How to Fix a Splitting Tree

Have you ever gone down to do the splits and not be able to get yourself back up without help? Well, trees with structural deficiencies can actually split in a similar manner. Two arms of a trunk may stretch wide during a wind event, but they can't pull themselves back together afterward. The typical split we see is like this one below, with the drill and drill bit through the trunk.

A typical tree split.

A typical tree split.


To fix a splitting tree, we apply structural support in the form of cabling or bracing. This hackberry split about 7' up from the ground and we are drilling two holes through the trunk so we can install threaded rods to hold the split together. It's not an easy task. In the above photo, we are using a 4' long drill bit and a drill that weighs around 15 pounds. The hardest part is when the drill bit gets completely stuck in the tree! Its happens too often and can be a scary moment. 

This is what it looks after the rod has been installed and tightened. Notice that the crack has closed! That is not always the result, but is pretty satisfying when it does happen. 

This is what it looks after the rod has been installed and tightened. Notice that the crack has closed! That is not always the result, but is pretty satisfying when it does happen. 

Here is a good profile shot of the two rods with the washers and nuts on the end. One of the braces goes through near the top of the split and the other is installed around 20" above the lower brace. The braces are around 30-35" long from end to end. The rods are cut as close to the trunk as possible and then the ends are pounded with a hammer to prevent the nut from backing off.

Side view of the two braces after installation.

Side view of the two braces after installation.

In most normal tree repairs to a split trunk, the work does not stop at the brace. The top of the tree is where all the leverage happens, and it also requires support in the form of a static steel cable. This cable helps to hold the tree crown together, reducing the forces being placed on the brace, and helps to hold the tree together.

Static steel cable to hold the top together and reduce forces being placed on the truck on the tree.

Static steel cable to hold the top together and reduce forces being placed on the truck on the tree.

The last picture shows a detail of a brace in a different tree, viewed from above. This brace is about 6 feet long and required lots of effort from many people to get installed. It was well worth it, for this tree a heritage burr oak on Lakeside in Madison. A truly incredible specimen, the back side of this tree was split and had been split for some time. We had to install two cables to hold the top together and then put two super long braces through the trunks.

Top view of two 6 foot long braces in a heritage burr oak

Top view of two 6 foot long braces in a heritage burr oak


Each time we do a brace there is a challenge that pops up. These challenges probably explain why this is an underutilized application. Cutting the branch off is usually easier, but often is not what is best for the tree.

In both the above trees, there was no decay present so the bolts and cables replaced the wood that is supposed to hold the trunks together. The combination of bracing and cabling can stabilize a split tree and be an alternative to tree removal. Unlike the braces on a teenager, tree braces and cables are permanent

Improving Tree Structural Stability via Cabling

bigbertha.jpg

This is Big Bertha the fir tree. She lives south of Mt Horeb and was named by a tree loving 7-year-old. The mother of the boy called us and asked if we could stitch it back up after a summer storm. The possibility of cutting it down due to the split between the two halves was too much for the boy to manage and he pleaded with mom to call us.

The friendly guy at the bottom of the photo is Alex; he is standing in front of his handy work. He cleaned up the failed branch (see cut on trunk) and then took it upon himself to install the dynamic cables; you can see two cables there, installed as high as possible. These cables are more effective the higher up you put them in the tree.

Cables have a tensile strength of over 10,000 pounds making them very strong. The best feature of the support system is its stretch which allows the tree to move freely compared to rigid static steel cables. The other nice attribute of dynamic cables is there is no hardware installed or drilled into the tree. A simple knot is tied around the branch with room for future growth.

The one drawback to the dynamic cable is its lifespan. These cables need to be inspected every couple of years and replaced after 5-10 years due to potential wear and degradation over time. When compared to static cables the dynamic is a bit less expensive in the short term, but in the long run they would likely work out to be the same amount of investment depending on how long the tree remains on the property. 

Over the years, dynamic cabling has allowed us to prune suspect branches aggressively to reduce risk and then install the cable to provide a bit more insurance against branch failure. This is a tool that can help keep trees safely in the landscape longer. Long live Big Bertha!
 

Bring Back Paper Birch!

Paper Birch and its white chalky bark is well recognized across the state. In the last 20 to 30 years, landscapers and nurseries have strayed from the paper birch to whitespire birch or grey birch because paper birch has a reputation for being susceptible to bronze birch borer, a native pest. In reality, when properly placed, a paper birch can thrive and not succumb to bronze birch borer. Paper birch is an understory tree and should be planted in partial shade among other trees. Cool root zones are the key for this tree. Bring back that native yellow fall color to your yard!

A single stem paper birch in a customer’s yard. This stem sprouted from the stump after the original tree was cut down due to structural concerns.

A single stem paper birch in a customer’s yard. This stem sprouted from the stump after the original tree was cut down due to structural concerns.

I like the upright growth habitat favored by the paper birch. Fewer branches gives the paper birch an aesthetic advantage over the messy/super thick grey birch. We often prune grey birch to look like paper birch (doesn't that sound silly?) by removing or thinning the branching to clean up its appearance.

Before: A grey birch prior to Alex thinning the canopy to improve its appearance.

Before: A grey birch prior to Alex thinning the canopy to improve its appearance.

After: Notice how many fewer branches the tree has.

After: Notice how many fewer branches the tree has.

We plant single-stem paper birch each spring as a bare root tree. Go to our store or contact us today to inquire about purchasing a paper birch for your yard. If you are inclined to plant a paper birch yourself, AWESOME! Remember that birch is an understory tree and should be planted in partial shade. I have noticed that paper birch on the east and north side of homes do well because the house shades the root zone in our hot summer afternoons.

 

 

Adventures in Urban Log Salvaging

Here are some of the highlights of our recent log salvage adventures. I call them “adventures” because it would be much easier to chunk the log up into firewood and throw it in the back of the truck, but who likes to take the easy road? Although salvaging the trees we cut down can sometimes be an onerous task, it is a huge honor to turn the trees folks are “throwing away” into beautiful pieces of heirloom-quality furniture to be enjoyed for generations. We are proud to undertake this work.

This photo below shows a white oak log we had to cut in half the long way to get it out under a fence and around a house. A local small sawmill operator came out to rip the two logs in half and we loaded them up on his trailer for further processing. These guys has retrieved many of our logs and turned them into huge slabs, decking, and dimensional lumber

White oak log being cut with a portable sawmill.

White oak log being cut with a portable sawmill.

There are endless uses for urban salvage wood if you are willing to put the extra effort into finding what you need and then likely paying a bit more for the material. After all, salvaging a log in a backyard is a lot harder than clearing a forest! In my mind, urban wood has a lot of interesting character to it and is worth the extra cost.

The next image shows a red oak log from a property off Nakoma that Jeff is milling into slabs. This tree was a perfect specimen with no structural issues whatsoever, but it died a quick death due to oak wilt. While it is sad to see perfect trees die quickly without warning, I am glad to see salvaged pieces put to good use. While writing this I returned to the yard and found Jeff and the gang milling the logs. They managed to get 15 gigantic slabs from the trunk. They were 12' long, 3-4' wide and 3.5" thick. Lumber this large can easy become a handsome dinner or banquet table for a very large dining room!

Milling red oak slabs salvaged from a fallen oak tree.

Milling red oak slabs salvaged from a fallen oak tree.

The stack of lumber below is another project we worked on with Jeff on the outskirts of Fitchburg. My daughter couldn't resist being in the photo, she is on top of a stack of oak and walnut boards. The client had a couple standing dead trees and a couple other walnuts that he wanted to thin out. We were able to do all the removals on a Thursday and by Saturday night, all the lumber was milled and ready for drying. We are not always this efficient and timely, but sometimes the stars align.

Milled oak and walnut boards salvaged from a client property in Fitchburg.

Milled oak and walnut boards salvaged from a client property in Fitchburg.

Lastly, pictured below is a stately white oak that perished in the Monroe Street neighborhood. Garrett is in the tree making the final cut to get the tree to a safe height to fell. Once on the ground, we could see the trunk base had a little rot, but nothing too bad considering the log was around 40" wide at the base and over 20' long! This seemed like another excellent candidate for salvage and we were able to get a number of large, healthy planks of wood out of this tree.

Garrett takes down a sizable oak tree off Monroe Street.

Garrett takes down a sizable oak tree off Monroe Street.

The people salvaging urban wood are important players in helping us create greater connections to our trees. When logs are diced up for firewood, we miss out on all those awesome tables and desks made from one slab of wood! While many tree services would rather get a tree out of a yard the fastest way possible, we think it's wasteful to simply cut big, old trees into chunks, to be burned as firewood. We are interested salvaging urban-sourced trees in the most responsible manner possible, even if it takes some (often a LOT of) extra effort.

This last photo is our clutch of logs from the winter. Amongst them, you will find oak, ash, elm, spruce, pine, maple and hickory trees. Believe it or not, we do more pruning than removing on an annual basis but even when you don't focus on removals you end up with a lot of logs!

Oak, ash, elm, spruce, pine, maple and hickory logs.

Oak, ash, elm, spruce, pine, maple and hickory logs.

If you are interested in purchasing salvaged urban wood for a project, there are a number of places you can look in Madison. The Wood Cycle of Fitchberg hauls and mills logs that end up for sale at Habitat for Humanity Restore on Monona Drive. Please inquire and we can help you locate a quality operator with expertise in whatever you are interested in.

Please Hold the Salt!

Road salt is very effective at clearing ice from roadways and walks, but plants bear the brunt of the leftovers. Once the salts dissolves, it infiltrates the soil, creating a salty mess.  

In the photo below are two black walnuts situated at the end of a parking lot. You can see the snow piles at the base of each tree and the salt-coated parking lot. The customer called because there have been dead branches falling from the trees. I looked at the trees after all the leaves were off and thought it would be a straightforward canopy cleaning... remove a few dead branches for safety.

Notice how white the parking lot is!

Notice how white the parking lot is!

Once we climbed up into the trees it became clear that salt was slowing killing these trees. Most of the branches in the upper canopy had dead tips. The branch tip is where the most vigorous growth occurs, and they were dying off. The salt build up in the soil was actually preventing the tree from transporting water to the tips of the tree. 

If you do a quick internet search, you will find the many ways that salt harm woody plants.  The biggest reason is salt’s ability to prevent plants from absorbing or taking up water, also known as physiological drought.  Salt spray along roadsides is another common form of salt damage. The spray coats the dormant buds and essentially burns them, killing the buds or slowing their growth.

When using salt on your property:

  • Use salt sparingly and clean up large spills or piles.
  • Mix some sand into your salt to “stretch” the salt out bit more.
  • Avoid piling snow with lots of salt on the root zone of trees and shrubs.
  • Protect valuable plants with physical barriers to keep salt off of foliage and out of root zone.

Resources for preventing salt damage or minimizing it:

•    Plant salt tolerant varieties of trees and shrubs. This is really good!
•    If you have a pile of salt-laden snow at the base of your tree or shrub that you want to protect, you can flush the soil out with water before bud-break once the ground has thawed. Basically you would have to flood the root zone to purge all the built-up salts present.
•    Use only sand or familiarize yourself with an ice scraper. My dad can attest to my extensive use of this tool as a kid, so I could shoot hoops all winter outside.

There is a lot of good info on the web about salt and the damage it can inflict on plants and trees. This is a only a starter to get you thinking about it.  Educate yourself and others on the consequences of salt, so as a community we can keep our canopy as healthy as possible.

Follow the links below for further reading on the impacts of salt on our Dane County our drinking supplies and waterways.