Moving Your Ecosystem Forward – An Arborist’s Application of Ecological Principles in the Urban Landscape

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler.

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Ecosystems are everywhere – interconnected and interdependent systems of biology, climate, ecology, and geography. The inside of your house is an ecosystem with its own micro-climate, life (including but not limited to you), and topography. Everywhere you go, you’re in some kind of ecosystem.

The same is more obviously true about your landscape. In my area of the U.S. (southeast Michigan), forests and wetlands are often removed to build suburbs. Both the appropriate soil and ecologically relevant plants are removed from the site. After construction, these areas are re-planted with genetically inadequate plants in poor soil. The ecosystem is modified at a rate faster than most organisms can adapt. Landscape designs common in the suburbs are inadequate in maintaining biodiversity and healthy, natural ecosystems.

In some lucky areas, there are communities doing their best to maintain a strong and natural forest canopy. Leaving secondary forests relatively untouched during construction should be the standard when developing areas for humans.

Ecosystems evolve and change, and one can argue that human-caused mass deforestation is simply another driver of ecosystem evolution. While this may be true, it is a driver that influences the ecosystem at a much greater magnitude than other factors. It just so happens to be mitigable or avoidable altogether.

What can cause an ecosystem to change?

Let’s use the trees in a natural forest ecosystem as an example. Disturbances in any ecosystem drive biological adaptation and behavioral changes in the organisms within it. Disturbances such as fire, wind events, floods, drought, and pathogens alter the forest canopy. Fire may kill smaller trees and wind events can blow trees over. Such disturbances open the canopy and allow dormant seeds to germinate in the new sunlight, which gives additional genetic material a shot in the world.

Ecological disturbance is vital to plants, animals, and microbes because it keeps their genetic material up-to-date with evolving pathogens and changing environments. Up-to-date trees need less work. They are more prepared for their environment and its diseases, as evidenced by their parents successfully reproducing.

We can’t control all ecological disturbances, but in the urban environment we do our best to avoid major ones. Understandably, right? We aren’t fond of wildfire, nor do we want flooding anywhere near our homes.

Applied ecosystem principles on the job

Oftentimes in large, human constructed landscapes, only upper and middle canopies exist; sub-canopy layers are missing. This is surprisingly common in forest ecosystems, especially in suburban areas. Forests like this are considered to have a closed canopy.

Closed-canopy forests are naturally occurring and are not necessarily bad. The thick shade cast by the upper canopy is very dense and prevents most understory growth. Over time closed-canopy forests will evolve and change – large trees or limbs come down in the wind, flooding occurs, lightning strikes, or diseases are introduced. Whatever the disturbance, the newly opened canopy once again helps move the ecosystem forward.

Disturbance by pruning

A client of ours lives on a beautiful property in a dry-mesic southern forest (a closed-canopy forest). Due to all the trees on the property, this client sought advice from arborists. The client’s smart choice lead us to an important solution.

Various large species of both white and red oaks dominate the overstory and upper emergent layers of the canopy. The trunks of these towering trees are far apart. Below these titan trees are some slightly shorter oaks, an american beech, and a few hickory species residing in the midstory. About 40 feet below are various types of moss, some stunted sedges, violets, forest grasses – a sparse herbaceous understory. Beyond that there were several patient serviceberries here and there, and a single red maple, about 1.5 inches in diameter and 15 feet tall at most.

Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) – via wikimedia commons

The area has been undisturbed for a long time (it doesn’t even get mowed), and with the presence of oak wilt in southeast Michigan, we steered away from planting anywhere in the root zone, as it poses a risk for oak wilt infection. Sure, we could plant an over-designed landscape to be manicured, but we had other ideas in mind.

Direct application with two solutions

We asked the client how long ago the red maple and serviceberries volunteered themselves into their landscape. Together we traced the germination back to a wind event that knocked a large limb down years ago. The red maple and serviceberries popped up as a result of new sunlight, yet according to the client, these plants hadn’t grown much in height during the last decade or so. Why might this be? A mature plant can close holes in the canopy faster than lower story plants can, so they no longer receive as much light as they once had.

The next time a limb falls, the maple and serviceberries will have another explosive growth spurt. There are also other dormant seeds to germinate every time a disturbance like that occurs. This is an example of another natural phenomenon called forest succession. It is another way forest ecosystems change.

Planting foreign species in place of the native ones takes away important food sources and habitat for surrounding wildlife. So rather than planting cultivar clones and ecologically useless plants – plants that don’t support other lifeforms – into the existing ecosystem, we proposed we could either do strategic crown thinning or just wait for mother nature to do it for them.

Course of action

My associates and I operate on a “less is more” approach. Not touching this ecosystem is our alternative to modifying the canopy. Like a human patient undergoing surgery, cutting open any organism exposes it to infection. In time, either a natural disturbance will come through to modify the canopy, or the trees will naturally shed lower limbs on their own – a process called cladoptosis.

Strategic branch removal will open up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to the ground below, while keeping the trees looking true to their natural form. The climbing team would be using a type of pruning called refracturing. The openings will simulate a wind event disturbance. As a result, the plants that germinate will be the most competitive, hardy, resistant, and genetically up-to-date plants. This truly is “right plant, right place,” provided no invasive buckthorns pop up.

If the customer does want to go forward with disturbance-by-pruning, the proposal is to open the canopy during winter, as most of the canopy are oak trees. The risk of infecting these trees is reduced significantly by pruning in the winter when the vectors for oak wilt are dormant.

The canopy holes would be placed where the homeowner wants more trees. One benefit of pruning the trees is that disturbance is controlled, rather than a wind disturbance causing a chaotic breakage into the house, for example.

Observation would begin early the following spring. We will watch for germination; it’s expected that the plants that do germinate won’t survive the competition.

What’s important about any of this?

The arborist-homeowner relationship highlighted above is an exemplar of proper arboriculture. We offered expertise along with our services. The exchange saved the homeowner hundreds of upfront costs from the installation of a landscape, as well as future maintenance costs.

Assuming it isn’t under human-induced stress, no forest needs human intervention. In this project, we would want to see natural phenomena form the landscape in this client’s yard. It is our preference to leave the current closed-canopy forest alone.

The benefits of using naturally occurring trees are plentiful. In general, up-to-date trees are more prepared for your ecosystem and support the wildlife that co-evolved with them. An ever-increasingly displaced wildlife population will happily occupy new habitat; they’re here too, after all.

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Jeremiah Sandler lives in southeast Michigan, has a degree in horticultural sciences, and is an ISA certified arborist. Follow him on Instagram: @jeremiahsandler

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One thought on “Moving Your Ecosystem Forward – An Arborist’s Application of Ecological Principles in the Urban Landscape

  1. Excellent, clear explanation. Here in the Pacific northwest, homeowners seem to be a bit more savvy about leaving things as they are.One sees many fallen trees that remain in place, for example. Hopefully this kind of education will reach more and more people.

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