Listening to the Trees

by Deana Bess

Plants, and really all of nature will teach us if we learn to speak their languages. As I continue to hone my listening skills, I find many learning opportunities for myself and others. 

In 2017, Hurricane Irma jolted me from my propensity for ignoring pruning issues. In spite of my training and past experience, I tended to avoid some of the more challenging problems. While it is super easy to choose well pruned trees in the young stages, I had some older trees that were either in the process of pruning corrections or being let go completely. We had so very many trees and I figured nature would prevail; oh, it did! And we had a lot more damage than we would have if I had been more diligent about pruning correctly.

We recently purchased a property in NW Arkansas in the Boston Mountain Range and Ozark St. Francis National Forest area. When we first looked at this Arkansas property, I saw immediately some issues I would need to address with weed control, root flares, and pruning. In fact, some so drastic, several trees I knew would need to simply be removed as they are too far gone from improper planting and/or pruning. 

Last weekend, we had a light ice storm that weighed down the trees considerably. The ice was actually quite beautiful but I knew the potential for significant damage. I am grateful there was not more damage and hope we can correct some problems before another weather event. Since this is absolutely not the time of year I want to be pruning, I am vigorously developing a plan to address these problems as early as possible. Unfortunately, a cherry tree on our property completely split and we began the removal process; I wanted to share the photos and details so that you all might learn from this example.

You can see the tree was dying in the middle; it was like compost in there

First, the plastic landscape fabric and rock “mulch” have not prevented weeds as intended but have prevented the soil from adequate air flow, inhibited balanced microbial activity, and caused the trees and surrounding plants to be nutrient deficient. I suspect the areas have been sprayed with glyphosate regularly which I can mitigate a bit but likely that will take many years. Plants need four elements, in proper balance, to be healthy: light, water, air, and nutrients. Plastic landscape fabric and use of glyphosate prevents balance in the soil.  Weeds tell stories about the soil, it’s structure, and nutrients present.  Whenever I can, I’ll let them grow to learn from them. My absolute favorite reference for this process is called “When Weeds Talk” by Jay L. McCaman. In walkways and areas where plants are not present or desired, I simply kill weeds with vinegar, soap, and essential oils in a mix I find works for that space and based on the area and sunlight.  I have yet to develop my mix here for this climate but the recipes I used in Florida should work fine as a start. You may find those by searching online. This recipe has nothing toxic and works just as long as the toxic herbicides do without the risks; I know this because I experimented years ago when I first experienced the consequences of using chemicals.

Second, this tree was not pruned properly so because the tree was already weakened by the heart rot inside, the weakest of the three competing branches eventually split the tree. Two of my favorite references for pruning are Pamela Crawford’s “Stormscaping” and Lee Reich’s “The Pruning Book”.

Imagine how this looked before it split; how many trees alive do you see this way?

See how these three branches were competing and the weakest tore from the tree with the weight of the ice. The same might happen in SWFL with heavy wind and rain.

Third, one more problem that lead to the death of this tree was the strangled root flare. Monkey grass and possibly some other plants that died in winter had been planted around the base of the tree covering the already too suffocated root flare that is the cornerstone of any healthy tree. You can read more details about the importance of root flare at in the library section.

Look at the monkey grass and plastic weed barrier around this root flare

 This is the suffocating monkey grass and landscape fabric, also a good view of the heart rot.

The rot was like compost already! No way the tree could absorb and use nutrients well but not visible from the outside and no funguses or mushrooms to indicate issues.

I am grateful this tree expired early on as I would have likely spent a lot of time and money trying to mitigate the outward problems I could see not knowing inside, the tree was already dead. The heart wood of this tree was rotted and the part of the tree that moved water and minerals to feed the tree was already decreased far beyond healing. 

While Shawn and I traveled all over the US, we saw many plants communicating stress all over the country; the stressors, mostly created by “professional” gardeners and landscapers, were what I would call an epidemic of human errors. I wanted to take the time to share this detail so you can clearly see the consequences of improper weed control, root flare exposure, and correct pruning.

As for mitigating the previous use of glyphosate and other toxic substances, I will apply activated charcoal and zeolite to the entire area after I remove the rocks and landscape fabric. Then I will begin a mulching, composting, compost tea regimen and verify progress with observations, and testing (microbial, soil nutrient, and soil structure). Microbes are amazing and worms have been said to clean up even the most toxic substances. The actual testing for glyphosate is costly and I have yet to send samples in. Glyphosate (Round UpTM) actually prevents plants from absorbing nutrients properly, accumulates in the soil, and some studies show it still present in soil and water after 50+ years. The interesting part is that I believe this product is being rebranded with a new name but in general, if you want to avoid unintended consequences, simply do not use toxic substances. The references for these truths are numerous but mostly not mainstream or common; I would guess that is because the agriculture, pharmaceutical, and government industries have much to lose should too many people change their behaviors. In my 51 years, I have learned to question more and believe less of what is main stream;  truth, if I can find it, never changes. I think my favorite references are Fateful Harvest by Duff Wilson and also Perdue University Dr. Don Huber’s You Tube videos on glyphosate. 

I suppose I am more passionate about this glyphosate issue as of late. I recently learned of several loved ones who have suffered or are suffering the consequences of simply being near those using glyphosate. I recently also learned, while a very close family member never used glyphosate, because so many farmers around his farm used it, he suffered and died from the type of cancer known to be caused by glyphosate but was not eligible for the lawsuit benefits because he did not directly use the chemical. According to the lawyers, the cancer supposedly begins as skin cancer and then develops into lymphoma; it breaks my heart and I hope it breaks yours enough that you speak up and/or stop supporting the use of glyphosate through purchase and/or use!