A Blog For Tree & Shrub Owners

Tree Profile: Arborvitae

Arborvitae (Thuja) may be Essex County’s most popular privacy tree. Arborvitae is Latin for ‘Tree of Life’ which was the name it was given for saving early sailors from scurvy. Apparently, the fragrant trees can be brewed into tea. These evergreens are native to North America and Asia and have been bred into many varieties for use as hedgerows and living fences. At maturity in the wild, they can get 50 feet tall, but most hybrids sold at the nursery for homeowners only grow to 20 or 30 feet tall.
Arborvitae likes full sun and is tolerant of most soil types and has few pest issues. The biggest problems they develop are browning and yellowing of needles and winter damage from snow and ice. Heavy snow weighs down flexible branches and the result is flopping and cracked stems that need to be tied and pruned come spring. As they get older, they become ragged-looking for these reasons. I have seen these trees butchered many times, from removing all lower branches to shearing too aggressively, which results in dead patches. Unlike some other trees and shrubs, if you remove too much of the foliage from an Arborvitae, it will be permanent and the branches in that area will die. It will not fill in with green growth or grow back from the older trunk wood or branches.

If you have an Arborvitae hedge, it’s wise to keep it lightly sheared and repaired annually to keep it healthy and tidy looking.

Tree Profile: Crabapples

Flowering Crabapples (Malus spp.) are common small ornamental trees in the Rose family. These should not be confused with the large-fruited eating apples grown in orchards. Some species are native to North America, but many have come from Europe and Asia. Flowering Crabapples are popular due to their colorful flower, leaf and fruit displays. Their fruits provide an important food source for birds and mammals, although fruits can be messy. There are hundreds of hybrids so exact identification can be difficult.

Many crabapples are riddled with pest issues (chewing caterpillars, rust, scab, and powdery mildew are common) and at some point in the growing season, many trees tend to look ratty and unhealthy. Caring for crabapples usually involves tending to their pest susceptibilities and smart applications of pesticides. Crabapples flower and fruit best if grown in full sun, otherwise too much shade or wet conditions aggravate disease. They have little need for pruning and it is usually done to remove cracked and dead branches or to manage disease. The ideal time of year to prune crabapples is late winter when diseases have slowed and plant defenses are strongest. Pruning should be kept minimal because heavy-handed pruning ALWAYS will respond with prolific sucker/shoot growth.

You will be most successful with a crabapple if you choose a disease-resistant variety, plant in a good location, stay on top of pest issues before they get out of control, and only prune lightly.

Tree Profile: Norway Maple

norwayNorway Maples (Acer platanoides) are native to Europe but now constitute a major part of the urban forest in Eastern Massachusetts. They are fast growing and can reach 100 feet or more in height. They have earned a bad reputation and are now listed as invasive and are prohibited for sale. They were planted in the landscape in the 1950s but no one knew what a problem they would become.
Norway Maples are undesirable because they:

  • develop many structural issues – such as cracking, decay, poor branch attachments and tend to snap and break apart in storms
  • are earliest to flower and last to drop leaves – which allows them to grow more successfully than native Red and Sugar Maples
  • develop very dense tree tops that shades/ kills most other vegetation growing underneath
  • self seed all over the place from wooded borders to abandoned lots and hedges

Of course, they are large trees and do provide benefits such as shade, wildlife habitat and air filtering and therefore preservation should be considered when possible. Because these maples develop more issues as they become older and larger, they need more intensive management than other species do. The best approach is to have your tree inspected by a qualified arborist and then develop a pruning plan and installation of cabling and bracing specific to your tree’s needs.

Tree Roots around the Home

root foundationRoots conflicting with infrastructure around the home is a common concern; from driveways, patios and pathways to foundations, septic tanks and underground pipes.
A tree in the wild sends its roots far out to seek adequate space for anchorage, nutrition, water and air to supply itself. In the urban and suburban landscape, there aren’t as many welcome places for roots to grow. A prime example of this is on city streets where the soil underneath is very compacted and space is too limited for tree roots to go anywhere, so they push up the sidewalk. Roots will always seek out the easiest source of air, space and water, whether that is through a crack in a pipe, a home foundation or at the surface through the pavement.
So, what can be done short of complete tree removal?
First of all, we want to be certain that there is an actual root issue before condemning the tree. That can be done by air or manual excavation or by going high tech with ground penetrating radar. Also, have any of your infrastructure elements looked at by the appropriate hardscaping/construction inspectors for suspected flaws and root invasion. If roots are indeed found to be invading, here are some management options for consideration:


    • If tree is small enough, transplant further away
    • Physical root barriers can be installed such as Deep Root Barrier
    • BioBarrier is a cloth barrier treated with herbicide or copper (copper is toxic to roots)
    • Copper mesh can be used around pipes
    • Raise up the level of the soil surface
    • Engineered coarse soils have been used underneath pathways
    • Get creative with your landscape designer, if possible lay sinuous pathways.
    • Install flexible walkways that allow movement instead of rigid concrete. Foam and rubber have been successfully integrated.
    • Root pruning can be successful on some species and situations
    • Cultivate a more attractive soil to lure roots in another direction


Tree friendly solutions can be worked out if you plan far enough ahead and if not, creative solutions can be implemented depending on each situation, your budget and dedication to the landscape.

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