Town Branch Tree Experts owner Sara Hesley serves on the city’s Tree Canopy Subcommittee, which works to explore ways the city can preserve existing trees and plant new ones. Photo by Ryan K. Morris
Being a good steward of your own small piece of the Earth starts with taking good care of your trees. In addition to their aesthetic and environmental benefits, trees in the landscape increase property values and reduce energy consumption; recent research shows that trees also have significantly positive benefits on physical and emotional well-being. While certain types of tree care are certainly best left to the professionals, a few basic skills are an asset to any homeowner’s wheelhouse.
Look Up. Simply put, what do you see? Does your tree have any dead branches? Are branches too close to your house or roof, or too low over your driveway or sidewalk? Are the branches too thick to allow light or air through the canopy? Your observations should be able to help you define your overall objective. For a tree that is alive and well, there are endless ways it could be pruned. Sometimes, reducing a few branches will create more space for another object, like your house. Other times, entire branches may need to be pruned back to the trunk. When growth is vigorous, it may be a good idea to thin the branches to increase light and air through the canopy. Most pruning can be done any time of year, although dead branches are more easily identified when the tree is leafed out.
Look Down. A tree is only as healthy as its root system. The first thing we look for at the soil line is the tree’s trunk flare, which indicates an appropriate and healthy depth for roots to grow. Does the trunk start to widen out (or flare) just above the soil surface? Or does your tree descend into the ground like a telephone pole? If you observe the latter, the tree is too deep in the soil and could be suffering because of it. If excess soil or mulch cannot be easily removed from the tree’s trunk flare, give your arborist a call for some assistance. If you observe mushrooms or fungi on your tree trunk, call your arborist immediately. While things like lichens are perfectly normal, the presence of fungal fruiting bodies may indicate major decay in the root system or trunk.
Next, are your trees mulched? When applied correctly, mulch is possibly the single most important thing you can do for the overall health and longevity of your trees; it not only helps prevent damage from things like mowers and string-trimmers, but it creates an environment for beneficial creatures like earthworms, roly-polies and other soil organisms that work together to improve the growing conditions for trees. Mulch increases soil moisture, makes nutrients more available and creates more spaces for tiny roots to grow. It’s important to mulch wide and not too deep – a mulch ring can be as wide as you want but should only about 3-4 inches deep. Avoid piling mulch up on the trunk.
When it comes to homeowner how-to, safety should always be the guiding principle. Before tackling a project, ask yourself if you can perform the task without harming yourself, your tree, or your (or your neighbor’s) surrounding property. If the answer to each of these is a confident yes, then carry on. If you have any doubts (or if a ladder is required), please call for some professional back up. Follow the three-step pruning technique: 1.) Make a notch or undercut to prevent the bark from tearing, 2.) reduce the branch’s end-weight and 3.) finish up with a smooth cut at the branch collar. Never top your tree or make indiscriminate pruning cuts mid-branch. These practices harm your tree, create weak branch attachments for future growth and invite insects and diseases into your tree.
A little know-how can go a long way to keep your trees healthy and happy, and when cared for, they are a relatively low-maintenance investment in your landscape. It’s certainly an investment worth making.