The Tree Doctors Are In

Later that morning we pull up to a client’s home on Torch Lake. The rain has stopped. Gary hops out, his high rubber boots hitting the wet ground with a slap. He pops two flags in the yard. One notes the pesticide application about to be made; the other reads, “The Tree Doctor has made a house call.”Gary goes to the back of the truck and grabs a triangular-shaped jug with a 1/2-inch-wide steel pipe sticking out the bottom. “People always ask me what’s in my fertilizer,” he says, giving it a shake. “I always tell ‘em, if I tell ya, I’ll have to kill ya.” He chortles to himself, then goes over to a maple and injects the jug’s pipe like a hypodermic needle into the surrounding soil, pumping out the muddy juice, moving two steps, then injecting and pumping again.

As he circles the tree, he explains: “In the fall, the tree will shut down, but the roots will grow for ten more weeks, so I’m using a special fertilizer for the roots. If we get good root growth, then come spring, we’ll get good top growth. In spring, I’ll put in fertilizer with more nitrogen, that really helps the leaves.”

Near us stands a neatly arranged cluster of young trees, each one planted a few feet from the next. Aren’t these kind of close together, I ask? Gary looks up. “Oh yea,” he says. “Happens all the time.” He goes back to pumping.

Fertilizing done, we walk the yard. “See that birch over there?” he asks, pointing at a smallish birch near the shoreline. “That’s a beautiful tree, a valuable tree,” he says, then slaps his hand at the air, disgusted. “It’s sparse. Has nothing to do with the bronze borer. That’s the weather doing that, which is the thing that – “

He halts mid-sentence under a cedar. “Huh. Look at all the dying in there. That’s from a thing called needle mite. But they don’t let me spray those. I recommended it once. Who knows?” He shrugs and walks on, stops to inspect a line of spruce trees. Some branches are speckled with tiny holes.

“Those are spruce galls,” he says. “In every one of those holes, there was a bug in there. And they were at the end of all the new growth. Galls look terrible.” He moves to another spruce. “Now do you know why this one doesn’t have any galls on it?”

I don’t.

Gary throws his arms up in the air. “Ta-da! The Tree Doctor was here!” He struts past a few more, a big grin on his face. “Oh yea, these are looking good. Cool.”

I follow him to a crimson maple. A weird, whitish fungus covers the leaves. Powdery mildew. “Doesn’t hurt the tree at all, comes on so late in the year,” he says, bending down to peer at some tape wrapped around the base of the tree. “What the – ? They think they’re helping it, but all this tape’s doing is holding in moisture and helping the tree to rot.” Gary yanks the tape off, then stands up and skirts over to a crab tree.

“This is a crab, a beautiful crab. Now take a look at it, what’s wrong with it?” I stand back, squint. No galls, no withered leaves, no tape. No particularly obvious anything. “Well,” I say, “I guess it’s leaning a litt – “

“Precisely,” he yells. “Why wouldn’t they plant it so it’s facing the sun? When this tree grew in the nursery, it was – ” Gary circles around to the other side, his face hidden by branches – “turned around so this part here was south. But they planted it here, leaning away from sun. Don’t you think that stresses the tree?”

I suspect it stresses Gary more. But I nod in agreement.

Satisfied, Gary ushers me back to the safety of the cab while he straps on some sort of gas mask with a giant eye panel and two breathing tubes attached. Looking like a tree Storm Trooper, he marches across the yard, leaning forward as he hauls a heavy neon yellow hose over his shoulder. He stands before the row of gall-afflicted spruces and fires up the hose, blasting a 20-foot-high spray into the trees, up and down, up and down. When he finishes, he winds up the hose on the truck’s giant spindle, then jumps back in the cab and throws the truck into drive. One down. A half dozen to go.

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