February 27, 2009

Thousands of Kentuckians went without power for days and weeks because of this winter's ice and wind storms. Because of that, many might be reconsidering their decision to plant that oak or ash tree near power lines. According to a forestry professor in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, some forethought when choosing landscape trees can prevent a lot of problems in the future.

"There's a real problem with tree limbs around power lines," said Professor Deborah Hill. "Wind and ice are the two things that will certainly bring those limbs down in a heartbeat and take major power sources out."

To help people understand the proper trees to plant, Hill has been working in conjunction with The Arboretum in Lexington, E.ON U.S. and Kentucky Utilities on Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place, a project funded by the U.S. Forest Service through the Kentucky Division of Forestry. The Arboretum, a joint effort of the University of Kentucky and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, planted 40 shrubs and small trees along a portion of the Walk Across Kentucky pathway. Placed so they can be viewed against residential power lines skirting the property, the plantings offer a visual demonstration of the types and sizes of landscape trees appropriate under those conditions.

"As you're going out (along the path) the ones on the left side are all native species and the ones on the right are horticultural cultivars, but they're native genera for Kentucky. Some are flowering; some are not," Hill said. "You want trees that basically are not going to grow much more than 15 or 20 feet tall."

After the cleanup is finished, many homeowners will consider replacing lost trees. Taking Hill's advice and planting the right tree in the right place can benefit the owners in a number of ways. In a state that has seen its share of ice and wind, planting a smaller, more supple tree will reduce the amount of damage done to the tree itself. A redbud's or dogwood's flexibility allows it to bend under additional weight, which limits breakage. That means there isn't expensive cleanup to contend with when the storms have passed.

"They may lose a little branch here and there, but they're not going to lose the tree probably," she said.

Plus the chance of losing power from a limb falling across a line is reduced. Though power companies across the state contract with tree companies to keep main lines clear of overhanging limbs, they do not maintain vegetation around the secondary lines, the ones that connect the house to the utility pole. That maintenance is the homeowner's responsibility, and keeping large, mature trees pruned every few years can be costly. Planting a smaller tree or shrub instead of a towering shade tree can be a win-win situation that could ultimately save money and even more discomfort from having to live in a cold, dark powerless house for a stretch of time.

Some of the demonstration trees planted by The Arboretum include the pawpaw, eastern redbud, several types of dogwood, red buckeye, common witch hazel, American fringe tree, Amur maple, crepe myrtle and several varieties of smaller magnolias. For a more complete list, visit the UK forestry Web site, http://www.ca.uky.edu/forestry/.

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