Speaking Up For Dallas’ Old Growth Trees

The boom in new home construction is killing off Dallas’ old growth trees. Landscape architect Charlie Flanigen speaks out.

A 50,000-pound mature live oak is craned from a truck at a University Park residence. Flanigen and Assoc. installs large trees by crane about six times a year.

At the Root of It All

The boom in new home construction is killing off Dallas’ old growth trees. Landscape architect Charlie Flanigen speaks out.

Charlie Flanigen

Charlie Flanigen has seen some of the oldest, most beautiful oaks in the Park Cities succumb to the ignorance of builders, contractors, and homeowners. The story is almost always the same: A family buys a small house on a plot of land populated by lovely old trees. The house is torn down to make way for a larger one. The trees are left intact, and care is taken to design the new house to take advantage of the view. Soon after the family moves in, the trees begin to die.

In this particular story, a spec house in University Park was involved. Flanigen’s clients had purchased the house while it was going up. It had a robust 60-year-old live oak in front, with branches that spanned nearly 30 feet across. A year after they moved in, the tree’s leaves began to lose their luster, then curl. When the leaves began to fall off, the homeowners hired an arborist. A year of expensive treatment followed, but the tree only got worse. The tree’s canopy of glossy, green foliage had turned into a skeleton of branches. “Basically a pile of sticks,” Flanigen said.

Crews work to secure the 25-ton live oak (bottom left), which was hauled in from a tree farm in Garland. As the planting process begins, the arm of the crane extends up and out to avoid harming the 30-foot transplant and other neighboring trees (top).

No one knows for certain what killed the tree, but Flanigen, a landscape contractor and owner of Flanigen and Assoc., who was hired to replace the dead tree, has ideas. “If a tree is healthy for 60 years, and then after a new house is built, it starts to die, it’s obvious,” he said. The culprit, most likely, was the construction process of the new house.

Flanigen and Assoc. sought city approval before closing the street and trucking the tree in.

It might shock most people to know they have taken part in killing their own trees. But it happens frequently wherever there is new construction and old growth trees, especially in the Park Cities, where tear-downs are epidemic. Trees die because their feeder roots, which run close to the surface, are damaged when heavy equipment, lumber, trash, sand, and concrete are stored on the lot, Flanigen says. “Your yard becomes a job site,” he says.

Don’t despair. This particular story ends happily, even if the old tree did die. After looking at dozens of mature oaks at a tree farm with Flanigen, the homeowners found the perfect one to take its place. “It just spoke to them,” he remembers. Flanigen got to work.

The crew dug a hole the size of a small swimming pool to accommodate the new tree.

His landscapers spent four days – literally – digging the tree out with their hands so that its taproots and a few of the major roots could be preserved. Hand-removed trees have better success than those that are spaded, he says. Transporting and planting a tree of this size is a major undertaking, so approval from the city was obtained in order to close the street. They walked door to door informing neighbors of the upcoming event. As Flanigen describes it, preparing the front yard for a 50,000-pound tree was like digging a small swimming pool in the front yard. Sprinklers were rerouted to make room for the tree’s root ball, which was 7 feet deep by 14 feet wide. A huge crane lifted the tree into place.

Similar to how humans react to a major uprooting in their own lives, trees often go into shock at first. It can take between 12 and 24 months for a tree to adjust to its new environment. So the landscapers watched it carefully in the first months, selectively pruning and watering to allow for new growth. The front yard was re-landscaped to accommodate the space of the new tree. Months later, the live oak looks as if it had always been there.

Surviving Construction
Flanigen navigated his way through the Park Cities in his truck, pointing out trees in various states of health and infirmity. He stopped at a corner lot where a large house was under construction next to a pair of mature live oaks. Although the builder and the homeowners made an attempt to protect the trees with an 8-foot orange safety fence, their efforts were woefully insufficient. A mature tree requires 20- to 30-feet radius of fencing to protect its roots, Flanigen says. “Those large rocks and the Dumpster will be crushing the roots for six months,” he adds. He says the stress could cause the trees to die within two years.

Builders have other things to worry about besides the trees. If you want to protect your trees, think about them at the outset of construction. Consult an arborist before your start construction, and follow recommendations for protecting your trees’ roots. Once roots have been damaged, no amount of fertilizer or chemicals can stop a doomed tree’s decline. Here are a few basic tips to keep in mind:

To prepare the yard, sprinklers were rerouted for the root ball, which was 7 feet deep and 14 feet across.

* Ask an arborist to check on the health of trees before you buy a house that’s newly constructed. They may look good now, but in a year they could be dead. Any large tree service will have an in-house arborist who can assess the tree’s health.

* The period after construction can pose a problem as well. When homeowners move into their new home, they often landscape their yard. Adding dirt to the 20-foot radius around the tree can smother it.

Mulch is fine, but don’t let mulch touch the tree’s bark. It is too moist and creates a breeding ground for insects.

Don’t plant flowers around your tree. Trees need to dry out before you water them again, and they can’t dry out when you over-water your new plants and grass.

* If you soak a tree one day, the next day the ground may be dry, but don’t soak it again or you’ll flood the roots. Without oxygen, the roots will die.
If you are planting, be careful not to plant trees too deep in the ground. A tree’s base needs to be at least 4-6 inches above ground level.

Also consider using container-grown trees; they have a better survival rate as they are hardier and don’t stress as easily.

If you’ve recently planted a tree, and its leaves begin to turn brown as it goes through shock, strip the dead leaves off the tree. It is easier for a tree to kick out a new leaf than to try to heal its sick leaves.


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