Caring for damaged trees important, but doing so can be risky proposition

Now's a good time to assess the damage to trees from December's ice storm. But before trying to do t

My once graceful European white birch tree now looks like an inverted “V.” No match for last winter’s ice storm, it snapped in half. The top now hangs by a sliver of shredded trunk, looking defeated.

Similar reminders of the ice storm are everywhere: broken limbs piled at the curb; locusts with yellow gashes where branches used to be; toppled poplars, their roots jutting toward the sky.

Now that the snow has melted, there’s no excuse not to tend to storm-ravaged trees, and the sooner it’s done, the better, says Chris Logue, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County. “The longer you have damage, particularly an open wound that is jagged, the more likely water is going to get into it; it’s going to attract insects; it’s going to get colonized by fungi; and that’s going to further deteriorate the tree,” he says.

Assess the damage

But before you decide to haul out the ladder and gas up the chain saw, take some advice from the pros. First, assess your trees, recommends Don Jefts, certified arborist and owner of Native Landscaping and Tree Service in Scotia. “Go out there, look the trees up and down,” he suggests. “Look for obvious defects like hanging, dead branches, open rotten spots, split branches or crotches that have split.”

Many trees damaged by the storm can make a full recovery, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. “If something is totally tipped over, there’s probably not much you can do for it,” says Logue. But partially uprooted trees, if they’re small enough, can sometimes be pulled back into place in the hopes the root system will regenerate, he notes.

Just because a tree is still alive and standing doesn’t necessarily mean it can be, or should be saved, cautions Jefts. If one-third to one-half of the tree has been lost due to storm damage, that’s not good news. “That’s definitely a sign it’s no longer going to be a viable, safe tree,” he says.

Weak tree species that keep dropping branches can be a liability if left standing. “You’re almost better off thinking about total removal and planting a more desirable species of tree then you are trying to prune and save the tree, which will really cost you more money in the long run,” Jefts notes. “You’ll have nothing to show for it when you’re done except a bill to remove the tree after you’ve paid all that money [for pruning].”

Prune properly

A strong tree left with plenty of healthy limbs has an excellent chance of survival if attended to properly. If it’s a small tree, and the damage is located within reach from the ground, pruning off a jagged branch end can be a fairly simple do-it-yourself project. “The main thing is to make sure you make the pruning cut in the right place,” advises Logue. “What you want to do is make the cut at the branch bark collar.”

The branch bark collar is the hump that encircles the branch where it meets the trunk. It should not be sheered off or the wound won’t heal as efficiently, notes Jefts.

“If the branch is in a spot where water or debris will collect, cut the branch at a little bit of an angle, so water will run off of it,” Logue adds.

Pruning paint, once commonly applied to tree wounds, is now rarely used because it often causes more trouble for the tree. “It holds moisture in and promotes decay,” says Jefts.

Ladder + Chain saw = Danger

Bottom line: if the pruning project requires a ladder, leave it to the experts. “If you’re not sure you know what to do, you probably don’t and you shouldn’t be doing it,” warns Jefts. “It’s not the kind of thing you fool around with unless you really know the proper techniques and know what type of tree you’re dealing with and have the proper equipment. If you go up on a ladder with a chain saw to cut a limb off, that’s about as dangerous as playing in the middle of rush-hour traffic at night with dark clothing on. I’ve seen a lot of people kill themselves [doing tree work] through the years,” he says.

If a tree simply needs to be removed, there are plenty of tree services that will suffice, but if it’s a tree worth saving, a certified arborist is who to hire. “It takes the eye of someone that is trained and knowledgeable to give good advice,” says Jefts. A certified arborist must go through an extensive training program run by the International Society of Arboriculture and continue to take courses to keep that certification up-to-date.

Although it might be more expensive to hire someone with such qualifications, it’s usually worth it in the long run, says Logue. “When you’re looking at a sizable tree, if you can save it, it potentially adds to the value of your property, which people are certainly concerned about right now,” he comments.

No matter who is hired, it’s important to first check references and make sure the tree service holds the appropriate liability insurance. “They’re a contractor working for you, just like a person who might put a roof on your house or rebuild your driveway and you really should treat them as such,” says Logue.

Monitor healing

Once a salvageable tree has been properly pruned, it’s wise to keep an eye on it as it heals. “Large wounds from ice storm damage become an open invitation for pests to attack,” says Jefts. “There are a whole lot of new and really scary diseases, funguses and pests that are attacking trees.”

He recommends looking for evidence of egg larvae in damaged areas of the tree, smaller-than-normal leaves, as well as leaf die-back at the tips of branches – all sure signs of distress.

If you spot something that looks like trouble, consult with an arborist or a Master Gardener at your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

Replant wisely

If a damaged tree must come down, both Jefts and Logue recommend replanting one that will have a good chance of weathering future ice storms. Slow-growing trees with wide branch angles, like white oak, ginkgo and honey locust, are good choices. Fast-growing ones with soft wood, like silver maples, Norway maples and willows are not.

Before choosing a tree, it’s important to think about how big it will grow, and if its future height will be appropriate for the site. “A lot of trees that came down in the ice storm were ones that would typically grow quite large but were planted in an area where electrical wires restricted their growth so they were pruned back severely,” notes Logue.

Trees respond to severe pruning by producing an abundance of bushy, twiggy growth, which translates to weaker wood and bad branch angles. “And also there’s more area there to catch the ice and snow, so there’s more weight that can get piled onto that tree,” Logue explains. That scenario’s a sure set-up for more broken branches, damaged property and downed power lines in winters to come.

Proper pruning should start when a tree is a sapling. “By starting the pruning process as young as you possibly can, you can develop a strong branch structure that can survive ice, snow and wind much better,” says Jefts.

Although my husband is itching to get out the ladder and gas up the chain saw, we’ve decided to leave the birch surgery to a pro. Tended to properly, I’m told the tree just might survive. And with his feet planted firmly on the ground, my husband improves his chances, too.

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