Blog : For Suntree, each season presents unique challenges

By Jim Cavan | Mar 22, 2011 | in

When you think of the challenges and dangers that an arborist faces on a daily basis, chances are most of them are pretty big. Falling tree branches, slips of the chainsaw – that sort of thing.

But ask Chris Kemp of Eliot-based Suntree Tree Health Care – himself the victim of accidents of both varieties – and he’ll tell you the real threats are barely noticeable to the naked eye. The damage they cause, however, is readily apparent.

Blights, parasites, funguses, bugs – call them what you will. For Chris Kemp and others in his field, they’re big problems –problems that are becoming more and more common throughout New England, in the process costing the region millions.

“Worcester alone has spent millions combating some of these bugs,” says Kemp. “But a lot of that is grant money provided by the federal government, which has an understandable vested interest in keeping these bugs and blights out of our forests.”

In particular, Kemp and others are concerned about maples and various evergreens being affected, thereby compromising both traditional sources of timber as well as things like maple syrup.

This year, Kemp is especially concerned about the Hemlock wooly adelgid, a “true bug” native to East Asia which made its way over to the Eastern U.S. decades ago and continues to exert extensive damage to hemlocks throughout North America.

The adelgid grows by feeding on the sap of hemlocks, in the process injecting a toxin which prevents new growth and causes early decline. If enough are infected, it could compromise the stability of an entire industry: timber.

Another concern is the Asiatic Longhorned beetle, a wood-boring bug introduced from Asia by way of overseas shipping crates. While more delicate measures can be used to help mitigate the aforementioned wooly adeligid, the only proven method of control for the longhorned beetle, by contrast, is to remove the infected tree and destroy it altogether.

But bugs aren’t the only tribulation confounding Kemp’s industry. Indeed, Kemp claims that upwards of 75 percent of his work involves remedying various types of foliar diseases – blights, fungi, and the like – in both deciduous and needle-leaved trees.

As Kemp explains, excessive cool and damp weather over the last 7-8 years has contributed to perfect conditions for a variety of fungal diseases in trees. In particular, spruces and some pine trees are coming under assault from needlecast diseases, which infect a tree’s needles, causing them to drop.

Meanwhile, ornamental fruit trees – particularly crabapple and Hawthorne trees – are uniquely susceptible to “scab” and “rust” diseases, which can cause leaves to become infected and fall.

The difference between these maladies and the aforementioned bugs and critters, as Kemp explains, is a matter of money.

“The problems I tend to deal with are more cosmetic, in part because a lot of the bores haven’t made it up here yet,” explains Kemp. “The trees that the fungal diseases are affecting tend to be on private property, and don’t effect an en entire industry the way the Asian Longhorned beetle might.”

But while each season inevitably brings new surprises – last year’s wind storms and resulting damage throughout the Seacoast comes immediately to mind – Kemp is content to take it all in stride. Really, he’s concerned more than anything about touting his ever-growing green business practices as a way of separating himself from others in his industry.

That list is as long as it is impressive: any green waste taken from a jobsite is composted. The company uses biodiesel in all of its fleet vehicles as well biodegradable chainsaw oil. And Suntree advocates insect and disease programs that encourage less pesticide use and more preventative care.

Kemp is also currently researching new forms of non-chemical fungal and infectious resistance useful against things like the Hemlock wooly adelgid. In these scenarios, proactive organisms and tree-friendly bacteria can be employed to protect tree habitats from invasive blights and other maladies.

Kemp’s approach also incorporates so-called “cultural” practices, including fertilizing, mulching, and pruning to minimize disease infection
While it sounds benign, Kemp’s approach is quite revolutionary for an industry still mired in the chemical.

“Years ago it was conventional wisdom to just use fertilizers, but we’ve since figured out that’s not the best thing for trees, because they become dependent on it,” explains Kemp. “So now we’re trying to put more living stuff into the ground, more beneficial bacteria, and inoculating the soils around trees and shrubs like you’d find in a lot of undisturbed forests to create a more healthy balance.”

In an effort to further bolster and improve his green initiatives, in 2008 Kemp’s Suntree became one of the pioneering businesses to join the Green Alliance, a Seacoast-based “green business union” and discount member co-op which helps promote and raise the profile of sustainability-minded businesses throughout the region.

Kemp began his now 25 year career working in the New York City area before moving to the Seacoast and launching Suntree in 1996. And while the scenery might have changed, the challenges have not.

“Really what solving these problems comes down to is finding a delicate balance,” says Kemp. “You could bring in a species that prays on some of these bugs, but what risk does introducing that species carry?”

“That’s what researches are working on, and hopefully having them figure it out will make our jobs a little easier.”