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The problem with trees

Arboriculture expert Mark Roberts discusses if trees can be a problem for industry professionals, and what to do if they are

As an arborist, I have never grasped the concept of trees as a problem. A tree is a tree, in the same way that a spade is a spade, a brick is a brick, and the colour red is… red. These things are just things and while there is considerable variation, the thing itself is not difficult or sinister; it has no agenda, ambition or ulterior motive. It just exists.

So, when I come across people (so many people) who hate trees, I tend to think that’s a bit weird– how can one hate something for existing? Hating a tree would be like hating kittens or hating the word wheelbarrow or the number 94 – people like that need a type of help that an arborist cannot provide.

With that in mind, I have always considered that people who have problems with trees are insane. Too easy, they have an issue, the problem is their problem, not my problem. But, what if they are not mad? What if their problem is real, and that trees are causing them a problem? Maybe not all trees are good, maybe trees can be a nuisance.

A real reason to hate trees?

I’m still coming to terms with this, so forgive me as this is a new concept. Clearly, people who hate all trees, or all of anything have psychological problems and I’m not trying to belittle them or their issues – their concerns are real to them, and I wish them all the help they can get.

I do not extend this wish to the lazy developers or short-sighted individuals who hate trees so they can subdivide to make more ticky-tacky houses wedged into tiny spaces, or to accommodate an extra triple-car garage, because the client’s fizz-boat has been displaced by their growing collection of muscle-cars. No, I’m not including those people. And I’m not including warring neighbours who blame everything on the trees – I’ve dealt with their disputes for more than 20 years and not once has it ever been all about the tree.

I’m talking about sensible people, who have real problems because of a tree. They don’t hate all trees, there are just some that for one reason or another are causing them woe. Fixable problems that will end once the tree or trees have been dealt with. Problem solved.

Note I’m also excluding people who are scared of trees; people who don’t like a tree because it’s too big or because it might fall over in a storm – those concerns seem far too convenient or fit into one or more of the categories noted above…

And I won’t accept that trees are dangerous. Dangerous implies intent. A tree is dangerous in the same way that a car is – a car with no breaks and bald tyres being driven too fast by a drunk driver not wearing a seatbelt. If you don’t look after your tree (or your car) and you do silly things to your tree (or when driving your car), then yes, bad things can happen. But if you look after it and keep it maintained, there should be no reason for your tree (or your car) to be dangerous.

Trees aren’t a problem, poor planning is

But yes, trees can be or become a problem. I can accept that. Trees drop leaves, even the evergreen ones (evergreen trees drop leaves all year round). Tree roots can lift driveways and footpaths, and yes, it is in part the construction of the driveway or footpath that draws the roots to it, but once the roots are there they will lift it. Tree roots get into drains, fill up pipes and cause blockages. Roots can’t break into a pipe, but if the pipe is broken they can get in.

Fruit and flowers attract insects as well as all sorts of vermin. Pollen can be disastrous for those who are affected by it. Touching some trees can cause allergic reactions. Leaves and fruit can stain all sorts of surfaces. Shade can cause no end of problems. There are trip hazards (fruit and roots), they make a mess, they set seeds, they produce suckers, and they can poison pets. The list is quite long and nothing you haven’t already heard.

Sometimes trees end up in the wrong place – obviously trees don't move, but the wants and needs of the place may change and the tree ends up being in the wrong place. Sometimes a tree is planted and it grows bigger than the salesperson said it would (they said it would only grow 3m tall), or maybe it was planted under the powerlines. Maybe someone else planted it and there isn’t room for five forest trees in the front yard.

Solve the problem

So, as an arborist who likes trees, or as a landscaper who plants them – what can we do about problematic trees? First off, we need to acknowledge that it’s not the tree’s fault. If a tree is or becomes a problem, it is because of where it was planted and/or how it was maintained. The tree is just a tree.

Secondly, not all people who hate trees are mad.

And thirdly, if you are going to remove a tree, then plant two more somewhere else. We plant trees for the future. While your tree might end up in the wrong place, at least it’s in a place that gives our future landscapers and future arborists the option of what to do with it. If it’s not there then they'll need to wait 20 years, because we all know that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.

Mark Roberts is a qualified arborist and tree risk assessor with 25 years’ experience. Mark is also former President of the International Society of Arboriculture, and a past President of the NZ Arboricultural Association.

Mark now heads an arboricultural collective based in Dunedin:


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