Ash tree removal at Holcomb Farm

Print More

The “before” view to the west of some of the dead ashes in the hedgerow. The trunks are covered by invasive Oriental bittersweet vines, not leaves.

Three days in mid-August saw a big change to the landscape at Holcomb Farm. Thanks to the public-spirited generosity of Eversource, a long line of dead white ash trees growing in a hedgerow between the southeast and southwest fields was cut, chipped and trucked away to be used by the Friends of Holcomb Farm’s CSA.

The ash trees had been growing in a hedgerow made of very large boulders. In the fall of 1950, Tudor Holcomb hired a backhoe to move these boulders out of the southwest field to make it suitable for grazing. It is unknown whether Holcomb planted the ashes, but the even spacing, similar age and number of trees (about 25) suggest he may have. The trees, all white ash, were a common tree in Connecticut and would have provided some afternoon shade for the grazing cows.

As many townsfolk will remember, Tudor and his sister Laura were the last Holcomb generation to farm the land. Under the terms of Tudor’s will, the Town became the owner of the over 300-acre farm in 1992. The nonprofit Friends of Holcomb Farm (FOFH), was formed soon after the Town took ownership with its mission “to preserve, promote and utilize an historic, working New England farm.” In 2018, FOHF established the Holcomb Tree Trail and started planting trees to start a small arboretum. This was done with the permission of the Board of Selectmen. Volunteers have created an extensive network of mowed walking paths connecting the trees in the arboretum, which now number about 80. One of the Tree Trail paths runs along the hedgerow with the ash trees.

For at least the past 20 years, ash trees have been suffering from a bacterial disease called ash yellows. The disease affects the trees’ vascular system, resulting in substantial dieback and premature death. This usually takes two to ten years. More recently, the emerald ash borer, a rather pretty green beetle from Asia, has also attacked some of the ashes. The evidence of borer infestation is the unusual blonding of the bark, caused by woodpeckers eating the beetle larvae under the bark. Together, the ash yellows infection and the ash borers killed most of the hedgerow ash trees; only a few still showed some leaves. All of these trees were covered with invasive Oriental bittersweet vines which can grow to 60 feet. More important, however, were that dead ash limbs—some six inches in diameter—would fall without warning and land on the mowed paths. The FOHF put up hazard warning signs a couple of years ago directing walkers not to walk under the trees and relocated the mowed path further from the trees.

How did Eversource get involved? A serendipitous meeting

In the winter of 2021-22, Eversource regional vegetation manager Bob Allen stopped by O’Brien Nursery on Wells Road. Allen has been a friend of John O’Brien’s for years and, as they were talking, longtime local resident Barry Avery also stopped by to talk to O’Brien. Avery is one of the founders of the Holcomb Tree Trail. Avery told Allen about the Tree Trail and about efforts the FOHF was making to manage invasives and about dead ash trees. Allen said that Eversource has been investing in public service projects including planting 100 trees for the Town of Amherst, Mass. and suggested that perhaps Eversource could do something to help with the hazards caused by falling limbs. Soon after, Melissa Kracke, an Eversource arborist, contacted Avery and the project began. Thanks to this serendipitous introduction by O’Brien, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

In February two representatives of Eversource’s contractor, Distinctive Tree Care of South Windsor, met at the hedgerow with FOHF and representatives of the Granby’s Department of Public Works. Stan Bartkowiak and Kracke, both from Eversource, and Jay Nikitas, of Distinctive Tree Care, walked the site along with DPW’s Chris Faria and several FOHF members, including Avery, Peggy and Jack Lareau, and Eric Lukingbeal. Of course, O’Brien was there as well.

After some discussion, Eversource offered to fund Distinctive Tree Care’s services for two full days to cut and remove the dead trees. The work would be done using a very large forestry material handler made by Sennebogen, a German manufacturer. All parties agreed the work should wait until conditions were dry to minimize the damage caused by the heavy equipment. Fortunately, the weather cooperated, and on Aug. 10, when work started, Granby was in the moderate drought category and was headed for the severe drought category.

The Sennebogen 718E, a tracked vehicle, cost $1.75 million according to Nikitas. It has a 44-foot articulated boom with a claw and a saw, which can grab the tree trunk, cut it, and then lower it to the ground. The operator sits in a cab, protected from falling limbs. Sennebogen operator Austin Pike spent an entire day and part of the next day cutting down the ash trees as well as several dead junipers which had been strangled by bittersweet vines.

The following day, a Vermeer 2300XL chipper arrived. A smaller crane fed the ash trunks and limbs, and the extensive bittersweet vines into the chipper. This was no ordinary chipper—it is capable of chipping a 4-foot diameter trunk. During the day, about 15 truckloads of chips were delivered to the CSA at Holcomb Farm. On the third day, a cleanup crew dispatched from Distinctive Tree, cleaned up the remaining branches shed by the dead trees, which were quite brittle.

The machine on the left is the Sennebogen with the 44-foot boom. On the right is the machine that takes branches and brush out of a truck with a claw on a boom to feed the Vermeer chipper. The chipper is not visible in this photo, but the boom can reach its conveyor belt.
With operator Austin Pike at the controls, the Sennebogen makes quick work of cutting a dead ash and its Oriental bittersweet vines. The 44-foot boom can take down a three-foot diameter tree in under five minutes. Here, the tree comes down in two sections.

With the ash trees gone, only their stumps remain and many are at least 36 inches in diameter. Counting the rings on these larger stumps suggests that the trees were 50–70 years old. The work on managing the hedgerow area isn’t over, however. Invasive vegetation, mostly bittersweet, multiflora rose and autumn olive, obscures most of the boulders so the FOHF will be working on a plan to clear some of the boulders.

The Friends of Holcomb Farm thank Eversource for its generosity. The Town of Granby has benefited from Eversource’s investment in this tree removal project making the trails safe again and greatly improving the appearance of this part of Holcomb Farm. Thank you to all the people involved with this project. Eversource: Stan Bartkowiak, supervisory, vegetation management; and Melissa Kracke, arborist. Distinctive Tree Care: Rick Dondero, landscape foreman; Gavin DeJesus, operation foreman; Colin Cook, debris disposal; Jay Nikitas, project manager; Austin Pine, Sennebogen operator; Liam Thomas, grounds man; Steve Person, chipper operator; and Matt Cresotti, log truck operator.

The “after” view, taken the day after Distinctive Tree finished its work. The boulders in the hedgerow are obscured by vegetation. The Friends of Holcomb Farm hope to implement a vegetation control strategy. Submitted photos