The Tree

If you read through the details on our August Income Statement and Balance Sheet, you might have noticed that we set a bit of money aside from last month’s bounty for some maintenance on our tree. And by “a bit of money”, I mean $1,200. It’s a non-trivial sum in my mind.

What’s the Deal With “The Tree”?

The Tree is a live oak that by all estimates is 50+ years old. That’s pretty darned old for a tree in this area, considering the neighborhood wasn’t even platted out until the 1960’s, and most lots around here were razed when the homes were built – and that was mostly in the early to mid-nineties. (Our house is one of the oldest on the block and it’s from the mid-eighties.) The Tree is in our front yard, and is far and away the dominant feature there.

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The Tree. Huge, huh? Look in the lower left corner. See the bit of white and grey sticking out? That’s our house and garage door. Gives a little bit of perspective on how big this thing is – and more of it doesn’t even fit in this shot!

I’m not going to lie – we are suckers for oaks, and were long before we ended up finding this house. And while we didn’t buy the house for the tree, it was definitely in the “bonus column”. In an area that’s dominated by palm trees, our live oak serves as a beautiful source of shade, not to mention home for squirrels, blue jays, and I don’t even know what else. The armadillos love poking their noses around its roots looking for the latest grubs, and the acorns that fall from it every year provide sustenance for more squirrels and blue jays than you can imagine.

Weird fact – a blue jay will swallow two acorns whole, then hold a third in its beak before flying back to deliver the food at the nest. It’s super odd to watch. Kitty PoP’s tower of power stands right next to a window through which he can watch all the excitement that the oak tree provides – so he could probably tell you better than anyone all the animals that come and go through the tree. Ya know, if he could talk.

 

But. There’s always a but, isn’t there?

The Tree is huge. My best guess is that it is easily over 50 feet tall and that its branches extend out over an area at least 50 feet in diameter. Its sheer size has presented some problems for Mr. PoP and I over the last 3 years.

  1. The roots have shifted and lifted the concrete slabs of the driveway. Since the trunk is only 4 feet from the driveway, it’s not a shock that the massive roots (to support the massive tree) needed somewhere to go and ended up shifting the driveway slabs a bit. It was a problem that we knew about when we bought the house (we actually used this as a negotiation point to get a better price), but it has gotten slightly worse in the last 3 years. For now, we plan on living with an ugly driveway – and luckily the tree is far enough away from the house that the roots are small when they reach our foundation and we’ve been told it shouldn’t ever cause problems there.
  2. The dense leaves provide too much shade. I know that I should never complain about too much shade in Florida, but the dense foliage actually makes it really hard to grow anything underneath it. Grass has a tough time coming in nice and full without more sun, and we’ve struggled with growing smaller plants next to the house because the limited sunlight has made it tough. We tried some “medium sunlight” plants (gardenias, actually!), and they never really took. For now I’m blaming that on the lack of sunlight, but we’re going to do some further research and probably replace the pitiful gardenias this fall.
  3. It’s too big for us to manage on our own. This is a big one since Mr. PoP and I DIY things around the house as much as possible to save money. But, with the exception of trimming the occasional branch that starts to hang low into the driveway, we just don’t have the machinery or expertise to really manage the growth of this tree. It’s gotten so bad recently that it seems like no matter how often we cut it, the branches touch the roof again in no time. (This is exacerbated that the acorns are starting to grow, and the branches get really heavy and droopy when they are covered with 8 billion acorns.)

Removal Or Preservation?

We’ve already removed a handful of trees from the side of our property that were too close to the house because of how big they were getting. Not to mention, they were types of trees that are well known around here for having invasive root structures or having the tops blow off and cause major problems in “wind events” (a nice euphamism for tropical storms and the like).

We didn’t feel bad about having these trees removed because we felt we were looking out for the well being of our house, and we got the added benefit of opening up a huge area of the lot where we can dream of building a giant 2-car garage and addition someday. You know, when we finally take care of that cookie problem.

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So far the plan is for a 16 foot clearance above the roof. Good, because right now ants are marching from the tree to our roof, and into our house. Not fun!

The oak tree is a different matter, though. We’ve been told it’s not a danger to the house as long as its growth is maintained – something that hasn’t been addressed in at least 5 years (maybe even more – we’re not sure as we’ve only lived here for 3 years and it was a rental and then a foreclosure before then). Knowing that our house isn’t in danger, we can’t even bring ourselves to get quotes on what it would cost to remove the tree.

So Mr. PoP called around and we’re in the midst of getting estimates on the work that’s necessary to keep the oak tree and manage its growth better. So far, the arborist that we like the best has recommended a few things that sound pretty good to us:

  • Trim back all the branches so that there is a 16 foot clearance above the roof, the ground, and above the height of cars over the driveway. Since the tree should grow about 3-4 feet/year this should buy us 4-5 years before we get to this point again.
  • Check all the branch joints for cracks – apparently this means that the tree is having trouble supporting both branches, and one must be removed otherwise they might both break off. He pointed one such crack out to us that supports two good sized branches over the driveway. I’d rather these not fall on our cars someday.
  • Thin out the foliage generally. Apparently this shouldn’t change how the tree looks, but the top won’t be quite as heavy, and there will be more room for the branches to grow back within the existing tree top before growing back out onto the house.

 

It’s looking like it’s going to be in the neighborhood of $1,000 to do this right. And considering we think that should last us about 4-5 years, that makes it about $200-250/year. It sounds pretty reasonable to us, since this thing is so massive that this is not a job we can do ourselves.

“Topping” the tree would probably be a lot cheaper, and we certainly wouldn’t need a certified arborist – just a guy with a lift bucket and a chainsaw. But topping is bad for trees – it can actually cause the tree to be more likely to damage and since it doesn’t really provide a growth plan it often needs to be done again very soon – not to mention that we think topped trees are ugly.

 

What do you guys think? Have you ever had to deal with an issue like this one? We don’t pay for other landscape services, so the $200-250 / year doesn’t seem quite as bad, right? Would you spend the money? Or just try and go up there with a ladder and DIY?

Also – should we name the tree?

 

22 comments to The Tree

  • We cut down a giant tree earlier this year. It was shading the entire back yard and making grass impossible to grow. It was droppig little seed thingies on my deck. Basically, it was driving me crazy.

    I say do whatever is best for you!!!

    • I wish there were some type of grass that grew well in low sun, low water environments. That’s what we need here!
      Totally understand the frustration with the seeds dropping. When it’s acorn season, you can sweep the driveway here and not be able to tell 3 hours later because so many acorns are constantly falling.

  • Carrie

    It can be hard to spend ‘hidden’ money on your property (money for something that doesn’t really show or is obvious). Pointing to a tree and saying, ‘See! There’s less of it!’ just doesn’t have the same sort of satisfaction as ADDING to a property, such as room addition or new flooring.

    That being said, a mature oak like that likely adds to your home’s value with curb appeal & reduced utilities from the shade. Also, it’s very nice from an environmental point of view. It is a lot of money, but I’d say it is worth it, especially as the other landscaping you’ve done on your own already kind of offsets the cost.

    • The arborist we like the best also takes pride when people can’t tell he’s been there. Yes, it’ll be noticeable to us, but the way he likes to remove branches apparently maintains the shape and character of the tree.
      So to others it will definitely be something they can’t see we spent money on!

  • I think your plan is great. $1200 is a lot of money, but it’ll be worth it. You defintely want to get those branches off your house and have the tree checked for cracking branches. I think it’s great that you’re keeping the tree and opting to maintain it! And even though $1200 is a ton of money, you’ve probably saved more than in smaller cooling/a/c costs over the years thanks to the tree!

    • I hadn’t thought of the cooling costs, but you’re probably right. The tree shades the front of the house, and on warm days those rooms are usually noticeably cooler than the rooms at the back of the house.
      Thanks!

  • Do you know how many people would LOVE to have a big old tree like that in their yard? I’m one! We lost three ~25 year old trees in our front yard last year in a storm and still haven’t been able to replace them. I would love that big tree….and I would definitely pay a professional to trim it. I’m all for DIY too! Just not with ginormous things like this!

    • That’s a shame you lost them in the storm. I do dream of someday putting a tree swing or hanging a porch swing from one of the branches… I guess if we ever have kids we’ll figure out a way for them to climb it!

  • Tyler

    The reasons you’ve listed are all great reasons to have a tree trimmed back, and I think it’s fantastic that you’re having an arborist do it rather than destroying the tree. Something that you could consider for under the tree is a raised hosta garden, I don’t know how they would do in FL but they do great in MO with little effort. The benefits of a garden like this is that they look fantastic w/ little to no effort once planted, it reduces the area you have to mow, and replaces grass that doesn’t grow well in the shade with plants that will.

    A great example of a hosta garden in a heavily shaded area is Nathanael Greene/Close Park. Those pictures don’t really show just how dark this part of the park gets but I wouldn’t have thought anything would grow under this grove of oaks.

    • Thanks for the tip – I will have to look into these some more. We have had some luck with potted bromeliads in the shade, but Mr PoP doesn’t like the idea of having a lot of potted plants in the front yard. This could be a great addition!

  • Your plan sounds great! At the house I grew up in, there were these two giant pine trees in the front yard. We would have them trimmed from time to time so they wouldn’t get out of hand. The cost was worth it in the end because it would have broken our hearts to remove the trees all together.

    • It would be a huge shame to remove this one, so we’re willing to do a lot at this point not to go there. Pine trees are tough, though. We had to remove one because of how close it was to our house and how easily they get knocked down in wind storms. It was way to close to both our house and our neighbor’s house, so a big liability.

  • The tree looks awesome but I could see how it could become a little bit of a hassle taking care of it and having it obstruct your sun :) We had a guava tree that produced fruit like no other but after a week or two we were over it and then they would just get squished and rot in the driveway and I had to pick them up haha

    • Rotting guava definitely sound pretty gross to have in the driveway. The acorns are bad enough. When you drive over them they pop as they break and it sounds like you’re getting a flat tire!

  • oooohhhhh the beloved tree conundrum, i know it well…

    Okay, the best thing to do is to figure out whether you love the tree enough to put up with its foibles. Taking it down could cost as much as all the trimming, especially if you have the stump removed.

    I took out a big shade tree — an invasive, extravagantly messy willow acacia — and was glad to have it gone. However, in addition to heaving a large, expensive patio coated in KoolDeck, it was close enough to the house to heave the foundation and, in storms, to drop large, homicidal branches on the roof (right over where I sleep…). And it generated hours of hard physical labor in pool cleaning. Not only have I never missed the thing, I celebrate its demise with each passing day.

    On the other hand, the decision to get rid of its mate, over on the other side of the house, is harder. It isn’t damaging anything…yet. Eventually it will heave the wall, and some of its canopy is getting big enough to drop dangerously on the house. But a large, shady tree, especially one as beautiful as your oak, is an asset to a house.

    It might not cost as much as one would think to jackhammer up the driveway and re-lay concrete in a slightly different pattern that would give the tree and its roots more room. Wouldn’t a gracious curving driveway look nice? 😉

    And once a professional arborist has trimmed a tree properly, it’s not necessary to have him come back every year. You might get away with two or, given that oaks grow slowly, even three years between haircuts. If you keep up with the job, it shouldn’t cost anywhere near as much the next time.

    As for what will grow under it, in Florida there must be 87 gerjillion shade-loving tropical plants that can make it through the winter: philodendron, spider plant, peace lilies, succulents of many varieties, heaven only knows. Ask at a nursery. If it doesn’t freeze there in the winter, you might be able to get orchids to grow in the tree’s shade.

    • Yes, trees in Arizona can be a PITA as well. We had a big palo verde tree that I remember breaking in half during a monsoon years ago and when it fell it took down ~25 feet of cinderblock wall with it.

      For now, sadly, the driveway can’t really be changed in a way that would help the tree. Mostly because of how the garage is situated. In my dreams we build another garage on the other side of the house, but there are so many “if’s?” and “who’s?” and “how much’s?” associated with that idea it’ll be a long time coming.

      We did go ahead and give the arborist the go ahead yesterday, so he should let us know when we’re on the schedule. I actually hope to get a couple of pictures as I’m sure I’ll be impressed with how much they end up removing.

      The orchids are an idea we’ve played around with, but our orchid expert friend is in London through the end of the year, so we have to wait a bit for her expertise when she gets back. And as soon as the weather cools a bit more I’ll be hanging out at the local nursery trying to get better info. Florida is a bit weird because the soil can vary so much from one neighborhood to the next. Our “soil” is actually very sandy (we have shells mixed in and everything!) – which affects the drainage and all that. I think we just need to do A LOT more research, but you’ve given lots of good ideas to try for – so thank you!

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  • For tips on good shade-loving plants in your area, try the local university extension. There should always be master gardeners on duty to help you.

    • yes – we have a county extension office, the only disappointment is that because our county is so big, it’s actually almost an hour away from where we live. But you’re absolutely right, we should definitely give them a call even if it’s not really an option to go visit.

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