Fencing the dead cherry

dead cherry tree inside a fence
One big advantage of living at the end of a mile-and-a-half-long, gated private road is I don’t have to worry about people driving by and wondering at my sanity.

“Mommy, why is that man putting a fence around a dead tree?”

“I don’t know, honey, but please don’t stare at him. When people let their lawns go like that, it usually means that they’re sick and they need help.”

“But Mommy, he just waved!”

“He probably wants us to stop so he can hurt us. Remember, honey, you should never talk to strangers.”

dead cherry tree with porch

Fortunately, my only direct neighbors are my parents, right across the road, and we generally agree on lawn care. Still, I rather imagine that if we were to switch houses, they’d probably want to cut down this ornamental cherry. Most of the time, it’s not terribly ornamental, being all dead and stuff.

dead ornamental cherry tree

Though it does have its days to shine. It’s flirted with death for years now, actually. I planted it some twenty years ago, a not terribly gainly but very, very cheap sapling from that high-end nursery known as Walmart. Like all the trees I plant around here, I had to fence it for several years until it got out of deer browse range. Then it had a few good years, and I would look forward all winter to its brief, blowsy flowering. Then about ten years ago it contracted black knot — think gangrene for trees — and parts of it began to die. I pruned the dead limbs, but more appeared. By the spring of 2008, the whole top half was dead, and I began to think it was time to cut it down and put it out of my misery. Fortunately, my mother dissuaded me — “It’s so pretty when it blooms.” (Mom’s an easy mark for any kind of blossoming tree.)

dead elm tree

It was about that time that the elm on the other side of my yard next to the French lilac succumbed to Dutch elm disease. I’ve heard about some ecologically conscious birdwatchers who actually pay to have dead snags planted in their backyard to attract woodpeckers and the insects they feed on, but I was in luck: I had a picturesque snag already in place at no cost whatsoever! But did I really need a second dead tree in the yard?

Jerry Hassinger, biologist and former head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity section — the few cranks in the agency who concern themselves with critters that aren’t legal to shoot or trap — told me once that foresters were always asking him how many dead or hollow trees they should leave for wildlife when planning a timber cut. What was the optimal number per acre? And Jerry said he always told them, “As many trees as you can spare, wildlife will use.” If I had a yard full of dead trees, just imagine all the great woodpecker, nuthatch and brown creeper watching I’d get to do!

dead cherry tree girdled by porcupine

First I’d have to plant them, of course — I hear Walmart has really cheap trees — let them grow for a couple decades, and then girdle them. Or simply provide great porcupine habitat in the form of an unsealed crawl-space under my house, and let the porcupines girdle them. Either way, it could make an interesting long-term project.

Cherry trees wouldn’t necessarily be the best species for this: they don’t grow tall and straight as you’d want for a woodpecker tree, and they are incredibly tenacious. This tree lived for another year and a half after being completely girdled by a porcupine two winters ago. It took this summer’s drought to finish it off.

But having a small tree right beside the porch is great for birdwatching. I don’t have a feeder to draw birds in, but I don’t like using binoculars, either — especially when I’m waking up with my morning coffee and looking for something to write about for the world’s briefest and arguably least consequential daily newspaper, The Morning Porch. (Posts about the now-dead cherry are tagged “cherry tree.”) How to attract birds other than woodpeckers and their ilk to a dead tree, I wondered?

wild grapevine sprout

I got my answer when I was weeding the herb bed/butterfly garden around the side of my house (partly visible in the second photo in this post). A couple of wild grapes had shown up last year, and ’round about June I figured I’d better either pull them or let them take over the spicebush. The spicebush already produces a ton of bird-attracting fruit, though, so the dead cherry tree made a much better grape trellis candidate.

I had the feeling that the sprouts would be tough to transplant, but I figured it was worth a shot, so I pulled out the grass around the base of the tree, laid down some newspaper as a mulch, and put the grass rootballs on top of that to dry out (and hide the newspaper). I stuck in the grape sprouts on either side of the tree.

Their leaves promptly turned brown and fell off. But a couple weeks later, one of the two sprouts began to leaf out again. I watched it with some skepticism, but it obviously put down good roots because it has continued to prosper despite the deepening drought. I knew if I didn’t protect it, though, the deer that regularly parade through my yard en route to the trickle of water left in the stream would eventually notice it and finish it off with one bite. Very few wild grapevines anywhere on the mountain have leaves within the last four feet of the ground. Hence the fence.

18 Replies to “Fencing the dead cherry”

  1. Congratulations, and thanks for sharing. A supposedly old African proverb goes “The best time to plant a tree is twenty year ago. The second best time is now,” btw, you’re one of the few reasons I stay betweetened. Thanks for the Morning Porch.

    1. Hey, thanks for stopping by. Another good saying is the quote from the poet W.S. Merwin which Sherry Chandler (@bluegrasspoet on Twitter) has in the header of her blog: “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”

  2. Thanks Dave. This made me feel not quite so bad about the sad fact that our beautiful ghost gum, planted three years ago, has quite suddenly turned brown and dropped its leaves. I fear the worst.

    Here in the orchards we ring the older, more decrepit and most-likely-to-die fruit trees with rambling roses. That way when they go we can leave them in as wildlife habitat, and yet lend them an illusion of life with profuse flowerings.

    The dead cherry will make a good ladder for your wild grape.

    1. Roses are a good idea too. Glad to hear you’re letting your old trees stand! Another possibility I considered for the cherry is Virgina creeper, a common native here which has striking foliage in the fall and produces plenty of wildlife food.

  3. Nice post, Dave. I like to leave snags standing as long as possible for the reasons you’ve stated. This morning, there was a Pileated Woodpecker not 8 feet from the kitchen widow bashing bark off of one of the Black Locust trees. Such a great sight over my breakfast bowl of local peaches and granola.

    1. That is a great sighting. As common as pileateds are here, it’s always a treat to see them from the house. (And they’re just about the only reason I’d recommend black locusts as a yard tree!)

      1. Yes, indeed. Unfortunately, this house has many all around it — one being the largest I’ve ever seen. I’m being treated to much Pileated woodpecker activity – they seem to just love these trees and the branches are so open that I can watch the woodpeckers climbing all around in the tree tops. Of course, the downside is the trees themselves with their saplings sporting razor-wire thorns. They push up through the lawn like demon spawn.

        1. There were five big locusts below the main house in 1971 when we moved in. The biggest, which had a tire swing, was the only one we’ve had to remove via cable, tractor and chainsaw. Fortunately, all the others lean away from the house, but one of them leans over the springhouse, which is incredibly picturesque and would be a shame to lose. They are very messy trees, regularly calving limbs and branches (see today’s Morning Porch, in fact—that’s a locust with the dangling branch). In addition to providing great bird habitat and woodpecker sounding-posts, they do aid visually in keeping the house on a knoll from looking ridiculously dominant of the landscape, because they tower over it. So I am slowly planting tulip trees around the place to try and achieve the same effect after the locusts are all gone.

  4. I like your approach to ‘gardening’. From twelve years of knowing Jim Drescher of Windhorse Farm I have learned among other things that dead wood is the life of the forest.


    1. That’s a good way to put it. Yeah, there is so much invertebrate, fungal, and bacterial life in dead wood. I feel sorry for the trees in urban parks which are surrounded by nothing but groomed lawn and landscaping.

  5. It’s great that you’re spreading the word about the value in leaving dead trees standing. We love our titmice, chickadees, and woodpeckers, so it’s obvious that we have to leave their habitats in place.

    1. Yes. This seems like one of those obvious points we just can’t make often enough — so many would-be nature lovers just can’t restrain themselves from trying to “neaten up” the back forty.

  6. Kia ora Dave,
    Thanks, this makes me feel much better about my own unruly patch as opposed to the manicured lawn and garden look I cannot abide. I have a section of mostly native trees which attracts in particular the native Tuis which have a lovely song, kereru (wood pigeon), a beautifully coloured plump native, and also possums which tend to run across the roof at night. The dead trees I have left amongst the clutter also provide excellent kindling for the fire after a windy day. And it gets windy here often.

    1. Hi Robb – That sounds like my kind of yard! I’m glad your neighbors let you get away with it — that would be pretty rare here in the “land of the free,” as you know. We used to cut a lot of downed trees up for firewood, too, but I started to worry about forest soil depletion along the trails and forest edges.

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