Tag Archives: falling trees

Falling trees

First published in the May issue of Woman magazine. This is what one might call a retrospective view of the impact of Cyclone Dovi back in February and what it might indicate for the future with climate change.

“Imagine if trees gave off wifi signals, we would be planting so many trees, we would probably save the planet, too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”

social media meme

I did not have ‘hit by cyclone’ on my personal bingo card of climate change risk. Rising sea levels, flooding, mini tornado (we get a few of those in our area), slips, droughts – I had mentally considered all those scenarios.

We dropped the large abies two years ago as a precautionary move lest it fall on the house and when Dovi hit, we were very glad of that.

Indeed, we made the decision two years ago to drop the one big tree that could fall on our house and pretty much demolish it. It was a handsome Abies procera glauca, also known as the blue Noble Fir, planted by my late father-in-law about 70 years ago. We were sad to see it go but it seemed a wise precaution at the time.

It seemed an even wiser decision when we took a direct hit from Cyclone Dovi in mid February. As massive trees crashed down around us, we could at least take comfort from the thought the abies was not going to fall on us as we sheltered indoors.

When Cyclone Bola hit parts of Taranaki and then the East Coast in 1988, it largely bypassed our little corner of the countryside. The winds were strong but nothing too far out of the ordinary.  New Zealand is a windy country and we are used to that, but there hadn’t been any cyclones in our area in the intervening 34 years which is why I hadn’t put it on my mental bingo card.

At 150 years old, our massive old Pinus radiata trees are weighed down with epiphytes and nearing the end of their life.

I garden on a fairly expansive scale, with my husband, Mark. It is a property that has been handed down the generations of his family since 1870 and we know who planted which trees and when. Some of the trees are now 150 years old, planted by Thomas Jury, and we know the old pine trees are pretty much at the end of their life. They are not helped by the fact Thomas’s son, Bertrum Jury, topped them at about 10 metres high in the early years of last century. It didn’t stop the pines from growing and the biggest are now up to 45 metres but with a weak point where Bertrum cut them. We have had some snap off at that point and others that uproot entirely and fall.

Why, you may wonder, do we not bite the bullet and get all the pines felled? It is just too big a job. We can’t get heavy machinery into that part of the property and it would probably have to be done by a massive logging helicopter. We are not in that financial league and, where those trees are, when they fall, it is only our property that gets damaged so they are not a risk to others.

The belladonna lilies flowered on, unperturbed by the fallen gum tree. I measured the diameter of the tree and the main section was two metres across. We cut the root ball and base free from the trunk and used heavy machinery to push the base back upright to create a more attractive gardening environment.

Besides, we can cope when big trees fall one at a time. We are used to that and can go in and do an efficient and speedy clean-up. Losing several at once, as we did with Cyclone Dovi, was rather different. It wasn’t just the damage from falling pine trees; we also lost a giant gum (eucalyptus) at our road entrance that was also 150 years old and Mark literally had tears in his eyes when he found another abies – a baby at just 70 years but one of our most handsome trees – uprooted in the park and lying over our high bridge. Those were just the largest trees. There were smaller trees and branches down everywhere.

The sheer scale of damage from fallen trees after Cyclone Dovi left us paralysed by shock for two days.

Mark and I went into shock for the first two days, paralysed by the scale of the clean-up task that lay ahead. Fortunately, most of it was garden damage, not structural damage, and we have good people around us. It did not look so overwhelming when we eventually got power and running water restored and the most urgent areas were being cleared. A fair number of homes in our local town of Waitara will be heated by firewood and pine cones after I offered both free, on a local Facebook page.

We cut back the fallen pine on the left to clear the path and it will eventually collapse to the ground but it perches somewhat like a giant lizard in the midst of woodland garden.

When big trees fall, our approach is now tried and true. Attempting to remove the fallen tree in its entirety would cause huge amounts of additional damage to the area and add considerable expense. We go in and remove all the debris, the foliage and side branches on the tree. We will cut through the trunk where it is blocking paths or access but we leave the main length lying where it fell.

I use ‘we’ in the royal sense. I do not chainsaw and I would not like to mislead with a mental image of me in work boots and ear muffs wielding a noisy chainsaw. My strengths lie more in the lighter aspects of cleaning up and reinstating gardens around the remaining trunks.

These two pine trees fell eight or nine years ago and we left the main lengths where they lay, gardening around them and allowing epiphytes to establish as they gently decay.

Within a year, we can have those fallen trunks nestled into the garden with plants thriving on and around them and they can gently decay over the years. Instant, unplanned stumperies, one could say, or a pragmatic gardening solution.

The conundrum is that we know one of the ways to mitigate climate change is to plant many trees. Big trees. Long-lived trees. A dwarf apple or maple is not going to contribute to saving the world. But with climate change, we know also that we will get more extreme weather events and that can bring those big trees down.

Power companies and linesmen are not tree-lovers.  I can understand why when I saw trees on three roads around us bring down lines in the cyclone. I was relieved that none of them were our trees. It is a fine line to tread. We monitor our trees that could endanger power lines or buildings and have already dropped some that we deemed too risky.

The answers seem to be: plant trees, lots of trees if you have space, not just for future generations and to help the planet but also for the pleasure of watching them grow. But choose the spots carefully so that they have a chance of reaching maturity without threatening power lines or buildings and without casting unwanted shade on either your own house or the neighbours.

Circles of pine trunk now define the edges of a pathway

Don’t believe the heights given on commercial plant labels – these are often conjured out of thin air to make the tree seem less threatening to the customer or, at best, are what might be expected in the short to mid-term. If space is limited, consider narrow, columnar trees that give height and grace without spreading or casting much shade. Trees which stay lower often spread widely instead, taking up much more space without giving stature in a garden. 

Think long term. Some trees can live hundreds of years. While a tree can achieve some size in 20 years, they are not mature – not by a long shot. From about 40 years on, you can start to claim you have mature trees. Trees are generally low maintenance, but that does not mean no maintenance.

We will be keeping a closer eye on our higher risk trees after Cyclone Dovi.

A lucky escape

There was a clue from the back doorsteps but neither of us noticed it immediately

Mark is an under-stated man who never gets carried away by the drama of a situation. As we sat down for our early evening conversation before dinner yesterday (a glass of wine may have been involved), he let me tell him about something that had distracted me during the afternoon before starting to tell his news. “I was wondering,” he said, “when I planted rimu trees to take over from the old pines, why I placed one so close to one of the younger pines which had good foliage.”

I didn’t even realise he had done this long-term sequential planning for replacement trees under the old pines. Some of these trees are now coming up to 150 years old. When he referred to a ‘newer’ one, he was referring to those planted by his very late Uncle Les when he still lived with his parents here, rather than those planted by his great grandfather – so ‘newer, younger’ in this context means maybe 100 years old.

Then came the kicker comment: “It seems I didn’t have to worry about that.” I have lived with Mark long enough to know what he meant – the pine tree had come down. This would not have been anything more than inconvenience and a big clean-up job were it not for the timing. When we had a tearing gale during the garden festival ten days ago, we closed off the Avenue Gardens as a safety measure and changed the route for visitors to walk up the very path the tree has fallen across and blocked entirely.

We closed off this path as being too risky during the gale force winds ten days ago …
… and redirected to this route
Now it looks like this. At least it didn’t happen during the recent garden festival

The mystery to us is when it fell because neither of us heard it. I walked up that path mid afternoon on Friday. Mark found the fallen tree late afternoon on Saturday. So there is a 25 hour time frame and in that period, there was rain but no wind. There would have been a loud crack, the sound of breaking branches and then a loud whoomp when it hit the ground. But we heard and felt nothing. Mark thinks it must have happened at night when we were both in deep sleep but I am sure we would have woken because it is not that far from the house. I think it must have happened when I was out shopping on Saturday morning and Mark was working in the shed with the radio on. He is adamant he would have heard it and felt the vibration. Maybe it thought nobody was here to hear it so it did not make a sound? (*Philosophy joke.)

Ah well. A whole lot of firewood has arrived, more than enough for us so we will be sharing it. And we have learned yet another lesson about the unpredictability of when and which way trees may fall when they come down.

It looks smaller in the photograph than it does in real life. I had neither person nor dog to pose for scale. It is about 100 years old.

Another one bites the dust

With an increasing number of what are called ‘extreme weather events’ in the face of climate change, we just have to accept that falling trees are a fact of life here. We have a garden created amongst large trees. But none are as vulnerable as our old man pines (Pinus radiata). Planted in the 1870s by Mark’s great grandfather, some tower as high as 45 or 50 metres. We just have to accept that they appear to be reaching the end of their life span. And as yet another one falls, the next trees in the row lose their shelter so may be weakened.

Totally uprooted, the Ficus antiarus which dates back to 1957

We usually say that it is amazing how cleanly big trees can fall, especially ones that don’t have a lot of big side branches or a great deal of foliage. But not the one that fell last night. It has clearly done substantial damage as it came down. The worst is the total uprooting of the rare Ficus antiarus which will require a major effort to get back upright and planted again. The macadamia nut tree is probably unable to be salvaged. Mark is a bit sorry that it only brought down part of the expendable Lombardy poplar and not all of it.

The tree tips, like a giant spider, descending on the new caterpillar garden area

And 50 metres of tree coming down as one long length extends… well, it extends 50 metres really. So this one lies through the avenue garden, across the intervening hedge, through part of Mark’s tropical palm border and the top landed in my recently planted perennial beds of what we call the caterpillar garden. I am not thrilled by this.

With Auckland being badly hit by falling trees in last night’s storm, I come back to my position on the chilly moral high ground. With these increasingly frequent events, it is not a sign that we should be felling all trees. Yes, it is important to keep a close eye on vulnerable trees and branches. But we need to match the felling or falling of trees with the planting of more trees in places where they have a reasonable chance of growing to maturity without causing problems to life and property. Which usually means on public reserves when it comes to cities. A dendrologist friend said that it should not be a one-for-one replacement but a five-for-one ratio to allow for those trees that die or are killed before they reach maturity. And that is just to maintain the status quo. We need to think about these issues because the planet needs more trees and city folks should not be consigned to living in concrete and tarmac environments where nothing is allowed to grow over two metres tall. The problems lie not with the trees themselves but with where they are planted, how they are maintained and which varieties are being grown.

I wryly suggested to Mark that maybe we should be renaming our Avenue Gardens the Pine Log Gardens and he quipped that our stumpery is growing. We will follow our practice of clearing paths, removing all the side branches and cleaning up the collateral damage but leaving the body of the trunk where it fell and gardening around it. As more huge trees fall, we  have a stumpery by chance, not design.



Rather too much winter firewood has arrived

Over the decades, the angle of lean increased past the point of balance. After 80 years, these two pines fell.

Over the decades, the angle of lean increased past the point of balance. After 80 years, these two pines fell.

There I was mentally prepared to write on an entirely different topic this week when yet another tree fell here yesterday. One large old tree falling is bothersome and relatively major. Four in under four months is unprecedented here. While we possibly have more very large trees in our garden than most, thanks to Mark’s forbears, my conversations on the social medium of Twitter last night made me realise that there are a fair number of other people who are worried about large specimens at their places.

First to go here were two 80 year old Pinus radiata last October. They had been on a lean for decades but one Saturday I suggested to Mark that the lean had increased. He scoffed but on the Sunday, he conceded I might be right. On Monday he thought maybe we should be barricading off the area because our garden was still open to the public but they fell by lunchtime. We did the immediate clean up but the large trunks are still blocking one path and need some attention.

At least when the gum tree fell over, it ripped its roots out. A brave clump of clivias is unscathed.

At least when the gum tree fell over, it ripped its roots out. A brave clump of clivias is unscathed.

Ten days ago I heard a crash in the night but no whump at the end (falling trees crack, crash and then whump when they hit the ground) so I thought it must be a large branch. Mark heard nothing and was sure I had imagined it until we found the fallen gum tree the next morning. It had been planted by his great grandfather around the late 1870s so it was quite large but it fell down the hill, mostly out of harm’s way, although another path is now blocked.

Yesterday I heard the ominous sound of cracking and looked up to see one of our largest pines coming down. These are about 50 metres tall and 140 years old. That is a lot of pine. It is a bit more problematic to clean up because it has not uprooted but instead snapped without fully detaching, maybe 6 metres up where Mark’s grandfather had topped the pines back around 1900.

The latest pine to fall, failed to snap off cleanly, maybe 6 metres up.

The latest pine to fall, failed to snap off cleanly, maybe 6 metres up.

Even I am surprised at the philosophical and matter of fact approach adopted by the two menfolk in my life (the one I am married to and the one we pay wages to). The cleanup has started. We will have sufficient pine cones to last us several winters and there is no fear of running out of firewood here despite the fact we burn prodigious amounts.

 We have pine cones for eternity here. Or at least several years.

We have pine cones for eternity here. Or at least several years.

We have so many big trees, we let them fall in situ. Mind you, we have had discussions as to what to do should one start to go beside us. Run to the trunk, is my as yet unproven theory, and jump left or right at the last minute. I say this because the trunk is the narrowest part. I am hoping we never have to test this theory.

In a smaller garden, the damage from a falling tree will probably be much larger than here and the damage from the clean up may well be greater still. We avoid this by doing a reduced clean up. We do not try and remove the trunks. We remove the side branches and the litter and tidy up any plants damaged in the fall. Paths need to be cleared but, once stripped, the main trunk remains where it fell and we garden around it. It is part of nature’s cycle. Trunkeries, I have decided to call these areas – a variation on the idea of stumperies. They give height to otherwise flat areas of the garden.

It is a different matter entirely when large trees threaten either buildings or power lines. The lines companies would, of course, like all trees over the height of about 3 metres felled immediately. While it can’t be fun being a linesman called out in atrocious conditions to restore power cut by falling trees, I recoil from the thought that overhead power lines be allowed to dominate our landscape. Our lines company will do the first trim at their cost to trees that are threatening their lines but after that it becomes the landowner’s responsibility, even when they don’t have a legal easement to have their lines crossing private property. We know quite a bit about this because we have problematic power lines taking a short cut across our place and have sought legal opinion. I don’t know if this is standard policy with other lines companies.

Sadly, unless you are highly skilled with chainsaws and tree felling, if you are in the position of an at-risk tree endangering your house or power lines, you are going to have to pay someone to deal with it and it is likely to be very expensive. In this case, get some good advice first on the stability and health of the tree and get it from a tree person, not a chainsaw operator. There are truly terrible stories about amateurs with chainsaws so make sure you employ a reputable operator to do potentially dangerous tree work. The consequences of getting it wrong can be extremely expensive or even fatal in worst case scenarios.

For all their problems, we would not be without our big trees. They give shelter and add stature to the landscape. Some are magnificent specimens in their own right. I do not want to live in an environment where nothing is allowed to grow more than 2 or 3 metres high.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.