For Every Thing, There is a Season
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 04:30PM
Howard Gaffin

Originally published in TCIA Magazine.

     " A time to prune, a time to take down, a time to spray, a time to mulch.  A time to fix all my stuff, a time when my stuff better not need fixin……." (with all due respect to the late, great Pete Seeger).

 The challenges of the Northeast arborist are many. While no Yukon, the changes in the seasons require forethought and planning in order to provide the best care for clients’ assets. It is essential to understand basic tree physiology, so that treatments are most effective, and cause no harm to the tree.

The sun is still low on the horizon and offers little warmth, but the red maple buds will soon swell. Pitchers and catchers report to Florida soon. It is mid-February. Most of the equipment repairs are done, and the days are getting longer. We begin to emerge from our shops, squinting like Mr. Magoo in the harsh reflective light.

The trees have been dormant for some time, and there is little pathogen activity. The naked frames give good insight into structure and defects. The ground is still quite frozen. Now is an excellent time for pruning. We will try to schedule most of our fruit tree pruning during this time frame. When snow pack is low, we can also access sensitive areas otherwise inaccessible to equipment, and will try to schedule aerial lift work in these areas during this time.

 Later winter turns to early spring. My long dormant business phone begins to startle me from my “reading”.  It is a tricky time for us. Horticultural oil treatments for scales and insect eggs weigh heavily on the mind. Weather patterns and growing degree days are monitored. While its’ still ok to prune out dead, broken or diseased parts, the transformation is beginning and the pruning window is closing. It is best not to perform pruning just after the spring growth flush. Tree energy reserves are low, weakening the response to wounding and possibly opening the door for pathogen activity. Mud season arrives. Using heavy equipment must be carefully considered near root zones. More harm will be done due to soil compaction than any benefit derived from pruning treatments. Keep perspective. Do no harm.

The season ramps up and the summer help arrives. Client properties and noise production are no longer our singular domain, as the landscapers emerge with little trucks towing enormous trailers. The phone is ringing, the leaves are popping and the pests are emerging. Apple scab, anthracnose, and leaf spot. Caterpillars, scales and aphids, oh my! A daily check onweather and wind conditions ensues, timing being essential for treatments. Fungicides are most effective as a prophylactic treatment, and must be applied when the leaves are just emerging.  Winter moth caterpillars crawl into bud scales upon hatching. Treatment cannot begin effectively until the buds open, and a delay in leaf development can have severe consequences. The phone keeps ringing and the juggling begins. The days blend into one another, marked by the passing of flowering plants. Forsythia, magnolia and crabapple begin the march. The heavenly scent of lilac and wisteria mixed with freshly cut grass follow. Catalpa, horse chestnut and lastly, the kousa dogwood emerge, the creamy white flowers escorting us into summer.

The leaves are on and the always chic “Farmer’s tan” is all the rage. The heavily tanned drivers’ side forearm reveals who’s in charge. The summer help (not the year-round-summer-help) is shaping into character. Some show interest and potential. Others experience an epiphany of what they would rather not be doing in the future; college studies take on a new perspective. The days set into a steady rhythm. The work load consists primarily of pruning and removals. This is an especially good time to perform structural and restorative pruning. The trees full flush of leaves provide plenty of energy for wound response, promoting both wound closure and strong pathogen defense.

Many of the insect pests and disease pathogens are past their peak, but there are still considerations to keep in mind. Birch and elm trees, to name a few, should not be pruned at this time. The pathogen toting Elm bark beetle and Bronze birch borer are in flight, and the release of plant volatiles through wounding may attract more egg-laying females.  Two-spotted spider mite populations must be monitored as the weather heats up, their populations capable of exploding in a few weeks’ time.

Now is also an excellent time to inspect the trees in your care.  Areas of weak foliage or tip die back as the weather gets hotter and drier may indicate root issues below. Take note of any changes to trees with cracks or areas of included bark that may warrant a support system. Signs of stress may offer an opportunity to discuss the possibility of mulching with your turf-enamored client.

 The dog days of late July into August apply their steamy weight. The air is heavy, the quality of a hearty broth. We will try to keep to small pruning jobs in the shade, but taking a few days off is ok too. The phone settles into a mid-summers nap, waking only for the occasional thunderstorm related event. There’s a little time to take stock of the equipment and make repairs, and I’m not just talking about your stuff. A little R and R is well deserved. Re-connect with who you are and what you’re doing, maybe re-examine your priorities, or maybe just go fishing and drink beer.

The days begin to shorten and the oppressive air relinquishes its grip. The summer help (not the year-round-summer-help) begin to shuffle off to various institutions of higher learning. Some will be back for another season or two. Many go on to promising futures, and I was gratified to have had maybe a small impact on their character and appreciation of a work ethic.

Days are still pleasantly warm, but the evenings take on the whisper of a chill in anticipation of the show to come. It varies from year to year, but we are rarely cheated. The crisp clean air with the occasional bluebird-sky backdrops the riotous pallet unique to the northern climes.  For a brief moment of time, they put on their party dresses. A wine colored gown of leaves adorns the otherwise drab red maple. The yellow poplars quivering in the breeze contrast the deep burgundy of the dogwood and its waxy red fruit earrings. The cold, hard, silver bark of the sugar maple alit in hues of burnt orange.

Any pruning other than emergency or crown cleaning will have to wait. Abscission layers have been formed and the transition begins in reverse. Energy is being stored, and response to wounding will be slow or postponed. Many fungal pathogens are highly active and re-producing in the cool, damp conditions. As water demand on the trees decrease, we will perform many of our root treatments at this time. This may include root crown excavations, girdling root removals, and soil improvements. Tree removals are ongoing, but more precipitation means wet soil. Judicious use of equipment ensues on sensitive areas. The oaks and hickory reveal their tannin hues.  The white oaks are the last to go, holding on to their minions like an aging rock star. A sense of urgency sets it. It’s time to gather and store the nuts.

Ah yes, winter in New England. Sometimes it slides on easy like an old wool sweater; sometimes it lands like a Winnebago full of in-laws. For utility line workers, the real fun begins. With frozen fingers and sluggish hydraulics, many companies will continue to fight the good fight, dragging along a snow-thrower to clear the job site if need be. Then there are those intrepid souls saddling the chip truck with a snow-plow blade, the ultimate sacrifice to the saline gods. Some may use this time to re-group, maintain and repair equipment. Other skills may be revealed by the “summer-help-all-year-round” guys that could be utilized. In between hanging and removing Christmas lights, we have re-furbished chippers and stump grinders, replaced bearings and seals, rebuilt chainsaws and painted truck frames.

The trade shows and educational events (TCIA in Nov.) call our attention. CEU’s must be earned, new stuff must be ogled. As a small time, independent arborist, I was able to choose a career path that afforded time for reflection, introspection and general wound licking.  I was able to witness and participate in the blossoming of my daughter. I used some of this time to further my arboricultural knowledge. Much time was also spent on other passions, experiences and interests that will accompany me through life.

The wood stove is blazing. On occasion, I will recognize a piece of wood from a particular tree we removed years ago and acknowledge the gift. A fresh foot of snow has postponed this old arborist’s foray back into the trees, but no worries. After all, this is New England. If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.  


Article originally appeared on Gaffin Tree, Certified Arborist, Consulting Arborist (
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