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Keeping trees healthy after winter storms

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COURTESY OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY - Trees that are structurally pruned when young and regularly cared for are more likely to withstand storms and remain healthy for the life of the tree. Remember, never top a tree.
Trees benefit our lives in so many ways – improving air quality, enhancing architecture, providing habitat for birds and wildlife, cleaning storm water and even reducing energy costs – but often we don’t stop to appreciate them as much as we should. With winter here it's a perfect time to review good tree care principles — both before and after storms — that will serve you best by maintaining the health of your trees and protecting home and property.

Preventive care

There's usually an interesting reason for a tree's failure. Trees that are candidates for becoming hazardous during a storm are those that have been unprotected from surrounding construction, were topped in the past, have roots cut close to the trunk or have internal decay from poor pruning practices.

Know what topping is, and avoid it. Topping – the practice of removing large branches and tops of trees – is especially likely to create a hazardous tree. Topped trees are much more likely to break or uproot in a storm than trees with normal branch structure.

You can read more about topping here:

www.oregon.gov/ODF/Documents/AboutODF/TreeToppingFactsheet.pdf

Correct pruning practices

Develop a central dominant leader in your younger trees by identifying the stem that will make the best leader, and pruning with that in mind. Typically, the dominant leader is the largest stem. If all stems are about the same size in diameter, select the one closest to the center of the canopy to become the leader, then decide which stems are competing with it and where to shorten or remove these competing stems. This helps establish better, stronger tree structure early in the life of the tree. 

Making careful and correct pruning cuts at the correct time of year is one of the best things you can do for your trees. Light pruning to remove smaller dead wood can be done anytime. Remember not to remove more than one-quarter of a tree’s crown in a season.

For additional pruning tips: www.treesaregood.tree owner.aspx

After the storm

Two of the most common mistakes people make when trying to clean up after a storm are trying to save trees that sustained too much damage and are likely to become hazardous, and using heavy, harmful pruning techniques on trees requiring only slight pruning. It is possible that the storm removed the weakest limbs in your trees and all you need to do now is make a clean pruning cut and clean up the debris.

If you want to clean up a damaged tree, please don’t cut broken limbs flush with the trunk; this causes terrible damage to the tree by creating an additional trunk wound. Instead, remove the branch stub by cutting it at the “collar” which often looks like a swollen area at the base of the branch.

Doing the right things after trees lose limbs or have been damaged can make the difference between giving trees a good chance of survival or losing them unnecessarily. Often, properly selecting a qualified arborist is key, even if that means waiting a little longer for service. 

Certified arborists must pass a certification exam administered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the professional society for arborists. If you're in doubt about credentials, consult your local yellow pages or the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the ISA online, at www.pnwisa.org

Other tips: Use care when selecting a tree service company. Hire a company that's bonded and insured, and be cautious of those who just show up at your door. Their low prices may ultimately cost you more money in the long run.

Use Mulch

Young trees are especially vulnerable to temperature and moisture fluctuations. If you haven’t done so already, place 3 to 4 inches of dry leaves or mulch around the base of your tree – keeping the mulch several inches away from the trunk – as good insurance that both conditions can be managed during winter months.

Planting new trees

Thinking about planting a new tree when the ground thaws this spring? Now is a good time to browse through tree catalogues. Remember to plan for plenty of room for both a tree’s roots and its crown.

And make sure the tree you select has minimal potential for conflicts with overhead power lines. Dogwood, Hedge maple, Hawthorne, Magnolia and Japanese snowbell are some trees that can grow comfortably under or near power lines without conflicts.

If you placed holiday lights on your tree, remember to remove them. Also, while waiting for the soil to thaw so you can plant your new tree, a pot-full of pansies or bulbs is an enjoyable wintertime activity to enhance your balcony or front porch in the New Year.

Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry.