Two grand sycamores and a cypress are the stars of Toni Dunican's front yard in Northport.
When people walk by Dunican's home, she doesn’t want them to say, "Oh my God, that’s a gorgeous house." She’d prefer they look beyond the Dutch Colonial and remark, "Those trees look so nice with that house."
That’s precisely the reason she painted it olive green, she says — to make the plants pop. A small Tamukeyama Japanese maple tree is also making its debut in the front yard. She planted it in honor of her neighbor, who died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dunican purchased it for $250 from a nearby nursery.
Many Long Islanders like Dunican take immense pride in their landscaping, and in particular, their trees. The aspiration to live somewhere that’s green is very much alive and well, according to Realtor Michael Gregoretti. He’s been serving the South Shore of Nassau County and some parts of Queens since 2008.
"People still want to live in the middle of a tree-lined street," he says. "That is the most desirable spot, especially if it’s across the street from the electric wires and not right on the property."
Planting and maintaining those trees — that’s another story. It can be time-consuming and costly. But for some Long Islanders, it’s worth it.
Planting the seeds
There are hundreds of species of trees on Long Island, according to John Wernet, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 1 Forester. He says Nassau County is home to oak trees predominantly, while Suffolk has plenty of pines.
The environments are different, too: the soil in Nassau tends to be clay-like in texture and can hold water better, allowing for hardwoods to thrive, and Suffolk is more sandy and lends itself to pine growth, Wernet says.
Once you know what you’re working with, the experts agree — it’s time to call an arborist.
Jack Harder runs Harder Services Inc., a tree and landscaping company based in Hempstead that will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. They offer their services all over Long Island and New York City.
Harder says factors like age, disease and even storms, like the recent tornadoes that lashed Long Island, are inevitable. But getting professional advice about all of that can help sustain your tree’s life.
"The fact of the matter is that at any point in time, a perfectly healthy tree can uproot or lose limbs," he says. "You can do the best you can to manage those risks by taking the proper steps like regular pruning and having a professional arborist take a look and provide an educated opinion on the condition of the tree and what needs to be done."
But he adds, this perspective may differ from that of a landscaper, who may not always have the expertise or equipment needed when it comes to your trees.
"The opinion of your landscaper relates to landscaping; the tree professional should handle tree opinions," Harder says.
Of course, any tree service can become expensive, but it varies. "It's hard to put a figure on that because every situation can be different," he says. "I think the biggest factor that impacts the price is access."
By this, Harder means whether a bucket truck will be able to reach the tree. If a tree is in the middle of a backyard or hanging over a pool or patio, that adds more work and time, leading to a higher price. There are also factors such as the tree's size and condition.
But if you call a company first, you may be able to get some free advice.
"Most of the time, if not all, a caller is going to get a free estimate from a landscaping or tree company," Harder says. "It's worthwhile to call a few companies and explain what you want, and then ask to meet and have a conversation. This way you can get professional advice and pricing, and make a decision based on your budget."
He adds that he understands when people decide to spend their money on other parts of their home instead, especially something indoors.
"It’s not always on top of people’s lists, until there’s a storm and they have a large tree limb across their backyard," he says.
'Just let nature go'
In the 42 years living in her Northport home, Dunican has seen it all — trees impacted by disease, lightning striking branches in her neighborhood, even trees falling on her pool and home during Superstorm Sandy. (Luckily, the recent tornadoes didn't cause any damage.)
But the retired elementary school teacher considers it all lessons learned while standing in what she calls her "little piece of heaven." Dunican’s backyard features fig, maple, laburnum and jasmine trees, not to mention a weeping lilac and vibrant flowers.
There’s also a holly tree that Dunican says her husband, Geff, would prefer to remove because it’s diseased. "But it’s a beautiful roost for the birds," Dunican says, "so that’s why it doesn't come down."
She has sentimental connections to trees in her yard, including one planted around 1989 when her son was 6. Last year, her grandson climbed and broke a branch off of it, when he was around the same age. Its large, weeping stature and pointy leaves can still be admired right in front of Dunican's porch.
A tree company comes every two years to really clean things up, and they consult an arborist. She admits that it’s costly.
"We’re careful how we spend our money so even though we’re 75 years old, my husband and I do a lot of our own work," Dunican says.
They trim branches, clean up the lawn and use dormant oil to control pests. But they do welcome other visitors — Dunican feeds birds, squirrels and has noticed several bird nests around the backyard through the years.
One tree in between her home and her neighbor’s yard is diseased and was already pretty large when they first moved in, decades ago. But Dunican won’t get rid of a tree unless it’s "a nuisance and a safety hazard."
"You can feed trees, we’ve done that in the past, you can do root injections," she says. "It’s all very costly, so you just let nature go. That’s in part how we do it. You let nature take it, and then you adapt."
Putting down roots
Married couple Andrew Ruiz and Kim Carstens had to adapt when they moved to Glen Head two years ago. They taught themselves to care for all of the greenery throughout their property, including juniper, hickory and sugar maple trees.
"Every weekend we do a lot of trimming and leaf and stick pickup," says Carstens, 27.
They purchased a wheelbarrow, electric pole saw, clippers and loppers. Their lawn is mowed by a landscaping company — everything else, they do themselves. It takes about two hours each time, from setup to cleanup, but only 45 minutes if they're just picking up fallen branches.
Their yard wasn't impacted by the recent tornadoes — besides some clogged gutters.
"I really like this area, and how pretty and green it is," Carstens says. "And I like the trees and I like having it kind of forest-y."
The couple and their 1-year-old daughter live in a house built by Ruiz’s grandfather. "We have pictures from the '50s and that tree at the end of the driveway was so tiny," Carstens says.
The most challenging part of tree maintenance for them is the cleanup, she notes — the leaf and stick removal is constant. Carstens feels as if they’ve gotten the hang of everything else, for the most part. One mistake they made at the beginning was letting certain trees grow too much, which prevented grass in the area from growing because of how shaded it was.
"We did a lot of research and then it’s trial-and-error, what works in what spot and what thrives in this sunlight and this soil," she says. "We’re still figuring it out, two years in."
Barking up the right tree
Harder has a tip for homeowners, based on experience: When planting trees in your yard, make sure they’re acclimated to Long Island’s environment, or else they could die during the winter.
"A lot of people want palm trees around their patios for summertime, but they’re not native to this area," he says.
Instead, he suggests scoping out your local nurseries.
Pricing for different services usually varies, he says — for example, an average homeowner looking to plant a tree in their yard by a professional landscaper would probably spend between $250 and $500.
As for doing the work by yourself, Harder's advice: Call an expert, or just be careful.
"With tree work, what a lot of people don't understand is the weight of the wood can be very heavy," he says. "Homeowners might not think it's a big deal to reach from the ground with pole saw. When used properly, these are efficient tools that can take care of a lot of minor maintenance on your own. But if you don't know what you're doing, you can hurt yourself."
There’s value in maintaining your trees like any other part of your home, he adds.
"People think of property maintenance as mowing the lawn," Harder says. "Trees and shrubs need care. There’s always risks present, similar to how you would get your chimney cleaned or your pipes checked, or have an electrician check out your wiring. It’s just as important to maintain a relationship with a local tree contractor to talk about the outside of your property."
Dunican would agree. She’s always taken care of the nature around her home, but says she became especially connected with her outdoor space during the pandemic, when she had more time on her hands. Now, her backyard is a second home.
"Trees inform your living space, and your living space informs your trees," she says.
Want to get greener? Tips from a tree pro
Jack Harder says there are three categories of trees for homeowners to plant: large shade trees (including oak, maple and tulip), evergreens (hemlock trees, white pines and Norway spruce trees) and ornamental trees (dogwoods, crape myrtles and cherry trees).
If you're looking to add something to your yard, Harder recommends ornamental trees: "Most houses in our area, as long as you have some lawn space in your front yard, you can fit an ornamental tree, like a dogwood or cherry." It won't take up too much room and since it's a relatively smaller tree, there will be less leaf pickup, he adds. "It has the beauty of a tree without the threat of large limbs coming down in a storm."
But some leaf pickup is inevitable with any tree, Harder says. "Depending on type of tree you have and how big it is, it's possible to selectively prune it to reduce the number of branches or size, if it's appropriate to do that."
Some more advice from Harder: Don't build that treehouse, or plant that bamboo in the ground. As for the treehouse: "It could really damage the tree significantly, and that would rain on the time, money and effort to build it, to then find out next spring that you killed the tree."
Harder says he doesn't see this happen too often anymore, but planting bamboo in the ground becomes "very aggressive" because the roots won't stay in one spot and can grow all over your yard, making it "impossible to control." He also wouldn't recommend planting a weeping willow near the foundation of a house or septic system, since the roots will thrive in soggy soil and grow aggressively.
— RACHEL WEISS