Before the flower beds and shrubs can be planted at the TV project house, some landscape trouble spots need attention
Homeowners Bruce Leasure and Kim Whittemore have big plans for the small suburban lot at the This Old House TV project house in Winchester, Massachusetts. Kim is a master gardener, and once the work on the house is finished and the couple can move in, she'll be itching to get her hands back in the soil, planting trees, flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
But first, TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook and the rest of the crew have a few things to do to prepare the property for the spring gardening season. Several large maple trees in the backyard need to be taken down to import more sunshine and make room for new landscaping, while a couple of sick hemlocks need medical attention to restore their health. At the same time, TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey is working with Roger on installing a European rainwater collection system that will keep Kim's plants well hydrated in the years to come. "This is so exciting to me," says Kim. "I get as big a kick out of this as I do all the stuff that's going on inside the house."
One issue that came up in preparing for the new landscape design at the TV project was how to remove three large maple trees from the small backyard. The solution: bring in a crane.
Tree Removal: Up, Up, and Away
Shaun McDonough doesn't take down trees. He takes them up, literally. In the tight quarters of a suburban backyard (such as the one at the Winchester project house), instead of cutting off limbs and dropping them, this tree removal expert uses a crane to lift them over the house and to the ground. "It's safer for the landscape," says McDonough. "We can avoid flattening adjacent shrubs and fences, not to mention tearing up the lawn." Using a crane also makes the job go faster: In just four hours, the three-man crew removed three large maples and two smaller hemlocks.
Look Out Below
A 121-foot articulating crane carries the severed top of this backyard maple high above the house, over the roof, and onto the driveway. Tree removal expert Shaun McDonough was able to park the crane in the driveway, avoiding damage to the rest of the lawn and the fence and keeping clear of ladders, staging, work areas, and carpenters.
Trees in Trouble: Woolly Adelgid
Arborist Matthew Foti approaches two multitrunk hemlocks that tower above the front of the house. Reaching up to pull a small branch from the tree, he points to a fluffy whiteness on the needles. Early snow? Dryer lint? "It's woolly adelgid," he says. "And it's devastating hemlocks all along the Eastern seaboard."
According the the USDA Forest Service, the hemlock woolly adelgid arrived in this country in 1924, most likely from Asia. The sap-sucking insect attaches tiny, cottony egg sacs to the base of needle clusters, depriving them of nutrients and quickly turning the needles brown. Defoliation and death happen fast — often in just a few years. Infestations have occurred from the Smoky Mountains in the Appalachians to southern New England. "For a long time, the adelgid stopped at the Massachusetts?New Hampshire border," says Foti. "But it's now gotten as far as Maine."
Sprays are the most common method of killing adelgid. But according to Foti, "Sprays can wash off in the rain, and the overspray gets on everything from picnic tables to neighbors' cars.""His preferred method of combat is to treat the trees systemically with an insecticide called Bidrin, which he injects into the tree's cambium, the outermost layer of cells where water and nutrients climb upward to the top of the trees. "It's like getting IV drugs in the hospital," he says.
Foti drills small holes around the trunk's circumference, then taps in small, hard plastic tubes. Flipping down his face shield, he twists a Bidrin vial onto each tube. "It's a powerful chemical," he says, "not something you want to get in your eyes." (Similar-shaped vials of fungicide or fertilizers can also be applied this way to restore the health of ravaged trees.) The insecticide is carried right up to the topmost needles. "It's amazingly effective," he says. "We use the same methods for gypsy moths and when we come back four hours later to remove the vials, it's raining dead caterpillars."
The semiannual treatment, which must be done by someone with a pesticide-applicator license, costs from $200 to $550 a year per tree. "It's worth every penny," he says. "How could you put a replacement value on mature trees like these?"
Into the Chipper
The crane deposits each of the tree's cut limbs onto the driveway, where they are fed into a chipper. The 6-cylinder, diesel-powered machine turns the wood into a spray of chips directed into the back of a large truck. Trunks and limbs too big for the chipper's 20-inch-diameter capacity get hauled off in log lengths for firewood.
Watering: Collecting Roof Runoff
New England, like much of the country, has suffered recently from several years of drought, often enduring restrictions on watering lawns and gardens (as Winchester did this past summer). Because of this, Kim and Bruce decided to install a rainwater collection system, which will provide them with a backup watering supply for their plants and lawn. Recently, Roger Cook and Richard Trethewey installed three 375-gallon polyethylene storage tanks in a small basement room. "Everywhere else in the world, people collect rainwater," says Richard. "It makes sense in Massachusetts, too."
The tanks will be connected to the gutter downspouts off the back of the house. Roger and Richard calculated that, in a year with normal amounts of precipitation, 18,000 gallons of rain hit the relatively small 20-by-40-foot back roof. Uncollected, the water runs down the driveway and into the city storm drains. "We're going to store some of that for the weeks — or even months — when we get zero inches of rain," says Richard. The 1,125 gallons in the tanks is not meant to be the sole source for the thirsty landscaping, but rather to provide a supplement during long rainless periods. "Last summer's watering ban killed a lot of lawns, trees, and shrubs," says Roger. "Now they'll have backup if it happens again."
Limb by Limb
With the crane keeping tension on the top section of an already limbed trunk, climber Pete McBride saws through. The crane then lifts the cut section out of the backyard without it ever touching the ground. Although McBride himself uses his safety belt and climbing spurs to steady himself as he cuts, he never uses them to climb the trees—he's lowered into them by the crane sling and cuts from the top down.
Meanwhile, Around the House
While the outdoor spaces at the Winchester TV project house get attention, work continues inside on several fronts: framing the master bedroom and finished basement, running the plumbing lines, and putting up blueboard for the plasterers in the kitchen. Here are some highlights around the site, from new products and technologies to discoveries about the house's past.