How long can you keep a secret? The phrase (and others like it), "dead men tell no tales" has been around for thousands of years. The idea is that even the "loose-lipped" don't betray hints once they die.

But how about trees? How long do trees keep secrets? The answer, for unscrupulous—or more likely uneducated—business persons, is, "just long enough."

By that, I mean decline and death in trees is a slow enough process that the "offender" usually has not only cashed his or her paycheck, but also spent it as well, long before any signs of trouble show up.

When I am consulting on a declining tree, I regularly ask if the site has been disturbed recently. Usually I have to ask the question a second time before making any progress: "Oh, well about four or five years ago, we had a sewer line replaced, but ..."

I can interrupt at this point: "but the lawn was repaired and the tree didn't die—that was years ago."

Last weekend I consulted on a towering cherry tree for a new homeowner. The tree presents a significant risk for anyone who will be in this backyard or neighboring backyards and must be taken down. The cost for take-down will be astronomical. When was the damage done? Not by the previous homeowner, who had lived there for several years. Instead, the damage was done by an excavator who had initially cleared, leveled or landscaped the wooded lot.

For a long time, the tree looked like it would survive, but the trunk damage has resulted in limb die-back. And, the root damage means that the towering specimen is supported by less than half of its original structural roots.

Only now is the tree is telling its secrets, but they are as relevant today as a newspaper article on the impending computer crisis to be caused by Y2K. (Incidentally, Y2K was about when the tree was damaged).

So what do the secret-keeping characteristics of trees mean to tree managers and homeowners? From a liability perspective, trees usually keep secrets longer than a realistic statute of limitations. Consequently, the burden of scruple falls on the tree manager. In other words, in the short term, one tree company's work may not seem to have different results from another. (They hacked the tree, but to my surprise, it came back nicely.)

However, in the long term, a tree's best chance for survival comes when it receives care from the most scrupulous of handlers. This especially includes all construction workers who may dig, park, redirect water, clean equipment, etc. anywhere near a tree. For a 30" diameter tree, nothing should be done within a 30-foot radius of the trunk.

Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit's municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at


Recommended for you