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Ralph Gardner Jr: A Master Gardener Offers His Diagnosis

Master Gardener Gerry Weber at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Master Gardener Gerry Weber at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties

When my brothers and I were born my grandmother planted spruce trees for each of us on the front lawn of the house that has now passed down to me.

One of my brothers passed away in 1987 and his tree around the same time. I hope there wasn’t a direct connection because, even though my surviving siblings and I are relatively healthy, the three remaining trees my grandmother planted in our honor are faring less well.

The branches appear dead and needleless from the base at least half way up the tree. But you only realize the extent of their decline when you look at photos from just a few years ago when they were lush and green from top to bottom.

I have a rule regarding tree removal that I adopted from August Heckscher, a gentleman, scholar and friend who served as New York City’s Parks Commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960’s. Regarding his beautiful home overlooking the ocean on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, Augie used to say they take down trees only when they fall down.

I’m of the same opinion – perhaps willing to make an exception for those that threaten to topple onto structures – but I’ve got to confess that the spruces are becoming eyesores. And while I’m not quite ready to remove them I decided to pay a visit last week to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension for Columbia and Greene Counties.

Part of my motivation was to find out what was happening to my trees and whether I could do anything about it. The other reason was to learn about the work of the cooperative extension, which has been around for over a hundred years. You’ve got to appreciate a place devoted to promoting nature and the environment and dispensing much of its expertise for free.

They also sponsor 4-H youth development programs. But I’m a little late to the game for that. As a city kid my interaction with wildlife was limited to Central Park’s pigeons and squirrels.

The extension office is on Route 66 just outside Hudson, New York. And its modest wooden buildings, up a long, tree-lined driveway, are reminiscent of a summer camp director’s cottage in the Adirondacks.

I’d come armed with a sorry looking branch from one of my trees as well as photographs. And I presented them to Gerry Weber, the master gardener on duty that Monday morning.

Mr. Weber explained that there are two conditions that could have caused my trees’ decline. The first is needlecast, a disease of the foliage caused by a fungus. The needles closest to the trunk turn brown while new growth at the end of the branches remains green. However, if left untreated the entire tree will eventually die.

The other is a canker disease that works its way from the outside in. Symptoms show at the ends or tips of branches and move back towards the inside of the tree.

Unlike with needlecast, there are no fungicides to treat the cankers. Managing the disease requires judicious early pruning. “Basically, there’s not much you can do about it,” Mr. Weber told me.

However, based on the specimen I brought in – where there was fresh growth at the end of the branch but the inside was brown and brittle – the gardener was pretty confident our trees were suffering from needlecast.

While he wasn’t willing to attribute the disease to global warming – he said the forests in our area remain quite healthy – the fungus grows best when it’s wet and humid.

And older trees, such as ours, are more susceptible to disease.

The good news, such as it is, is that the condition strikes individual trees, even though spores of the fungus can be wind blown from one tree to another. It’s not like the emerald ash borer, an insect responsible for the destruction of millions of ash trees in dozens of states.

However, Mr. Weber said that at this advanced stage of decline there was probably little fungicides could do to help, especially with the trees now as much as sixty feet tall. “I’d cut them down,” he told me. “There’s no way you can go up there and spray every twig.”

But it’s not all bad news. If I remove the trees – and I’m not there yet – it presents an opportunity to plant new ones. I have photographs of my grandmother doing the same with the seedlings that became our trees. And in planting them she was making an implicit statement that she and my grandfather – they’d bought the places in the late 1940’s – were thinking of succeeding generations.

If the price of the trees’ demise is to plant new ones – though being a Baby Boomer I suspect the specimens I purchase would be more mature and instantly gratifying than my grandmother’s seedlings – it will have been worth it.

Not just for their beauty but also as a statement of my own that I hope our children and their children will find as much peace and happiness here as I have.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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