Tree Education and Philosophy

By Alex L. Shigo

An educated homeowner would probably recognize the potential high risk of failure of such a tree, and have something done about it.  It is the responsibility of tree care professionals to help educate customers about the care of their trees.


 Humpty Dumpty said a word means only what he wants it to mean. Socrates, a great philosopher, said, just tell us what you want your word to mean.  And Voltaire, another great thinker, said, when we know what you mean by your words, arguments and misunderstandings will seldom happen. So be it.

Just the facts

Philosophy is a delightful trip around a circle. Philosophy is about thinking.

Thinking is a mental process where experiences, old thoughts and ideas, facts and other stored information are connected in ways that result in some new thought or idea.

Trees are superior survival organisms. They live longer, grow taller and become more massive than any organism ever to inhabit earth. Trees do demand some respect. This means trees have dignity.

Education is a learning process. Learning leads to increased knowledge. Knowledge is the amount of information gained. Intelligence is the capacity to gain information. Wisdom is the use of information in ways that ensure continued high - quality survival.

My objective in this brief essay is to focus on tree education: what it is, what it can do for you and what it can do for trees.

Stress? Or, treatments done without understanding some simple basics of biology?  The tree was over - pruned, over - trenched, and over - fertilized.  The bill was "over," also.


Training and educating

Trees are beginning to receive some respect worldwide. Not much, but some, and that is better than the way it was in the past. Now, I believe, it is the responsibility of people who care for trees, and about trees, to keep this movement going.  The more you learn about any subject, the better the chances are for regulating the direction of the subject or if that is not possible, then for predicting with high probabilities the way it will go.
Training to deal with trees has far exceeded education about trees.  Training is wonderful.  However, training without educating leads to robots.  At the same time, education alone leads to waste.  Training and educating are twins; both are needed. Now!
Some people are using the words "education about trees,"  but I don't know what they mean.
Teachers teach. They try to get the mental "engines" started. They stimulate you.


The grass is very green. The tree is dying!  If trees are wanted on such a site, they should be species that can tolerate lots of water .

To keep the "engines" going, students must be disciplined enough to keep adding more information to the mind.  The adding process is motivation.  Think of your car.  The key connects the battery and starter.  Once the engine turns over, it begins to run on gasoline.  Teachers are batteries.  Gasoline, or self -discipline, keeps the system going - motivation.
Why do you need to know this stuff?  Because decision making in the field is the "name of the game."  People who can make more correct decisions faster have a better chance for higher quality survival.  To lecture from the stage about trees and treatments is easy.  When you are outside with the trees, it is not so easy.  There are always some complicating constraints such as time, schedules, weather, personal health, breakdowns, regulations, complaining customers and the list goes on and on.  You never know what you will face until you are out there.  Still, you must make some decisions and do the job, or you will soon be out of a job.


An Example: Stress

Trees are living systems.  Every living system will do something when its survival is threatened.  Trees are systems that came from genetic codes.  The systems do have limits.  When any agent causes the system to operate near its limits, then the system becomes stressed.  When the potential survival - threatening agent continues to exert a force, then the tree system could go from stress to strain.  Any system is threatened when it is forced to operate near its limits.  When the threatening force is continued, the likelihood of the system stopping increases.
In nature, there are two major types of stress.  The most life - threatening type deals with the second law of energy flow.  The law states that every system must have a continuous supply of energy to remain in an orderly state - healthy.  As energy input decreases, the likelihood of operating near the limits increases.  Call it primary stress.  Because trees are living systems, they must maintain a continuous flow of energy.  Trees burn glucose to release energy to power the forces of life.  This is the same for humans and other life forms.  When energy begins to become limiting, the system begins to operate near its genetically designed limits.
There is no known way to feed a tree in the sense of adding an energy source.  Food is a substance made up of elements essential for life and an energy source.  Animals can be fed.  Trees get their energy by a process that traps the energy of the sun in a molecule called glucose.  Glucose is made as chlorophyll is stimulated to form ATPs that later power the formation of glucose.
The process of trapping the sun' s energy is called photosynthesis.  When the process does produce glucose, some is used for metabolism, some for structural parts and some for storage.
The stored energy is in a form not soluble in water; either as starch, oils or fats.  The stored energy is used to start new growth when the next growth cycle starts and for defense.  When stored energy reserves are low, defense is low.
So, what can be done when a tree is energy stressed?   You cannot feed it.  If you add fertilizer (which is not food), the nitrogen will cause the already low supply of energy reserves to be lowered all the more as the nitrogen combines with the stored carbon to form amino acids that, in turn, lead to increased growth.  The new growth will be defenseless. And the insects and microorganisms apparently can detect this. They attack.
The story goes on.  There is much more, but my point here is to show how one of the major problems facing trees - stress - depends on education.  The simple answers today deal with adding all kinds of stuff that may give the illusion of short - term benefits. In the end, I believe, many of these treatments may add to the problem.
 Before I leave the subject of stress, I should say that secondary stress is caused when substances and conditions essential for life are at extremes; too little, too much.  These secondary stress problems can usually be treated by adjustments of substances and conditions.


Where are the roots?  They were buried at about a foot below ground level. Education starts when people begin to touch and see things for themselves.


Education is the key

Stress is used here only as an example of why education about tree biology is so important.  Of course, much more needs to be given about the subject of tree stress.  But, for now, here are some brief comments about what should be done.  First aid for stress means keeping the tree safe and stopping the stress agents.  Keeping it safe could mean removing the target, bracing the tree, or removing parts or the entire tree.  Before you can reduce or stop the agents or conditions causing the stress, you must know what they are.  Tree biology again.
After first aid, start a long - range program of correct tree care that includes mulching, pruning, watering, fertilizing and probably much more.  Decisions for all treatments, especially for dose, should be based on a sound understanding of tree biology.
Trees do have dignity.  They should get more respect.  Respect starts with an attempt to understand. Understanding is about education. So, maybe we are back to the beginning ...A trip around a circle. Is that philosophy?

“An author, lecturer and consultant, Dr. Shigo started Shigo and Trees, Associates twenty years ago after retirement from the U.S. Forest Service.”

Reproduced with permission of Tree Care Industry and Dr. Alex L. Shigo.

The article was published in Volume XI, Number 6 - JUNE 2000 of TCI.

This site is dedicated to the remembrance of Robert Felix who for many years worked very hard for the improvement of the tree care industry: 1934-1996.

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