Luckily, Pothier knows who to ask: the arborists that she and fellow members of the Moorcroft Homeowners’ Association have hired to help care for their trees since about 2006, shortly after their freehold townhome development was built on the former site of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Elementary School. To walk around the block here is to encounter a hearty and diverse community of trees, forty-two of them: red maples, red oaks, little-leaf lindens, a row of honey locusts, two sugar maples set well back from the sidewalk, several varieties of spruce (including white, Norway, Colorado and Siberian), three big healthy Japanese lilacs – their full crowns cheery with blossoms – and four Swedish whitebeams, a squat tree that brings to mind a hawthorn (without the thorns).
As a longtime member of the homeowners’ association’s gardening committee, Pothier knows these trees well. She’s even, with fellow OOS Tree Team volunteer Sandra Gillis, logged each tree’s height, girth, characteristics and health markers – noting, for example, whether there are large gaps in their canopies, cracks in their trunks, or defoliated branches – for the Neighbourwoods tree inventory, a project that’s been underway in OOS since 2021, and for which volunteer teams are well on their way to amassing detailed data on twenty-five percent of our local canopy. So, when one of these Moorcroft trees seems to have changed, for better or worse, Pothier notices.
Like the bur oak, the lindens and a few others, the whitebeams predate the school’s demolition and were protected during construction. These days, though, they aren’t thriving as they once were. Pothier notes yellowing leaves, flaking bark, trunk cavities and generally sparser canopies. An arborist might agree that there’s reason for concern, or they might put Pothier’s mind at ease. “Typically,” she says, “I’ll think something isn’t right and they’ll say, ‘No, no, that’s normal for this tree.’”
The point is to pay attention, and to seek sound advice. “You can’t expect a tree necessarily to be maintenance free,” says Pothier. “You might want to let your trees grow wild, but they’ll do better if you protect and maintain them.” However, she cautions that credentials are important. “Some ‘arborists’ are more like tree removal services. You want a certified arborist.”
In Moorcroft’s case, that certified arborist has often been Fred Stevens, who has been with Manotick Tree Movers for 32 years. (He’s the former owner; his son now runs the company.) Stevens recommends that homeowners hire an arborist to become familiar with their trees, and then to return every five to seven years to check on them. “I would do a risk assessment. I’d look at all your trees, look at the defects, potentials for failure, and make recommendations to mitigate those problems. That would generally include pruning. It might be that canopy is touching the house, or there are dead branches, or it’s too low. It sometimes involves installing a cable.”
And if a tree is in rough shape? “I’ll never tell anybody outright you have to take a tree down,” says Stevens. “I tell you what the risk is. You as a homeowner have to decide if you will live with that risk.”
It’s not just mature trees that benefit from check-ups. “A lot of people ignore young trees and let them grow randomly,” says Stevens. “But you want to consult us about structural pruning in young trees so we can eliminate potential weaknesses in the future.”
He explains that it’s crucial for a growing tree to develop a central leader, like a spine. “It’s got one trunk, it doesn’t fork into two or three,” says Stevens. “In a forest, the trees generally shoot straight up. They have competing trees on either side, so they’re forced to go up, and they become safe on their own. In an urban setting, sun can hit the tree from every angle, and it will often branch into double or triple stems. That’s why urban trees require more attention.”
Some species also require more attention. Newer varieties of red maples that grow quickly can quickly develop problems. “If you manage them, they’re great trees,” he says. “But if you don’t, they will,
guaranteed, have issues later on.” Honey locusts, too, benefit from hearty care. A red oak, on the other hand, can be more hands-off. “If it has good structure at the beginning, it can grow for decades without a lot of maintenance.”
Many of the Moorcroft trees, like most front-yard trees in OOS, stand on city property. The homeowners’ association recently learned that a private arborist such as Stevens may not prune them. So Pothier is currently waiting on an appointment with a city arborist, who she hopes will weigh in on the relative health of the Moorcroft trees on public lands. But if she and her neighbours feel it would be useful, an outside arborist could still report on their health and raise any concerns, which they could then bring to the city’s attention. “I very often point out a hazard or identify a risk, and a homeowner will reference me as a certified arborist that saw their tree and this is what’s noted,” says Stevens. “[City staff] are obligated to respond to that.”
At Moorcroft, the cost of the arborist’s services is divided among the homeowners. Pothier believes any group of willing and like-minded neighbours could easily replicate the arrangement and share the cost of tree care on their block. “It would just take one person to take the lead and be the main contact,” she says.
Anita Lahey is a writer, editor, and member of the Tree Team. If there’s a neighbourhood tree you’d love to see featured in a Tree Tales column, please contact envirocrewOOS@gmail.com.
Featured in the July-August 2023 OSCAR.