Designing Landscapes: Taking down our maple tree

By James Young

Here’s a story about our maple tree that got too big, started to rot and had to be chopped down. That part is sad but there are things to look forward to now that it’s gone.

First, a picture of how it looked in its glory years. This is about the only picture we have of the entire tree. It was too big to take a picture of, frankly. Taking a picture of our house and our maple tree at the same time is like taking a picture of your family in front of the Empire State building – you’re only going to get a portion of the building or your family will end up looking like ants. Our maple was at least 100 feet tall. Not uncommon for a big leaf maple. It was definitely a dominating presence in our front yard. What a beautiful shape, don’t you think?

Big leaf maples are fast growers. There’s a seedling from this tree in our front yard that’s about 10 feet tall after 3 years of growth.

However, there’s a price to pay for that fast growth. Trees that grow fast tend to have weak wood. Unlike, for example, a Japanese maple that takes its time growing, this big leaf maple would break branches in every wind storm. Mostly small ones but sometimes big ones too. It was downright scary to be under it when a sudden gust of wind picked up.
If you look with a trained eye, you can see there’s trouble written in the branches for those living under this monstrous beauty.

With all the trees being chopped down in our neighborhood recently, from housing developments to cutting under power lines, we didn’t want to add another one to the list. Being such a fine old specimen made it especially hard.

Dropped branches weighing more than a hundred pounds changed our minds.

We hired an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) certified arborist to do the job because it was close to the house and a tricky job getting those long slender top branches down safely (some of them rotted on the inside).

We wanted the tree taken down and the stump removed because we wanted to use the area for new plants and an old stump just isn’t good symbolically for the front yard in my opinion. While it’s true many trees were chopped down to clear the land and to build the house in the first place, I still don’t want to have a symbol or that human bent for destruction sitting in the front yard rotting for a couple decades.

Here’s what’s left of the poor tree after being taken down.

It was $1,900 to take the tree down and another $700 to grind the stump. So what are we to do now?

Well, we can make use of the really large pile of wood chips for one. This is really a valuable thing! On our 3/4 acre lot, there are a lot of paths that can use chips and planting beds that can use weed suppressing mulch (more on the paths in another story).

I estimate this pile is over 20 yards of wood chips. If you were to buy that it would cost around $800. Now you can get wood chips free if there are arborists busy in your area but that is not an on-demand service. It’s only if they have some at the time and are in the area. Also, they often have other people on their list too. You usually have to wait for it, sometimes for weeks and months. So I will count that $800 against what I paid for the stump removal.

Then there are the rounds of wood that I’m going to use for firewood. I estimate we got 2 1/2 cords of firewood and I’ll value it at $200 per cord (that I have to split myself). That’s $500 more off of the felling price of the tree.

We wanted to make furniture out of the wood but we found there was so much rot in the tree that much of the wood was spoiled. We can still cut a few rounds out of the bigger stuff to make a cafe table. Let’s call that worth $50. It could be worth more to someone who really wants to wood work.

This tree was close to the house and always clogged the gutters which would have to be cleaned at least once a year (often twice) and made a shady spot for moss to grow on the roof. Roof and gutter cleaning I’d price at $200 a year.

Finally, there’s the benefit of – sunshine! What price can you put on sunshine? You may think it’s priceless and you’d be right. However, if you had solar panels, that might place a monetary figure on the price of sunshine. In our case, we want to plant an orchard. Let’s just conservatively say a bushel of organic apples can now be grown every year worth $75.

Let’s see:
$1900 tree + $700 stump +$247 tax = $2,847 fell tree and grind stump
-$800 chips
-$500 firewood
-$50 wood for table
————————-
$1,497 after one-time benefits
-$275 per year for yearly benefits
————————————–
= in less than six years I will be paid back monetarily.

But I’ve gotten a bit off track. This wasn’t supposed to be a story about how taking down trees can pay for itself. It’s a sad story how the loss of a beautiful tree affects the caretakers of the land. And I have to say, with ecological devastation all around, it’s heart wrenching to have to take another large tree down. It was after all older than I am, that should count for something. And it was definitely much grander than I am.

Just think of all those years for a tree to grow to such a towering height; all those summers it had provided shade, the fall color, the nesting places for birds, the seeds it produced. And then, a few men with chain saws can take it down in one day. That is surely a tragedy that it takes so long to grow something so beautiful and so little time to destroy it.

However, at the end of the day we are looking forward to the sunshine and all the plants we can now grow in the front yard. It’s liberating in a way, to not be under the tree anymore. And we promise to compensate for the loss of the tree by planting many more plants and a great diversity of plants in its place. In some respects, the spirit of the tree lives on.

James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscaping in Edmonds.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice tribute and remembrance to your maple. It is hard to see large trees taken down. Thanks for writing your article.

  2. Thank you James Young for your excellent article related to the taking down of a Bigleaf Maple Tree. I’d like to add to your article a discussion related to taking down Bigleaf Maple Trees located in the City’s Critical Areas and related CRITICAL AREA BUFFERS, such as the following:

    1. Slopes in excess of 15% classified as potential EROSION Hazards.

    2. Slopes in excess of 40% classified as potential LANDSLIDE hazard areas.

    3. STEEP SLOPE hazard areas.

    Trees located in Critical Areas have to be considered with extra care because of the SLOPE STABILIZATION benefits and many other benefits they provide the City of Edmonds and its citizens. It is well documented that trees and other vegetation provide mechanical and hydro geological benefits that help maintain slope stability and reduce erosion. These trees also protect water quality and provide habitat.

    HEALTHY trees within Critical Areas and CRITICAL AREA BUFFERS are generally protected. Additional information can be found in Edmonds Community Development Code (ECDC) Chapter 18.45 – Land Clearing and Tree Cutting Code and in ECDC Chapter 23.40 – Environmentally Critical Areas General provisions.

    Furthermore, due to the environmental protection afforded Critical Areas and the related 50 foot CRITICAL AREA BUFFER, city approval of construction activity near ANY trees located in critical areas is SUPPOSED TO BE LIMITED.

    In my opinion, trees located in Critical Areas need to be viewed very carefully by the City before allowing the tree to be cut down EVEN IF the tree shows some signs of decline in health. If the decision is made to remove a tree located in a Critical Area or within the related CRITICAL AREA BUFFER, Edmonds Community Development Code (ECDC) 23.40.220 (C)(7)(b)(iv.) requires that any tree removed from a critical area be replaced with new trees at a ratio of two replacement trees for each tree removed (two to one). This must be done WITHIN ONE YEAR in accordance with an approved RESTORATION plan.

    Bigleaf Maple Trees throw an additional HUGE FACTOR into the equation related to removal of hazard trees located in Critical Areas such as steep slopes, as well as the related CRITICAL AREA BUFFER.

    The State of Washington Department of Ecology’s website states that Bigleaf Maple Trees sprout profusely after they have been cut down. They do so because the tree is still ALIVE after it has been cut down. After being cut down, unless the stump is ground out similar to what James Young did to his Bigleaf Maple Tree, the Bigleaf Maple sprouts can grow as much as six feet per year. As the tree is still ALIVE, even after being cut down, the maintenance of its vigorous, live root system insures soil-binding benefits, something of great value in Steep Slope or Landslide Hazard Areas.

    I would add that ongoing maintenance of the vigorous, live root system of a cut down Bigleaf Maple Tree within Critical Areas and CRITICAL AREA BUFFERS is critical to stability in Erosion Hazard areas, Steep Slopes and Landslide Hazard Areas. I believe a buffer must be maintained even after the Bigleaf Maple Tree has been cut down as its root system is very ALIVE.

    Landau and Associates prepared a Draft Technical Memorandum titled TREE AND STUMP REMOVAL POLICY GUIDANCE dated June 29, 2009 for the City Of Edmonds. I strongly ENCOURAGE Edmonds citizens interested in trees located within Critical Areas and CRITICAL AREA BUFFERS get a copy of this report and read it.

    Additional Items of interest on the State of Washington Department of Ecology’s website include the following:

    Tree Roots. The root systems of trees form an interlocking network, especially on many shoreline sites where rooting can be shallow. Often rooting is only two to three feet deep. The depth of root penetration is largely a function of soil depth and type, soil moisture, and the presence or absence of a dense layer of clay or till. These factors have a greater influence on rooting than any tendency of a tree to develop a characteristically deep or shallow root system.

    Trees compensate for shallow rooting by increased spread of root systems. Recent research has indicated that a tree’s root system will extend considerably beyond the dripline, often as much as two to three times as far. Extensive lateral root systems are common where soil moisture is excessive, soil is shallow, and impervious soil layers impede vertical growth. Where soils are porous, well-drained, deep, and no impervious layer exists, deeper rooting will occur.

    Generally, the influence of a tree’s roots on a given site will be related to the tree’s age and size. Larger trees will have more extensive, often deeper and better developed root systems. Dominant trees, those larger and taller than the surrounding ones, have been more subject to wind and usually have developed stronger root systems as a result. Before clearing trees, consider the effects of removal on tree rootmass over time. Roots of dead trees decay, their stabilizing influence diminishing over a three to nine year period. As a result of the gradual loss of root strength after tree removal, barely stable slopes may fail several years after clearing or thinning.

    Do Not Remove Trees Without Cause. People tend to remove many more trees than are necessary during site preparation. The value of a healthy, strong tree on a slope or bluff far outweighs its value as lumber or firewood. A tree should be retained unless it is a hazard to life or property, is growing on the proposed house site or drainfield area or has some other major problem. Do not clear a reserve drainfield area before it is needed. Explore alternatives to removal thoroughly before deciding to cut. The location of trees and other factors involved should be considered carefully. Do not remove trees on slopes until home construction is complete. You may find that the trees do not need to be removed.

    Stability of the Slope. An analysis of slope condition by a geologist or geotechnical engineer is strongly advised and in many counties is required. Vegetative clues should be used in conjunction with the geotechnical data and an assessment of the role of the vegetation on the site should be made.

    In situations where soil and hydrological conditions promote well-rooted, healthy, mature trees, the trees should be left insofar as is possible. As mentioned, the practice of removing a majority of trees on a slope can greatly increase the probability of a slope failure in the future as the trees roots decompose and their soil-binding capacity declines.

    Some geologists or geotechnical engineers routinely recommend the removal of trees because of concerns that: 1) large trees exposed to wind can transmit that force to the slope, thereby causing slope failure; 2) soil moisture is reduced by evapotranspiration of trees, thereby creating cracks in impermeable layers and promoting water infiltration to lower soil layers; and 3) the weight of trees on the slope may cause landslides.

    These concerns have been addressed in recent research and the OVERWHELMING conclusion is that in the vast majority of cases, vegetation (especially well-rooted, mature trees) helps to stabilize a slope.

  3. Thanks for your excellent article, I would not have thought about all those aspects to recoup your investment! One thing to also consider is the cooling effect a large tree can have on a house and yard. We have a big leaf maple in our Seattle back yard and it provides some important cooling for us on hot summer days. We have air conditioning and would use it a lot more if we didn’t have that tree. I am sure we use less water on our surrounding plants as well because of that expansive shade. It is nice high shade for yard; somewhat dappled, not dark at all but cooling. We have a certified arborist prune from time to time. But the tree is annoying in some ways. It has seed pods with thin hairy spins that can irritate skin. And like you said, it produces amazing amounts of biomass. But I suppose that is worth something, too, if properly composted. I just read that the Big Leaf maple has sweet sap that can be made into syrup. I wonder how that tastes!

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