Tree Spotlight: Ulmus americana

Ulmus americana

TRADE NAME: American Elm

FAMILY: Ulmaceae

GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Native to eastern North America, naturally occurring from Nova Scotia west to Saskatchewan (Canada) and Montana, and south to Florida and Texas. Common along the Gulf Coast.

WOOD VALUE: Is coarse-grained, heavy, and strong. It lacks durability, warps and splits badly during seasoning. Is used in the manufacture of boxes, baskets, crates, barrels, furniture, agricultural implements, fuel wood and caskets. Elm veneer is used for furniture and decorative panels.

OTHER USES: Before the advent of Dutch elm disease, American elm was prized as a street ornamental in many cities in North America.

SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The time of flowering, seed ripening and seed fall varies by about 100 days between the Gulf Coast and Canada. The flower buds swell early in February in the South. The trees are in flower two to three weeks before the leaves unfold. The fruit ripens as the leaves unfold or soon afterward. The seed is dispersed as it ripens and seed fall is usually complete by the middle of March in the South and by the middle of June in the North.


  • A deciduous, fast-growing, long-lived tree which may reach 175 to 200 years old, with some as old as 300 years.
  • In dense forest stands, may reach 100 to 200 feet in height and 48 to 60 inches in diameter at breast height. Heights of 80 feet are common on medium sites, but on very wet or very dry soils the species is often 40 to 60 feet tall at maturity.
  • The alternate, double-toothed leaves are 2 to 5 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide.
  • The dark gray bark is deeply furrowed.
  • The perfect flowers are borne in dense clusters of three or four fascicles. The fruit is a samara consisting of a compressed nutlet surrounded by a membranous wing.
  • The root system varies according to soil moisture and texture. In heavy, wet soils the root system is wide-spreading, with most of the roots within 3 to 4 feet of the surface. On drier soils, it develops a deep taproot.


  • Has suffered greatly since the introduction of Dutch elm disease from Europe around 1930. Since then, the disease has spread over much of the U.S.
  • The disease is caused by the fungus Ceratocystis ulmi. Spores of this fungus are carried by American and European bark beetles from diseased trees to healthy trees.
  • The beetles breed only in dead, dying, or recently cut elm wood and winter as larvae under the bark. In the spring, adults emerge and fly a short distance (usually less than 500 feet) to feed in the twig crotches or small branches in the upper parts of the living trees. As the beetles feed, the spores are introduced into the tree and the tree becomes diseased. After the spores have been introduced into the tree’s vascular system, the xylem becomes plugged and a toxin is produced.
  • The trees wilt on the small branches and eventually on the whole limbs.

Sources: USDA Plant Index; U.S. Forest Service (FS. Fed.US); Tree Services

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Understanding Tree Wounds

Understanding Tree Wounds

Trees get wounded — some are caused by Mother Nature and some by people. Wounds are a big concern for trees; they interrupt and reduce water and nutrient flow, expose inner tissues to potential disease and insect infection and degrade the structural integrity of the heartwood. Aesthetically, they often reduce eye appeal for your customers. Tree wounds can be problematic in terms of overall tree health — but they can also be a major cause of stress for your clients. Needless to say, tree wounds are a foundational occurrence for arborists to focus on.

A tree wound closure in progress.

Wound types

Several categories and causes of tree wounds exist. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Pruning cuts: These are perhaps the most obvious wounds, but also the least understood by customers. Of course, they’re the result of the necessary arboricultural procedure of limb removal. Cutting off cankered, codominant or critter-damaged stems are of the most basic procedures that a tree service provider can make; the unfortunate outcome in some cases is the softening of tissues through decay or desiccation and overall weakening of the tree. Clean cuts made with sharp saws help limit the wounding, especially when made just outside the branch collar.
  • Storm damage: Storms roll through town in almost every season. Winter and summer tend to be the most common seasons to experience limb breakage, but ruling out storm damage in fall and spring is simply not being realistic. In summer, extreme winds tend to be the biggest cause of injury, with the effects of compression, tension and torsion causing limbs to break and requiring good arboricultural care to remedy the situation. In most cases, pruning is the best approach, as it removes unstable limbs and returns the tree to a solid entity in the landscape. In rare occurrences, cabling and bracing can also be temporary solutions to achieve stability. Such instances include target-free environments, when landscape renovations are in progress and historical celebrations. In all cases, repair work must be done according to ANSI standards and ISA-certified arborist guidelines.
  • Car accidents: Tree wounds made from being struck by a large, moving vehicle can be quite damaging, depending on the size and speed of the force being applied. As well, the shape and configuration of the front end of the car or truck is another consideration. Sharp or pointed bumpers and whether car parts are metal or plastic all factor into the equation. Generally, the most damage is done by a fast-moving, heavy-duty vehicle with a wide striking zone. The main cause for concern with auto accidents is the crushing and tearing of bark and conductive vessels, two very important parts of a tree. When these are struck they usually lose function, opening the tree to disease and insect invasion and reducing the movement of nutrients and moisture through the tree — this almost always happens at the trunk level, which impacts all other parts of the tree. In some cases, automotive fluids are deposited at the base of the tree. In large quantities, radiator fluid, engine oil and brake fluid can cause dieback of tree roots.
  • Vandalism and mower blight: Vandalism can range from a simple striking with a baseball bat or tearing of bark to the carving of initials in the trunk by young lovers. Mower blight is the repeated striking of the trunk by mowing equipment. Similar in consequence to a car accident, mower blight causes destruction of important protective bark and water conducting vessels of the tree, causing it to be stressed and lose function. Mower blight is best prevented than corrected. One prevention method is the installation of wood chip mulch, beginning 3 inches away from the trunk and extending several feet outwards into the landscape.
  • Planting errors: These types of injuries usually occur during the installation process, when roots are cut in order to fit the root ball into an inadequately sized planting hole. Training new employees to dig shallow and wide planting areas and to loosen, spread out and place tangled roots into the soil carefully goes a long way toward preventing this type of wound.
  • Utility line injury: Trenching to install sewer pipes or electrical lines causes major wounding of the root system of a tree. Severing of roots can separate a large portion of the root system from the rest of the tree, causing an instant ceasing of function. Again, prevention is the best remedy. Communication with utility companies before digging can sometimes result in the identification of a different route for placement or repair of cables, pipes and lines and should be attempted wherever possible.

Trees don’t heal

A common misconception among tree care company clients is that trees heal from injuries. It certainly makes sense on a basic level — after all, skin heals after you get scratches or cuts. Unfortunately, tree wounds don’t respond the same way as human bodies do. Instead, in response to the various types of wounds described above, trees produce new tissues to cover or compartmentalize the injured portions of the branches or trunk. The majority of the new wood grows from “wound wood,” located in the branch collar/branch bark ridge areas of the tree. If this tissue is removed in pruning, the closing of the wounds is greatly reduced or nonexistent.

Adding to the frustration of healing is the inherent capacity for various tree species to recover from wounding. Some are just better compartmentalizers than others, generally grouped into good, moderate and poor wound closers. Poplars and silver maple are in the poor group, while oak and crabapple do better than most. Many trees into the intermediate category, like linden and catalpa. Some species, like Osage orange and black locust, are good at resisting decay but not necessarily closing wounds.

Excessive winds can cause tree wounding in the limbs and shoots.

Steps to take

Customers always ask what can be done to alleviate the damage done by tree wounds. Pruning out the damage is an option, with the extent of the removal guided by local targets and capacity of the species to close wounds. Customers may also bring up the possibility of painting, tarring, cabling/bracing, fertilization, vitamins or mycorrhizae. This is a natural mothering/fathering instinct. Don’t deny it; go with it and turn this enthusiasm into a profit center for your business.

Instead of wound dressings, sell the client a plant health care (PHC) program, which does far more good for the tree than sealing it up with tar or paint, or even fertilization that encourages leaf growth at the expense of stress tolerance and root growth.

A PHC program that includes scouting, monitoring, mulching, soil testing, pruning and pest control (as needed) will capitalize on the customer’s desire to provide good care for their trees and provide beneficial products and services for the landscape.

Perhaps a silver lining to the cloud lies in finding a positive action, in that tree wounding may present the occasion to plant another tree nearby, especially if the injuries are extensive. Keeping PHC in mind, especially in terms of structural strength, disease resistance and sun/shade preference, the opportunity to install high-quality, sturdy specimens into the customer’s landscape is certainly one to be seized.

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TV Filming Interrupted By Falling Tree Branch

When A Situation Gets Real

The day was already strange enough. Through a most peculiar set of circumstances, and of the thousands of tree care companies they could have selected, a Swedish television producer asked West Michigan Tree Services if we would participate in an upcoming episode of Sweden’s version of “Most Dangerous Jobs.” They were in the states doing an American tour and had just filmed in Detroit. Our role was to assist their star, Ms. Carina Berg, to climb a large tree and do some aerial tree trimming. We were to closely monitor and coach her, guiding her through not only the aerial work, but also chipping the brush and hauling the wood.

Carina is a pro. Lean, athletic and highly intelligent, her English is better than mine.

She listened closely to everything our foreman, Brian Rathbun, instructed her to do. We had selected a large ash tree in a city park to work in, and the morning shoot was going well.

The weather was sunny and dry — but windy, with gusts as high as 45 to 50 knots, which almost postponed the shoot. The producer, however, preferred to carry on, saying the winds added an additional danger-edge. Carina was in no way deterred.

A gust of wind caused a large lead in an old silver maple to fracture, rip from the trunk and crash atop a mother and her infant in a park. Tree Services columnist Vic Foerster and West Michigan Tree Services — along with two television crews — happened to be nearby and were able to pull off a successful rescue of all parties.

A local TV crew was also on scene. They asked if they could film the event as a special interest story. Between the two film crews, support staff and our tree crew, there were more than 12 people involved that day.

Here’s where the script changed and the acting became real-life.

The unforeseen happens

Brian had just finished showing Carina how to use her climbing gear and, with cameras rolling, had begun to ascend the tree. They hadn’t climbed more than 1 foot off the ground when there was a sudden gust of wind. We heard a loud crack, a heavy crash in the distance and then screams for help.

As fate would have it, a group of mothers and their kids, ages 3 and under, were walking in the park. The gust of wind caused a large lead in an old silver maple to fracture, rip from the trunk and crash atop one of the mothers and her infant.

For a split second, we all stood there frozen, too shocked to move. But as “tree guys,” we were the first to grasp what had happened and ran over to help. Carina, the Swedish crew, as well as the local TV people followed closely behind. When I reached the fallen limb, the other parents were shouting to us that a woman and her child were trapped somewhere underneath and likely injured.

I could barely make out the mother through the branches and yelled to crew member Dylan to run back to the trucks and grab a chain saw. Fortunately, Brian, had his hand saw strapped to his leg. He commenced to cut branches away to gain access to the mother who was clearly hurt. We couldn’t see the child yet.

Performing the rescue

I asked the other mothers to take a head count of the group to be sure nobody else was trapped. They did and said, “Everyone else is here.” With a few more cautious saw cuts, we found the baby lying beside the mother, whose arms were stretched out toward the child. The mother was conscious and asking, “Is she alright? Are my children OK?” pleading in a tone of voice I won’t soon forget. “I want to see my children,” she said several times.

It took four of us to lift the branches off the baby with a, “1, 2, 3 — LIFT!” As we did, one of the other mothers stepped in and pulled the infant free. The baby, miraculously, was awake, not crying and appeared to only have suffered bruises and scrapes. We then began to work on extricating the mother, who we dared not move. She was complaining that her back hurt.

Brian is a volunteer fireman and has first-responder training. He knelt down beside her, explaining in a calm, firm voice that both her children (one was not struck) were accounted for and appeared unhurt, telling her she shouldn’t move. With a first-aid kit from one of the trucks, Brian bandaged a cut on the back the mother’s head, talking to her, asking her name, keeping her calm and conscious. She asked again to see her children. The other mothers heard, and set both her children in her line of sight. It helped tremendously in keeping the mother still until the paramedics arrived and instructed otherwise.

Within 10 minutes of calling 911, the police, firetrucks and several EMS vehicles began to arrive on the scene. The paramedics quickly took over, wrapped a brace around her neck and carefully set her onto a backboard. Six EMS personnel lifted the mother onto a wheeled stretcher and placed her into an ambulance, taking mother and child, as well as two other mothers and a second child to the hospital. The two other mothers were so shaken up that they, too, were transported. One of them was pregnant.

During the entire incident, both the Swedish TV crew and the local TV crew not only aided in the rescue, they also continued to run their cameras, capturing much of the rescue on film. One rendition can be seen from the local Fox17.

We found out the next day that the pregnant mother taken to the hospital went into labor that night and delivered a healthy baby. As it turned out, she was full-term (late in fact) and was walking in the park to try to induce labor. The other mother and child were just shaken up, but fine. They were released that day.

Fortunately, the trapped child was released from the hospital the next morning, after being retained overnight.

There had been concern that the infant had a concussion, as she vomited after being extricated from under the tree.

Not so fortunate was the child’s mother. She suffered a fractured back and hip, with multiple cuts and scrapes. Serious injuries to be sure, but if the limb had fallen a second sooner, or had she been a second slower, they would almost certainly have been crushed by the heavier lower portions of the falling limb.

Training pays off

Tree care companies normally don’t train their personnel to be prepared to rescue children and/or adults in distress. We are trained to assist each other for those critical moments when one of us is injured. Be that as it may, on this day, that training paid off for more than the tree workers.

The point of this column is not to tell a dramatic rescue story, or to laud the efforts of Brian and the tree crew, though I think that’s deserved. The point is to emphasize the importance of the safety training we receive in our trade. The staff was prepared to respond to an emergency. They knew to stay calm and focused. First-aid supplies were close at hand.

As Sgt. Dave Silver of the Grand Rapids Police said, “Fate, good luck, whatever you want to call it. Luckily they (mother and child) were out of the main path there.” Brody Carter, the Fox News reporter filming that day who witnessed the entire rescue, said about the extraordinary events, which most definitely made the evening news, “It was serendipitous that the tree crew happened to be on-site.”

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Watering Trees: Do’s And Don’ts

Turf heads for watering

Goldilocks was an unwelcome visitor to the three bears’ cottage, walking in unannounced without being asked to enter the house. She helped herself to the porridge, chairs and beds, finding that one was too much, one was too little and one was just right in each case. It’s not clear from the story what the bears thought of Goldilocks, except that they growled and exclaimed a bit. Goldilocks seemed to be scared of the bears and ran off without any verbal exchange between them, so we’ll probably never know, unless there’s a “Three Bears” sequel.

Even though this tale was a bit unsettled for the future, it’s still instructive for watering trees and keeping them in good health. Taking the cue from Goldilocks, the theme of “just right” should be the goal of every tree grower and tree care provider.

Irrigation bags/bladders can help deliver water low and slow, especially in tree pits. Photo: John Fech

Moist, wet, dry

So, what is “just right”? Is it moist, wet or dry? Conventional wisdom, at least for most homeowners, would be that trees like to have wet soils. In fact, it’s a common nursery or garden center complaint that newly-sold trees are killed by overwatering by customers, who dump bushel baskets full of water on the new specimen every day or let the hose run for six hours or more every time they look outdoors to admire their new purchase. It just makes them feel good to do it.

Separation of turf and trees is highly desirable. Photo: John Fech

When it comes to being wet, there are trees that are tolerant of wet soils, but few like to grow in wet soils. Why? Trees need oxygen in the root system to function and grow well. Trees such as swamp white oak, zelkova, willow, dawn redwood, river birch, serviceberry, persimmon, sweetgum, holly, magnolia, sycamore, black gum and alder are known to be tolerant of wet soils, especially ones that are intermittently wet.

Drip emitters also deliver water low and slow. Photo: John Fech

The opposite is true for dry sites, where due to lack of soil moisture, tree roots simply dry excessively and wither and die, causing major stress to trees. Just as for wet sites, a couple of species that are super resistant to overly dry soils stand out, such as hackberry and Eastern red cedar. But again, the majority of trees that are considered to be drought tolerant are just that – tolerant. Such species include hedge maple, hornbeam, yellowwood, filbert, hawthorn, ginkgo, golden raintree, bur oak, chestnut oak, sassafras, Japanese pagoda tree, golden raintree and Siberian elm.

Two to 3 inches of a coarse, loose mulch helps keep soils moist, not dry. Photo: John Fech


In addition to the individual preferences of specific trees, there are overarching factors that complicate watering:

  • Watering lawns: In many landscapes, trees are growing smack dab in the middle of a lawn. Generally, trees require less water than turfgrasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, hybrid bermudagrass and St. Augustine. As a result, they tend to be overwatered, because they share the same root zone. Others, such as bahiagrass and tall fescue, can usually get by with the same amount of water required for the majority of trees. Overall, the best solution is to design landscapes that separate turf from trees. In mature landscapes, it’s usually not feasible to do so. But some of the turfgrass can be replaced with ground covers that require less moisture. This is a good option in that they often are shade adapted as well, unlike turfgrasses. Lamium, periwinkle, goutweed and Japanese spurge are good groundcover choices for shade.
  • Poorly drained soils: In soils that are poorly drained due to clay, compaction, wear or heavy traffic patterns, watering becomes difficult. These soils generally absorb water slowly and then hold it for a longer time as opposed to soils that are better drained. Probing soils with a long screwdriver will help determine the moisture content.
  • Excessively well-drained soils: Usually comprised of a heavy sand or silt content, these soils have the opposite problem, in they lack the capacity to hold water for a sufficient time for the plants to utilize it. On these sites, more frequent applications with lesser volumes are required to keep soils at the proper moisture level. Probing is useful to get a handle on the level of moisture between the soil particles.
  • Small root zones: Trees planted in small root zones, i.e., tree pits, hell strips, parking lot islands. etc., are subject to difficulties in watering, as well. Because of the limited surface area of the small space, it’s hard to keep enough water on the soil without having it run off the site into the street or other impervious surface. In such situations, trees often dry out and become stunted.
  • Slopes: Speaking of runoff, slopes are the quintessential runoff site. The key here is that they cause the precipitation or irrigation rate to exceed the infiltration rate. The frequent result of watering trees on slopes is that the lower half of the root ball is adequately moistened, but the upper remains dry.
  • Amended sites: Also sometimes called large pots for trees, planting sites that have been heavily amended with compost, manure, peat moss or rotting hay to loosen clay soils or enrich sandy soils often create unintended consequences for tree survival. Trees planted in these situations usually grow quite well for the first few years. Then, as the roots reach the sides of the original planting hole, they’re restricted by the nonamended sides and aren’t able to penetrate them, and they turn back toward the center of the hole.
  • The result of the amendment is either an inadequate root zone or stem girdling roots (or both).

Keep it moist

Where the goal is to find the sweet spot and keep the soil moist, there are three main tools or influencers – the devices, the methods and mulch.

Separation of trees and turf is highly desirable. Photo: John Fech

Many water emitters on the market today do a good job of applying water in the right place, at the right rate and at the right time. Yet, some are simply better suited for vegetable production or lawn maintenance. Finding the right one for the client’s tree is an issue of matching up the tree with the landscape setting. As mentioned earlier, this is much easier if the tree and turf are separated so that each can be watered on a different zone, according to its own needs. Overall, the devices that place water over the tree roots without spraying water high into the air are considered highly desirable. Such products include drip emitters, microspray heads, water soaker bags and soaker hoses.

Soaker hoses are especially useful when trees are being established. Photo: John Fech

Using the right tool is good; using it correctly is better. Generally, watering trees should be done in a similar fashion to cooking a piece of meat with lots of tendons or collagen in it (roasts, brisket, ribs) – low and slow. Low so that the water can stay where it needs to be without flying away via drift, and slow so that it can soak in before running off. Periodic checking is recommended for both endeavors – checking temperature for cooking brisket and checking the moisture content of the soil in the root zone for trees. Once the soil is sufficiently moist after watering, it’s helpful to keep it there for a couple of weeks or so. There’s nothing better for doing so than applying 2 inches of a coarse, loose wood chip mulch.

Microspray heads are effective when properly timed and monitored. Photo: John Fech

Going back to the Goldilocks analogy, the aim is this: not too much, not too little, but just right. Unfortunately, an increasingly common sight in DIY landscapes is a “mulch volcano,” where mulch is mounded 12 to 18 inches high around the tree base. There are several negatives associated with this practice, including increased potential for rodent damage in winter, increased runoff of irrigation/rain water and keeping the bole of the tree overly moist, which often results in decay or Armillaria root rot.

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5 Considerations When Choosing A Brush Cutter

Little Wonder brush cutter

When you’re looking for new equipment, you want ROI and you want it fast. It often feels like the fastest way to get ROI is to buy the product with the cheapest price tag. It’s difficult to see past the sticker and think about the long-term operation and maintenance costs, as well as opportunity costs and how a different investment might pay off in the end.

While parting with cash isn’t easy, investing in quality equipment pays dividends in reduced expenses later. This is especially true for equipment in the demanding debris management segment. Debris management equipment, such as a brush cutter, requires heavy-duty components and productivity-enhancing features to tackle challenges like thick brush and tree saplings.

While cost is always a consideration, cutting corners on value-added features is seldom worth the savings, and it’s better to look at a lifetime cost versus a short-term purchase price. If investing a little more means extending the life of your equipment by a year or two or being able to tackle a wider range of jobs, it’s well worth the added initial cost.

Plus, when it comes to increasing productivity, features that make maintenance easy keep machines on the jobsite, not in the repair shop. That’s why it’s important to do the research and select a brush cutter built to achieve long-term profits and exceptional productivity.

1. Making the cut

Start the selection process by determining what type of debris will be faced. Brush cutters are designed to take on certain heights and thicknesses, and if that is exceeded, it can cause damage to the machine. Err on the side of caution by selecting a brush cutter capable of taking on multiple jobs and thicker brush than purchasing a smaller unit that might save you money, but limits versatility and opportunity.

Tough jobs, such as clearing vacant lots and establishing trails or paths, require a brush cutter that tackles weeds, heavy brush and overgrown vegetation. Look for a model capable of taking out saplings up to a couple of inches thick and won’t shy away from chest-high weeds. After all, if the brush cutter can’t handle that, it’ll be back to the branch clippers to finish the job.

An efficient machine is capable of clearing an acre of brush or more per hour, which enables contractors to quickly complete the project and move on to the next. To help achieve maximum productivity, consider brush cutters that feature a hydrostatic drive with clutchless variable operating speeds as opposed to a unit with gear selection. Hydrostatic drive allows the operator to simply squeeze the handle to control both speed and direction for easy and intuitive operation in varying worksite conditions, such as when moving from open green spaces to thick overgrowth.

Also, consider if the brush cutter uses cables or solid rods to connect the transmission, parking brake and blade clutch. Models with cables add the risk of branches getting tangled in and breaking the cables, stopping the job. Solid rods are much more durable to withstand the demands of thick underbrush and keep contractors productive.

2. Never skimp on key features

Be sure to cover the basics first. For instance, look for a unit with a wraparound hand guard that runs along the handlebars and front of the machine.

This shields the operator during operation. Some units only have a small hand guard covering the handle grips, but this fails to protect from brush that reaches the operator from the front of the machine.

Next, focus on the deck of the brush cutter, which is the most important feature. Look for a brush cutter with a heavy-duty steel cutting deck and steel front deck plates. These are individually mounted hinged plates that hang down from the front of the cutting deck. They allow the brush cutter to easily move over brush and keep the brush in the cutting zone. Be sure to consider the construction of the protective front deck plates at the time of purchase. If this were a grass mower, a rubber flap would be fine. However, brush cutters tackle thick, heavy brush often in overgrown areas with little or no visibility of what lies beneath. It’s best to trust the durability of steel plates over rubber flaps or hanging chains.

Today’s brush cutters can operate at a pretty fast pace. Sometimes it’s best to slow down. This is especially true when working on unfamiliar or obstructed terrains where operators cannot easily track the contours of slopes and hills. While a hydrostatic drive is quick to react and smooths speed adjustment for the operator, a speed limiting setting on the machine can help avoid overdrive situations altogether. Brush cutters with a speed limiter can set a maximum running speed for optimal control. Look for a unit with a dial configuration, as this will give the greatest level of speed control flexibility for on-the-fly adjustment as conditions warrant.

Lastly, check if the brush cutter features a parking brake. It’s a simple but important feature that minimizes the risk of the machine not staying in place when work is halted on a hill or sloped area.

3. Built to last

Brush cutting is tough work. That’s why it’s important to invest in a machine that’s built to last. Look for a unit constructed of heavy-gauge steel at least where it matters: the deck, skid shoes, push or knockdown bar and handle area.

When clearing brush, the unit selected is only as good as the knockdown bars that feed the blade. Though they might look alike, they are not created alike. Choose a machine that features heavy-gauge, solid steel push bars rather than those made of thin-gauge steel tubing. The hollow tubes dent and bend, reducing effectiveness and increasing the need for replacement. Also, inspect the quality of the skid shoes. These are steel bars or rods connected to the left and right front deck feet. Similar to push bars, skid shoes made of hollow tubing dent easily and require frequent replacement. Instead, solid steel skid shoes will hold up much longer and provide flotation over rough terrain because the steel withstands damage from brush, rocks and low-lying stumps.

Also, select a brush cutter with durable tires. Pneumatic tires are common, but they are susceptible to puncturing. Since they cost roughly $90 to $140 to replace, costs can add up quickly. Alternatively, puncture-proof, foam-filled tires are designed to endure the most challenging work conditions with the ability to withstand punctures from brush, nails, glass or other sharp items, so the tires rarely need replacing.

In addition, look for deep tread or bar tread tires for added traction when moving across overgrown grasses and weeds and tackling undulating terrain. Some manufacturers offer foam-filled tires standard at no additional cost, while others charge a hefty premium for this tire option.

4. Easy or excessive

Never overlook maintenance requirements when selecting a brush cutter — an easy thing to do when blinded by a cheap price tag. The cost of replacement parts and the labor time to fix a brush cutter quickly add up, making the unit’s initial price deceiving. Plus, there’s bound to be lost profits when contractors turn down jobs while their brush cutter is in the shop.

Look for machines designed to simplify maintenance. For example, some manufacturers design the equipment to call attention to greasing points for maintenance technicians. This ensures that technicians can easily locate the grease points and don’t forget to maintain these areas. It may seem small, but this feature helps to achieve the brush cutter’s full service life.

Welded or bolted components also impact maintenance time. For example, wearing components that are bolted, instead of welded, to the brush cutter make it easy for technicians to gain access and replace individual parts. Alternatively, welding requires replacing even more parts, such as the entire cutting deck to make a spindle replacement. This quickly gets expensive, as a cutting deck costs around $200 to replace. When looking to stretch investments a little further, select a unit that uses reversible blades to double the blade life. This simple feature saves $25 per blade replacement, which quickly adds up over the life of the unit.

5. After-sales support

After looking over the brush cutter, there’s one more important aspect to consider: the manufacturer. Is it reliable?

A good indicator is a proven history of developing quality products. Read online blogs and reviews to see what customers say. It’s also important that the machine includes a warranty and a broad servicing dealer network to ensure you can get ready service of the brush cutter if needed. For additional resources, check the manufacturer’s website for online videos and information on the brush cutter, as well as easily accessible support for troubleshooting or ordering spare parts. That combination ensures contractors know not only how to effectively use and maintain the equipment, but also that they will get help quickly when it’s needed.

Choosing a quality brush cutter from a reliable manufacturer yields long-term rewards. Although contractors originally front a few extra bucks for value-added features, it pays off. Between time saved on maintenance and repairs, operators soon make up for the initial cost. Remember, the right manufacturer and machine make the cut for long-term results.

Editor’s note: Steve LePera is the director of marketing for Little Wonder, Mantis and Classen – three brands of Schiller Grounds Care, Inc. a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of outdoor power equipment.

Little Wonder is an industry leader in debris management, grounds maintenance, and asphalt and paving equipment. Beginning in 1922, Little Wonder continues to design and develop rugged, durable and productive equipment for the industry. It offers more debris management products than any other manufacturer in its category, including blowers, brush cutters, edgers and bed shapers, leaf and debris vacuums, truck loaders and hedge trimmers. Little Wonder equipment is available through power equipment and rental dealerships nationwide. Additional information is available on YouTube. Little Wonder is a registered trademark of Schiller Grounds Care, Inc.

Schiller Grounds Care creates and brings to market a broad variety of landscaping, gardening and turf care equipment for residential and commercial use under the brand names BOB-CAT, Classen, Little Wonder, Mantis, Ryan and Steiner.

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Tips For Maintaining Vegetation Management Equipment

Talking Vegetation Management

We asked experts from several leading companies: “If there’s one thing you could remind tree care professionals about maintaining their vegetation management equipment properly, what would it be?”

Here’s what they had to say:

Casey Gross
Tree Care Business Unit Director/Morbark

Don’t overlook the heart of the machines — the cutting mechanism. The knives need to be looked at every day. They cut up against the anvil or cutter bar, and if this is overlooked, the machine will perform poorly. Yes, it will still work, but it’s hard on the machine and will decrease its life. So, to make sure that your chipper performs to the optimum performance, you have to check that your knives are sharp and adjusted properly to the anvil.

Steve Talaga
Product Manager/Barko Hydraulics

Follow a solid, preventive maintenance program. Barko recommends performing a preoperative inspection each day before using machines, which includes checking fluids, greasing lubrication points, removing debris, cleaning out radiators and other items listed in service manuals. Regular maintenance intervals are also important, especially replacing fluids and filters on schedule. Barko has made it easy to understand what needs to be replaced by offering uptime kits that coincide with that regular maintenance. Also, remember to fix small issues before they become large issues.

Mike Balkom
National Sales Manager/Progress Rail Services

Preventive maintenance is critical to achieving optimal equipment life. The manufacturer’s manual serves as your best resource for tapping into the information needed to start an effective program. This manual will contain recommended operating instructions and maintenance intervals for all crucial components. Pay close attention to the factory-recommended fluids and filter change intervals associated with the engine and hydraulic components. Daily inspections are recommended, as they help prevent unplanned downtime by identifying worn or damaged parts before they fail. Lastly, keep it clean. Ensure your equipment remains thoroughly cleaned by following factory-specified intervals for daily and weekly operations. A high-pressure spray washer is a great investment and a necessity for off-road utility equipment.

Bill Schafer
Product Development Supervisor/ Loftness

Keep the cutting tools sharp. For example, more vegetation management professionals are starting to use knives instead of carbide teeth on their mulching heads. Knives are more aggressive and do offer greater performance, but unlike carbide teeth, they require regular sharpening to enjoy the most efficiency. When the knives aren’t sharp, operators and customers typically aren’t as happy with the performance of the equipment. This advice isn’t limited to mulching heads, however. Any vegetation management equipment that uses a sharp edge will benefit from regularly sharpening or replacing the cutting tools as needed.

Ross Hershman
Service Manager/efco

It’s all about routine maintenance. It happens to everyone — you get busy with bidding work, completing jobs, daily business administration and weather delays … soon, you find yourself running behind. To save time, you might let some things go to get caught up. One of those shortcuts might be maintenance on your equipment, but it will eventually come back to bite you. Take for example a chain saw: There’s nothing more frustrating than being on a job and it’s hard starting, providing poor performance, or worse, it breaks. Taking the time to give it “the onceover” will save you time in the long run. Following the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule will help minimize your equipment downtime and keep you productive.

Heidi Boyum
President, CEO/ Jarraff Industries

Daily inspections are important. Check for leaks and repair and tighten or replace loose fasteners. Check all fluids and fill as needed. Keep your machines clean and do regular filter and oil changes, as well as replace or repair any damaged parts. Following regular maintenance intervals is one of the most important parts of maintaining equipment properly. If in doubt of whether a component is worn to the point it needs to be replaced, it’s always best to replace it as a preventive measure. Follow all directives in your service manuals. Editor’s note: This response was provided by Jarraff’s parts/service dept. professionals.

Robb Fanno
Owner/Fanno Saw Works

A thorough, pre-job tool inspection is necessary for maximum production and safety. Always check a tool’s handle and head for any damage or weakness. Make sure the tool’s cutting blade is sharp and cleaned. In addition, keep an eye out for any cutting tools that have guards for safety in storage and transportation. Always have available the proper personal protective equipment.

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Minimizing Stress On Trees During Drought

Deep root watering

Too often people think the best thing to do to help trees during times of drought is to fertilize, according to Lindsey Purcell, urban forestry specialist with the Purdue University Extension Forestry and Natural Resources.

“But that is the worst thing you can do with trees under stress,” he explains. “It takes an enormous amount of resources for the plant to metabolize fertilizer; the tree is already trying to survive because of the lack of water, and when it has to metabolize all of these additional nutrients, it throws it further into stress.” Plus, Purcell points out, fertilizer is a salt, and that fact alone can actually exacerbate the effects of drought stress.

Drew Zwart, west coast technical representative with Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories, agrees that, as a general rule, it is advisable to avoid fertilizing trees during a drought. “Most fertilizers are salts, and any salt you put in the soil is going to affect the osmotic balance,” he says. “But if a plant needs nutrients, then it needs nutrients,” Zwart adds, pointing out that there are low-salt index fertilizers available and that any fertilization should be done based on a nutrient analysis (Bartlett takes samples at least every two to three years, if not more often) rather than a calendar schedule. “That way you’ll be adding only the nutrients that are necessary, as opposed to a fast-release nitrogen salt,” he says.

And it’s important to minimize stress not only on younger trees, but also more mature specimens. Oftentimes there’s a belief that a mature tree has developed a substantial root system and therefore will be able to hold its own when things get dry, “and a lot of times, that’s true,” says Zwart. During an unusually dry summer, there may be signs of scorched leaves or a premature color change in the fall, but nothing like what is experienced during historic water deficits, says Zwart. After the historic drought in California in recent years, for example, “We’re seeing 300-, 400-, 500-year-old trees in native areas dying. They’ve made it through droughts before, just nothing this intense,” he says.

Travis Evans, district manager in The Davey Tree Expert Company’s Santa Cruz, California, office, says that during drought, it’s especially important to protect trees against any kind of construction impact. When the trees are already stressed, this can be lethal, he notes.

Another stress that can sometimes be eliminated is pruning. “There were trees that were so stressed that we recommended skipping pruning until the tree could make a recovery,” Evans states. “Of course, there were exceptions — we had to look at safety factors … In certain situations, we did have to prune to eliminate excessive weight so the tree could remain standing.” In cases where pruning was skipped, the tree was monitored more frequently than usual, and the service plan often switched to plant health care, either supplemental watering and/or fungicide or pesticide treatments to prevent further disease or insect stresses on the tree.

“You don’t want to prune any live, green tissue, because it takes resources for the tree to heal that wound,” says Purcell. “So you’re adding additional demands on the tree’s food resources.” Instead, he advises focusing on the “[unbeneficial] plant parts” — namely anything that is dead or dying. “Removing some basal sprouting is OK; those don’t really contribute to the canopy of the tree,” Purcell adds.

Tree-planting practices also need to change during a drought, says Evans. He works in an area where it’s normally possible to plant a wide range of tree species at nearly any time of the year, but during the drought it became necessary to plant only specific species and to do so during the dormant months or in early spring. Evans adds that the drought made clients think more about the tree species they wanted to add to their landscape. “A lot of times they would ask, ‘What can we plant that is drought-tolerant?’ It started a whole different conversation,” he says. While they may have specified a certain tree of a certain size with a certain type of flower, they became more concerned about how the tree would be able to handle droughts, at that time and also in the future. “We definitely started recommending a lot more natives and trees that wouldn’t need a lot of extra water just to make it through an average year,” says Evans.

Another lesson of drought is that for the trees, it’s not over just when the meteorologists say it’s over. While California overcorrected a bit with an extremely wet winter to end the drought, Evans says it will take “consistent rainfall over the next several years to nurse a lot of these mature trees back to health.”

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Deep-Root Watering For Trees During Drought

High & Dry

One challenge of weather is its unpredictability. Rain one day, sun the next, cool then hot and back to cool, and on and on. But if variability is challenging, consistency can be much harder to handle. Imagine life if it rained every single day. Or, even worse, if it never rained. When Mother Nature dries up and stays dry, it becomes a threat to every living thing — including trees.

In severe cases, this means a drought, which the National Weather Service says is “a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals and/or people.” And drought conditions require a change in tree management practices.

Travis Evans, district manager in The Davey Tree Expert Company‘s Santa Cruz, California, office, got a firsthand look at the impact of the four-plus-year drought that California recently suffered through. “Over the first year or two, most of the mature trees in the landscape handled it. But by years three and four, we really did start to see an increase in certain trees being stressed out,” says Evans.

Lindsey Purcell, urban forestry specialist with the Purdue University Extension Forestry and Natural Resources, inspects the leaves of a tulip poplar for signs of drought stress.

Image Courtesy Of Purdue Extension

And it wasn’t only hard on the trees. “The last couple years of the drought were extremely challenging as an arborist, because there were a lot of times where you had to step back and let the client know that you have to do more research,” says Evans. “We started seeing new pests as a secondary issue for drought-stressed trees — things we had never even seen before.” So scouting for insects becomes more important during drought, including looking beyond the normal pests. For example, Evans says the drought led to an increase in borer activity on conifers in that area, “which we hadn’t really seen a lot of in the past.”

Drew Zwart, west coast technical representative with Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories, says that the California drought made good, basic tree care practices all the more important. “The first thing that I like to see when I walk on a landscape during drought is a large and fresh mulch ring around a tree,” says Zwart. “That is the number one easiest and most effective and impactful thing that you can do, both because it helps to conserve moisture in the soil, and it helps to regulate soil temperatures, especially with shallow-rooted trees.” One other benefit that’s often overlooked, he adds, is that when you have mulch around a tree, there is no grass or other understory plants “that will compete, and probably win, for the water that is available.”

Zwart says that the same rules for mulch in normal circumstances apply in drought conditions: Ideally the mulch will extend out to the dripline, “though that’s obviously not always possible with the rest of the landscape plan, so as much as you can do — and 3 to 4 inches deep is as much as I’d ever recommend … It’s a soil treatment, not a stem treatment … you don’t want to be piling it up volcano-style.” Another tip he offers: Be sure to stir the mulch up at least once a year, otherwise it can actually form a hydrophobic layer and start to work against you. Zwart also recommends, when possible, using fresh, out-of-the-box chips with some bark and twigs mixed in. If a homeowner wants to use a dyed or painted mulch product for aesthetic reasons, it’s especially important during droughts to avoid dark or black types that will soak up heat from the sun, he advises.

Water supply

Of course droughts are not unique to California and can strike nearly anywhere. For example, extreme drought conditions were experienced in parts of the Midwest from 2012–2014. “And we are still experiencing those impacts,” says Lindsey Purcell, urban forestry specialist with the Purdue University Extension Forestry and Natural Resources.

Cultural practices — notably mulch and water — become even more important during droughts, says Purcell. Older trees with a more developed root system typically respond more slowly to drought, he explains. “But we lost some really big trees; I never thought that would happen,” Purcell adds. That’s why it’s important not only to provide water for newly planted and juvenile trees, but also “veteran” trees, he notes.

“The most important thing with water is being able to calculate the amount of water the tree needs,” says Purcell. He has calculated those figures for most species of trees in Indiana; when in doubt, check with your local state extension office to see if they can assist in providing or calculating this information.

To help care for trees during the drought, Evans says that Davey crews were undertaking supplemental watering during the driest months of the year. “From May to October, every four to six weeks we were offering a deep-root watering — actually injecting the water subsurface — because it’s a more efficient way to water as opposed to having clients just use a hose on top of the soil and having the water dissipate into the atmosphere.” So subsurface watering is not only better for the tree, but it also reduces wasted water, which is especially important during any drought, when municipalities are likely to have limitations on water use. “We can really utilize the limited amount of water that we have to use,” says Evans. For clients who didn’t want to opt for the deep-root watering service, Davey recommended the use of soaker hoses. “Then, based on the species and the size of the tree, we would tailor a plan for them and help them with the amount of gallons and how frequently they should be doing that,” he adds.

Landscape trees used to getting water from landscape irrigation are prone to damage when that water is typically shut off during droughts, says Evans. “A lot of our clients were doing their part by not watering their landscapes due to water restrictions. While that’s great, it had an additional impact on the trees. That’s why doing that supplemental watering helps.”

Zwart has observed a somewhat related problem that can take place, especially during droughts. “When people are replacing their lawns with synthetic turf, they forget that a large portion of the water that their trees were getting was from when they watered their grass,” he explains. The same situation is true when homeowners try to do the right thing by shutting off their lawn irrigation in a drought. “You’re also cutting off water to the trees,” he points out. “Especially with mature feature trees, we really like to see dedicated irrigation zones, so the tree has its own zone that can be programmed independently from the lawn. With most decent irrigation systems, it’s not hard to do, it’s just not frequently done.”

This brings up another misconception: that native trees will be fine during droughts. “But when it’s a true drought, that’s not the case,” says Zwart.

Even native trees need occasional deep watering. The amount of water a tree needs depends on the species and canopy size of the tree, among other site-specific factors, but Zwart says that as a general rule, during significant droughts, a deep watering — getting the water down at least 12 inches — at least once a month is a good rule of thumb.

And sometimes, when water use is strictly regulated, it’s necessary to prioritize which trees in the landscape to water. “It’s certainly a lot easier to replace a shrub or a citrus tree than it is a 400-year-old valley oak,” says Zwart.

“So, if either the volume of water or the water bills are a concern, then it makes sense to prioritize the large stuff that you won’t get back in your lifetime as opposed to the smaller stuff that you can just run down to the nursery and replace.”

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