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Spring Tree Care 101

Landscapes, Spring, Winter

Trees at dusk in SpringThe snows have dispersed, now grass returns to the fields and leaves to the trees. -- Horace

I've been getting a few questions about tree care recently and with good reason - the heavy snows this winter have taken their toll on a lot of trees and shrubs, leaving us with damaged or weakened trees in our yards and landscapes.

The first thing not to do is panic! Trees are very hardy and will survive some of the most severe conditions imaginable - some even need to be subjected to burning in order to produce seed. Trees have survived, untended, for centuries. What places them at risk is how we have intervened in the landscapes of our neighborhoods - improperly sited, incorrectly planted, unmatched to their environment and exposed to toxins we think will improve our quality of life. Trees are here for the long haul - as John F. Kennedy shared in one of his speeches -

The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!'

Tree stripped by rabbitsThe snow and cold have resulted in trees losing limbs or even being toppled completely. As you are evaluating the damage to the trees in your care, here are some tips for how to proceed

  1. Remove any dead branches

  2. Remove any branches that are damaged or are causing damage

  3. Reshape and Rebalance

  4. Plant another tree

Remove any dead branches

Dead branches only expose the tree to further risk - insect infestation, mold and rot will continue to attack and weaken the tree. The branches are already dead, they can't be any more dead! Get rid of them and your tree will thank you.

Look carefully at where the branch joins the trunk, you should find the 'collar' or 'shoulder' - a swelling around the branch. You want to cut on the outside of the collar, away from the trunk. Do not cut flush with the trunk - the tree will have a harder time healing. Should you seal the cut? Opinions differ on this. I'm of the opinion you shouldn't need to seal a properly cut limb.

Remove any branches that are damaged or are causing damage

They aren't dead, yet, to quote Monty Python. Branches that are cracked, have bark peeled off, are oozing sap are telling you something. If the branch is primary limb, you'll want to call in a professional - an arborist. Even though trees are long-lived, they will all eventually die. Your calling is to care for them as best you can.

A damaged limb presents many of the same dangers a dead one does. Also in this category are limbs that cross over other limbs, rub against another, or encroach into other structures, like your house, the street, or power lines. If you are dealing with power lines - call the power company! They have crews specially trained for dealing with trees around utilities. Don't risk it!

Be on the look out for branches that are potential problems - they may not need immediate attention, but they will need attention soon.

Reshape and Rebalance

Now that you have the dead branches removed and the damaged and damaging branches trimmed, it's time to reshape and rebalance the tree. Trees are pretty symmetrical - they have a shape that looks the same from every side. With all those limbs removed, does the tree still have balance? Removing a major limb can make the tree lopsided and begin to put stress on the root system. Some trees will even fall over, becoming completely uprooted after being cleaned up.

While this portion has a lot to do with aesthetics, it also has to do with the stability of the tree's structure. Normal pruning of a tree or shrub should be limited to removing no more than 1/4 - 1/3 of the tree. If you've lost 1/3 - 1/2 of the tree or more because of dead and damaged limbs, it's really time to start evaluating replacing the tree. Or, call in a professional for another opinion and some recommendations.

Plant another tree

As I stated earlier - trees do have a limited lifespan. At some point, they will die, despite all our efforts. We need to plan for when that will happen. There is no quick replacement you can get for a mature oak or maple, towering 60 feet tall. Even fast growing trees will only add 1' - 2' a year in height, so plan on waiting 30 - 40 years before your new tree fills the other's spot.

When you do plant a new tree, educate yourself about the soil and native conditions of your neighborhood and select a tree suited to those conditions. Then, plant it in the right spot at the right depth and in the right-sized hole. It's not rocket science, but it is becoming a lost art. I even see commercial properties and city boulevards lined with trees sorrounded by a mulch volcano. If you pull back the mulch, you'll probably also find stem-girdling roots, caused by improper planting. Do your homework, take your time and don't be afraid to ask for help.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
-- Martin Luther

I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!
-- John Muir

Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object; and on a certain level, it is. But when you look more closely at the tree, you will see that ultimately it has no independent existence. When you contemplate it, you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretches across the universe. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that sways it, the soil that nourishes and sustains it, all the seasons and the weather, moonlight and starlight and sunlight - all form part of this tree. As you begin to think about the tree more and more, you will discover that everything in the universe helps to make the tree what it is, that it cannot at any moment be isolated from anything else, and that at every moment its nature is subtly changing.
-- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Quotes from http://www.treelink.org/linx/Quotesearch.php

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