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In this blog post, I’m going to put my arborist hat on again.  I’m going to discuss something that I’m sure just about everyone has seen; a large hole in a tree.  Sometimes it is call a hollow.  In arborist language, we refer to these as a cavity.  In many cases, these are a result of some sort of damage, whether that damage is from lightning or high winds or animals.  Many times, trees in an urban or suburban setting may have a cavity or a wound due to something caused by people.  These injuries are usually inadvertent.  Someone strikes a tree with an automobile, construction equipment or a lawn mower.  It could also be as a result of improper pruning.


Trunk wounds that penetrate the bark will damage the cambium layer, a thin layer of vascular tissue, which is vital to movement of water and nutrients.  If less than 25% of the bark around the trunk has been damaged, the tree will probably recover.  When fresh wounds occur on the trunk, the damaged bark should be removed carefully, leaving healthy bark that is sound and tight to the wood.  A wound dressing (tree paint) is not necessary.  Sometimes I do use a spray “pruning tar” when I prune away larger branches.  Theoretically, it seals the area where the branch was removed.


For wounds, you will be able to observe the wound closing from the edges each year as the tree grows.  When an older wound is discovered, remove the dried and loose bark back to the area where the new wood can be seen along the edges of the wound.  Trunk wounds that are not addressed could potentially be a hazard in the future.


Once a wound occurs, decay-causing fungi can enter the heartwood and the decay process begins.  Trees have a unique defense.  The wood around the injury begins to produce special compounds in the wood cells that set up a wall or barrier to isolate the infected area.  This is called compartmentalization.  In a vigorous tree, new growth continues to form and add to the sound wood.  Once compartmentalized, discoloration and decay will spread no further unless one of the barriers is broken.  Storm-damaged branches should be properly pruned to expedite the healing process.  Avoid pruning directly against the trunk since flush cuts can lead to extensive decay.  Remember to prune away from the branch collar, as I said in an earlier post. (“Tree Care for Turfgrass Warriors”)  Prune hazardous branches immediately.


Years ago, filling cavities was an accepted practice.  The wound would be cleaned and scraped down to sound wood and filled with cement, mortar, or bricks.  These practices frequently penetrated the tree’s natural defensive barrier, allowing decay to spread.  Fortunately, this practice has decreased, along with flush cuts and tree wound paints.  If the tree ever had to be removed, having cement or bricks in a tree could be very dangerous for the arborist crew.

Your mission is to help the tree heal those cavities/wounds.  If we can't get them to heal, we can try to get the tree to compartmentalize those cavities.


The cavity in itself is not important unless it is a very large one (like half the diameter, or more, of the tree), but it is the breeding place which it affords for enemies such as insects and fungi that is highly important and worthy of the most serious consideration in the care of trees. 


The accumulation of moisture and the exclusion of light, which are characteristic of every cavity, are the ideal conditions which the spore of a fungus disease seeks.  You want to make sure this does not become a major health issue for the tree so it doesn't become weak, then come down on your house, automobile or loved ones in a storm.


Having cavities near the base is worse than having one up high.  If decay sets it in at the base, the tree could become unstable.  Here are some courses of action:


1.  You want to keep critters and other stuff out of that hollow area in that tree, get some screen material (metal or plastic screen is fine - like the material from a screen door or porch).  Cut it to size for the entire area.  Tack it up around the area.  Use short nails (like tacks, not thumb tacks, but those might work).  Do not use long nails that will penetrate through the bark into the cambium.  A screen will allow air flow.


2.  Do not spray more water into the openings to try to clean it.  You want this area to get as dry as possible. 


3.  Using your air hose attached to an air compressor to clear it out is fine.


4.  Try to clean out or pull away any loose material.  But don't pull away any "good/healthy" bark or wood.  Cut off any ragged bark edges with a sharp knife or saw.  You could even use a hammer and chisel.  If you can take the surface down to healthy material, that's fine.  Take care not to remove any healthy bark and expose more live tissue than necessary.  If possible, the wound should be shaped like an elongated oval, with the long axis running vertically along the trunk or limb.  All bark around the wound should be tight.


5.  If you are feeling really industrious, get some lime sulfur solution and spray it (lightly, with a pump sprayer, not something attached to your garden hose or a hose attachment) all over the inside of the cavity - after you manually clean it out.  Lime sulfur is very caustic.  It can mess you up.  Wear protective clothing, a mask and eye protection.  Lime sulfur also may be hard to find.  Or, use copper fungicide.  Same procedure.  Copper fungicide can be found at Home Depot or Lowe's.  Do this, then install the screen.


6.  As I said, in the old days (actually not too long ago), they used to fill tree cavities with concrete.  They thought it would strengthen the tree.  It is now known that it causes more injury.


7.  Once you have treated the cavity, and have covered it with the screen for a while, some say you can fill the hollow with spray insulation.  Not sure about that.  I think that could possibly still retain moisture, or trap moisture behind it.  The point is to get that cavity clean and as dry as possible.  The screen allows for airflow and keeps out any animals.


8.  This tree needs TLC now.  It is under stress.  Make this tree the top priority for tree trimming/pruning.  Get rid of the deadwood up top.  If possible, or if there is a bed around the tree already, get some good mulch around it. 


9.  If there are insects in the vicinity, it is okay to spray insect killer/pesticide around that area.  Just on the surface of the soil.  Do not get it on the tree.


10.  This tree will need SLOW watering if you get in a bad drought at some point. 


11.  Also think about fertilizing the tree.  Having a professional arborist fertilize it would be great.  If you can’t go with a professional, do it yourself.  Fertilizer stakes are okay.  Getting a root feeder and using that with your garden hose would be even better.  Remember to fertilize out along the drip edge. 


Below is a photo of a tree in my yard.  I’ve done what I could.  The screen material I used is something used to cover a gutter on a house.  It was attached with some very small and shallow screws which did not penetrate the bark.  The bad news is, this cavity is right at ground level, at the base.  Is does get wet.  But, the screen allows it to dry out well.  Guess we’ll have to see how this works.  Seems okay for now. 

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.  I want to post some pictures of my equipment, machines and tools I use for having the best lawn and landscape in the world.  And, maybe at some point, you will post or send me pictures of your stuff.  Do you have a special tool or piece of equipment you want to show off?  Email me at:



Explain what it is.  Get as detailed as you want.  And, tell us why you love it so much…or maybe why you hate it.


My first love is my tractor.  I have 4 implements I tow behind it (I will get in to those later).  Many of my friends know the story behind my tractor.  When I first bought it, I told my wife it was a surprise birthday gift for her.  I brought her out to the shed so she could see what I got her.  That joke did not go over well.  There was an actual gift so I lived to tell about it.  But, this tractor has been a BIG help and is an awesome piece of equipment.  In May of 2016 she will be 6 years old (the tractor, not my wife).  She has a little over 200 hours on it (again, talking about the tractor).  My wife now says that she is so nice because she lets me ride “her tractor” to mow the lawn any time I like.


The tractor is a John Deere, X300, with a 42inch/107cm (“Edge Extra” Cutting System) mower deck.  She has a dry weight of 704 pounds and is powered by an 18.5 horsepower iTorque Power System; V-Twin, air cooled engine, that is 36.8 cu in./603 cc.  The transmission is a Twin Touch hydrostatic, K-46.  The electric system is 15 amps and requires a battery with 340 cold crank amps.  The fuel tank holds 3.3 U.S. gal/12.5 L.  And, she has an incredible, mind blowing, top speed of 5.5 mph/8.9 km/h. 


Brand new, this mower costs about $3,000.00 to $3,500.00.  I estimate the current value of my mower about $2,700.00.  These mowers retain their value well.


Here’s a few pics of this work horse:

As you can see, I added some features to this tractor.  Besides the flames, the hub caps, the camouflage seat cover and the skull & crossbones; she has some additions that are quite important. 

The first addition you really cannot see.  It is the mulching kit.  The kit comes with a plug or a block that covers the side discharge chute.  And it comes with two mulching blades. 

So, every time I switch out the blades, I use the “mulching” blades, not the “side discharge” blades or the “rear discharge” blades.

(Rear discharge blades are for when you have one of those bagging devices mounted on the rear of the tractor and the clippings are shot up a tube from the side of the deck into the bags in the back.) 

The mulching attachment was easy to install and cost a little over $100.00.  Here’s a pic of what it looks like with the mulching attachment installed, a view from the bottom of the deck:

Another good idea was to install the “Front Brush Guard”.  This thing is pretty strong.  It has come in contact with my trees, my fence, my fence posts, my house – everything.  The hood of the tractor is some fairly light weight plastic/fiberglass.  The first time the front of my tractor would have come in contact with anything listed above, it would have destroyed the hood.  A new hood costs @ $580.00.  The brush guard costs @ $130.00.  Here’s a picture of the front brush guard:

Safety dictates that you always walk your turf area before you mow.  You want to make sure you identify and remove anything that you don’t want your mower to hit or go over – sticks, stones; any sort of debris.  Some things in the turf area can either cause damage to the mower or be propelled some ways away – hitting a vehicle, a glass window, of maybe even a person.  Sometimes I miss things in the turf area and I do not want to shut down mowing operations by having to walk to the trash can with items all the time.  So, if I see something, I just shut down the moving blades, put the mower’s parking brake on, go fetch whatever I see in the turf area, put it in the cargo bucket mounted on the rear of the tractor, and then drive on with the mission.  This bucket is also good for holding shears, gloves, shovels – any other tools or gear you may need while you are running around the property.  Besides, it looks cool.  That was @ $40.00.  Here’s a picture of one up close:

My next topic was gonna be about maintenance.  But, before I get into that, here’s a picture of one of my Turfgrass Warriors in Arlington, VA.  This is Rick.  Rick is a very special TURFGRASS WARRIOR because he uses a self-propelled (No Engine!), reel mower.  Most of us are familiar with a “rotary” mower that is powered by a gas engine (some are electric).  On a rotary mower, the blade rotates parallel to the ground like a helicopter.  It cuts the grass by impact.  Sometimes (especially if your blade is not real sharp) the grass can be torn or shredded.  With a reel mower, the bands of blades are rotated perpendicular to the ground and the grass leaves are cut like using scissors.  Reel mowers (powered ones) are what is used on golf courses and other high quality sports turf areas.  Reel mowers like Eric’s are quiet, cut very well, and do not emit pollution.  Reel mowers are also cheap, easy to maintain and provide excellent PT (Physical Training).  Rick’s yard is maybe 4 to 5 thousand square feet.  That’s real good PT.  (Maybe I should say “REEL” good PT.)  Rick, you are my hero.

Okay.  Now back to maintenance.  If you have spent any amount of money on your tools and/or equipment, you need to keep those things maintained.  Especially if you’ve gone out and spent a few thousand dollars on a large mower.  I told you how much I paid for my tractor.  Some real high end mowers can be upwards to 8 or 10 thousand dollars.  The commercial mowers cost even more.  Even a pair of manual hedge trimmers need to be serviced; sharpened, lubed, etc.

My mower has a digital display that shows the number of hours it has run.  Most equipment like this does not have an odometer.  And, just like your automobile, there is a service schedule.  Always read the owner’s manual!

My X300 has lubrication intervals every 50 hours – that’s basically injecting the grease fittings with a grease gun.  Those are around the bigger moving parts – steering assemblies, mower spindles, foot pedals.  Of course, I use authorized John Deere grease.  The tractor also has a service every 100 hours or annually.  That service includes: change engine oil and filter, replace spark plugs, replace air filter elements (it has 2 elements, a foam pre-filter and a paper cartridge primary filter), replace fuel filter, clean engine cooling fins, check mower belt, sharpen / replace blades, clean bottom side of deck, check tire pressure.  And then, there is a service every 200 hours.  That’s when the valve clearance has to be checked or adjusted.

I do all my annual/100 hour maintenance after my last cut of the season in the late fall, before I store the tractor for the winter.  I’ve posted a picture here of the maintenance kit that I purchase every year.  It is the “LG256” kit and costs about 48 dollars (without shipping).  So, every fall, I not only service the mower, I clean it real well, take the battery out of it (bring that inside the house) and put a cover on it.  Even though the tractor stays in a shed, I still cover it.  I’ve also got a picture of my mower with the cover on.

This is the home maintenance kit.

Here are some pics of the tractor cover I use in the winter.

There are two more facets to my winter storage routine.  I put in the fuel tank a few ounces of fuel stabilizer, then I fill the fuel tank as full as I can get it.  I run that fuel stabilizer through the engine for about 5 to 10 minutes.  Also, when I pull the two mower blades off of it, I keep those blades off during storage.  I put the sharp blades back on in the spring.  So, in the spring I’m fairly ready to go.  Pull off the cover.  I put the battery back in, install fresh (SHARP) blades and I’m ready to go.

Let’s talk about blades.  I cannot stress enough the importance of having sharp blades.  And replacing blades yourself is a critical operation.  Whether you have a rotary mower or a reel mower, sharp blades are very important.  Some turfgrass warriors sharpen their own blades, or they have the blades sharpened by someone else.  Whether you sharpen them or someone else does, you or the other guy really need to know how to do it properly.  If too much blade material is shaved off on one end, the blades can be out of balance.  Out of balance blades can damage equipment or be a safety hazard to personnel. 

Balancing mower blades on your own is not rocket science, but, again, you really need to know what you are doing.  To balance the blade, sharpen it first.  Many turfgrass warriors have good luck just hanging the blade from a horizontal nail sticking out of the wall of the shed or garage.  Put the blade on the nail through the center spindle hole and watch the heavy end drop.  Remove material from the heavy end until the blade hangs level.  For 5 bucks you can buy a blade balancer which consists of a vertical nail that a cone rests on.  Your blade sits on the cone as you watch the heavy end drop.  Here’s a picture of a good 5 dollar balancer.

Here’s my solution: I buy new mower blades for each mowing season (spring and fall in this region).  I take the old blades and throw them in the recycle bin.  New blades (a set – my mower takes 2 blades) cost about 48 bucks a piece (without shipping).  The set of new blades comes with fastener nuts and even some written instructions. Here’s a picture of my blades when they come out of the box:

Some final “safety” thoughts on blade replacement.  New or re-sharpened blades can be dangerous.  They can be VERY sharp.  I always wear some good thick leather gloves when handling the blades.  Before you do anything, disconnect the spark plugs!  Because while you are underneath, you don’t want the mower to start! 

I can loosen the mounting hardware with a socket and a long “breaker bar”.  You will need leverage.  You do not necessarily need an impact wrench.  Do not lube the spindle or the nut.  On my mower there are two “cupped” washers.  I put those back between the blade and the nut – with the cupped side facing up.  Here’s a “breaker bar”:

Another good tool to have is a “mower blade holder”.  You have to get the mower blades to hold still when you are installing or removing the blades.  Some say shove a block of wood in there.  That is a good “field expedient” method, but it never worked well for me.  A blade holder costs about 10 bucks.  Here’s 3 pictures of one:

Now, above, I mentioned the valve clearance.  That maintenance activity is a little beyond my capability.  So, I get the local dealer involved.  There are two dealers in my vicinity.  One in Maryland will come pick up your tractor and take it back to their shop.  Unfortunately, that takes a long time in my opinion – and you are without your tractor for that period.  A different dealer in Virginia will come to your house and do the maintenance right there, on the spot.  It is not cheap.  But when you need an expert for something, you sometimes gotta suck it up.  Here are some pics of the maintenance guy doing the maintenance on my tractor in my front yard/driveway.  They have some real cool trucks, completely outfitted w/ welders, lifts, cranes, generators, spare parts – everything.  These pictures are when he did the valve clearance about a year and a half ago.  I had him do all the fall service I usually do myself.  I figured – why not – he’s here anyway.  But, I did hand him my LG256 kit I had.  Saved some money on parts.  Afterward, I just drove the tractor into the shed and got her ready for winter storage.

That's about it for now.  I'm still waiting for you all to send me pictures of your stuff.

In much of my service area, here in the mid-Atlantic region, there are many “old growth” trees.  The term old growth is kind of an arborist term.  It usually refers to a large stand of trees or even a stand of trees as big as a forest, trees that have remained relatively undisturbed.  In this case, what I mean by old growth trees are old and large trees in an urban or suburban landscape.  Trees that have been there for a long time and have a rather large trunk radius at chest height.  


I’m a big guy, six and a half feet tall.  If I cannot wrap my arms completely around the trunk of a tree, that’s a big tree.  And logic dictates that a tree with a trunk that size, or larger, is a fairly old tree.  On my property I have 18 old growth trees.  My calculations on their age range from around 150 to 175 years old – at least – maybe even older.  I imagine where my house was built used to be a forest.  I have written other blog posts about tree care (e.g. “Tree Care for Turfgrass Warriors”) but in this blog post I’m going to focus on what to do about all those leaves that come down in the fall.  Should you remove the leaves?  What can you do besides removal?  And, what do those leaves do to the soil if they are not removed?


The short answer to the first question is: YES.  If you want quality turf, you need to do SOMETHING about those leaves.  Turf needs sunlight to thrive.  Turfgrass leaves must be exposed to sunlight to assist in the process of photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis is the process where light energy is transformed into chemical energy.  Without sunlight, plants cannot produce chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is the by-product of the plant by taking sunlight and making energy for the plant to grow.  For good and healthy turf, you need several hours (5 to 8) of sunlight each day.

You ever put down a tarp or something else over your turf for a couple days?  Did you notice that it started to turn yellow or just wilt in general?  That’s because you blocked the sun.  Fallen leaves will have the same effect as laying out a huge tarp. 


One thing you should consider is removing all the leaves entirely.  I get lots and lots and lots of leaves in my yard.  If you have this affliction, I feel your pain.  I know raking by hand is tough, especially if you have a large turf area.  Blowing them can be difficult as well.  I’ve tried using a Billy Goat, like a big lawn vacuum.  The bag for that thing would fill up in seconds.  I also have a tow behind lawn sweeper.  I spend more time emptying that thing than actually dragging it around to sweep up the leaves.  Fall leaves can be a tough mission to accomplish – especially if you are an army of one.


I’ve inserted a picture that shows one of my sub-contractors (a local landscape company near Mount Vernon, VA – Green Blades) removing my leaves.  For a flat fee, sometimes they show up two or three times during the fall leaf drop period.  What they usually do is blow the leaves onto a huge tarp and drag the tarp to the front curb.  Many municipalities (or other units of government) have leaf pick up from the curb.  I just pay the few extra dollars to have the landscape company haul away the leaves each time.  The landscape company uses the same equipment as the government for hauling away the leaves.  It is a big vacuum that is towed behind a large truck.  The workers rake the leaves into this huge suction tube about 20 inches in diameter.  I like that much better.  I drink coffee and supervise.


Complete leaf removal – however you do it – is my first recommendation.  Listen, you can’t do your other lawn and landscape winterization missions (dethatching, fertilizing, aerating, bed mulching, etc.) if you have a serious layer of leaves in your yard.  And, you may run out of time for your other winterization missions if you are working leaves all the time.  Get the leaves collected; and get them gone.  That’s what I say.


Another course of action answers the second question.  That course of action is “chopping up” or “mulching” those leaves.  In most cases, for the standard homeowner, that means running over the leaves with your mower.  But, think about that for a second.  If you have a fairly deep or thick layer of fallen leaves, having them all chopped up does not necessarily alleviate the sunlight exposure issue I discussed earlier.  Remember, you are trying to expose your turfgrass to more sunlight, not just cover it up again with leaves that are in smaller chunks (and those smaller bits would be even more difficult to manage or remove).


In addition, its hard to say at what “amount” or “depth” of leaves would it be disadvantageous to chop them up.  I think you just got to eyeball it.  I can’t really tell you, “Well, newly fallen leaves (and what type of tree?) over a depth of X inches should not be mulched.”  Sorry.  You might have to do your own analysis on that one.


Providing organic material to your lawn, ornamental beds and soil is a good thing.  Having a good amount of organic material in your soil increases aeration and soil tilth.  Mulching leaves certainly assists in accomplishing that mission.  But, are the mulched leaves going to just be left on the surface?  How do you plan to integrate the mulched leaves into the soil?  More questions to think about.


There are other considerations too.  Certain leaves, from certain cultivars of trees, can alter the pH of your soil.  The big, old growth trees on my property are two different kinds of oak.  Oak trees make the soil acidic just by being there – and the leaves make the soil even more acidic.  Generally speaking, oak tree leaves have a pH of 4.3 to 5.3.  That is way below what is desired for most turfgrass soil.  Pine needles, for example, can also increase the acidity of soil.  So, this too may be an argument for complete and total leaf removal. 


If you really have your heart set on mulching your leaves, please make sure you have a mulching attachment and/or mulching blades on your mower.  Mulching mowers chop up leaves (turfgrass clippings, just about everything) more finely.  It basically holds things inside the mower deck longer and chops the stuff up more.  I’ve said this a million times:  A mulching mower is environmentally responsible.  It saves you additional fertilizer applications, improves soil tilth and reduces thatch.  It allows your grass clippings to decompose faster.  Use a mulching mower all the time, every time you mow – not just for your leaves.


And don’t forget about sharp blades.  Can’t say that enough either.  Getting your blades sharpened is okay.  Hopefully, you or the guy doing the sharpening know how to do it correctly.  Unbalanced blades can be dangerous, damaging equipment or even a nearby person.  For @ $70.00 (including shipping) I get new blades every year.  I throw the old blades in the recycling bin.  My mower has a 42 inch deck.  It uses two blades.  I get two sets of blades each year.  I put a new set of blades on the mower at the beginning of the spring mowing season and a put another new set of blades on at the beginning of the fall mowing season.


Hey, I get my leaves removed.  But, guess what I do when I mow in between the leaf removal guys visits?  I mulch my leaves.  Sometimes its not many leaves, but they get chewed up regardless. 


Okay.  I’m gonna wrap this up.  If you live in an area where fall leaves are pretty significant, I highly recommend you get rid of them – anyway you can.  If you are going to mulch them, consider some of my points here.  I think there may also be a happy medium and cost effective way to do a little of both – removal and mulching.  That would be an excellent exercise in negotiation with a local landscape company.  They remove some; you handle the rest.  A lot of it also depends on timing, the climate during a particular fall, etc.


Also, look on my blog post, “Leadership by Example”.  I will post some more recent photos of my lawn from this past fall, the fall of 2015.  You will not see many leaves.  But, you may see a few that have been chopped up.


Get rid of your leaves.  I can guide you.

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