Removal of Cedar Trees

By Don Williams, the Tree Wizard

Cedar (Juniper Ashe) trees grow well in the limestone base. It took over a century for the cedar trees to create over a foot of decayed cedar mulch with acidic soil.

This soil previously contained high moisture content throughout the hot dry summers. In the past, live oak trees did well as there was enough moisture content to prevent the roots from drying out in hot dry summers. Texas A & M stated in 2011, we just had about 150 years of tree drought with 2011 being the worst and the 50 years prior to 2011 being the worst of the 150 years. Since 2013 the summer rains have returned and slowed down the oak drought decline in some areas. However the trees were already damaged from previous drought conditions. My experience doing on site consultations is 5% of live oaks died from oak wilt. 95% died from drought or new home construction issues. With over 52,000 on site consultations, I believe my percentages are near accurate. In the past most trees were declining/dying from long term drought and this weaken them making them more susceptible to disease. ​

In the past live oaks grew well and prospered. Decades ago, farmers started removing cedar trees to create farm land. It was the accumulated centuries old cedar mulch which created the rich farm land. Over time, with improper farm land management and over grazing, erosion removed most of the soil and the decayed cedar mulch and the ground began to dry out. The live oaks began to decline as they lost their summer ground moisture which was being contained within the cedar mulch. ​

NOTE: The cedar trees do not rob the live oaks from moisture as some believe. The cedar mulch’s ability to retain moisture throughout hot dry summers is what made it possible for live oaks to previously exist. ​ Goats were put on many areas and they completely removed all greenery, drying the soil and killing all trees. Eleven goats could get you an AG tax deduction and goats were the least expensive way to do so. That land is/or will be irreversibly destroyed. This land is back to limestone. ​

One lady raised Llamas on 10 acres. She asked why all her trees died? She had removed all the cedar trees so they would not take water from the live oak trees. She did not realize that the cedar mulch preserved the water to prevent the ground from drying out and killing trees. The Llamas ate all the green and their hooves loosened the ground cover causing erosion. There was no greenery and no leaves on trees. It was only a limestone desert. The area of land surrounding hers had greenery and pretty green live oaks. When you remove the mulch or damage the cedar trees, erosion begins and continues until there is nothing remaining but limestone. Removal of cedar trees, creating erosion of the cedar mulch and rich soil beneath, begins a slow decline of live oaks in this area and is accelerating yearly. ​

NOTE: It is important to note that it is/was the removal of cedar trees and erosion of the mulch, which initiated the begin of declining oaks in Williamson County. Lands below higher elevation areas accumulated most of the dirt from mulch eroding from the higher elevation areas. It is notable that more land east of I-35 has deeper soil that land west of I-35. It should be noted that most of this information is about the lands west of I-35.

Most homes being built in Williamson county were once in a cedar forest with a foot of good soil. All trees, including live oaks, prospered because of sufficient summer moisture which was made possible with the moisture holding mulch. To build a home, cedar trees were removed and the property had to undergo grade changes resulting with dirt being scraped off the higher area of property and was used to add soil over the lower areas. The house being built was on the higher part of lot. This resulted in some trees having their upper feeder roots scraped off to lower the grade, removing most the feeder roots and damaging the trees. ​

To build homes most require some grade changes. At times the trees die quickly where grade was severely altered. Other times, in areas where grade changes were not as drastic, the tree decline may be slower only to show up in a few years. When we consult on these issues we try to find a way to make it possible for your trees to survive. Soil was then added on top of the natural grade to create a higher grade level to assist with water drainage. When adding soil to raise the grade, the surface roots were usually covered with too much soil. Sometimes less soil was added and other times so much soil was added that rain water can never penetrate the soil to water the trees. Other times, it creates a bogged area where water just sits and never drains, drowning and killing the tree roots. ​

Water irrigation crews cut all the roots 4-5 feet from trees when installing irrigation systems. On most of the houses this is routine. In Georgetown about the year 2014, at Cimarron Hills golf course, there are many homes with similar conditions. A new million dollar home had so much dirt added that it created a water bog and killed all the large live oak trees in the front and right side of yard. Most trees survived in the back yard as the grade was changed less. ​ in the same area, a post oak tree at right back of a house died. There was over a foot of non- porous clay fill soil over natural grade. This created a water bog because of improper drainage killing the post oak. Other trees in same area will have future problems. ​

The unseen damage under this layer of clay soil is what we are concerned about. The live oaks are now expected to live in a foreign environment, losing the moisture holding cedar mulch which made the soil preferably acidic. The new soil added is now alkaline, and the irrigation system using alkaline water changes the ph factor to an environment detrimental to the trees. Live oaks were previously prospering in the more acidic soil. Their life was suddenly changed to a more alkaline soil condition. This removed them from the environment they had become acclimated to for over a century. Sudden Ph changes from acidic to alkaline on existing trees can effect nutrient uptake as some nutrients get locked up in an alkaline soil condition. ​

Red oaks grown in nursery conditions in Louisiana, where the soil is more acidic, will be sold to Texas in an area more alkaline. This is one of the reasons why red oaks will not turn a true green but stay yellow most of their life. When buying nursery trees buy from local tree farms. ​ When a non-porous type of clay soil is added it is more dense than the existing soil and will affect the downward transfer of moisture. When natures’ cedar mulch was previously covering the roots, rain in smaller amounts could still penetrate the porous cedar mulch soil. This is great for long hot summers in drought conditions. When a type of soil such as non-porous clay is added over the natural grade, it takes more rainfall falling over a longer period of time to penetrate to the buried roots below. This can also affect the timing on lawn irrigation systems. On the other side, when trying to compensate by watering more to reach the roots, excess water remains and can create a water bog, which will kill your trees’ roots. Changing ph factors and the type of soil with limited rainfall in hot dry summers can create a set of problems not even thought about when changing the grade during construction of a new home. ​

NOTE: This is why we use trunk injection treatments, so the treatment bypasses the soil and is directly injected into the tree. ​ Most trees within the ground construction area are in very serious trouble. It may take several years for the tree to noticeably decline. It’s best to call the first year so remedies can be applied. I frequently receive calls from customers relating to what they believed may be obvious issues with trees on a property where a new home is being constructed. At times they will call to get opinions of a soon to be purchased or already purchased piece of property. ​

I have performed some interesting but heartbreaking consultations. I want to make a personal point: before you purchase a lot or an existing property, call me. This is certainly not an economic consideration for me. This could save you from making serious financial miscalculations.

There are usually avoidable issues concerning customers who loved the home lot they found. They may find a 5-50-80 acre plot of land that they wanted to build on for their future home. Some issues may include changes a present/previous homeowner made to their property. ​ Customers suspected there were issues and that is why they called me. More than 80% of those consulted had serious issues of tree health and did change their mind about buying. Many sought and received their down payment back. Trust your apprehensions about what you see about your trees and call me and we can discuss the issues. ​

One example was in The City of Woodway, near Waco. Water rationing was common in past decades with homeowners being restricted from watering their lawns. One homeowner called and wanted to know why all his beautiful live oak trees completely died over a period of two years. He had a very big residential yard. All trees outside his chain link fence were green and healthy. Inside his chain link fence he had spread 3 inch deep, 2-4 inch diameter size rock over his entire yard as he preferred to see a rock landscape instead of dead grass. He stated he did not have to water now. ​ Placing landscape rock around trees raises ground temperature in hot summers and kills/ damages tree roots.

To verify heat temperature variations, place your hand on the concrete sidewalk and then on your grass and compare temperature differences. His tree roots were in a temperature range not conducive to tree health. If you presently have gravel or rocks under your trees, even with rocks being in shade, the trees suffer more than others. Heat creates evaporation. Another thing to mention is do not put landscape fabric under the rocks. The fabric is designed for water to penetrate, but stops up with small sediment over time and from that point the tree receives insufficient water and declines slowly or quickly, ultimately to die. ​ Water restrictions is a frequent occurrence. During droughts and water restrictions you can still water your live oaks. Some times you must ask for a watering waiver. When treating declining trees we write that the trees must be watered in hot dry summers. Similar to a watering prescription. Permission to water has always been given under that condition. In another article about landscape fabric, you will read where a very large live oak in the middle of a front yard died directly from this issue during the time a family was purchasing their home. It was noticed by us after the house was purchased. The tree is terminal.

In the Cedar Park area a customer was under contract for a newly built home. Before closing they called as they suspected they may have a tree issue. It was a large, front yard centerpiece live oak just to the right of driveway about 15 feet from the house. Someone had dug out the dirt alongside the trunk and it was obvious that over a foot of cheap clay fill was spread over the entire front yard. The trunk and roots had been covered with at a least of foot deep clay fill dirt. This will quickly suffocate the tree’s entire root system. When dirt is placed against the bark of a tree a foot deep and remains moist the bark will also rot and kill the tree. With the front yard being almost level, the 12 inch deep clay fill soil held water and a bog was created rotting the tree roots. ​ What happened? The homebuilder was just adjusting the grade level to where the house was located. Before the added fill was put in, the front yard would have been 16-18 inches lower from driveway to left front yard. This customer realized they had paid a premium for this lot because of this tree’s location in the front yard. They also realized the fill situation was not desirable to the future of tree as it cannot survive. They had already paid for paint color changes in the house and other amenities added. The contract was cancelled by them and it took a while to get their money back. ​

About 18 years ago near Salado, a prospective buyer called because of some possible tree issues. In all my years this is the worst case of intentional home builder tree abuse I’ve seen. There are some almost as bad, but this one can only be described as stupid. ​ At a quick glance it was noticed that the entire 1-2 acre lot had at least 12-16 inches of the grade entirely removed on the property, even up next to the trees’ trunks. A bulldozer even scraped the remaining broken root remains from the underground area on the tree trunks. Every live oak had the dirt remove 12-16 inches deep to the edge of the trunk. Every root to that depth had been removed on the property. It is not possible for these trees to survive. There were about twenty, 18-24 inch diameter live oak trees involved. This is deeper black land and a high value location. I estimated the house value as to size of foundation would be about $700,000.00. ​ It was obvious where all the scraped up tree roots and grade dirt went to. The house foundation had not been poured. The house location was raised about 4-5 feet above present grade, which is higher than most houses. The scraped up dirt and most the roots were bulldozed into the raised grade of the foundation. The concrete slab would later be poured over this. The 2-4 inch diameter roots sticking out from the raised foundation grade were almost as thick as porcupine quills. The ends of roots were sticking out several feet from the foundation. Shocking. ​

Home builders do not use black dirt graded from property for the dirt fill under foundations. They will haul in about $6,000.00 - $12,000.00 of limestone base fill. I believe this was done to save the expense of buying limestone fill base. This house foundation will fail as the buried limbs will decay, leaving voids in the foundation. The black dirt fill will also expand and contract as moisture increases or decreases, cracking the foundation. ​

One statement I heard from the house builder stood out. “This is my first house to build”. Home builders do not even want a pencil-size piece of wood mixed in with the dirt fill as this is conducive to termites. Near Salado, ranch owners are in the early stages of breaking off part of the ranch into 30-80 acre tracts, some larger, some smaller. A couple was in the process of buying a small ranch there to build a house on. Papers were signed. The man had recently walked through the area and saw where all the major large live oak trees were declining with some already dead. He called and wanted to meet me to discuss this property as the dead and declining trees concerned him and his wife.

I was only being helpful and didn’t even mention a price for the service. ​ When driving up, I immediately noticed activity involving people directly across from his entrance. All the large live oak trees on the other side of the road were dead. ​ As he had walked his property several times he knew the location of the large dead live oak trees. First thing noticed was that most of the cedar trees had been bulldozed and removed in the past. A second generation growth of newer small cedar trees were growing. The original cedar tree removal project was over 10-15 years ago. Between the time of the original cedars had been removed and the newer 2nd generation of cedars sprouting there was a time of bare ground. This created a situation during the 2011 tree drought where tree roots died. Most likely past ranchers had removed cedars to increase pasture land. There were a few bulldozer digs showing this activity took place. When you remove cedars from under live oaks they most likely die over time from the increasingly dry root zone area. Cedar tree mulch holds moisture and this prevents live oak roots from drying out during periods of drought. ​ This was a very tiring walk as this was a larger plot of land and it was a hot day. At times he would show me leaves that he picked up off the ground that showed active oak wilt. The frequency of oak wilt leaves found over the entirety of the plot leads one to believe the entire plot was compromised with active oak wilt. I also remembered the dead live oaks across from his entrance. ​

The developer or real estate agent walked up and introduced himself. He asked me in the presence of the prospective buyer what I had found out about the land. ​ All I could say was that the prospective buyer saw signs of active oak wilt through out the property and the larger live oak trees were dead. I also mentioned that the trees across from the entrance were dead and there was a problem. I mentioned to him that over a decade ago the area had been bulldozed of cedar trees and the second growth was replacing them, and advised him about the dry span of time between those times when the dried out roots compromised the live oaks’ well being. Drying roots creates a declining situation and trees are then more susceptible to disease. It might also be described that disease overwhelms the tree and a tree declining from drought can not recover fast enough to compensate. ​ I do believe the second man that showed up was the developer or real estate salesman. He asked what he could do about the problem with the trees. For some reason I said, “quit selling them, they have lost their value.” My thinking was who wants to buy a small ranch for the future when you already know the trees will die. ​

He asked the prospective buyer to meet him at the office after he got through. The wife called me later that day and told me they had a big shouting match in his office to get their down payment back. They refused to buy the land. It was a big disappointment to him as he wanted to build a house there and to hunt the deer. What comes next? The developer/real estate agent must now notify all future sales prospects that the land has oak wilt. Most likely, he must also notify those in process of buying that there is oak wilt. To do otherwise is fraud. This is a real heartbreak to both sides. There are several properties off Leander Road on South Ridge in Georgetown that have major issues and this was discovered at or before time of completion of house sales. All/most real estate agents know that the area is what is called oak wilt alley. Around 2014, a couple from out of state requested a real estate agent to only show them houses that had lots of live oak trees. The agent showed them a house with about nine larger live oak trees. This was in the winter time. When the prospective buyers looked at the yard in the spring the live oaks had no leaves. Being from out of state they did not know about Texas trees. They assumed live oaks lost all their leaves in the winter. In the spring the house was under contract.

The Sunday before closing on Monday, the prospective buyer called and said the live oak trees had no leaves. ​ By this time of year it was obvious leaves were not coming out. Looked at the nine live oaks and all but one were completely dead with the other one declining. Both real estate agents were present, one representing the buyer and the other representing the seller. The report was written up and gave each real estate agent a copy. Both real estate agents were advised that most/all agents knew about oak wilt in the area and they should have known these trees had oak wilt. The real estate man representing the seller actually lost it and wadded up the report and threw it into back seat through the window of the prospective buyer’s car. ​ He had just lost his commission on a $400,000.00 sale and lost his cool. Interesting to watch the following discussion and reaction of each party. ​

Several weeks later the prospective buyer’s wife called to thank me. They had put down deposits of over $6,000.00 and the seller’s real estate agent was refusing to refund. It was later refunded. ​ They then located a nice property 30 miles east of Georgetown and asked me to come look at it before purchasing. It was a nice farm area with about 60 acres with lots of old pecan trees. ​

In 2018, another buyer bought a house on the same South Ridge street. The large live oak tree center front had older landscape fabric which was no longer porous as sediment stopped up the small holes in fabric. This was unknown information at first. I advised the new owner that the tree was in declining condition from lack of water possibility because of landscape fabric. She turned on the water full speed around 4:30 pm and worried about it most of the night. She went out about 1:00 am and pulled off all the landscape fabric and it was dry underneath the fabric. The water had been on for about 9 hours full speed. The tree is terminal with only a few leaves remaining.

Remove your landscape fabric as it does get compromised.

Have any questions about this tree topic? Give Big Country Trees a call at (512)983-4148.