Although the short, bitter days of winter may seem an inhospitable time for gardening, they actually provide a unique opportunity to get an unfettered look at your yard’s trees. Trees are the quiet sentinels of the garden, providing food and shelter for wildlife while processing carbon dioxide into oxygen. Their thirsty roots clean groundwater and fight erosion, while their shade cools us and saves on summer energy bills. Trees are great investments in the landscape, and while their care can be the most expensive yard maintenance cost for a homeowner, it can have the greatest payoff.
Like most living things, trees have a life expectancy. Some species, like oaks, can be expected to live hundreds of years while some fruit trees may only last about twenty. Proper care, monitoring and intentional planning can extend the life of your trees, reduce the cost of arborist work, and can ensure the uninterrupted benefits of trees to the ecosystem.
“January is a perfect time to evaluate your trees. With bare branches, you can really see the tree’s shape and identify any problems that should be addressed before the tree leafs out again in the spring,” explains Scott Kelley, Head Arborist at Mt. Cuba Center.
Evaluation begins by looking carefully at the trees in your yard. Stand a distance away from the tree and examine the overall shape of the trunk and crown. The tree should look symmetrical, with the same volume of branches around the trunk. Gravity plays an important role in the health of a tree. Long, heavy horizontal branches can split and fall if there is the extra weight of ice or snow, so check to see if there are any large branches that make the tree seem out of balance.
A healthy tree may only require a simple pruning to get rid of any dubious branches. “A good pruning, early in life can save a tree from major problems later on,” Kelley suggests. “When the tree is young and you can easily reach the branches, you can often get rid of problem areas before they get too big.”
Scan the limbs for deadwood and hanging branches. Branches sometimes fall and get caught in the tree’s crown. Although these “hangers” will eventually drop to the ground, it’s best to remove them before they fall and damage a house or car, if it’s possible to reach them safely.
Deadwood refers to branches that have died but are still attached. “Cutting out deadwood gets rid of branches that can bring disease to other parts of the tree,” says Kelley. Deadwood is easy to spot because it is generally darker in color and has blunt ends where the branch’s tips have already broken off. A branch that has begun to lose its bark can also indicate deadwood.
Close examination of a tree’s trunk also gives clues to its health. When a tree loses a limb or is diseased or injured in some way, the tree will try to conceal the injury by slowly forming a callus around the site, eventually hiding the decay inside the trunk. If the decay spreads through the tree, it will sometimes produce decay pockets at the trunk’s base. Irregularities in the bark patterns make these areas relatively easy to spot. Usually they are smoother, soft when pressed, and may ooze a sticky substance. These decay pockets are indicators that the tree is not healthy and needs professional care.
Once you have assessed possible problems with your trees, you may need a professional to prune large branches, or in extreme cases, take down the entire tree. “A professional is needed when the tree is too big to prune using a step ladder and pruners,” Kelley suggests, adding that homeowners should choose a tree service carefully. “Make sure the tree company you use has a certified arborist on staff that routinely works on residential jobs. Certified arborists must complete a certain number of continuing education hours every year in order to remain current on best practices.”
For new plantings, consider using native species, which are better able to fight disease and provide food and habitats for local wildlife. “Native species require less care because they are used to the climate and conditions in this area,” Kelley explains. “Invasives tend to spread and take over an area, competing with other plants for resources.” Some non-native species, such as Norway maples, even send out chemicals from their roots to kill off other plants nearby, in essence, knocking out the competition. Native species are more likely to live in harmony with the other plants in the local ecosystem.
When managing the trees in your yard, you should think in years. Take note of trees that look okay now, but are showing signs of stress or aging. “You can identify trees that will likely give you problems a few years down the road, and mitigate the situation by planting young trees in the area” Kelley suggests. “They will be established and take the place of the older trees when they go, stepping in to provide the shade and shelter that make trees valuable assets to your yard.”