116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
'Heartbreaking” is the word arborist Virginia Hayes-Miller uses to describe the tree damage the Aug. 10 derecho left behind in Cedar Rapids and much of Iowa.
'It will take 30 years or more of consistent work to rebuild the tree cover that was lost in one storm,” she said.
Miller, a certified arborist at Acorn ArborCare in Iowa City, and her co-workers have been cleaning up storm damage for the past eight months, and they're still getting calls.
'A lot of people are scared of the trees that are still standing in their yard, scared that their remaining trees will come down in the next storm,” she said. 'This fear is understandable, but it is not always warranted.”
That's where the professionals come in to help. Saving trees is Miller's passion.
'I have always loved trees, but it took me a long time to imagine a place for myself within the tree care industry,” she said. 'I spent a good portion of my childhood climbing my next-door neighbor's crabapple in a neighborhood lined with mature ash trees that had been planted in the '50s.”
DIDN'T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE
Growing up, Miller's father worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a forest health pathologist. The family spent a lot of time in state parks.
When it was time for college, Miller majored in marketing and management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
'I became more acutely interested in the field of urban forestry in the early 2010s, when I heard about the emerald ash borer,” she said. 'I immediately thought about the idyllic canopy that framed my childhood, and saving ash trees from EAB sounded really interesting to me.”
Miller spent five years operating her own small tree care business before joining Acorn ArborCare.
In 2017, she earned certification from the International Society of Arboriculture and completed the urban forestry graduate certificate program from Oregon State University.
'My path was pretty unusual, as I started this career in my 30s, and I started off with a lot of education, but not much field experience,” she said.
Who knew arborists also need to know a lot about small engines and big trucks?
'This area has been where my steepest learning curve is, as I wasn't exposed to much mechanical stuff when I was growing up,” Miller said. 'I'm thankful that my mother taught me how to drive a stick shift when I was a teenager, so at least I didn't have to learn how to do that at age 35.”
Miller's typical workday starts at 7 in the morning and involves an elaborate team effort where safety comes first.
'This work can be extremely dangerous.”
In an average day, 'I might climb and prune a tree, operate the lift, run the chipper, drag brush for a while and drive the log loader,” she said, and every day requires raking.
Perhaps because she spends so much time up and in the trees, it's not surprising Miller has more than a few favorite tree species.
' For residential customers? Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
' To drive by on a country road? White pines (Pinus strobus).
' To hang a hammock or swing or climb? Crabapples, oak and big sycamores.
' To split for firewood? Honey locust.
' To plant in a parking lot's planting strips? Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), 'White Shield” and hardy rubber tree (Eucommia ulmoides).
'I also love larch (Larix occidentalis) and yellow wood (Cladrastis kentukea) - larch because they look like they came from a Dr. Seuss book, and yellow wood for their beautiful flowers,” she said.
Miller thinks it's easy to underestimate the benefits of trees.
'Did you know that just looking at trees reduces people's stress?” she said. 'Hospital rooms with views of trees have patients that recover more quickly.
'A well-placed tree can reduce your home air conditioning bill. Streets that are lined with trees require less maintenance, as their shade protects the road surface from temperature extremes.
'Apartment buildings that plant trees on their property have reduced tenant turnover.”
She also feels there may be significant long-term health effects on area residents as a result of the recent tree loss. Studies, she said, show a lower density of trees leads to higher rates of asthma and may lead to higher levels of heart disease.
According to Miller, for every dollar spent on installing and maintaining an urban tree canopy, municipalities typically get a return of between $3 and $10 in equivalent benefits.
'Investing public money into an urban forestry program for the public good makes really good financial sense,” she said.
Miller said we can count on more massive tree loss in the coming years.
In addition to the emerald ash borer, 'we have thousand cankers disease of walnut trees coming toward Iowa from the West,” she said. 'And spotted lanternfly and Asian longhorn beetle are present in the eastern U.S.”
But, she said, 'we can't give up in the face of these challenges. We have to keep planting trees.”
Avoid these common tree planting mistakes
As many homeowners consider replanting trees after the derecho, Virginia Hayes-Miller recommends avoiding these four common mistakes:
1. Choosing a poorly suited species for the site.
'It's a good idea to know at least a little bit about the soil at your planting site before you pick out a tree species,” she said. 'If you have the time and can spend $20, send a soil sample off to be tested for organic content and pH.
'If the pH is high, definitely avoid planting birch, pin oak or other species susceptible to iron chlorosis, but hackberry or Kentucky coffee might be a good choice.”
A good source of more information is Iowa State University Extension's online 'Guidelines for Selecting Trees” available as a free pdf to download at store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Guidelines-for-Selecting-Trees.
2. Planting the tree too deep.
'Almost every tree sold by a nursery in a plastic pot will have up to six inches of excess soil piled around the trunk in the pot,” Miller said.
'If the customer plants that tree at soil depth, the roots will be too far below the surface to access enough oxygen and the tree will die, but it could take a few years.”
Miller said you need to scrape the top few inches of soil away from the trunk of any tree in a pot until the trunk flares out and the top of the first surface root is visible.
3. Not cutting all the circling roots as you plant.
'In the battle of strength between root tissue and trunk tissue, roots always win,” she said.
'Roots that were circling in the pot will strangle the trunk once the trunk has grown wide enough to reach the diameter of the pot it used to be in, blocking the flow of water and nutrients from the roots,” she said.
'This seems to especially be a problem with red maples, Autumn Blaze maples and lindens.”
The solution? Gently loosen and trim any compacted tree roots before planting to encourage outward growth.
4. Planting grass all the way up to the trunk.
'Trees and grass do not coexist well,” Miller said. 'Every tree wants to have a nice layer of wood chip mulch in a ring around its trunk that is equal in diameter to the spread of its branches.
'This is easy for small, newly planted trees. It's a little harder for people to give that much yard space over to bigger trees,” she said.