Fall Color Marred by Cleavage


    Guest Rant by Wendy Kiang-Spray

    I am not an arborist.  Nor am I a landscape architect, city planner, neighborhood developer, or anything of the sort. This is why I’m so confused about the planting of large trees under phone and power lines.  Throughout my neighborhood, these trees grow so large that they need to be viciously pruned regularly.  The beautiful color this time of year highlights only the part of the tree that actually exists.  It’s impossible to admire the gorgeous trees in my community with their brilliant oranges and golds and not notice that through the top center, many trees are cleaved practically in half.  It always makes me think of the T-1000 in Terminator 2.  Unlike the liquid-metal robotic villain in the movie though, the poor trees can’t recompose.


    A little over 10 years ago, I planted a Southern magnolia about 5 feet from my house.  That…might be a problem if the tree grows to its full size.  But hey, I was young, just bought a house, and nothing makes one feel more adult than planting a tree.  All I knew at the time was that it was pretty and I wanted it.  But the arborists, or city planners, or landscape architects, don’t they know better?  Shouldn’t they have better options for types of trees that should be planted right up under the telephone and power lines?  Doesn’t it make more sense to choose the right kind of tree rather than sending an army of trucks out to whack the tops of these way-too-tall trees every year?  Perhaps there’s some very good explanation for this.  Just a layman here.  Can someone help me understand?

    Wendy Kiang-Spray is a freelance garden writer working on her first book about growing and cooking Chinese vegetables. She gardens in Rockville, Maryland and volunteers with the DC Master Gardeners. Follow her garden happenings at Greenish Thumb or on Facebook.


    1. Wendy, I live in western NY, and they do the same damn thing up here in my town. It started in 1991 when the area was hit by a massive ice storm. One road in particular was thickly lined with trees, and it took weeks before it was all cleaned up, so now they do “preventive maintenance”. They go through the power line areas and donut hole the trees! It looks absolutely hideous, and yet the power company does it year after year. In fact, they recently went through a street in the next town over that had big old trees and butchered them. The residents were up in arms, and the power company’s response was that they had a trained arborist supervise the work. Trained baboon, more like!

      • Yes! same story here. We’ve had a lot of the dreaded “wintry mixes” recently and PEPCO, which is a whole other rant, has been coming around with their contractors. I suspect this is a big part of why our neighborhood is so chopped up.

    2. I feel your pain. At one point, many cities planted the Bradford pear in response to the same concerns you express regarding power lines. Unfortunately, these trees, AKA lolly pop trees proved short lived on and not particularly stable.

      Recently there has been an effort in my area to plant understory trees as street trees. In the case of my Washington, DC, suburban area, the choice is often the redbud. While native, in theory, certainly the planting area,wedged as it is between cement sidewalk and asphalt pavement, with an overstory of power lines rather than tree canopy, barely resembles the redbud’s ideal conditions.

      Yet, few trees are adaptable to the street conditions described above. The best solution to the “cleavage” and to the downed power lines which prompts this less-than-artfull “pruning” is to bury the lines as is done in downtowns. Given the economy, and a general lack of spending on infrastructure this is hardly a priority for the powers that be. I suppose we are lucky to have any street trees at all. Actually we are lucky that the momentum to plant them continues to grow–at least here. Thus, as I’ve said albeit in very,very different contexts, “At least YOU have cleavage!

    3. In recent years telephone poles have had thick fiber optic cables attached lower down on the pole than the original thin telephone lines in my neighborhood. Now the city or the utility company comes and butchers older trees that once were fine with the higher lines. It’s ugly topiary on a grand scale

      • Now that you mention it, I’ve noticed they’ve come around and installed lines higher up (the opposite of your neighborhood). I’m looking outside and these lines are about…15 feet higher. Not enough to clear the tops of the trees though.

    4. This is a very interesting issue where I live. First the city wants us to plant trees, but not ones that interfere with utilities (not only electrical but water/sewage!). So along with requiring developers to plant trees when they build a house on a teeny tiny lot, they have rules for planting trees near utilities (oh, and don’t forget sight lines at intersections for drivers!):

      Their policy has changed over the years as experience is taught them what not to do. About thirty years ago the city planted trees on both sides of north/south avenue in the NE part of the city (mostly ash trees). It is lovely drive to through, except during wind storms. I call it the “Alley of Falling Trees.”

      A few years ago after heavy rains a windstorm dropped trees all over the city, and the map of closed streets showed a long red line along the “Alley of Falling Trees.” After the fallen trees were removed, the city replaced the ash trees with other varieties. I am still wary about driving that particular street during inclement weather.

      This past weekend we spent most of Saturday without power, since the city has not found every tree that can fall on power lines. Though a neighbor did have a tree fall on her house. Fortunately it was only minor damage.

      By the way, our fall color has been magnificent. Even after last weekend’s windstorm.

    5. Why are you blaming the trees? Many of them pre-date the powerlines. I know my huge oak trees are far older than my 1930s-era neighborhood. I bet that is the case in many 20thC suburbs. The power lines should have been buried with the street, sewer, and sidewalk installation.
      Even if not buried, there is much more skilled trimming that can be done around the lines than these PEPCO-contractor hackjobs.

    6. Our local power company wanted carte blanche to prune or cut down trees capable on endangering power lines, and the guidelines were so broad that most of the trees in front of our houses in the entire neighborhood were in subject to removal, and if approved the home owner would not have to be notified or have any recourse. We went through the neighborhood and put big yellow ribbons around every tree subject to removal, including an 85 foot tall bald cypress in my yard with a 4+ foot diameter. The city council was invited for a walk through, and the power company guidelines were rejected at the next meeting and they were prohibited from any more pruning or removals without permission of a city arborist. Replacement street trees are being more carefully placed and better species chosen. But the examples of tree butchery remain.

    7. I tend to agree that better selection of smaller trees under utility lines is much preferred, but not in all situations. Being trained as both a forester and a horticulturist I see both sides of the coin. For urban foresters, the environmental and societal services trees provide take precedent and horticulturists are criticized for focusing too much on the aesthetic. I think both are important and a balance somewhere in the middle is best. While the trees might look funny, large trees provide way more environmental and societal benefits than a small tree ever will, so only planting small trees under utility lines is not the answer. Some trees with proper pruning can be trained to grow around power lines allowing the trees to get big with the wires growing through the canopy. Elms are a good choice for this. Of course earlier and frequent pruning will be more successful and this can look a little funny at first. Some species have very excurrent growth and want to maintain a central leader and tend to be a disaster when planted near power lines. I’ve seen Ginkgo and Littleleaf Lindens that are basically topped and then send up vigorous sprouts that have to be continuously pruned out, here the costs of continuous maintenance start to outweigh the benefits the larger trees provide. I think in most situations we are left with bad decisions of the past and are trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation, but next time you see a funny looking tree, think of all of the other benefits the tree provides.

    8. In many cases, tall deciduous trees were specified as street trees so that they could aid in passive heating/cooling of homes – a deciduous tree shades a home in the summer and the bare branches let enough sun in to warm homes in winter. This is the case in my neighborhood which is a suburb of Los Angeles full of bungalows built in the early 20’s. Sycamore and liquidambar have to be awkwardly pruned a few times a year, but I love them. I don’t think the problem is with the planting of the large trees, the problem is with cities not using certified arborists as contractors (although, funnily enough, if we were to get a permit to prune a street tree, WE would have to use a certified arborist) I have walk outside several times over the years while my street Sycamore were being pruned for clearance, and it is shocking that the contractors don’t know the first thing about cutting a tree. 3 times the men couldn’t even identify the tree they were cutting. I would try and direct them, but as you might imagine, my advice was unwelcome. The “pruining” they do creates weak growth of branches which then fall off in the slightest wind. It is a really huge problem, but the city couldn’t care less. Blame the powers that be, not the power lines (and certainly not the TREES!)
      Great topic!

    9. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
      Many cities now have an ‘approved’ street tree list that you have to comply with when planting on the city right of way.
      These laws were put in place to limit maintanence ($) and steer homeowners to plant correctly sized trees.
      But people moan and groan when government tells them what to do. -Damn it.
      Then some cities overburdened with homeowner complaints and lack of financial resources said it would now be the homeowners responsibility to maintain the trees. – more moaning and groaning and lots of hacking and a few law suits –
      OK so now some cities are back to pruning the trees but they are on a shoe string budget and don’t have the funds to pay for a proper skilled labor or tree removal and replacement so what happens ? more moaning and groaning.

      A plausible solution would be to put the utilities underground but guess what ? – that would cost the tax payers a lot of dough and that means more moaning and groaning. – so you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.


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