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This Fall, Give Your Trees Some TLC


By Jeff Hansen

They add character to neighborhoods, beauty to rolling hills and depth to flat prairies. Whether they have guarded your home for a few years or even for several decades, your trees need some extra attention this autumn. A few simple treatments make a big difference when spring emerges and your trees are already strong, beautiful and healthy.

Inspection Time

Before winter sets in, walk your property and perform a visual inspection of all of your trees, both young and old. The purpose of your inspection is to identify potential diseases, or growth patterns that may lead to damage as wind, snow and ice arrive in the area.

Examine the trunk and branches of each tree. Notice their growth patterns, and how each branch is attached to the main trunk. One of the biggest offenders which leads to weak trees is a co-dominant stem. Co-dominant stems are common in several varieties of trees including Bradford Pears and some Birch species. While they pose a big danger, they're relatively easy to spot with the naked eye. Look at the main trunk of the tree, and search for any branches that look like they're competing with the main trunk. Visually, a co-dominant stem will appear as a fork-like growth off the main trunk. It will be larger than the tree's actual branches, and typically grow vertically alongside the trunk.

Co-dominant stems pose a great danger to the tree itself, and to your property. Because this stem is competing with the trunk, the tree is weakened, making it susceptible to split under pressure of wind, snow and ice, and take the tree tumbling down with it. Co-dominant stems should be removed immediately to ensure strength, stability and future growth. For a young tree, you may use a pruning tool or small saw to remove the stem at its base, outside the branch collar. More mature, larger co-dominant stems may require a heavy saw, or the assistance of a professional since removing branches from large trees can be a dangerous task. Keep in mind that you can kill a tree if proper pruning is not performed. Before making any cuts, check the ANSI standards for tree trimming which can be found online at www.ansi.org.

Examine young trees for damage from lawn mowers and other gardening tools that may have occurred throughout the season. Small nicks attract disease and insects, which inhibit proper growth and strength. PVC pipe or fiberglass tree wraps placed around the base of young trees can help you avoid damage. Also, be sure to remove any weeds that grow within a young tree's dripline, as they are fierce competitors for water and nutrients.

Older trees should be closely monitored. While many appear strong and stately, their sheer weight and size can create a huge liability that may not be covered by insurance if they fall on your property - or your neighbor's. Look for areas in the tree that seem to have heavy growth and foliage. Examine your older trees for dead bark, cankers or lesions on the trunk or branches, or wilted, mis-shapen or discolored leaves. If any of these is present, your tree may need special care. Several online resources, including the Tree Care Industry of America (www.tcia.org) and the International Society of Arborculture (www.isa-arbor.com) websites include tips and frequently asked questions about caring for your trees.

Pruning and Mulching: Important for Healthy Trees

The list of tree damage and disease is a long one, but don't worry: many of your trees' ailments can be alleviated by the simple tasks of pruning and mulching.

One important step in preparing your trees for winter is deadwooding, which refers to the removal of dead wood. It is often easiest to identify deadwood during autumn since the entire tree's architecture is clear. Deadwooding maintains a tree's structural integrity, reduces risk of insect infestation, and lessens its chance of damage when wind, snow and ice bear down on dead sections of the tree.

Another essential task is thinning, which refers to the removal of excess foliage and growth from trees' interiors. Like deadwooding, thinning reduces weight on branches, which can minimize winter storm damage. Thinning also promotes wind circulation within the trees' canopies to reduce fungal growth.

Aside from pruning, autumn mulching is crucial because it helps prepare trees for the upcoming winter months. Mulch is not only attractive, but it also helps trees absorb nutrients, moderates soil temperature during the frigid winter months, and increases water retention. Don't skip fall mulch! It's just as important to mulch now and freshen it up in the spring.

There are many types of mulch on the market, but not all of them are created equal. A recent study performed by the Ohio State University Agricultural Research and Development Center concluded that the best mulch for your trees is premium blended organic mulch because it produces more microbial nitrogen than non-composted mulch, making the nitrogen more available to the plant. In fact, absorption of nutrients in organic mulch is 20 to 25 percent higher than typical bagged mulch.

Before applying mulch to trees and shrubs, remove all weeds and grass from the areas to be covered. Rake two to four inches of mulch into a flattened doughnut shape over these areas, keeping the mulch at least six inches away from tree trunks. Form a "moat" around the base of the tree or plant to help catch water, and leave a small gap between the mulch and the edge of the surrounding lawn.

So during the next few weeks, look around your yard and examine your trees for signs of disease and damage. Even if your trees seem healthy and strong, they may still need pruning and mulching before winter. If you see something that seems unusual, or is a bit more than you can handle, call your local licensed arborist for diagnosis and treatment. A little extra attention will prepare your trees not only for ice storms, but will also ensure their glorious beauty when winter finally thaws.

Jeff Hansen is president of Hansen's Tree Service, a full-service tree and lawn care company that performs diagnosis, treatment, pruning, tree removal, stump removal and lawn care. Hansen's is fully accredited by TCIA and ISA, and serves residences and companies throughout the entire St. Louis metro area. With nine fully certified arborists on staff, Hansen's educates the public on the values of proper tree and lawn care, its maintenance and the importance of environmental responsibility. For more information visit http://www.hansenstree.com.

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