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Front Porch: Windstorm uncovers tree’s buried problems

I’m trying to save a tree. Again.

There are more than three dozen ponderosas surrounding my house, from a few that are 5 feet tall to the big guy just outside my front door that’s more than 100 feet tall and has a base circumference of 9 feet 5 inches. I love these trees.

I know that a lot of people take these native giants for granted and don’t especially appreciate them, most notably in the fall when they shed needles like crazy. But they are hardy and important, and I take it very personally when one of mine dies or has to be taken down.

We already lost several from the ice storm of 1996. Two big ones in our front yard also had to be removed many years ago when an undetected-for-too-long underground water leak made the ground so soggy that the side-by-side trees, already leaning far in one direction, became unstable and had to come down. And two others in the backyard were removed due to disease and what an arborist termed a kind of failure to thrive. We tried first to save all of them, but it became clear that our efforts were not going to be successful.

But the rest of the trees have good canopies and stand tall in all their wonder. We give them a proper haircut and cleaning out from time to time to help ensure their continued health.

I know this is odd, but I have two favorites among them. I shouldn’t, I know. I should value them equally, but two of them give me special pleasure – even as I rake up their needles year after year after year. My husband checks in with me from time to time about this: “You know this is weird, right?”

I do, and I don’t care.

One favorite is at the back end of our property, which I can see from our bedroom window as I wake up in the morning. I lie in bed for a few minutes and watch as the breeze moves through the branches in a lovely dance, gently or sometimes with great vigor, sometimes a waltz and sometimes crazy free-form rock ‘n’ roll. Very soothing to me no matter the wind’s temperament. And the other favorite is the aforementioned gentle giant by my front door.

Said giant really whipped about during the big windstorm in November. Afterward, we noticed a small gap that developed between the base of the trunk and the surrounding ground, a gap that circled the tree completely. We just assumed that the tree was in a bad position in the wind’s path and as it was buffeted, it pushed the dirt surrounding its base. We couldn’t see how deep the gap went.

But it’s been nagging at me. In addition to my affection for this grand beauty, I might mention that it leans toward my house – and toward where my office is, in particular. If it ever goes down, it’s likely taking me with it. So we had a certified arborist come check out the tree in April.

The gap, it appears, came from the tree’s movement during the storm, that’s true. But that occurred because the tree is buried. The arborist could look at our landscaping, sloping property and surrounding trees and determine that fill dirt had been put around the tree, likely when our house was built back in the mid-1970s. He could also tell this because most trees flare out slightly at ground level, and this tree went straight down into the ground.

He recommended that we excavate around the tree to what had been the original ground level, a depth he estimated might be 12-18 inches, to be able to take a look at the condition of the bark and tree shape below. There’s a nifty method of doing this using compressed air that doesn’t damage the tree, and that was accomplished last week.

Turns out the tree was buried 3 feet, so we’ve now got quite a trench surrounding it. The exposed bark is compressed and spongy in some places, but otherwise looking pretty good, thanks in large part to the fact that the fill was sandy and not heavy dirt and rock. But there is damage. Bark needs to breathe to be healthy, and it can’t do so when buried. Most worrisome is the reverse taper of the exposed trunk.

Our consulting arborist is asking a couple of his peers to come by for additional opinions, and once we get everyone’s input, there are decisions to be made on whether and how to save our big guy (and his two nearby buddies, also buried, in their shared island in our lawn).

I’ve lost enough trees already, so I’m really hoping for good news. This tree was here long before us and rightly should be here after we’re long gone. I’d really like it if that were so.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists.