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Garden Talk

wide-angle shot of tall pine trees with snow on the ground

Tree Care with Leaf & Limb

Duke Gardens is pleased to share this informative Q&A about tree care from Basil Camu, owner of Leaf & Limb, one of our corporate members. Learn more about the benefits of corporate membership on this page.

black and white portrait of Basil Camu in a plaid shirt and tweed cap, surrounded by tree branches

Many people see trees as just a part of the background, or as pretty but irrelevant to their lives. How would you change their minds?

Our favorite star, affectionately referred to as the Sun, generates energy via nuclear fusion and releases it in a 500-second journey across 93 million miles to Planet Earth. Trees and other plants soak up that energy in their green surfaces and turn this energy into fuel that runs the planet. Nearly all of terrestrial life —including we humans —relies on this fuel.

Now here is the fun part: Plants feed caterpillars, cicadas and all sorts of other insects, which in turn feed birds, bats, lizards, fish, opossums, spiders, moles and a litany of insectivores and omnivores. Plants also feed humans — most all of our food either comes directly from plants or from something that consumes plants.

What else? Cultivating plants became a leverage point by which we were able to settle, grow our populations, and drive science and technology. Plants created the healthy topsoil in which food grows and generated the food we needed to survive. They have also been fueling, well, fuel. Fire, coal and oil are all derived from plants.

Let’s keep going! Wood, which comes from plants, is used to build our homes and buildings. Concrete is another common ingredient for building, and it relies on fossil fuels, which come from plants. And let’s not forget medicine. 40% of all medicine behind the pharmacist’s counter in the U.S. is derived from plants.

There you have it. Plants absorb energy from the Sun and convert it into fuel that provides food and shelter for nearly all terrestrial life. For us humans, it does not stop there. Plants give us medicine, fun, art, countless goods, commerce, innovation, energy to drive our economies, and even our wealth. Remarkable.

What tree-related tasks can average homeowners do on their own, and what are those best left to the professionals?

a verdant prairie with yellow flowers, grasses and other plants, and trees in the background

These are some of the best and easiest things that a homeowner can do:

  • Leave the leaves in the fall. Rake them into natural areas but do not get rid of them.
  • Add arborist wood chips (the sort you get for free from tree services) around all trees and shrubs. Do not pile the chips on the trunk of the plant; keep it a few inches away from the trunk.
  • Only plant native plants, and replace non-native plants with natives. Our native plants provide exponentially more food and shelter for our local declining populations of insects, birds and other life.
  • Do not use any chemicals on your property. Stay away from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and all the other “-cides.” They all generate serious issues for our ecological networks.
  • Stop using chemical fertilizers. These are the products in hardware stores and used by most service providers. Any “fertilizers” you use should be derived from compost and based on adding biological life versus chemicals.
  • Plant more native trees on your property, if you have any space.
  • Replace your non-native turf with native grasses and/or alternatives like Piedmont prairies.

What tree-related tools should every gardener have, and why? What are the tools arborists rely on the most and why?

Aside from the usual things that we all know and love (e.g., shovels and rakes), here are three under-appreciated tools that folks may not know about:

  • The Hori-Hori. This is a versatile, strong digging tool. It’s so good for weeding, planting and a variety of other uses.
  • The Felco 2 classic model one hand pruning shears. These are simply the best on the market. It’s worth the extra money for their quality.
  • The Silky Zubat 330 hand saw with large teeth. Much like the Felco, it is a quality tool worth paying extra for. Be careful with this saw! It is razor sharp.

What kind of education/background does it take to become a professional arborist?

a monarch caterpillar on a leafy branch

When I started, I knew nothing about trees. I learned through reading, from others and from the act of doing/experimenting. So technically nothing formal is required. This said, for those who want formal training, there are a handful of college programs in arboriculture. It’s more common to attend a horticulture program and take tree-related classes within that practice. I am not aware of a program that I find to be particularly useful, especially for those of us who care about these topics within the construct of using our craft to help heal the planet. Too much of this formal education is focused on outdated models of soil (e.g., physical and chemical properties with little focus on the biology) and reliance on chemicals.

Folks can get certified as an ISA Certified Arborist, a standard managed by the International Society of Arboriculture. They offer several credentials and have helped to set standards within our industry. My only real complaint is similar to what I stated about many of the university programs — there is too much focus on traditional models that are harming life on this planet versus helping it.

We at Leaf & Limb have been working on our own credential, a Treecologist. It would be similar to the ones described above, but all framed within the context of helping restore life and ecology on this planet.

What elements of tree care are essential but overlooked? Conversely, are there any common practices that can be safely skipped?

If you consider the entire green industry — tree services, landscapers and nurseries — for the most part we implement practices that are at odds with nature and cause harm to life.

  • We cut down beautiful live trees
  • We plant crops of grass (grass is the largest crop in the U.S.) that we pump full of chemicals
  • We emit huge emissions mowing that grass (mowers emit 10x more harmful pollutants compared to cars)
  • We raise trees that are from other continents that have handicapped root systems from day one. They struggle to establish, they die long before they should and, worst of all, very little life here is adapted to feed from these plants.
  • We spray everything with herbicides that wipe out populations of insects, harm our pets and expose our children to danger.
  • All of our activities are carbon negative instead of carbon-positive. We of all industries could be fully carbon-positive.
a goldfinch hangs on a narrow tree branch

I could go on. But you get the idea. We have a multi-billion dollar set of industries that exert billions of hours of work every year fighting against natural systems, harming non-human life  and oxidizing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Let’s fix this! Tree care companies can do just that — care for trees responsibly and stop cutting them down. Landscapers can plant native flowers and grasses. Nurseries can grow native trees with healthy root systems. We can all ditch the chemicals and use practices that encourage life to thrive and sequester carbon.

It will require that we all learn new methods. But there are still great business models available within this new paradigm. We could truly be a Green Industry, the Loraxes who help care for the planet. It’s so exciting!

Is potential energy savings from the shade of trees a growing factor in clients’ decisions to bring more trees into their landscapes?

Between shading and transevaporation, trees can help cool an area by 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Research from the EPA suggests that shaded areas under a tree can be as much as 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the peak temperatures of areas without such shade. [source] This translates into meaningful energy savings.

a tree canopy against a blue sky, with a white oak at center

More importantly, planting native trees can provide a bounty of new food and habitat for insects, birds and mammals. As I said earlier, we have killed out the majority of all life on this planet within our lifetime. If we are not careful, we’ll lose them all and live on a sterile planet. We need to do everything we can to help rebuild these populations. A white oak (Quercus alba) will feed more than 1,000 different species of insects, which creates a huge food web. Plant an oak or two!

What are some common problems people have with trees, and what are the solutions?

Here are the two most important things to know about trees:

First, tree health is largely dictated by soil health. Often, urban trees have health issues resulting from poor soil conditions. This can be fixed by leaving the leaves under your trees and filling these areas with 4-6 inches of arborist wood chips every several years. This will build amazing soil, and your trees will be healthier.

Second, many trees split and break because of a weak structure. In the forest, trees compete for sunlight and thus grow straight and tall, with ideal branch spacing and size. But in the urban environment, they often have no competition and an abundance of sunlight, so they grow unnaturally, with multiple trunks and large, overextended branches. Urban trees must be pruned to correct this. A professional uses “structural pruning” to counteract the forces of too much sunlight and not enough competition.

How do people know when it’s time to remove a beloved tree? What can be done to make the decision process easier?

The full answer is very involved, but here are a few helpful points:

  • A tree that is truly dead will not have leaves during the growing season, when it is supposed to.
  • However, if you see a tree holding on to brown, dead leaves during the growing season, you can be doubly sure that it is dead.
  • Most trees deemed “unfixable” by many tree services are actually fixable. There can often be a conflict of interest at play, since most tree services derive most of their income from tree removals.
  • If in doubt, consult an expert with an ISA credential, and preferably one that does not derive income from cutting live trees.

Leaf & Limb no longer offers tree removal. Do you feel this decision has helped to change clients’ perspectives on whether to opt for removal vs. other approaches?

Absolutely. As of January 2020 we made the decision to no longer offer tree removal services, a decision that was challenging and risky. But it allows us to act in a way that is far more honest when it comes to assessing the health of a given tree. Getting out of removals freed us from a paradigm and has opened up incredible new opportunities for us to learn, grow and better serve our community and planet as a company.

When is the best time to plant a tree in our area and why?

We recommend planting trees from mid-October through the end of December. We want to plant while the weather is cool and the plants are dormant. It gives the plant breathing room to begin establishing its roots before facing the heat and drought that our summers bring.

What factors should people consider when deciding what kind of trees to plant and/or where to plant them?

  • How big will the tree be at maturity? Will it hit nearby houses, power lines, etc.? Make sure there is adequate space above ground for the species.
  • Ditto to below ground. Is there enough rooting space for this tree? A large species like an oak needs at least 1,000 cubic feet of root space, and a small species like a dogwood needs at least 100 cubic feet.
  • Does this space have adequate sunlight for this species? You can check by using an app called Sunseeker, which shows you how much sunlight a space receives.
  • Is it native? If not, find a native alternative.

Also, how we plant matters a lot! Do some research on how to properly plant a tree before you begin, or you may doom it to a short life. We have many articles on this topic on our website and YouTube channel.

Any favorite species? Any species to definitely avoid?

flowering branch of a native fringe tree, with soft-focus leaves in the background delicate white flowers and

My favorite species always changes, but right now I’m really in love with the native fringe tree because of its incredible resilience and beauty. I’m also a sucker for any and all oaks.

Please avoid all the usual invasive suspects we so often see in our landscapes: Ligustrum/privet, nandina, English ivy, Bradford pear, mahonia, burning bush, mimosa, butterfly bush, flying dragon, wisteria and Bermuda grass, just to name a few.

What should people look for when purchasing a tree or shrub from a nursery?

Here are my top two things to watch for: First, make sure it is native. Second, if it is a tree, make sure you can see a flare at the base of the trunk where it turns into roots. If this is buried, your tree will likely die prematurely. This is known as a buried root collar. It’s one of the top reasons trees in the urban landscape die.

What should people know about mulch, fertilizers and soil amendments?

In short, stay away from anything related to chemicals. Rather, use things like compost, leaving the leaves, and adding wood chips as ways to improve the health of your soil.

In regard to mulches, we recommend only using arborist wood chips. Most products you would buy have issues: chemicals, poor performance, and they require all sorts of energy to make, bag and transport.

Arborist wood chips have none of these problems, are free, and have all sorts of extra health benefits for the soil (and thus the tree).

What is one book or person that has especially influenced your perception of trees?

I love this question! Reading has been such a huge part of my journey. I learned so much of what I know from reading. I actually did not study plants at all when I was at Duke; I was a double major in economics and history. These are a few that come to mind quickly:

What can people do to learn more about trees and become more involved with them?

My best advice is just to start small. Observe the same tree every day for a number of months. Observe the changes and life. Or get your hands dirty by planting a tree or some flowers. Read a book. Take a class. Come volunteer with our not-for-profit venture called Project Pando, where we collect native seeds from the wild, raise them into little trees and give them away to the public. At Project Pando you can learn about trees, develop a relationship with nature and do some good.

Intellectual learning matters, but so does experiential learning. The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua, New Guinea, have a saying that best describes what I’m trying to say: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”

What is the one thing you wish everybody knew about trees?

This is a big one. I wish that we could all know and feel that trees are deeply responsible for the planet we know and love today, as well as for the evolution of us humans. They are our family — cousins many times removed. We are all connected, and we all play a role in the well-being of this planet. We have lost contact with them and the rest of nature over the past 300 years, so let’s get to know them. If we learn to love and care for trees, they will help us help this incredible, beautiful planet we call home.

Logo says Leaf & Limb and links to the company's website

Basil Camu (Duke Class of 2006) loves trees. And soil, wildflowers, insects, bats, fungi - basically everything to do with terrestrial ecosystems. He is fully committed to caring for this beautiful planet. He is a Treecologist, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist, and Wizard of Things at Leaf & Limb. Though trees are his passion and profession, he also loves tending to the native flowers in his garden, restoring Piedmont prairies, and propagating plants from seed. Some of Basil's favorite pastimes are hanging out with his wife and sons, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, powerlifting, hiking and running. His next favorite things in life are reading, garlic, traveling adventures, blazing hot peppers, pickles and anything from Lucettegrace in downtown Raleigh, in approximately that order.

Photo information, from top: towering pines in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants in winter, by Jessica Voss T'24; portrait of Basil Camu, courtesy of Leaf & Limb; the Piedmont Prairie blooming in the fall, by William Hanley; a monarch caterpillar, by Cathi Bodine; goldfinch in the Piedmont Prairie, by Sue Lannon; white oak tree canopy, by Robert Ayers; native pygmy fringetree in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, by Jessica Voss.

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