I Wish I’d Taken a Closer Look at the Trees in My Yard Before Buying My Home — Here’s Why

published Nov 9, 2022
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When my husband and I made an offer on our first home three years ago, we thought we’d looked closely at every single detail. We considered the age and state of the home and its roof, the pros and cons of moving onto a corner lot, and whether or not the house met all of our immediate needs. We even made a list of updates it may require and what those updates could cost. But it turns out we missed one big thing: We never looked up at the trees. Somehow after reading countless articles about what to look for when buying your first home, none of them had mentioned the health of the trees in the surrounding area or yard.

Of course, we noticed the three large trees towering over the edge of our tiny backyard when we first viewed the house, but we never looked twice at them. The biggest one was wedged between our garage and our neighbor’s home. It was so tall it loomed over both our yards.

The other two trees flanked our driveway and didn’t provide much shade for the yard, but I’d remembered reading once about the benefits of a neighborhood with lots of trees. Easy win, I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Looking back, I wish we knew to pay closer attention to the size, health, and location of the trees in our backyard. Collectively, they became the biggest — and most unexpected — nuisance.

This summer, we had to make the difficult decision to remove all three of them. It wasn’t an easy or affordable decision to make, but by the time we realized they were more of a problem than a delight, it was too late to address it any other way. Let me explain.

We closed on the house in late fall, so there weren’t any leaves on the trees at the time. We didn’t notice the trees were unhealthy until that first spring, when the leaves began to grow back. There were large portions of the trees where leaves were no longer growing. That was the first red flag of many.

By early summer, we noticed something else — large sections of the trees’ leaves were turning yellow, then brown, and falling in large amounts onto our porch. We started joking that it was “always fall” in our yard. It wasn’t happening to our neighbors, but they had different species of trees in their yards.

On windier days, small- to medium-sized branches would fall onto the roof of our garage and in our driveway. Next came the insects. That first summer, I noticed what seemed to be an unusual number of bees and wasps coming in and out of our yard throughout the day. I’m allergic to bee stings, so I started watching their patterns and noticed something odd — they seemed to be flying in and out of the trees more than the plants down below. The next spring, what appeared to be tiny little green insects fell all over our patio with the leaves. They were everywhere! We didn’t know what to think, but since we weren’t using our backyard much that summer, we remained distracted and focused on other things.

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Fast forward to this summer and all hell broke loose in our backyard. Everything was happening all at once — more brown leaves, more falling debris, bees and wasps galore, little green insects — plus one new problem. There was a very sticky substance dripping from the trees around the clock and it was wreaking havoc on our patio furniture, plants, and car. The leaves started falling even faster — and this time they were covered in a black mold that would spread all over our deck and outdoor furniture covers when it rained. 

Within weeks, our yard was almost unusable. We were washing our cars every few days because the residue was so powerful that it broke our windshield wipers. The black mold was all over the place, too, including on our neighbor’s cars and garage roofs. They started to complain, and rightfully so. On top of all this, the wasp population had grown so much that I was running to get in and out of the car when I left the house.

We started calling nearby arborists for advice and they all said the same thing: Our trees were badly infested with aphids and spotted lantern flies, a new invasive species damaging crops in the Northeast. The sticky substance, they told us, was called honeydew, and it was being secreted by the insects. The black mold is known as sooty mold, which is a fungal disease that grows on plants and other surfaces covered by honeydew. That’s when we realized all the problems we were having with the trees since we moved in were connected.

The experts agreed that our trees hadn’t been treated for pests in years — if at all — and the infestation had snowballed. When the spotted lantern flies emerged and joined the aphids in the sap-sucking, the trees were being fed on constantly. We also learned that the three trees were all in the Linden family, a species of trees known to attract pollinators, hence all the bees and wasps. 

When we inquired about treatment options that wouldn’t force us to cut down the trees, things got complicated. Because of the size and placement of the trees, getting up there to use insecticides to treat the infestations would be almost impossible. We could’ve tried a systemic insecticide instead, which would’ve been applied to the soil at the base of the trees and killed the insects when they fed on the sap. The problem was, none of the arborists could guarantee that those treatments (which were pricey) would work. In the event they did work, they still might’ve had to have been performed annually.

Even the tree-loving arborists who, like us, don’t believe in cutting down trees unless you absolutely must, agreed that our best option was to remove them. In hindsight, had we known the signs of a pest-infested tree in advance, or if we’d become more familiar with the type of trees growing in our backyard, we might have been able to address this problem much earlier. At the very least, we could have planned to budget for annual tree health maintenance. 

Now that the trees are gone, we have the full use of our yard back — something we cherish — and so do our neighbors. This was a lesson learned, for sure. We do wish we’d been more informed and proactive in the beginning when we could have done more to save our trees. But we didn’t know what we didn’t know. 

My best advice to those looking to purchase a home? Don’t forget to look up. Pay attention to the trees on the property, especially if you’re able to view them during the spring and summer months when signs of trouble are more obvious. Also, if you think you may have a major tree pest infestation, start treatments at the first sign of it. (Aphids aren’t the only tree-sap loving pests out there — mealybugs, leafhoppers, and soft scales can also cause a similar problem.) The longer the problem persists, the more difficult and more expensive it will be to address. I learned that the hard way.