Saving the Maltby Oak in Palatka, Fl
(Article written for the Putnam County Environmental Council newsletter, Green Gazette, June-July, 2007)
Project: Rejuvenate the Maltby Oak and remove dead branches to make it safer
Location: Courthouse grounds in Palatka, FL
Significance: The Maltby Oak has been a centerpiece for the community for years. Many wedding vows have been exchanged beneath its spreading canopy.
When: starting in January, 2005 and on-going
Owner: Putnam County and Putnam County Commission
When the Putnam County Board of County Commissioners voted to have the historic Maltby Oak taken down in January 2005, the tree was in poor condition following years of apparently little maintenance. And to make matters worse, the 2004 hurricane season winds had stripped off most of the foliage giving the Maltby Oak and even more stark appearance. Closer examination showed that about 12 inches of fill soil had been brought in about 20 years earlier causing decay on about 33% of the base of the trunk where the fill soil had
been piled against the trunk. Root suffocation caused by the fill soil and decay in the vascular plumbing at the base of the trunk had caused some of the branches to die. And lack of a regular pruning program to remove dead branches had caused a dangerous condition for pedestrians walking under the tree near the courthouse. Dead branches will eventually fall. And there was a strong likelihood that a falling branch could injure a pedestrian. If that happened, I knew the tree would have to be taken down. In February 2005 the County Commission agreed to give the Maltby Oak a reprieve and allow additional work on the tree to try to save it. Safety was my primary concern before doing anything else. The dead branches were removed in February 2005 with the help of Sammy Morgan, who operates a Palatka area tree service. Next I used an Air Spade, an excavation device that uses high velocity air to move soil away from roots. I cleared the fill soil away from the base of the trunk. Research has demonstrated that removing fill soil away from the base of the trunk can slow down or even stop decay caused by wet soil against the trunk. I used the Air Spade three different times in the following 15 months to slowly and carefully clear the soil away from the root flare at the base of the trunk. Nations Rent provided the air compressor at no charge. Bushor Tree Service of Jacksonville helped with more dead branch removal in the winter of 2006.
In July 2006 Taylor Tree Services of St. Augustine assisted me in doing radial trenching under the tree canopy to stimulate root growth. Radial trenching is a relatively new technique where six 4-inch wide 18-inch deep trenches are cut in the soil beneath the canopy radiating out from the trunk like spokes on a wheel. The trenching cuts some of the smaller roots which helps stimulate new root growth in the trench, which is filled with a soil-compost mixture. Morgan, Bushor and Taylor all donated their services. Finally, in mid-summer 2006 the entire area under the canopy was mulched. The Putnam County Environmental Council, Inc. paid for the mulch and county workers along with a prison crew helped spread the mulch. The mulch application eliminated competition from the turf. The mulch will also break down slowly and enrich the soil with nutrients and organic matter making the soil beneath the Maltby Oak much like the soil in a forest environment. Today over two years later (June, 2007 when this article was written), the Maltby Oak appears to be gradually improving.
It is a slow process. Because most of the trunk decay affects the vascular system on the southwest and west side of the trunk, that is the side of the canopy that is showing the most stress. It is possible that we will have to remove a couple more branches soon. The decay in the lower trunk appears from tests to be superficial affecting the vascular system and sap wood near the surface but not affecting the structural strength of the trunk. In the worst case, we may have to one day fence off the grounds under the tree for the safety of pedestrians. I hope not but we will have to see how much more dieback occurs on the southwest and west side of the canopy. But even if the worst case occurs and we have to fence off the grounds under the tree, the Maltby Oak, in my opinion, should be around for many more years to come. The sheer size of the Maltby Oak and its ability to survive is awe-inspiring. But the process of aging –reduced photosynthesis, competition for resources, vascular plumbing damage and decay — all conspire to shorten the life of the Maltby Oak. We need to understand the needs of our ancient giant trees, and we have to be tolerant of their inevitable defects. Every old tree links us with our past and with future generations.
The Maltby Oak Gets a Boost
(Article is from the Putnam Daily News, May 15, 2010)
It’s been called a centerpiece in the community and a living monument to the history of Palatka. With the help of a state grant the grand old maltby Oak that graces the lawn at the Putnam County Courthouse will continue its legacy.
According to Ramicah Watkins of Keep Putnam Beautiful, her organization was awarded an $8,124 Forest Health Improvement Initiative Grant through the Department of Agriculture. “There has been an ongoing effort from community groups, citizens and tree experts to save this tree for the past five years and the results are visible,” Watkins said. “The tree is much healthier and greener but needs additional maintenance efforts.
That will come from Chuck Lippi, a Board Certified Master Arborist and retired University of Florida extension agent who is considered a tree preservation specialist. He owns Advanced Tee Care Inc. in St. Augustine.
“The grant includes money to install a lightning protection system in the tree,” Lippi said in an e-mail. “It also includes money to take out some of the old cabling and replace some. There is also some money for some pruning to remove dead branches and for root rejuvenation work such as we did about three years ago.” Lippi said the community has a veteran tree in the Maltby and it has to be treated carefully.
“We don’t want to over fertilize the old tree,” he said. “It would be the equivalent of giving grandpa a dose of steroids for building muscle. Not a good idea. Too much stimulus is not a good thing for really old people or old trees.”
The Maltby Oak is estimated to be more than 150 years old. It was named for the Hubert Maltby, who adopted the tree, taking care of it and propping up its limbs as they spread out over the walkways and benches to the east of the courthouse, Watkins said. Mr. Maltby was the Putnam County agricultural agent from 1946-64” she said. “The tree was officially named the Maltby Oak in 1979.
According to Watkins, the Putnam County Commission voted to have the tree removed for safety reasons in 2005.“There was an outcry from the citizens and local experts who were willing to volunteer their time, equipment and expertise and local groups, businesses and individuals, who made contributions and the commission agreed to give the Maltby Oak a reprieve and allow additional work on the tree to try to save it,” she said.
And that’s what Lippi hopes to do. “It is improving slowly,” he said. “It took about 25 years for the decline to take hold. It will take a few years to get the decline turned around.”
According to Lippi, the tree has considerable decay on the lower trunk on the south side due to fill soil that was added over the roots and against the trunk about 25 years ago. It’s damage that cannot be repaired. “The tree has to function with about 33 percent of its conductive system (plumbing) gone,” he said. “That is why we are still seeing some dieback of branches in the crown.” Lippi said overall the tree can live with the decay, and if kept healthy, it can wall of sections of decay.
“Live oaks have a pretty remarkable system for protecting themselves from decay; when they are healthy,” he said. “So my goal is to keep the Maltby Oak as healthy as possible mostly by giving the roots plenty of space without competition from other plants and making sure the irrigation system is not excessive or deficient. And by providing organic mulch around the entire tree underneath the canopy, we are improving the soil and the resources available for the tree.”
Watkins said the Maltby Oak is part of the history of Palatka and Putnam County — one she’s happy is being preserved. “One of the things I remember when I was a child growing up was Christmastime and we would go down St. Johns Avenue and see it all decorated and lit up,” she said. “As a child I always remember looking forward to that.”
As part of an effort to preserve the Maltby Oak, Keep Putnam Beautiful will have more than a dozen oak trees, which were grown from Maltby Oak acorns, planted on public property including the Water Works in Palatka. Dennie Floyd, former owners of the Great Maltry Oak Tree Co. and South Scape, a landscaping business, donated the trees.
Each tree will be a gift from the city of Palatka and Keep Putnam Beautiful and offered to area municipalities such as Interlachen, Crescent City, Pomona Park, Welaka and others and will include a commemorative plaque in memory of Floyd’s son, Blair.
“They’re about 15 feet tall now,” Watkins said. “We would like a descendant of the Maltby Oak to be in each of our municpalities. The rest of the trees will probably be planted at schools or other publicaly owned property through Putnam County.”
For detqails on Keep Putnam Beautiful or its projects, visit www.KeepPutnamBeautiful.org or call (386)325-9598.
Lippi said he thinks with the proper care, residents can expect at least another 50 years of having the grand old oak gracing the courtyard in downtown Palatka. “It depends how the Maltby can handle the decay in the lower trunk,” he said. “If we can keep it healthy and protect it from a lightning strike, who knows? The Maltby may live to be 300 years old. Let’s hope so.”
Contributors to the preservation of the Maltby Oak
Pruning: Sammy Morgan of Palatka (2005)
Buschor Tree Service, Jacksonville (2006)
Jeb Teutonof Above & Beyond Tree Service Palatka (2009)(2013)
Guy Meilleur of Better Tree Care Associates Apex, NC (2009, 2010)
Root Rejuvenation – radial trenching Dan LeBlanc of Taylor Tree Services, St. Augustine (2006)
Equipment: compressor for AirSpade work and trencher donated by Sun Power (formerly Nations Rent), Palatka (2006)
Mulch and compost: Timothy Keyser of Interlachen and Karen Ahlers
The Putnam County Environmental Council
Grounds maintenace and weed control: Bill Futch, Putnam County grounds supervisor (now retired).