Embracing Failure

An endless series of decisions, good and bad, resulted in my living on the same property for the last 30 years, no ankle bracelet involved. One may realize a life of fulfillment within a very small realm, while others roam the planet in search of the same. I’ve done a lot of the former and a bit of the latter. It’s all about perspective.

Zelkova serrata
Photo 1 My Zelkova serrata. I was a bit neglectful in paying attention to structure and obvious defects that would come back to haunt. All photos courtesy of Howard Gaffin.

I planted a few-dozen trees here over time and have witnessed success and failure. A great deal of what little I know about arboriculture was gained through my experiences on a three-quarter-acre lot.

You might expect that an experienced arborist such as I allude to be would have some pretty fine-looking arboricultural specimens, but alas, it is not so. While I did provide the space and environment for growth, I was a bit neglectful in paying attention to structure and obvious defects that would come back to haunt.

A professional procrastinator on my own property

I suppose I could say I was conducting a long-term, in-depth study to confirm that obvious defects in trees would indeed fail if not corrected. I might imply that the neglected trees were, in fact, the designated control group for comparison to the thousands I did perform corrective pruning on for clients. The truth is that I am just another professional ’crastinator, never able to grasp the elusive ’round tuit.

Renting shop space at a local nursery for a time had its advantages. I would scarf up year-end deals and rescue trees condemned to the compost pile, then give them a chance to thrive on my humble estate. Thirty years later, I am paying for arboricultural sins of neglect.

One of the Orphan Annies was a Zelkova serrata (Allota badcrotchetus). As a native of Japan and Korea, the expectation was that it might reprise the kind of vase-shaped structure once provided by the American elm. It did not. Introduced to America in the 1860s, it was not until early in my career that I noticed them becoming part of the landscape. (Photo 1)

A troublesome Zelkova named Z

My Zelkova (bada-bada-bah-bah, My Zelkova! – with apologies to The Knack) sits about 60 feet to the southwest of the house. It offers no shade to the living spaces. It does not screen any unsightly views. And it would not make a significant difference to the quality of life here if it were gone, but, just like my offspring and various pets, I had taken responsibility for its welfare and would follow my conscience to do what was right.

The 1.5-inch-caliper sapling looked harmless enough when I planted it. It had the typical poor form seen in the species (v-shaped branch unions with included bark spaced way too close together on the trunk), but hey, it was young, and a few small cuts would rectify most of the issues.

Ten years later

Ten years later, when my septic system sh*t the bed, the Zelkova was slated to be removed for a new leach field. I could not do it. Instead, a small retaining wall was incorporated into the design so the tree could stay. I still had not made any corrective cuts. At this point, the defects were clearly creating issues, but making the necessary cuts would result in a rather garish-looking crown. I knew that in time the tree could still adapt and re-form into a decent crown, but it would take a while and I was already old. I decided procrastination was the most efficient way to proceed and stuck with that plan for the next 20 years.

Photo 3
Photo 3: The active split has been present on the north side for years.

As I gazed out at “Z” on a recent January morning, I marveled at the active split running from the first main stem union to the base of the tree on the north side. It had been busy for a while, and woundwood had formed on the edges. An inch or so of open space was visible at the union, and it moved about in the wind. Hmmm, thought I, that is going to fail soon. Still, I decided at the time to stick with the procrastination plan that was working so well until I returned from an upcoming vacation.


I returned from vacation rested and ready for a renaissance. My first revelation was that I could now say with conviction that V-shaped crotches with included bark are bad. While I was away, a nor’easter blew on by and a fresh seam had opened on the opposite side of the active one. Just as a few nips in the bud of my behavior as a kid kept me in the gene pool, a few half-inch cuts made 30 years ago would have prevented this. (Photos 3 and 4)

Clients always ask the question, “What would you do?”

I would query:

  • How does the tree benefit you or the property? Would it be missed?
  • How is the tree’s health?
  • Are there any insects or diseases, present or forecast, that may become an issue?
  • Are there any targets, i.e., nearby structures or areas that are frequently occupied?
  • What is the SULE (safe useful life expectancy) of the tree?
  • Does the structure and/or presence of defects inhibit the installation of support systems?
  • What is the probability of future failures?
  • What is the cost of repair vs. removal and replacement?

For this situation, I would consider:

  • Pros of keeping the tree:
  • There are no risk factors.
  • The tree is young and growing in a good environment.
  • The cost of repair would be less than removal and replacement.


  • Other than aesthetic and wildlife habitat, the tree does not greatly benefit the property. It is backed by woodlands, and its loss would not cause significant changes.
  • There is a good possibility that even with support, other parts of this tree will fail in the future.
  • Cost of repair may be prohibitive.
Photo 4: After the wind event, with a fresh seam opening on the south side.
Photo 4: After the wind event, with a fresh seam opening on the south side.

Weighing my options

Given the above considerations, this could go either way. Removing the tree would cost about the same as repairing it. If there is no need for a replacement, it may be the best choice. If a replacement is desired, estimate the cost to prepare the site and install a new tree. Consider how long it will take for a new tree to provide similar benefits. Investment in a support system is often the best option.

The scales tipped further in this particular tree’s favor as I still had the tools, materials and experience to do the job myself, and most of the work would be close to the ground. Unlike my other DIY skills, I have had endless opportunities to practice on other people’s trees and would probably not make things worse.

After a review of my trusty Tree Support Systems Best Management Practices (BMPs), I had a Zen-like session with Z regarding the system best suited for its needs. The BMP publication offered some good drawings of possibilities, but none of the trees looked like Z.

Bracing was the only choice, but with multiple stem unions at close intervals, drilling sites were limited. With medium-sized trees (8-20 inches diam., 20-51 cm diam.) that have a split or copious amounts of included bark, a vertically parallel system is suggested, with one rod above the junction and at least one rod below the junction to pull the split together.

the smaller of two stems was removed from one of the split scaffolds.
Photo 5: After considering the pros and cons, the smaller of two stems was removed from one of the split scaffolds.

Contemplating the pros and cons

Before proceeding, I contemplated the pros and cons of removing the smaller of two stems from one of the split scaffolds. Inflicting another wound is counterintuitive, but due to the poor attachment point, the stem would have required its own brace and cable, installed in a less-than-ideal alignment. Removal would reduce the weight on the scaffold, and, from an aesthetic standpoint, it would not be missed. (Photo 5)

I considered using the dead-end bracing technique, as the wood was mostly sound, but the severity of the split suggested through-bracing would be best and easier. (Dead-end bracing is no longer addressed in the A300-2023 standard as a standard practice. Lag-thread hardware for bracing or anchoring should not be installed into any wood with decay or any branch/trunk over 10-inch diameter.)

I elected to go with three through-rods in a modified vertical/crossing system placed in the most suitable sites for drilling, away from stem unions or defects. The first site would be about 12 inches below the split. The second would be just above the split, placed at a slightly crossing angle from the first. The third rod would be installed another 30 inches above the second. Following the BMPs, a five-eighths-inch rod was used, although a half-inch rod would have been acceptable for the upper site.

I rummaged through the shop to assemble what remained of my cabling/bracing tools and supplies:

  • Five-eighths-inch rod, washers, nuts. Galvanized is acceptable, stainless steel is best.
  • Heavy-duty ratchet straps, the wider the better.
  • Two eleven-sixteenths drill bits, 24 inch and 60 inch.
  • Chisel, sharp box-cutter knife and blades.
  • A decent yet underpowered half-inch electric drill.
  • Cordless drill.
  • Level.
  • Gafco Holemeister Z133.
Wide-banded ratchet straps
Photo 6: Wide-banded ratchet straps were employed to close the split.

Tackling the problem using the Gafco Holemeister

The split was pulled together by cranking the ratchet straps tightly in a repeated order until the seam was mostly closed. (Photo 6) I marked the ideal entry and exit points of the drilling sites and then got out the ole’ Gafco Holemeister Z133, an item of historic significance. (Photo 7)

The item was first introduced in an article I wrote way back about installing a cabling/bracing system in a large oak. (“Unchain My Heartwood: Replacing a Tree Support System,” TCI Magazine, November 2012) Most mortals who have tried to drill more than 24 inches or so in a straight and level trajectory through two stems of a tree will probably, at times, have been wildly off the mark. Akin to brain surgery, there are no mulligans in hole drilling, and creating more holes than needed is widely frowned upon.

Developing a jig

After more than a few wayward drilling attempts over the years, I developed a jig to restrain my always forward but never straight tendencies. The design is simple and adjustable. The ends are aligned and screwed into the respective sites. A level can rest on the jig to help confirm alignment. (Photo 8)

Use of this jig does not guarantee perfect drilling. Too much pressure on the drill applied in any direction can divert the bit, and the greater the distance, the more out of alignment it will be. Still, it is a decent upgrade from freestyling. The Gafco Holemeister Z133, $19.99 for a limited time only. Act fast, supplies are limited.

Photo 7: The Gafco Holemeister, ready to drill.
Photo 7: The Gafco Holemeister, ready to drill.

The half-inch electric drill (Photo 9) was as underpowered for the task as when I last used it, but it would do the job with a patient hand. Taking small bites at a time and clearing shavings out frequently, I came reasonably close to the exit marks – centered, but a bit off level. I did not need to switch to the longer bit until halfway through the third hole.

Final steps

The bark was just thick enough to justify its removal and countersinking of the washer and nut. I inserted the rods and traced the washer locations. With no Forstner drill bit available, a chisel was used to remove the bark just to the sapwood, and the edges of the wound cut clean with the box cutter.

Photo 8: Leveling the Holemeister.
Photo 8: Leveling the Holemeister.

(Ed: This is in opposition to the new ANSI A300-2023, “7.6.13 Washers should be seated on the wood and shall not be countersunk into the wood.” There is no biological or mechanical reason to countersink washers.)

Photo 9: The half-inch electric drill was underpowered for the task, but would do.
Photo 9: The half-inch electric drill was underpowered for the task, but would do.

The rods were removed, then reinstalled with a washer and nut already on one peened-over terminal. The remaining washers and nuts were installed and tightened until firm resistance was met. Before cutting off the extra rod lengths, the straps were loosened and the seam was checked for any movement. Once satisfied that the seam was stabilized, the excess rod lengths were cut and the nuts peened over. (Photo 10)

BMPs suggest a cable should be installed along with any bracing, but I did not feel it necessary at this time and figured I could keep with the program and procrastinate until another ’round tuit came my way. (Photo 11)

The final results

Photo 10: The nut is tightened, and the excess rod is trimmed and peened over.
Photo 10: The nut is tightened, and the excess rod is trimmed and peened over.

A few windstorms later, Z remains unified. The soon-to-be-born-again foliage offers excellent cover for myriad birds that visit here, and I look forward to enjoying and observing all that goes on within and around its protective crown.

An individual’s presence on earth may be a blessing, a curse or inconsequential. I am no Greta Thunberg, but I did allow Z to continue storing CO2 rather than becoming another source entering the atmosphere. Saving the planet, one tree at a time.

Photo 11: All buttoned up.
Photo 11: All buttoned up.

I would like to dedicate this article to, and acknowledge the passing of, fellow lifetime arborist Benjamin Staples, BCMA. Ben never met a worthy tree he could not cable, brace or prop back together. A true champion of trees, he could often be found “out standing in his field,” offering sage advice, photographing nature or singing its praises. Rest easy, Ben.

Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts Certified Arborist, is the owner of Gaffin Tree in Rowley, Massachusetts. He also is a member of TCI Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee.

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