The poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer wrote, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree". But what happens when that beauty is damaged or destroyed? Trees succumb to the ravages of time and the forces of nature, or they just live out their normal lifespan and die. What happens then? Is their usefulness over?
I am fortunate to live adjacent to woods. However, not all the trees surrounding me belong to those acres of woods. A few are on our property. Additionally, some of them are dead or dying. The question, at some point, becomes what to do about them. A majority of my adult life has been spent living in suburbs where most of those locales had codes or restrictions that defined the way a yard could or should look. Certainly, dead trees were thought of as unsightly and as blights that needed to be removed from a landscape. In some instances, that was true. But if you look a little closer at the situation, you might find out that a dead or dying tree can become a very beneficial asset in a yard.
It may just take on a second life and a new beauty all its own. Trees with broken tops, dead, or partially standing trees are called snags. While snags may appear ugly to some people, wildlife like birds, small mammals, and insects, as well as plants and fungi, don’t quite see it that way. To them, a snag is a thing of beauty and a rich source of nourishment, sustenance and life. Take birds, for example. These are some of the things a snag may provide them: food, nesting cavities, nesting materials, perching platforms, singing or drumming sites, mating locations, protection from predators, over-wintering sites, thermal protection from heat and cold, lookouts, hunting and hawking perches, dens, communal nesting and nursery colonies, bark to nest or hide under, flat surfaces to crack nuts, resting sites, and roosts. Snags of all heights, diameters, conditions and states of decomposition have value in the landscape.
Snags are of greatest value when they are adjacent or attached to a wooded area. However, lone urban and suburban snags can be of value as well. Surrounding them with plantings of small trees, shrubs, and other vegetation will help protect them from windy conditions and will further enhance their usefulness to wildlife. Downed wood (trees that have completely fallen to the ground) can be valuable additions to a landscape as well. Large, downed logs are sometimes referred to as "nurse logs" due to the fact that as they decay, they serve as a host for new plant growth such as fungi and ferns. Downed trees and logs can absorb, retain, and then slowly release water, thereby making them valuable for controlling wet spots in the landscape. They can also be placed where they will help divert run-off and control erosion. As they decay, they become a type of long-acting fertilizer by slowly releasing their stored energy and nutrients back into the ground.
It’s usually best to leave fallen logs where they lie. If you do want to move them, put them in partial shade. Besides leaving the logs as is, you can also excavate a depression in a log, stack twigs or rocks around it, fill with soil, plant, and watch it grow. People have made all sorts of creations from fallen logs by securing them back in an upright position and carving, painting, or otherwise decorating them in the manner of totem poles. Both standing snags and downed wood have much to offer as new life emerges out of their death and decay. They take on a new purpose and a new beauty all their own. The death of a tree is not the end of its useful existence by any means. Its life-giving cycle goes on. Some may end up in the fireplace, and that’s okay too.
But all of them shouldn’t. They have much more work to do and a rich legacy to leave ... a tribute to the beauty, strength and character they had in life. I don’t know when I became so attached to one particular snag in my yard. At the beginning, I paid little attention to it. However, during the warm months when everything else is clothed in green, you can’t ignore the snag. There it stands sticking out like a sore thumb. It has come to bear the title, “my" snag. I’m now personally attached to it and personally invested in its welfare and continued existence. I watch it through the seasons; I take its picture fairly frequently; I assess its condition along with the status of the wild grape vine that calls it home and clambers almost to the top now. Those two are quite a pair. I sometimes laugh at their somewhat symbiotic relationship. The tree is technically dead, and the grapevine is very much alive, a rampant grower that would take over the world if it could. They are polar opposites out there in the landscape. But the vine somehow makes it seem as if the snag is less dead by covering it with soft green leaves during the spring and summer. The snag, in return, gives a sort of believability and importance to that unruly tree-wannabe of a vine. Aren’t snags amazingly beautiful?
About Carole Menser
I have gardened for the past 40 years in several parts of the country and in various climates. Iím mostly self-taught but learned a lot about the love of gardening on my grandparentsí farm and from my mother. My three feline gardening companions are primarily involved in supervision. I do a lot of container gardening, and I especially love herbs, succulents, perennials, native plants and wildflowers.