Thursday, 19 September 2013

Dead Elms: how to remove them

Ah, shame, Elms used to be a mighty presence in the English countryside, but after the invasion of Dutch Elm Disease, mature trees became a rare sight, and most of us have grown up only knowing Elm as a small tree, prone to suckering, and dying after a few years.

One of my clients used to have a row of Elms on the border of her property: over the years, they have all died off, but we are still enduring the suckers, which creep into the garden, grow rapidly, then die.

Here's a typical one that I was asked to remove the other week:

The Dead Elm. Ruining the view.
 As you can see, it is dead, dead, dead: it made it to about twenty feet high, then just ran out of enthusiasm.

Actually, that's a bit unfair: what happens is that a specific beetle carries the disease, and the beetles are attracted to the Elm flowers, and the Elms don't flower until they reach a certain maturity, which occurs when they reach the height of about 20-30'.

So just as a young Elm tree is starting to make itself useful as a tree, it matures enough to flower, attracts the wretched beetle, and is infected with Dutch Elm Disease. And dies.

The reason we still have Elms at all is because the disease kills the mature tree (I won't bore you with the mechanism, it's all to do with compartmentalisation and blocked phloem channels) but does not kill the roots, and as Elms are particularly good at suckering, the root is quite capable of throwing out dozens of suckers in all directions.

These will grow for ten or more years, until they reach the magic height, and then: yes, you've guessed it, they mature, they flower, they attract the beetle, they get another dose of the infection, they die.

Most Elms in the UK these days are in hedgerows, where the constant pruning keeps them well below the flowering height, so at least we still have that to be thankful for. And one day, who knows, someone might come up with a cheap vaccine for the trees.

In the meantime, here we are with a dead tree spoiling the outlook, and I am given instructions to get rid of it, but to preserve the squirrel-planted walnut tree which is growing right in front of it.

Step 1: cut down the bulk of the tree. Oops, that's actually step 2: the first job is to use my loppers to clear off most of the lower branches of the dead tree, so that I can get all round it without being poked in the ear,  and so that it will fall cleanly without demolishing the small walnut.

Cutting down is done with my trusty bowsaw and takes about ten minutes:

Dead Elm removal: first, fell your tree
There's the fallen trunk, cleared of lower branches in advance: to the right is the stump, which I have left about two foot high, and there is the little walnut tree, safe and sound.

Why a two foot stump?

Several reasons; firstly, if I am told to dig out the root, it helps to have enough stump to get hold of and rock.

Secondly, it means I can bowsaw at a moderately comfortable height, rather than kneeling down in ivy and nettles, with steamed-up glasses and sweat dripping off my nose.... come on, I get paid to work, but I'm not daft!

Once the bulk of the tree is down, I can return to the stump and assess it to see if it is possible to dig it out: in this case it is not necessary as it is part of the hedge, and actually we are quite keen to have a few more suckers coming up to work as screening while the Walnut matures. So I merely bowsaw it again, fairly close to the ground.

Elm tree removal: fell, sned but don't block!
 The top part of the tree is snedded: this means removing all the side branches, which are then chopped up into manageable sections, using my Big Orange Loppers (highly recommended, I would not be without them) where possible, and the bowsaw where not.

This leaves me with piles of brash - twiggy stuff - for the bonfire heap, and an interesting trunk for my client, who likes sculptural pieces.

And that was the end of the deal Elm!

Here is what is left: a small stump at ground level, and a little Walnut tree, wondering where all the sunshine and water is coming from!

Dead Elm tree removal: all done.
And before you ask, no, Elm is not a particularly desirable firewood: it's difficult to split, and it burns unenthusiastically and not very hot. So, if it's free and there's nothing else, on the fire it goes: but you wouldn't pay money for it.

And yes, this method of removing dead trees applies just as well to trees other than Elm - and indeed, to live trees as well!

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  1. I love your blog Rachel. You are so practical and I wish you lived near us! Our bit of land (I can't call it a garden!)is on a steep slope. I first came across your blog after I searched google for ways of removing brambles!

  2. Hi Annie, well, that's very kind of you to say so - and in return, I really enjoyed leaping through yours! I love blogs about people building houses, not least because one of my clients sells German eco-houses, so I get to see quite a few of their buildy-blogs.

    I do spend a lot of time digging out brambles: I don't know how much experience is required before officially becoming an "expert" on the subject, but I must be nearly there by now. In fact, I'm combining both your problems at the moment, as I am digging out brambles up a high one-in-one bank. Aaargh! Blood everywhere.

    I wish there was an easy answer to brambles - if there were, I'd send you some...

    I realise that you are clearly a top-class photographer, and could probably make even my neighbourhood look great, but wow! what an amazing place you live in - I particularly loved that little waterfall by the side of the road. Totally understated, totally gorgeous.

    No wonder you enjoy living there!!

    All the very best,



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