January 3, 2015

1 - Some ideas to continue to use and build memories with an old tree when it reaches the end of its life as a shade tree.

Yard and Garden January 3, 2015


I have an old shade tree in my backyard. That tree holds a lot of memories for me. When I was young I climbed that tree and ate picnics in its shade. I think my father had the same experiences with that tree, but I never asked him when I had the chance. I inherited the house and tree and my children have also played under that majestic old tree and now their children play in its shade when they visit. The tree is ancient, but now it is not looking good. The past few years have not been kind to it. Some branches have begun falling and that worries me. I really do not want to cut it down, but think that will be necessary. Can you suggest any options?


It is unfortunate, but trees do not have unlimited life spans. They grow old and die just as we do. It is true that some individuals in some species of trees may live for thousands of years, some for hundreds of years, but landscape shade trees rarely live that long. You tree sounds like one that has exceeded the life span for most landscape trees. However, as you have described, as they reach old age, they begin dying back and their falling branches can become hazardous. Your first consideration should be safety for your grandchildren who play under the tree.

A qualified tree care professional can perhaps extend the life of the tree and reduce the hazards it poses. Many tree care professionals will provide free estimates and descriptions of what they will do for your tree and give a prognosis for its continued growth. An arborist certified by the International Society of Arborists has studied tree care and passed tests regarding proper tree care, so if possible, contact such an arborist.

If the arborist can reduce the hazard and allow the tree to remain for several years, you can begin under planting with new trees that will ultimately replace the ancient tree. These should be planted outside the extent of the existing tree in locations where they have adequate room for root and top growth, but where they will provide shade where needed.

When the new trees are established, or when the old tree can no longer be made safe, there are several ways to extend its usefulness and prolong memories. The tree may be cut down leaving a tall stump which can become a pedestal for a picnic table. The picnics of memories can continue at this old tree. Or, if you prefer, the branches may be trimmed back to strong locations and these branches used as scaffolds to hold a hanging basket garden. The baskets of flowering plants can give the appearance of continued life for the tree. Vines may be allowed to grow up the trunk and out the branches to enhance the appearance of continued life. The vines will provide a degree if increased safety as they can help hold branches that do break so that they do not fall catastrophically, or at lease slow their fall.

The degree to which the tree should be cut back and the chances that it will serve for many years in a new capacity depends on the type of tree. An old cottonwood or willow tree will not remain as long and branches should be cut back more to reduce risk of falling branches. Old pecan, oak, walnut, and similar trees will resist decay longer.

May this tree give you and your family many more years of happy memories.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: desertblooms@nmsu.edu, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at desertblooms@nmsu.edu, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!