Time to give your trees an exam

January 16, 2013 

Doctors like to be able to see inside their patients. It is not enough for them to ask you nosy questions. They make you take off your clothes and put on those little gowns that do not quite close in the back. Then you have to lie on tables that have been stored in the fridge. Machines are either attached to you or are pointed at you and they take pictures of your insides.

Once they get the results, if the doctor tries to point out what they are looking at, humor them even if you cannot see it yourself. Say ‘Yes, I see’ and nod knowingly. This makes them happier, and you want to keep your doctor happy. They get to decide how big of a needle you get.

If we could X-ray plants, diagnosing plant problems would be easier. Winter does provide an opportunity to examine one of the landscape’s most valuable plants: our trees.

Once the leaves fall from the trees, then we can see the tree’s structure. The branches are like the tree’s skeleton. A healthy tree should have a healthy structure. Take this opportunity to examine your tree and to correct structural faults you find.

People ask me if their tree will die. While this is a concern, I am usually more concerned about the tree falling. Falling limbs are heavier than they look and do damage we do not expect. Examine your trees for these structural faults.

Narrow branch angles are a common tree fault. Branches should angle off from the tree almost at a right angle (90 degrees). For branches that point upward, forming a narrow branch angle, these branches are typically not strongly attached to the tree. They are more likely to break in or after a windstorm. If the branch is still small, less than one-third the diameter of the main trunk and less than 3 inches in diameter, then you can probably remove the branch. Try not to leave a stub, though this is difficult. Leave as small a wound as possible.

Broken or dead branches should be removed immediately. Cut off the branch at the point where it branches off from the main trunk or another limb. Do not leave stubs -- these are infection points for diseases and wood rots.

Cankers are swollen areas on stems or branches. Remove these since they may break and can be a source of disease infection.

Some problems are more difficult to see, especially wood decay inside trees or on roots. Examine the base of the tree and the main trunk for conks. A conk is a type of mushroom that grows on the side of a tree. The conk will look like a small rounded shelf growing out of the tree trunk. Though they look harmless, they indicate that a fungus has attacked and decayed the interior of the tree (trunk or roots). The conk is the fungi’s method of reproducing. Breaking the conks off will do little good. You need to have the tree evaluated by an arborist to see what needs to be done.

Interior rot can also be associated with cavities in the tree that catch water. Look for these in the tree and try to keep these cavities from catching and holding water.

Does the tree have numerous small branches dying? If so, the roots of the tree have probably been damaged. The tree compensates for root injury by killing off some small branches thereby reducing the number of leaves and limbs the roots must support.

To help root damaged trees, determine what damaged the roots. Root damage can be caused by compacted soils, digging around the trees, piling soil near the tree, drought or wet soils. Find and correct the problem. To protect the roots and encourage recovery, establish a bed around the tree extending from the trunk out as far as the limbs extend. Mulch this area with a 2- to 3-inch deep mulch. Pull the mulch away from the tree several inches so that you do not smother the base of the tree.

Hire an arborist to help evaluate and solve tree issues. Evaluating trees is difficult and tree work can be dangerous.

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and helps to train the turf and landscape industry.

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