How to nurse your trees through a rough winter | KEYE Austin - Green Right Now Austin News, Weather, Traffic KEYE-TV Austin - HOME
Jan 112010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Winter is not when we typically think strategically about trees. We may notice the glittering displays of icicles draped from their branches as we re-stack the firewood pile and shovel the front walk. But tree maintenance? It shifts to the bottom of our checklist.

Ice-glazed tree (Photo: GreenRightNow.)

Ice-glazed trees may need expert attention. (Photo: Green Right Now)

And yet, the winter months are an excellent time to train an eye on our arboriculture — to check for cracking or peeling bark, identify broken branches and address damage from ice and snow storms.

Let’s consider first those broken branches. There are likely to be many this winter as the nation endures repeated onslaughts of arctic winds and weather.

The first thing to do when seeing a tree in trouble, says Arbor Day Foundation arborist Robert Smith, is to carefully assess the damage, and be realistic and safe in how you deal with the problem.

Smith often advises homeowners to take a binoculars out and examine large trees for immediate weather damage, as well as existing problems that may not have been evident when the tree was in full foliage. But he stresses that a tree owner should stay grounded.

“If you’re going out and inspecting the tree, the first consideration always is safety,” Smith said. “If it’s a young tree planted in the last couple years that’s out on your property and there’s some damage and there’s work that could be done from the ground… you could remove cracked or down branches.”

If you find yourself heading to the garage for a ladder,  however, stop yourself, says Smith. Taller trees require the expert attendance of a certified arborist, who will have the appropriate equipment.

Not only do most homeowners lack the proper saws to make the necessary clean cut needed so the tree seal off the wound, they probably have no training in safe arbor care, and many have been seriously injured or killed in falls, says Smith. (Those saws, btw, are available for sale at some hardware store, but always at specialized tree care retailers like Sherrill Tree for those who have smaller trees to manage.)

Even though it’s winter, don’t hesitate to call an arborist, says Smith, because a tree expert can actually get a lot accomplished in these chilly months when the trees are in their latent stage.

Trees can be successfully pruned in the winter,  and may even do better being pruned in advance of the growing season.

Most importantly, a certified arborist can best advise you about how to proceed with a tree that’s been damaged. Often there’s a way to save the tree, and that’s not just tree-hugger talk.

Hold Off! This tree can probably be saved. (Image: Arbor Day Foundation.)

Hold Off! This tree can probably be saved. (Image: Arbor Day Foundation.)

Smith remembers an early season blizzard that slammed Lincoln, Nebraska, where Arbor Day is based, 12 years ago. It began with a sudden freezing rain, hitting trees that were still green and growing. Within 24 hours, they were coated in ice and weighted with snow. Many of the trees must have looked beyond recovery, to the unstudied eye, he said. But more than a decade later, Smith can see many that survived that early winter blast. They’re the ones that were properly trimmed and given a chance to continue growing.

So don’t give up on 20 or 30 years of natural shade unless you’re certain the tree has been fatally compromised. A key to helping the tree recover is that clean cut.  “Trees don’t heal, they seal. They actually wall off or compartmentalize injuries. They don’t heal like you and I do, they don’t heal, they actually wall off injuries,” Smith said.

Arbor Day offers specific guidance on cutting trees limbs. The tree advocacy non-profit also issues guides on assessing damaged trees, such as its step-by-step Can They Trees Be Saved guide (see image, right), to help tree owners determine how to proceed with an impaired tree. This guide acknowledges that sometimes trees are injured beyond help, and offers depictions of what that sort of damage looks like.

The group also issues tips on what Smith calls “tree triage” or first aid for trees.  This guide urges homeowners to approach the problem with caution, gives specifics about pruning branches and argues for a conservative approach to save trees when possible. It advises:

  • Removing the jagged remains of smaller sized broken limbs is one common repair that property owners can make after a storm. If done properly, it will minimize the risk of decay agents entering the wound.
  • Smaller branches should be pruned at the point where they join larger ones.
  • Large branches that are broken should be cut back to the trunk or a main limb by an arborist. Cut first a short distance out from where the branch meets the tree; then closer in. (See details at Arbor Day’s webpage on pruning. )

Some other dos and don’ts from Smith and the Arbor Day Foundation:

  • Don’t let a passing work crew “take out” your damaged tree before you can have it professionally assessed. The tree might be salvageable, but the people soliciting your business are likely to be more interested in earning some quick cash than the long term viability of your landscape.
  • Recognize that you don’t have to make an immediate decision about whether a tree should be removed. “There are times when people can come in and prune a tree that’s been severely damaged and then evaluate the health and condition of that tree over a period of years, then with an arborist make a decision whether or not it should remain in the landscape,” Smith said.
  • Water trees in winter? Sure. Even better, deep water them, around the fall line away from the trunk, in late autumn, says Smith. That’s when you also should place mulch around the base, though not up against the trunk, which can invite pests. Mulch keeps soil moist and warm in the cold season, just as it helps during the summer to moderate the soil temperature. If winter is dry and windy where you are, water trees just as you might in warmer weather. You can also shield trees, especially new ones, from winter winds by surrounding them with a mini-fence of chicken wire, set out from the trunk, and covered with burlap, as Smith does.
  • But when it comes to extra pruning, just say no. “Topping” a tree by cutting its canopy, can be harmful to decorative trees or any specimen. “Topping trees is always a bad idea,” says Smith. It never helps, and often hurts the health of the tree. Even those crape myrtles in the South are damaged by the winter shearing that many undergo. In the business, Smith said, this popular but ill-advised practice has been nicknamed “Crape Murder”. Read more about shearing back on shearings at the website Plant Amnesty.

So tend to those trees in winter — on calm and sunny days, and you may be rewarded with a bounty of spring foliage.

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