Professional tree pruning services courtesy of the highly trained power company artisans. They used the utmost discretion and care.  Photo: Steve Bender

Call it "The Alabama Chainsaw Massacre."

I was on my way home from a week's vacation in Paris (yes, it was fantastic, merci!) when I received word that earlier that day, the power company had come through, marched into my yard, and cut my trees.

My heart sank. I had planted these trees 20 years ago -- one, a sugar maple and the other, a 'Miami' crepe myrtle -- carefully siting them so as to not interfere with power lines and also pruning every year to prevent any branches from threatening the lines. Those trees survived hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, and ice storms without dropping a single branch. Yet, as our car turned the corner onto my street, I saw something I had never imagined or could explain.

My sugar maple in the middle of the yard was now a 30-foot beanpole. Every branch (see above) on the street side of the tree had been cut back to the trunk. I now own a shade tree shaped like a toothbrush.

Murder Victim #2 Remember this photo of me pruning my crepe myrtle? It was part of a story I did for "The Grumpy Gardener" called "Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-By-Step" some years ago. That post about how to properly prune a crepe myrtle became so widely read that if you Google "crepe myrtle pruning," it's the first article cited.

 

Before: Annual pruning done to prevent problems while maintaining the natural form of the crepe myrtle. Photo: Judy Bender

Well, below is that same crepe myrtle as it appears today. A perfectly symmetrical tree that needed 5 minutes of pruning a year is symmetrical no longer. The power company chopped off branches nowhere near the lines and not even pointing towards the street. They had to have been standing in the middle of my yard when they did it.

 

After: See any power lines? They're waaay up there. Photo: Steve Bender

First, Do No Harm The irony of this situation is that in their ham-handed attempt to correct what they saw as a hazard, the tree butchers just made the problem worse. See, trees don't naturally grow one-sided. When you cut off all the branches on one side or shorten big branches to thick, ugly stubs, the trees respond by quickly sprouting a thicket of branches on the badly pruned side, where there is now no competition for light. Thus, this "solution" is very short-term. Because replacement branches grow much faster than normal ones, they're also weaker and more likely to break and fall on power lines. This, of course, ensures lots of future work for the tree cutters.

Coincidence? I think not.

The Power Company's Side Whenever people complain about indiscriminate and heavy-handed tree cutting, power companies invariably respond by pointing out that their primary responsibility is to ensure a reliable and uninterrupted supply of electricity to customers. Grumpy has no problem with that. Nobody wants to sit for days in the dark because a problem tree fell on the power lines.

(FYI, power company -- you missed a huge, dead pine tree on the corner that's sure to take out the lines when it falls. Guess you prefer live trees.)

The problem comes when power companies hire pruning contractors that show up unannounced, trespass on private property, lack proper training, and just buzz-saw through a neighborhood applying an arbitrary standard to each and every situation as if they were identical. Sure, your job takes a little longer when you bother to talk to the homeowner and come to an agreement that protects the lines without ruining the trees, but this can -- AND SHOULD -- be done.

Reliable power and beautiful trees ARE NOT mutually exclusive.

Grumpy's Response Shortly after I left a rather "unpleasant" message on the power company's answering machine and published photos of the destruction on numerous gardening websites (eliciting hundreds of sympathetic responses and tales of power company atrocities from all over the country -- merci beaucoup!), I received a phone call from the power company. We've scheduled a meeting at my house for this Tuesday morning to talk. I'll let you know the results on Thursday's "Grumpy Gardener."

With proper care, my crepe myrtle should regain its beautiful form without endangering the lines. Sadly, though, my maple is beyond saving. So I'm going to ask the power company to take it down and replace it with a tree of my choosing.

 

'Cherokee Brave' flowering dogwood. Photo: Wayside Gardens

Right now, I'm leaning towards a 'Cherokee Brave' flowering dogwood. Wish me luck.

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