A Requiem for a Hickory Tree

Tree trimmers were hired to remove a healthy hickory tree.

Tree trimmers were hired to remove a healthy hickory tree.

The other day I jumped from my desk to follow a set of tree trucks, a wood chipper and a stump grinder, which had rumbled down my dead end road. My old wood chip pile had been in place for more than a year and what was left of it was mostly compost. So I was in need of some new chips.

I asked the tree guys what they would be cutting down, thinking it would be some dead or dying trees, but no. They were going to remove a perfectly healthy hickory tree, because according to them, my neighbors thought it was dropping too many nuts on the lawn. Maybe there was another reason like its being too close to the bulkhead next to the lake, but whatever the reason, the tree guys would deliver the load of chips around lunchtime.

The old chip pile had to be moved! The fence is arranged with one removable post, so when it's removed there is a 16' gap for the trunks.

The old chip pile had to be moved! The fence is arranged with one removable post, so when it’s removed there is a 16′ gap for the trunks.

I hurried home to get to work on distributing the last of the old chip pile. I changed into work clothes and hauled my large garden cart, large shovel, leather gloves, and iron rake out to chip pile at the far side of the front meadow. I also took out the cover for the removeable fence post hole, so no chips would fall into it when the truck came. I removed the fence slats and the one fence post to open a 16-foot gap for the chip dump truck.

I took three loads of the old chips to the compost area next to the garage where I mixed it in with my large compost pile when I turned it the next week. I want it to be ready for early spring gardening and this mostly finished compost will hurry the process. (See “A compost turning = happy gardening in 2013.”) I dumped the rest of the old chips on the pathway out to the chip pile and raked it smooth. It was another seven or eight loads. Whew! This pile wasn’t as small as I thought, but it was gone before the new load arrived. Nothing like a deadline to move *things* forward.

Think of the wildlife this hickory supported…

While I was working on deleting the old pile, the birds were flitting and chirping all around me. I thought about all the wildlife habitat that this tree had provided. Being near the lake, its branches probably served as handy perching places for the ospreys, swallowtail kites, kingfishers, herons and maybe even a bald eagle.

Hickory trees provide good habitat and a food source for wildlife.

Hickory trees provide good habitat and a food source for wildlife.

There were probably nests of many types of birds and squirrels over the years. The nuts, which littered the lawn, fed many generations of squirrels and other small animals. Hickory serves as the larval food for the royal hickory moth and others. Plus this tree was draped with Spanish moss, which songbirds use for nest building. Warblers and bats often make their nests right in the moss itself. Many reptiles and amphibians hide inside the thick masses and so do various types of insects and other small critters, all of which in turn support the birds, and so on.

We are fortunate in our neighborhood to have many mature trees–most of them support beautiful festoons of Spanish moss. But our trees are mostly oaks, pines, sweet gums, and maples. We don’t have many hickory trees in the neighborhood, so this tree was important for the overall diversity. While I was happy to have new chips, I mourned the loss of the hickory tree and the habitat values it offered.

Woodchips and the native habitat restoration

Mulching newly planted trees and shrubs with arborist woodchips is probably the most sustainable way to reduce the ongoing maintenance, because despite what you may have been promised, a native landscape in an urban/suburban environment is not maintenance-free.

To create the best habitat, plant native trees and shrubs in a grouping or grove that mimics a natural setting with enough distance between the plants to allow for mature tree sizes, but close enough so that they create a connected canopy, intertwined root systems, and a dense undergrowth. Initially, this means that there are wide spaces between these small woody plants. As they grow, the leaf drop and the shade will make the area between the plants less hospitable to weed growth, but until that time, arborist woodchips create the needed coverage.

Two days after delivery, the chip pile is steaming in the morning sun. Since the leaves and Spanish moss were part of the load, there are both "green" and "brown" elements present.

Two days after delivery, the chip pile is steaming in the morning sun. Since the leaves and Spanish moss were part of the load, there are both “green” and “brown” elements present.

A chip mulch:

· helps hold in the moisture*.

· moderates temperature fluctuations.

· reduces the germination of weed seeds both physically by smothering them and chemically, when freshly applied, because the decomposers deplete the nitrogen supply at the soil surface.

· eventually becomes part of the soil and enriches the whole area. The resulting rich soil stimulates the roots to spread outward for healthier and more wind-tolerant trees. But the woodchips should not be piled against tree trunks or shrub stems.

The ideal thickness of the mulch cover varies depending on where it’s used. For a path, use five or six inches, which may last for two years or so before needing more chips.  For killing an existing patch of vegetation use eight or nine inches. Some people lay down cardboard or paper first. This method only works for “normal” weeds; those with deep roots or persistent rhizomes will grow right through the mulch and the cardboard. For mulching between existing plantings, such as that grove described above, use three or four inches when the plantings are fresh, but reduce the thickness over the years until the grove’s own leaf fall provides enough cover.

The hickory gives new life

I’ve lost track of how many loads of arborist woodchips we have received since 2004. I’d guess it’s somewhere close to twenty; some were relatively small like this one, but others were twice as large. All these loads have worked themselves into our soil and the felled trees have provided new life as they have decayed into soil one way or another on our 1.5-acre property. Our mostly native landscape has benefited. So my message to the ghost of the hickory is, “Thanks for the nutrients.”

~ ~ ~

Also see my post on arborist woodchips: Follow the Yellow Mulch Road.

* While the chips help retain soil moisture, newly planted trees and shrubs still need extra irrigation for an extended time after planting. The amount of irrigation increases with plant size. For irrigation details, see my post: Trees and Shrubs: the “Bones” of Your Landscape

© 2013, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Oh the glee! The unadulterated joy, of a load of free mulch, delivered to your own door, totally devoid of plastic bags and the other additives that come with mulch from the town dump. Excuse me, landfill. Unlucky for the poor innocent hickory tree and the biodiversity it provided, but lucky for you!

    Excellent advice on planting in compatible communities, a good New Year’s resolution for all gardeners.

      • says

        Hi Ginny – thanks for this posting.

        Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) is my favorite edible wild plant species (of the more than 150 species that can be found here in the Boston area). I collect thousands of the nuts every year, and eat them almost every day in some form. This past fall, I found a tree bearing unusually large nuts with unusually thin shells. I was so impressed with them that I gave some to the New England Wild Flower Society to propagate. Provided they are successful, they should have some seedling trees for sale in a year or two.

        — Russ Cohen

  2. Lee Gruver says

    I am a great lover of hickory trees, especially shag bark hickories. Glad its demise went to a good cause, but that doesn’t replace the beauty and resources it provided for animals and people as a mature tree.

  3. says

    A buddy of mine had some trees taken down a few weeks ago, as they were starting to lean on the house, and the tree guys told her that if she used the bark chips in her yard, they’d kill everything under it. (These weren’t black walnuts or Norway maples, where one might make a case, or tree of heaven, where I’d be awfully wary–just plain ol’ local pines.) They insisted that mulch needed to be “treated” to be…non-lethal to plants?

    She kept the bark chips. I’m ready to find the tree company and begin beating their heads together, myself. Thanks for educating people!
    Ursula Vernon recently posted..Starting the year with the Old Farmer

    • says

      Ursula. Yes, we keep having to educate people, while being careful that we are not overstating our point. There’s a bit of truth in the chips killing weeds, but isn’t that one of the reasons to mulch anyway?

      The same goes for people who say plant natives because invasive alien plants do not do anything to support wildlife. Well, if that were true how do all those seedlings get planted in wild places? It’s the birds. So they are supporting wildlife–we must be careful.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..A compost turning = happy gardening in 2013!

  4. says

    Sad to lose a tree, but great that you recycled it. I have caught the local pruners to get chips but I need to be more vigilant in trying to locate them in the neighborhood….although, with my procrastination gene there is still a pile at the end of the drive from a year ago or so. Still, it is housing a plethora of critters and the birds seem to stop by for a bite.

    The tree guys are always thrilled to get someone close by to accept the chips….means they don’t have to drive all that way to dispose of them in the landfill. Glad you were home and paying attention Ginny!
    Loret recently posted..Four, I tell you FOUR!

    • says

      Hi Loret,
      Yes, the tree guys love to dump their loads locally. In all the years I’ve been asking for them only one company had “other plans” for the load. A couple of the groups that work in the neighborhood on a regular basis now stop by to see if I need a load. It doesn’t take much to make a gardener happy!
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..A compost turning = happy gardening in 2013!

  5. says

    Sad to see a beautiful tree go because it was messy…as I take down my soon to be infested ash trees I will be replacing the trees with natives to create a similar canopy with an understory that is missing now since they cleared it for development.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..A New Journey

  6. says

    We need stricter laws to prevent property ownes from removing critical trees like hickory producing mast crops, critical to the survival of our wildlife. Too bad you couldn’t have intervened before the tree came down, at least giving the neighbors a clear picture of the damage their action would do to area wildlife.

    I regularly mulch with wood chips, always requesting those from native undiseased populations. The arborist readily and happily drops off a load upon request.
    Christina Kobland recently posted..A Message From Wildlife To Humans: Our Recommended ‘Do Not Do’ List for 2013


  1. […] While walking around the other day, my nose took to the air and I felt a little like my English Setter, a scent hound if ever I saw one.  My nose, however, wasn’t intent on a cute rabbit or bird, the smell made me gag and I was certain that there was a dead “something” close to my feet. I look over toward the pile of chipped mulch dropped off a year or more ago from the electric company pruners. […]

  2. […] Around this time I started looking for tree cutters’ chips to use for various places in the landscape. I decided that an almost empty spot just inside the fence near C was a great place to store the chips until I could use them. At first I had the loads dumped outside the fence as described in Follow the yellow mulch path, but after a neighborhood kid rammed into the fence with his car and we had to repair several sections, we extended the project by making one fencepost removable next to the chip pile space and now the tree trimmers can dump their loads directly–my back is much happier because of this. I also wrote about arborists’ chips on my post, Requiem for a hickory tree. […]

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