The Felling of the Oak

Our house “was built for a newlywed couple in 1885. The big oak tree in the front yard was planted the year they moved in and the maple tree was also one they planted,” according to information provided by the previous owner.

century-old oak and maple trees

The venerable oak and maple, planted by the original owners over a century ago.

I was thinking about this oak tree as I drove home from a talk given by Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home. For some reason, when it came to changing my garden to increase diversity and attract more birds and pollinators, I had always thought in terms of planting more native perennials–and perhaps some native berry-bearing shrubs as well.

But Tallamy made me realize that native trees are essential to creating a self-sustaining habitat in my garden. Yes, birds eat lots of bugs all summer long; yes, they eat seeds and berries in the fall–but they raise their young almost totally on caterpillars. In the case of one pair of Carolina chickadees that he watched, they fed their chicks 27 caterpillars in 30 minutes. It works out to 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars for one clutch of nestlings until they can fend for themselves. And the chickadee parents don’t fly more than 50 meters (164ft) from the nest to get these caterpillars.

So if you want birds in your backyard, you’ve got to provide a steady supply of caterpillars, or the birds will just die out. And the plant that feeds the greatest variety of caterpillars is–you guessed it–the oak. To be specific: 385 different kinds of moths and butterflies use the oak as a caterpillar host plant in my area. (Click here to find the best plants for wildlife for your area.)

It’s not just monarch butterflies that are picky. Apparently most caterpillars can only feed on a few (or even one) types of plants. The rest are poison to them. Some plants are food to only one kind of insect, but some–like the oak–support a whole bunch.

And in a few short weeks, we would be cutting that oak tree down.


cracked trunk of red oak

We could no longer ignore the fact that our beloved oak was splitting in two.

Perhaps two years ago, we noticed that the oak was splitting along its crotch. At first we were in denial. It’s always looked like that. Eventually we accepted that the oak was slowly splitting in two. The trunk that was leaning would fall onto the driveway and possibly onto cars parked there. We began to be more careful about where we parked, and I even started keeping my eye on it as I crossed its path on the way to other parts of the property. We started asking around for tree removal recommendations even as we were occupied with other pressing domestic projects (and a wedding).

Forked red oak

On the morning of the Big Chop, you can see the rightmost trunk leaning into the yard.

The right man for the job was finally located. He was very much in demand solely through word-of-mouth and was hard to get a hold of. When he showed up to give an estimate, he was so concerned about the condition of our tree that he squeezed us in ahead of schedule. This was both alarming yet strangely reassuring–we were indeed correct in thinking the oak needed to come down.

Arborist preparing to fell a tree

The first order of business was setting up the safety harness.

Rocky Liddell did not use a cherry picker. He climbed the tree with spurs; he had two helpers on the ground. It was fascinating to watch him work even as we were sad to see the oak come down.

Partially de-limbed oak tree

Five hours later.

About halfway through the day we got more bad news. The old maple was also showing signs of decay and would need to come down within the next three years. Rocky offered to remove it that same day. Removing it today would make taking down the rest of the oak easier, so he was cutting us a deal. No one wanted to lose two trees in one day, but it made financial sense.

Felled maple amidst cut limbs.

The heart of the maple was rotted. You can glimpse a bit of it in this picture.

Later, when we saw the extent of the decay, we knew we had made the right decision.


When the remaining bole of the oak toppled, it split apart on impact:

The extent of the decay was greater than I had imagined.

rotted oak trunk

Six (1.8m) to eight feet (2.4m) of the trunk had rotted.

base of tree was 5ft across

Five feet (1.5m) at its widest.

compost from rotten tree

The rotted portion of the oak looked like the best compost I have ever seen.

Oak seedlings in rotten tree

Acorns had dropped into the crack and grown into good-sized seedlings.

The new normal

Now that those two impressive trees are gone, the character of the front yard has changed. The front garden beds will certainly be sunnier than they were before–and the house will be hotter in summer.

fallen leaves from maple

There won’t be nearly as many leaves to rake…

…or to chop for leaf mold.

chips from oak

However, I do have a huge pile of wood chips for mulch…

portable saw mill

…and 640 board-feet of lumber.

Not to mention the firewood we’ll be heating our house with.

We never wanted this to happen but we are trying to make the best of a sad situation. Nothing in this life stays the same; all living things eventually die. Fortunately we have many other oaks on our land to help sustain wildlife.

from Cold Climate Gardening


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