Damaged tree care -- 2-14-13

(This week’s picture is of a Magic Carpet Japanese Spirea coated with ice. To enlarge the picture, click on it.)

Last Thursday, while driving with a friend to Braddock Heights, Md., just off U.S. 40 we passed a partially wooded section overlooking the valley that had been coated with freezing rain. It looked as if the shrubs and small trees had been dipped in crystal and it seemed like a beautiful sight.

I say “seemed” because a little farther down the road, we saw trees that had lost some large branches, some of which laid on power lines like weary prize fighters clinging to the ropes at the end of a tough match.

At my house, we lost some branches -- a bunch from a six-story-high white pine and one large one off a small cherry tree that has been ailing for some time. The pine clean-up will be easy -- cut the branches to truckable length and haul them to the landfill on U.S. 40 west of Hagerstown. The damage to the cherry amounts to almost half the tree and I haven’t decided whether to attempt surgery or take the whole thing down.

No doubt many readers have experienced the same thing and are asking themselves the question: Is this tree worth saving? And should I do it?

First, a few warnings. No one should consider climbing a ladder when there’s ice on the tree trunk or the ground that could cause a nasty fall. And damage to very large or very old trees should probably be left to professional tree-service companies. Here’s a good rule: If your spouse tells you what you’re planning is a bad idea, don’t do it. Even if he/she is being overly cautious, if something does go wrong, you’ll hear about it forever, assuming you survive.

But deciding whether a tree is damaged beyond repair is a personal judgment. If you guess wrong and the tree you tried to save dies, you can remove it then.

Problems can be avoided by choosing varieties suited to this area, as deciduous hardwood trees. You might want to avoid soft-wooded trees, such as poplar or willow, although since these are fast growing trees, they will recover more quickly from minor damage.

On fruit-bearing trees, the rule is that if more than one-third of the branches have been lost, it’s better to replace it. And if the main branch on any tree is ripped off in a way that causes a “socket” or a void in the trunk, keeping it is a chancy proposition.

If you decide to save your tree, prune any damaged branches back to the trunk, taking care not to cut into the bark collar. If the collar is left on, eventually it should grow over the cut and seal it. If you have a long, heavy branch hanging on the tree, make the first cut underneath it, so that when you cut it off from the top, the bark won’t peel away from the trunk. After that, consider whether the loss of that limb has made the tree unbalanced. If so, you might want to even out the growth so that the tree isn’t uprooted if the area experiences a soggy spring and high winds this spring.

If you are planning to do any of this with a chain saw, consider whether you feel confident enough in your ability or have enough knowledge of the power tool to do it safely. If not, call a professional. These are dangerous tools and someone who uses them for a living is less apt to have an accident.

Much tree damage can be avoided with proper pruning to eliminate what my former collaborator, Extension Agent Larry Dell, called “bad angles.”

In some cases, branches grow upward and too close to the trunk. The bark from the branch and the trunk appears to grow together, but will split if loaded with too much ice or fruit. Such branches can be pruned off, or trained away from the trunk with wooden spacers or braces made from wire.

Trees can be trained to grow in many different ways, from the Japanese bonsai trees to the espalier style in which fruit trees are trained to grow flat against a trellis or a wall.

As Dell told me, some 25 years ago, “Think of the foliage as the sail of a boat” that could bring down the mast if there’s too much stress put on it. Trim trees carefully, he told me, and the wind will pass through the canopy of leaves without causing any harm.

Some reader questions:

Q. If my pets nibble on poinsettia leaves, will that harm them?

A. The experts are not in agreement on this, some saying that they’re mildly toxic and some denying that they’re toxic at all. To be safe, keep pets away from plants and pick up any fallen leaves immediately.

Q. Will it help my lawn to spread wood ashes on it?

A. It depends on what your soil needs. Wood ash will raise the pH (a measure of a soil’s acidity or alkalinity) but it has only one-third the effect of ground limestone.

For more detail discussion of what wood ashes will help or hurt, go to https://extension.umd.edu/hgic and search for frequently asked questions (FAQ) about soil and mulch.

(Did you enjoy this column? Please send comments or constructive criticism to bobmaginnis@myactv.net?)





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