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Do It Yourself Landscape Inspection

As a Massachusetts Certified Arborist, I visit about 275 properties each year and have been doing this for about 25 years now. I enjoy meeting the owners of these properties as well as seeing their landscapes. Obviously each place is unique and very important to the people living there. Sometimes, however, people don’t really look around carefully and notice things in their landscape. It’s kind of like we just get used to our property, take it for granted, and don’t see it critically. Meanwhile, good ole Mother Nature keeps growing the plants and Father Time keeps ticking away and before you know it, that cute little arborvitae that was knee high next to the house is ‘all of a sudden’ scraping up against the gutters. Before you know it, those seedlings that you got from a Conservation giveaway are way bigger than you imagined they would ever get and are crowding into one another. Before you know it, all those little oaks and pines are pretty darn big, some branches are touching the roof and they are so dense that mold and lichens have started to grow on the house. You get the picture: time goes on and our plants have grown up. But they don’t move out like our kids, they just hang around and slowly get bigger and bigger.  They can be wonderful, like children, but, like children, they can also cause problems.

So, my suggestion is that you take some time, go out and take a fresh look around your property: look up, look down, look all around. I will share some observations and thoughts about things to look for and notice:

First and foremost, the safety of people is so very important. Look up. Are there any hanging branches or broken branches that could fall on someone or something? Furthermore, are there major dead branches in the trees? These serve as ’sugar sticks’ for microorganisms to colonize on and then enter the inside of the tree. Major deadwood–of the 5th Brigade– should be removed for reasons of safety, health of the tree, and also aesthetics. When those gnarly pines are pruned of deadwood, all of a sudden they look fresh, new, and majestic again. Of course, check for totally dead trees or hazardous trees with major decay. Also, look at the power lines: if the service wire between the house and road has branches touching or close, it’s advisable to have those wires cleared. If the main, primary wires along the street have branches touching or even close, call the electric company and they’ll prune the branches for free. If a tree branch is in direct contact touching a primary wire, that tree can be energized and one can get a severe shock with contact.

Next, look all around. Check for light penetration and let the sunshine in. With lots of trees growing bigger over the years, the amount of light to reach the ground and house slowly, subtly decreases. Sometimes this can cause the grass to stop growing so well and the moss to start growing very well. The lack of sunlight on the house can cause mildew, lichens, and moss to grow on the shingles and siding and, if really bad, can even cause decay in the wood. The house needs to dry out after a rain and if the umbrella of a dense tree canopy keeps that from fully happening, parts of the building can actually rot. Sometimes a property is so overgrown that branches are actually touching the roof and abrading the shingles. A dense tree canopy can also make it feel damp and dark within the house. Often, when we lighten up a thick canopy, people happily report more light in the house and feel - in the words of a lady we recently worked for - that “we can breathe again”.

I’m sure though, that they were breathing all along. The easiest way to reduce the canopy in order to let in more light is to simply remove some of the lower branches of the trees - those branches that can even be eye-pokers. This procedure also ‘opens up’ a property, giving it a new feeling of spaciousness and neatness. Other times, it’s good to simply remove one or more competing trees to open things up.  If a tree just doesn’t look good, has a lot of deadwood, and may be declining, consider it a candidate to go.

Turning our attention to shrubs: most people have plants next to their houses - commonly referred to as ‘foundation plantings’ that can get so overgrown that - if two are opposite one another by the front door for example - you’d have to kind of suck in and walk sideways to get through. Sometimes shrubs have grown so tall that they tower over the gutters and block the windows. (Isn’t that what shades are for?) Seriously, many of the plants situated close to the house are designed genetically to grow 12 or 15 feet tall and they just get too big for the location. A rejuvenating pruning is sometimes the solution, but more often those “encroachers’ should be removed by the roots. Overgrown foundation plantings not only crowd out walkways and keep sunlight from drying the house, but they can look like the dickens after years of shearing. Sometimes it’s good to start over with a fresh palette. Choose plants that are pretty and are supposed to grow 3 - 5 feet tall, not mimic Jack and the Beanstalk.

Stumps: my pet peeve. Look down. Often I find these little tripping and mowing hazards called stumps. I guess people get used to them and don’t realize that they can simply be ground out and graded over. That procedure instantly neatens the place up, but more importantly eliminates a potential liability.

Pavement cracking. Look down and check out your drive and walkway. Have tree roots lifted up and cracked the pavement creating a tripping hazard?  It will only get worse. Isn’t it amazing that roots, adding yearly girth, can lift and buckle driveways! Trees too close to the driveway might need to be removed if it’s a problem.

Another thing I want to mention is the famous pesky Cape Cod underbrush in the perimeter - the ‘woodsy’ area around a lot of properties - lies the weedy, thorny, tick-laden underbrush that in effect makes the area unusable. Of course in many cases that’s perfect, the owners don’t want to use it. If there’s any desire for reclaiming the area however, that vegetation can be mowed and mulched up by a special machine called a Gravely - named after the manufacturer.

Take a good look around your property and think about doing some planting … flowering perennials that increase and multiply each year, a small native tree or two to liven things up, a living fence of mixed evergreens to give the feeling of natural privacy.  On Cape Cod, it’s good to retain the indigenous plantings and keep the natural landscape, but it’s also good to neaten it up. A natural landscape feels so good, but does require some maintenance so that it is safe, neat, and user friendly.  Enjoy your property and enjoy the great outdoors!

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