The Man Whom the Trees Loved

“And, with the dark, the Forest came up boldly and pressed against the very walls and windows, peering in upon them, joining hands above the slates and chimneys.” – “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” by Algernon Blackwood

I love the woods – always have. Though I don’t want to be confused with the creepy anthropomorphic owl that scared kids out of polluting in the 80s, I’ll admit it. I’m a woodsy person.

Caroline, on the other hand, is a beach person. It’s not that I dislike the beach, but I get a sense of comfort and relaxation from tree cover. Trees provide shade from the sun and, though it is largely my own perception, I get a sense of security from trees. This being the case, it is no wonder that I find older, mature neighborhoods more aesthetically pleasing. Apparently, I’m not the only one around here who feels this way. For over three decades now, Winchester has been awarded the designation of Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. Requirements such as a tree board or developer, tree care ordinance, a community forestry program with at least a $2 per capita budget, and an Arbor Day observance make a given community eligible for this honor.

When it comes to home care, however, it is important to understand that tree cover presents a difficult dichotomy.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, decent tree cover can reduce energy bills by up to 20%. Trees shield homes from the sun, and, if abundant enough, provide a wind-break. In an earlier post, I discussed how high winds exert negative pressure on a house and can actually draw conditioned air out.

However, the difficulties with having trees around the house are all too familiar: clogged gutters, falling limbs, and yearly pruning come to mind. In some cases, trees can make the interior of a home undesirably dark. I recently inspected for a client who was disappointed that the sunroom in the house got only small slivers of sun because of the abundant arboreal awning that surrounded the room from the outside.

As simplistic as it sounds, good tree maintenance around a house can be boiled down to the close but not too close maxim.  Houses do benefit from tree cover, visually and functionally; however, reasons why it is wise to keep them back from the house aren’t hard to uncover. Along with those lamentable leaves in the gutter and bothersome branches on the roof, trees that are allowed make direct contact with a house can dramatically shorten the lift span of exterior materials.

  1. Concerning shingles, it is important to remember that trees are constantly shedding something: leaves, pollen, bark, flowers, etc. When this debris is allowed to collect on a roof, it takes a much longer time for it to dry out after a rain. Roofs need to dry, and shingle roofs especially are not water tight. Branches can create a kind of dam that holds water in place.
  2. A healthy growing tree exerts a lot of force. Think about it. You can probably conjure up an endless number of images of tress growing through walls, over stones, and even through houses.

Larger branches allowed to rest on the roof sheathing are almost certainly exerting more force than that roof was designed to withstand on a regular basis. Likewise, branches constantly brush or push against shingles can cause premature failure.

  1. Believe it or not, when twigs touch the exterior of a building they provide an easy avenue for insects and other pests to get into a home. I have personally seen any number of ants amble into a house by way of a branch bridge.

In closing, I’ll add a final note of caution about shrubs. The difference between bush and tree is largely semantic and many varieties of shrubs routinely ignore the fact that they aren’t trees. In this area Yews and Hollies in particular grow from beach ball sized bundles to tremendous trees in a matter of years. The planting around new construction in particular seems to be done in anticipation of the sale date not the future of the house. I’m no horticulturalist, but I do my best to try and give new home buyers a heads up about the plants that will be scraping the screens of their windows without regular trimming.

  • Joe