The fate of trees downed by storms: mulch

Pat Platt, 77, uses pruning shears on small branches of a maple tree that fell on her driveway in West Chester.
Pat Platt, 77, uses pruning shears on small branches of a maple tree that fell on her driveway in West Chester. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2014

When the storms rolled in last month, people were preoccupied with getting their power back and moving all those fallen trees off the roads and driveways.

What would happen to the trees that fell? That was a problem for later.

Well, later is now, and homeowners and workers around the region are still collecting and disposing of the trees that caused so much havoc.

"The bottom line is, it's just everywhere," Rick Crecraft, who owns a tree-trimming company, said after one of the worst storms. "Nobody escaped this one."

The priority for public workers soon after or during a storm was to keep the roads open. So, depending on the size of the fallen tree and who responded and when, the trees were either chipped up on the spot or cut into logs and often left at the side of the road.

In some cases, the county or township workers returned to collect the debris. Often, however, they didn't. That job was left to the owner of the tree.

"We'll put the remnants [of the tree] into the property" of the owner, said Cal Morrison, county manager for Bucks County. "We're not going to pay to clean up the remnants. Sometimes the property owners aren't happy about that."

Christine Edkins of Radnor Township was one of the lucky ones. A tree fell across the road in front of her home and onto the lawn during last month's ice storm. The township responded quickly, cut up the tree to clear the road, and removed the smaller debris from near the house.

So all Edkins had to do was hire a company to get rid of the larger logs the township crews left on her lawn.

"They got rid of the biggest problem," Edkins said. "Let's put it that way."

When county or township workers collect the wood, maintenance managers said, the most common and the simplest way to dispose of it is to chip it and return it to the woods or an open area.

"If we chip it, it gets side-cast on an embankment if that's the setting," said Howard Houseknecht, a county manager for Montgomery County.

If it's in a residential or farming area, though, the county workers will usually haul the chips to a storage facility for use as mulch on county property.

Peco Energy Co. and its private contractors, such as Asplundh Tree Services, often pay other companies, as part of an overall environmental initiative, to recycle the chips into mulch.

For instance, Zeager Bros., a mulch producer based in Middletown, Pa., that has a contract with Peco, processes the chips it receives into a fine mulch that is sold to garden centers, landscapers, and landscape suppliers.

"They get darker during the composting process," Ernie Miller, director of landscaping with Zeager Bros., said of the chips. That makes for good garden mulch, he said.

In 2013, Zeager Bros. processed more than 6,000 tons of wood chips from Peco and Asplundh, Miller said.

Of course, the best way to avoid having trees tear down power lines and block roads is to keep them from falling in the first place.

That's why, Greg Smore, a Peco spokesman, said the company continually trims trees and vegetation away from its 13,500 miles of lines in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

"Vegetation can cause one-third of all power outages," Smore said, "which is why we have such a proactive management program."



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