Topping Trees is Bad Practice

At least once a month, we get a request for topping someone’s trees. The reasons are myriad: The tree is blocking the view, it’s impinging on satellite service, it’s deemed too tall and hazardous, or someone just likes the look. On the surface, topping doesn’t seem like a bad idea. You get to keep your tree and have it out of your way. In reality, though, topping is a terrible practice, and we try to dissuade all our clients from having it done.

Why is topping trees so bad?

There are a lot of reasons, but first and foremost is that it will likely kill your tree. Hacking it back may not kill it this year or next, but your tree’s lifespan will definitely be shortened.

Topping drastically reduces a tree’s leaf mass, limiting the tree’s ability to produce food and sustain itself. This causes root dieback.  Also, the site of an indiscriminate topping cut can provide access to decay, insects, and disease. And limbs newly exposed to sun without the protection of the canopy may become sunburned, leading to cankers and branch death. All of this leads to an unhealthy, unstable tree.

Furthermore, topping often leads to something we call “witchbrooming.” This is where a multitude of branches sprout from near the cut. These epicormic branches are weakly attached and can grow up to 20 feet in one year. Such limbs are susceptible to breakage in storms, causing more damage than the tree originally would have.

Another problem with topping is that it will ultimately cost you more in the long run. More frequent pruning will be necessary to mitigate branch failure risks and to rein in the height of the new epicormic branches. Furthermore, as the tree’s health declines, it may just have to be removed after a number of years.

Finally, topped trees are ugly. When you consider that healthy, well-maintained trees can add 10-20 percent to the value of your property – and topped trees can be seen as a safety risk – why would any homeowner request the practice?

What’s a homeowner to do instead?

However, there are healthy approaches to canopy reduction. One method is called “drop-crotching,” where tall limbs are cut back to an appropriate branch that can take on a terminal role. This branch must be at least one-third the size of the one removed. Drop-crotching can diminish height while maintaining the shape and health of a tree. However, this is only appropriate for trees with a rounded, or decurrent, shape. Pyramidal, or excurrent, trees (think conifers) simply cannot have their height reduced without negative consequences.

In some cases, the best practice is to remove the problem tree and replace it with one better suited to the site.

If you are considering topping your tree, please give us a call. We can offer alternative approaches that may solve the problem at hand.

For more information, read “The Myth of Tree Topping,” from PlantAmnesty, “Why Topping Hurts Trees,” from the International Society for Arboriculture, or “What’s Wrong with Topping Trees?” from Purdue University.

It’s no surprise that such extensive topping killed this tree. If you want to cut a tree back that much, it’s better to just remove it entirely.
These Norway spruce trees will be unable to heal over the wounds that topping created, thus leading to rot and structurally unsound trees.

Hazard Tree Assessments

How to tell if the tree looming over your house and in your thoughts is a hazard tree…

It’s big and it’s heavy, and it’s got the potential to put a major dent in your home and your finances…but is it truly a hazard tree? When should you worry? And when should you simply be grateful for the extra shade?

Trees lay across a house roof after a wind storm
Trees lay across a roof after a windstorm

We at Sand Creek Tree Service are experienced in assessing hazard trees. That said, not all problem trees are readily detected. Sometimes the structural defects are hidden inside the tree or below the soil. Sometimes, a “better safe than sorry” approach is best. We’ll always discuss options with you, letting you make the final call when it comes to potential risks that are hard to quantify.

However, many hazard trees present signs of their structural weaknesses. Ultimately, a hazard tree is one in which the weight of a tree – or a part of the tree – exceeds the tree’s structural integrity (in a branch, trunk or roots). When assessing your tree for risks, we evaluate the likelihood of the tree failing, the environment that contributes to failure, and the target (the part of your property that would sustain damage).

There are seven general problems that point to your tree being a hazard tree: decayed wood, cracks, root problems, weak branch unions, cankers, poor tree structure, and dead portions of the tree. Decayed or rotting wood is often indicated by shelf mushrooms – a parasitic fungus – growing on the trunk. Cracks are often obvious and can be the result of lightning, frost, or other factors. Root problems might be evidenced by a bulging in the ground to one side of the tree, indicating that anchor roots are slowly losing their capacity to hold the tree in place. Weak branch unions can appear as a kind of seam in the bark, a sign of included bark. This means the branch is not fully connected to the rest of the tree; as the limb grows over the years and increases in weight, that union my fail. Cankers will look like a bulge or deformation in the trunk of your tree, meaning that the bark and cambium layer are dead and nutrients aren’t flowing through the tree as they should. Poor tree structure simply implies that your tree has grown in a direction or manner that makes breakage more likely. Perhaps the tree has a heavy lean, or maybe a horizontal branch has acquired too much weight. Finally, a hazard tree is most obvious when it is dying (dead top or branches) or completely dead.

Besides looking at these seven factors, we also assess the direction of prevailing winds in your area and which direction your hazard tree might fall. Another important factor to consider is the target. What will the tree damage when it falls? If you have a hazard tree without the potential to damage your property or injure anybody, we sometimes suggest letting nature takes its course. Trees that humans deem hazardous can make for important animal habitat. Think of all our local eagles and osprey that nest in snags.

If a potential hazard tree is regularly invading your thoughts, don’t hesitate to give us a call. It’s better to bring down a tree in a controlled manner – especially around people and structures – than to let your roof bear the brunt. And who knows, maybe your tree is perfectly healthy and willing to provide you and your family shade and birdsong for another fifty years. But a little peace of mind provided by a professional is always worth the effort.

For more information, check out this excellent hazard tree graphic.

And the city of La Grande, Oregon, has a good hazard tree checklist.

Live Edge Slabs Now Available

Locally sourced live edge slabs are great for all your home projects…

It’s official: We’re now in the business of selling live edge slabs! Throughout our years of arborist work, we’ve amassed a fine collection of logs—maple, walnut, cherry, birch and more—that are now slabs, ready for your home improvement project. Whether you’re looking for a bar top, mantle, table or shelves, we’ve got something beautiful to cover your needs. And keep checking back with us; the tree business ensures we will never run out of wood.

For a look at our full inventory of live edge slabs, go to You’ll find stuff that’s ready to sell now, along with slabs that are currently drying and will be ready soon.

Sand Creek Slabs is a natural outgrowth of our arborist business. When sought-after lumber like maple, walnut, Doug fir, and cherry started filling the log yard, we knew we couldn’t turn it into firewood or hobby mill with our chainsaws any longer. It was time to do right by these stately trees. We bought a Norwood sawmill, followed by a dedicated slabber for larger logs, and now we have a slab flattener in our arsenal, too.

We usually let a log rest for a few months before milling it into slabs. The slabs are then stickered, stacked, and air-dried outside for several years. It typically takes one year of air drying per inch of slab thickness. After wood moisture has reached an acceptable equilibrium outside, we place the slabs in a solar-powered kiln for up to six weeks during the drying season to gently finish them off with heat and air flow. The solar kiln does its work during the day and cools off at night, giving the wood an opportunity to rest. This helps prevent checking and warping while preserving the rich colors of the grain. Most slabs end up in the 8-to-12-percent moisture content range at the end of the process.

Now we have a plethora of beautiful pieces, ready for whatever creative project you have in mind. Call or visit our slab website today.

Random Musings from The Lumberjill

In case you were wondering what goes on in a female arborist’s head…

The Lumberjill

Once upon a time, I was not a Lumberjill, but a writer. I was poor but creatively fulfilled and somewhat prolific. I wrote a lot. Now, with a thriving business and family, I rarely have time to pick up the proverbial pen. But the folks at the Sandpoint Reader give me reason to, holding space for a regular column called “The Lumberjill.”

It turns out that, during long days feeding the chipper and moving logs, many thoughts move through my brain. It’s fun to have an outlet for those musings. It’s fun to be The Lumberjill.

The column won’t help you diagnose tree health issues or assess hazard trees. Sorry. It’s not that kind of writing. (Call us if you need help with any of that stuff.) Instead, it’s a look into my stream-of-arborist-consciousness as it relates to gender issues, work-life balance, family dynamics, shifting life goals, the highs and lows of service sector work, and more. It’s the world as seen through the lens of Bugz. My Bugz, specifically.

The Lumberjill is in no way required reading, but if you’ve got time to kill—perhaps while waiting for your busy local arborist to show up and provide an estimate—head on over to the Sandpoint Reader and have a look around. I’m certainly not the only columnist worth reading there. But if you feel like checking out The Lumberjill’s musings, I’d be happy to hear what you think.

Hooray! A Bucket Truck!

A bucket truck joins our fleet to better serve your needs…

Though the 2020 season is just drawing to a close, we find ourselves looking ahead to next year and how we might better serve our clients. A bucket truck seems just the thing to handle a diversity of tree needs. From the removal of beetle-killed Doug firs too dangerous to climb, to unruly cherry trees in need of top-down attention, our new acquisition has you covered.

bucket truck
New to our fleet: a bucket truck.

Sand Creek Tree Service’s new bucket truck features a 75-foot working height elevator bucket, getting us within range of most of the cuts we’ll need to make. The truck also features a chip box with a dump feature, so once your limbs or trees are reduced to wood chips, we can deposit them wherever needed.

We anticipate that the bucket truck will make our work easier and allow us to tackle a greater diversity of jobs in a more efficient manner. However, this doesn’t mean we’ve hung up our harnesses just yet. A truck can’t get to every tree in the forest. If you have an inaccessible tree, don’t hesitate to call. We’re still ready with ropes and spurs to do what needs to be done.

We at Sand Creek Tree Service are so grateful to our community for choosing us year after year to tackle your tree needs. We wouldn’t be where we are today—a thriving business and a happy family—without your faith in us. Thank you, Bonner County. We plan to do right by your support for many, many years to come.

A Stump Removal Recommendation

Stump removal isn’t one of our offerings, but we have a suggestion…

Occasionally, we are asked about stump removal by our clients. Unfortunately, we don’t own a stump grinder. However, we know a guy. And we highly recommend him.

Nathan Baker is the owner of Seven Bakers (7B) Stump Removal, a Sandpoint-based business. He is reliable, fair, responsible, and efficient. He’s also an all-around good guy. You can’t go wrong by calling him. Nathan was our first employee when he moved here six years ago, and we’re happy to see him thriving.

stump removal

One added bonus of going with Nathan is that his stump grinder is more compact and portable than most, allowing him to work in tight spaces and unconventional settings, including around irrigation lines, landscaping, and structures.

Our typical approach to a stump is to cut it nearly flush with the ground. If the tree in question is far from the house, this usually suffices. Another approach is to leave the stump high as a pedestal for a flowerpot or birdbath. Sometimes, though, clients want to landscape over the area where the tree once stood. In that instance, stump grinding is the correct approach.

We recommend Seven Bakers to all of our clients. To contact Nathan, go to, email, or call 406-550-3653.

And, of course, for all your other tree-related needs, we’re happy to help.

Weak Branch Unions: A Very Visible Hazard

Weak branch unions are easy to spot before they become a problem…

Weak branch unions are one of the most common hazards we see on clients’ properties. This hazard is easily identifiable and, thus, easily avoided. But what are the signs that tell us a weak branch union likely exists?

The most frequent weak branch union we see is called a co-dominant stem. This is where two stems of roughly the same size arise from the same point on the tree. (This is also known as a “schoolmarm” in forestry circles…but it’s up to you to learn the backstory on that.) The junctions between co-dominant stems are often considered the weakest portion of a healthy tree. They are widespread in forested areas; you’ll often see them on area trees, especially ponderosas. It will look like the tree has two or more tops. This creates a weak branch union because the two stems, or leaders, are growing so closely together that the bark on each leader interferes with the formation of a proper, strong union. This is called included bark, and it doesn’t have the structural strength of a normal branch crotch. Furthermore, included bark can act as a wedge, forcing the weak branch union to split apart.

weak branch unions
Removal of a ponderosa with co-dominant stems earlier this spring. Weak branch unions are especially troubling near structures.

During the windstorms of recent years, we’ve seen countless trees lose one of their co-dominant stems. Wind will point out any weak branch unions you have, if you’d rather not pay a professional to investigate. The problem doesn’t stop with the toppling top of the tree—and subsequent property damage—though. Once one of the co-dominant leaders is gone, a wound remains and leaves the tree structurally weaker and vulnerable to infection. The best approach is to be proactive about trees with co-dominant leaders. Either remove one of the leaders in a controlled environment, or cable the two stems together so they support one another and don’t sway past the trigger point in the wind. We are well versed in both approaches and can talk you through options.

Another example of a weak branch union is when epicormic branches (also known as watersprouts or suckers) are allowed to grow into sizable limbs. Epicormic branches grow quickly—often in response to poor pruning practices, injury or some kind of environmental stress—and they always display weak branch unions. It’s best to tend to suckers when they are newly formed, before they pose any real hazard to structures and people.

Finally, any branch that comes off the trunk at a very acute angle or doesn’t display a ridge of raised bark at the crotch is of potential concern. If you have trees on your property that exhibit any of the signs of a weak branch union, call us for a free consultation and estimate. Considering the widespread impacts of recent windstorms—and the fact that weak branch unions are especially susceptible to failure in wind—a call to us will at least provide peace of mind.

COVID-19 and Tree Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has not yet affected our ability to serve you

Storm damage on Bottle Bay Road

Things felt downright apocalyptic in Sandpoint a couple weeks ago. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to feel very real and frightening for all of us, a windstorm of epic proportions hit. Neighborhoods from Baldy Mountain Road to south Sandpoint and across to Sagle were devastated. Falling trees crushed houses and cars. People lost power as the temperature plummeted into the single digits. And we all began looking at our trees a little differently. What we once appreciated for shade or beauty now looks like a threat.

Add to that the threat of COVID-19, and for some of us, it feels like the world is falling apart. Governor Brad Little recently issued a stay-at-home order for Idahoans to mitigate the spread of the virus, but for those whose homes or sense of safety were compromised by the windstorm, there is no feeling of sanctuary.

Thankfully, arborist businesses like Sand Creek Tree Service are considered essential during this time of self-isolation. We can continue responding to your tree needs. Do you have a storm-compromised tree or one that could potentially pose problems in the future? We are happy to help with these needs and more.

Our focus now is not only on your safety as it pertains to trees but also relating to potential transmission of COVID-19. We are taking personal precautions, including: limiting our social contact to just our workforce, shopping only once a week, regularly washing hands and using hand sanitizer, and keeping our distance from clients. If you feel the need, we are happy to discuss your trees over the phone to maintain distance. You can also mail us a check or pay via Venmo or credit card (for a small fee) to limit interactions.

We are taking this thing seriously. And we are grateful to continue working in the midst of it. Thanks for supporting us during this difficult time. We hope to do what we can to help you—and our community—too.

For updates on Sandpoint’s COVID-19 situation, click here.

Winter Tree Care Checklist

You know how to handle the cold season, but is winter tree care on your radar?

By this point in the winter season, many of us feel like we’ve got it all figured out. We’ve worked out the snow removal kinks, have all our firewood in, and know how to keep our family and animals cozy and safe. But what about winter tree care? Has that crossed your mind?

winter tree care

If you’re like most people, unless you’re dealing with broken limbs, probably not.

So, what does winter tree care involve? Thankfully, there’s not much to it, but these few key points are important.

Root protection
The first consideration for roots is insulation. In the Sandpoint area, this is usually not a problem. We get enough snow to insulate roots from cold temperatures. However, it’s still not a bad idea to mulch around the base of your trees for added protection. After the snow melts, get ready for next winter by spreading a two-to-four-inch layer of mulch around the base of your tree, under the canopy. Just be sure to keep mulch away from the trunk.

The other consideration for roots that is an issue in Sandpoint is the use of road salt. This can cause discoloration of foliage in evergreens and bark dieback in all trees. In the long term, it can lead to systemic issues caused by the preponderance of salt in the soil. Several options exist to remediate this issue:

  • Use calcium chloride instead of sodium chloride. It’s more expensive but less harmful to plants. And when you consider the cost of a hazard tree removal, it may be more cost effective in the end.
  • Furthermore, you can mix your road salt with sand for added traction and to lessen the amount of salt used.
  • Extra watering of roadside trees can dilute the amount of salt present on the trees and in the soil.
  • Finally, apply gypsum in late fall, before snow comes, to protect roots.

Trunk protection
Especially on young trees, thin bark is a vulnerability. Deer can do damage by rubbing their antlers on the trunk. Rodents can tunnel through the snow and chew the bark. And even temperature swings can do damage, warming the trunk on a sunny day, only to freeze hard at night, damaging a vascular system that got excited about spring. An easy winter tree care solution to these problems is to wrap the trunks—from the base to the lowest branches—with plastic tree guard. This is especially important for young maple, ash, linden, locust, dogwood, cherry, birch, and crabapple trees.

Branch protection
The best protection for branches is maintenance pruning. This ensures that broken and diseased branches are removed before the snow does it for you. At this point in the season, though, proactive care can include gently removing snow from drooping branches to prevent them from breaking. Do this with a broom rather than by shaking the limb so as not to harm the branch. Also, try to keep from piling snow against your tree, trapping low branches in the process. And finally, if you notice ice covering your tree, leave it. Let it melt and then inspect for damage. Trying to remove ice yourself will likely cause more harm.

With these few tips in mind, your tree should easily weather the winter. Come spring, if you notice any damage from the cold season, call us. We’re happy to assess your tree’s health and suggest any corrective action it might require.

Root Rot: Digging Deeper

It’s worth taking a closer look at the root rot affecting our firs

In a previous post, we looked at the dieback affecting area fir trees in more general terms. Now, it’s time to get up close and personal with a more specific ailment: root rot.

root rot
Young grand firs tend to succumb quickly to root rot, browning out before any needle loss occurs.

This issue is at the root—pun intended—of fir mortality in the region. Douglas firs and grand firs are highly susceptible to North Idaho’s three most prevalent kinds of root rot: annosus, Armillaria, and laminate. All three kinds of rot are likely present in a single stand. They may even be present in a single tree. The fungi spread easily between trees; all it takes is for an infected root to make contact with another tree’s roots underground. And the diseases can live for up to fifty years in a dead tree’s stump or roots. They can even survive fire.

This perniciousness leads some to refer to root rot as a “disease of the site.” This means it doesn’t leave when infected trees leave. It remains. And it spreads, up to a foot outward from the center of infection each year.

Telltale signs of infection include: crown thinning, foliage discoloration, reduced growth, pitching out at the base, and production of many cones known as “stress cones.” But here’s the scary part: Only half of the trees currently suffering from root rot are presenting above ground symptoms. Our trees are dying, and we don’t even know the half of it. Quite literally.

What’s a landowner to do?

Sadly there is little we can do to eradicate root rot. It’s here to stay. Homeowners can try to protect still-healthy firs on their properties by removing sick trees and any firs whose roots might be in contact with the infected ones. However, seeing as half the trees suffering root rot aren’t expressing symptoms yet, it seems we can only address the problem after it’s too late. A large tree might not become symptomatic until over fifty percent of its roots have been destroyed.

root rot
This dead grand fir is ringed by its fallen kin, but the surrounding larch are unaffected.

One method that some homeowners and foresters are experimenting with is simply eradicating all fir trees. Then they start over by planting root rot resistant larch and pines. Such an approach is not ideal in the short term, but it may be our best bet for forest health in the long run.

Unfortunately, there’s not much we as arborists can do to administer to your firs…beyond treating sickly ones at the base with a chainsaw. However, if you have any questions or want an assessment of your trees or forest, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

For more information, visit these sites addressing root rot: