking someone’s guidance are helpful. Construction on any scale is an example because often it provides the required minimum erosion-control measures yet ignores the trees, animal habitats and bodies of water in the surrounding area. This approach usually causes long-term problems and unseen costs, financially and environmentally, on the site and off. It can help to consult an arborist, landscape architect or someone else with land-planning skills who can read the site and balance the cost of construction and options for caring for trees and surrounding land.

It’s never too late to learn how to live with and care for the trees around us. We need them more than they need us.

[Alison Arnold is director of horticulture at The North Carolina Arboretum. She can be reached at 665-2492.]

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