Ravaged by disease or old age, a beloved tree can live on in a different incarnation.
If your favorite tree’s time is up, here are ideas to keep it around a little longer.
By Lisa Truesdale
It’s easy to fall in love with a tree. Trees are symbols of permanence and faithfulness, reaching optimistically for the sky, standing strong and sturdy, year after year, no matter the weather or sea- son. Providing shade in the summer, protection from the wind, and vital oxygen. Asking little of us in return except for some routine care and a drink of water if it gets too dry.
Saying goodbye to a favorite tree can feel like losing a close friend. But not every tree is destined to be with us for as long as the record-breaking 9,500-year-old spruce in Sweden or even the oldest redwood in California. If a tree you love must be removed or cut back significantly, perhaps due to disease, a lightning strike or overcrowding, read on for creative ways to keep a part of your beloved tree with you for at least a little longer.
“When a tree dies, instead of having a hole in your landscaping, it’s an opportunity to create a second life of sorts for the tree by sculpting something from it,” says Chad Haspels, the artist who sculpted “Front Range,” a majestic buffalo head that stands in Longmont’s Collyer Park and is part of the city’s Art in Public Places program.
Be aware, however, that not all doomed trees can find new life as decorative or functional items in your yard. “There are certain cases where the wood should never be used unless it’s treated by stripping the bark, fumigation and so on,” warns Carol O’Meara, horticulture entomologist with the Colorado State University Extension.
“If your tree dies as a result of an insect attack, leaving it untreated might mean it becomes the ‘mothership’ for problems in other trees the following season.”
A current, and very concerning, problem in Boulder County is thousand cankers disease, which has devastated the black walnut tree population. “In Boulder and other parts of the county, if your walnut fails due to this disease there’s a mandatory drop-and-destroy requirement,” O’Meara says. “Always double-check with your city and county to see what the regulations are, and seek the advice of a trained arborist.”
Haspels explains that it’s common for people to have a strong connection to their tree for various reasons, and then they have a difficult time losing the tree. “Some of the connections have to do with a personal history, some have to do with the tree’s beauty, some have to do with designing their home around it,” he says. “In each of these situations, the homeowner can opt to turn something that may be sad or difficult into something unique and different.”
Everything changes, and nothing lasts. That’s the Buddhist philosophy that Stacey Arnett and her husband Phil Penningroth live by, and it’s what guided them in their decision about what to do with a sick cottonwood tree in their Longmont yard. “It was sad, but it had to be taken down,” Arnett says. “We wanted to create something beautiful from what remained.” So they called Lueb Popoff, a local tree sculptor, who hollowed out the stump and sealed it. Then, their landscapers made it into a Japanese-inspired water feature.
A bamboo pole carries the water into the cottonwood bowl and back out again to the black-stone-rimmed pond below, filled with lily pads. The sound of the falling water provides a calm, peaceful setting for the clients Arnett sees in her home office, which opens directly onto the garden.
“Having this beautiful creation also reminds us of the reality that nothing lasts,” Arnett adds. “We’ve enjoyed it for several years, and as it begins to decompose, we need to treat it with coats of epoxy to help it last another season.
“I guess it’s the process of ultimate recycling—back to the earth.”
A breathtaking, detailed work of art can magically emerge from an unsightly tree stump, thanks to the talents of a tree sculptor who is skilled with both a chain saw and smaller, more precise tools. There are several public creations in the area, like Haspels’ buffalo in Longmont, or the sculptures by artist Eddie Running Wolf in downtown Niwot that were commissioned by the town to reflect the area’s Native American history.
According to Popoff, almost any tree can be carved. “I haven’t found one species of tree that is better than another,” he says. “But wood is an organic material and should be oiled once a year with an exterior preservative to extend the life of the wood.”
In Haspels’ experience, tree sculptures appeal to people in all walks of life. “When I work on a sculpture in a public area, people of all ages stop by and want to talk to me about it, or they honk their horns in appreciation as they drive by. This, to me, is inspiring.”
If a large-scale project like a fountain or sculpture isn’t in your budget, there are plenty of other options for holding on to part of your precious tree.
“We’ve carved tree stumps into chairs, even a throne-like chair once,” says Fred Berkelhammer of Berkelhammer Tree Experts in Boulder. One of his clients weaves chairs, trellises and fences out of the shoots he removes from apple and crab apple trees. “Many of the trees we remove also go to the mill,” Berkelhammer explains, “with the resulting boards worked into furniture.”
Longmont resident Theresa O’Neill sawed a tree trunk into sections to make various-height stools for her family when they gather around the backyard fire pit. “When the bark falls off,” she says, “we just toss it on the fire as fragrant kindling.” Popoff suggests a few other ideas: using stumps as risers for potted plants, cutting sections of logs lengthwise to use as log benches, or cutting a trunk into discs to create a rustic pathway.
The latter is just what Joe Sabol did in his Longmont yard, but he suggests coating the slices with an epoxy to help them last longer. O’Meara agrees: “Any wood left to the elements and untreated might become a haven for insects.” A little sand or fine gravel sprinkled over the tops will offer traction if the coating makes them slippery.
“Anytime someone thinks of doing something creative with a dead tree, it interests me,” Haspels says. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘I wish I would have thought of this before I had to take my tree down.’”