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First Aid For Trees

First Aid For Trees

In the aftermath of a major storm, the initial impulse of property owners is generally along the lines of “let’s get this mess cleaned up.” But hasty decisions can often result in removing trees that could have been saved.

Doing the right things after trees have been damaged can make the difference between giving your trees a good chance of survival and losing them unnecessarily. The National Arbor Day Foundation urges home and property owners to follow a few simple rules in administering tree first aid after a storm:

1. Don’t try to do it all yourself. If large limbs are broken or hanging, or if high climbing or overhead chainsaw work is needed, it’s a job for a professional arborist. They have the necessary equipment and knowledge needed, and are generally listed in the telephone directory under “Tree Service.”

2. Take safety precautions. Look up and look down. Be on the alert for downed power lines and dangerous hanging branches that look like they’re ready to fall. Stay away from any downed utility lines-low-voltage telephone or cable lines and even fence wires can become electrically charged when there are fallen or broken electrical lines nearby. Don’t get under broken limbs that are hanging or caught in other branches overhead. And, unless you really know how to use one, leave chainsaw work to the professionals.

3. Remove any broken branches still attached to the tree. Removing the jagged remains of smaller sized broken limbs is one common repair that property owners can make after a storm. If done properly, it will minimize the risk of decay agents entering the wound. Smaller branches should be pruned at the point where they join larger ones. Large branches that are broken should be cut back to the trunk or a main limb by an arborist. For smaller branches, follow the pruning guidelines shown in the illustration so that you make clean cuts in the right places, helping the tree to recover faster.

4. Repair torn bark.  To improve the tree’s appearance and eliminate hiding places for insects, carefully use a chisel or sharp knife to smooth the ragged edges of wounds where bark has been torn away. Try not to expose any more of the cambium (greenish inner bark) than is necessary, as these fragile layers contain the tree’s food and water lifelines between roots and leaves.

5. Resist the urge to over-prune. Don’t worry if the tree’s appearance isn’t perfect. With branches gone, your trees may look unbalanced or naked. You’ll be surprised at how fast they will heal, grow new foliage, and return to their natural beauty.

6. Don’t top your trees! Untrained individuals may urge you to cut back all of the branches, on the mistaken assumption that reducing the length of branches will help avoid breakage in future storms. While storm damage may not always allow for ideal pruning cuts, professional arborists say that “topping” – cutting main branches back to stubs – is one of the worst things you can do for your trees. Stubs will tend to grow back a lot of weakly-attached branches that are even more likely to break when a storm strikes.

Also, the tree will need all its resources to recover from the stress of storm damage. Topping the tree will reduce the amount of foliage, on which the tree depends for the food and nourishment needed for regrowth. A topped tree that has already sustained major storm damage is more likely to die than repair itself. At best, its recovery will be retarded and it will almost never regain its original shape or beauty.

Courtesy of the National Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture.

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

15 comments

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3:35PM PDT on Oct 6, 2010

Great post, thanks!

10:40AM PDT on Jun 9, 2010

I have two wonderful resources for help with tree and other botanical problems. First, my local Botanical Garden has a "Help Desk" (which most of them do). The experts there can often help you over the phone with any problems you may be having. With particularly difficult problems, you can take a photo and a cutting from the tree, etc. in person. They have a wealth of knowledge and a good deal of free printed material, which you can take home. They also have the names of local companies, who are the best in their field, if your problem is beyond your own abilities to handle.

Secondly, I have gotten so much free advice - with clear and detailed instructions - for many problems I have had from my local county park. The head of forestry at those parks is generally a treasure trove of ideas, including advice about specific products to use for particular issues.

These two resources, paid for by property taxes, is more valuable than you could ever imagine, and they are so happy to assist whenever needed. Truly, this tax money is well spent.

5:26PM PDT on May 16, 2010

thanks. we don't have that many storms where I live but I'll keep this in mind!

11:09AM PDT on Apr 28, 2010

I'll try again:
This cannot be done with large tree, but I pass it along just in case it is ever useful to you.
I have three times witness a young or small tree (less than 15 feet) get snapped along its trunk. Twice after a storm and once a bobcat reversed into it. We were heartbroken and devastated by what we saw. We immediately pushed the tree back up vertical, used a piece of wood lying around as a splint and wrapped and WRAPPED it with duct tape. We supported the heavier side with a broom or a rake. We all hoped and prayed that we had saved the tree and after 6 weeks we realised that it had worked. One year later we were delighted to see that the little apple tree was in full bloom looking like the prettiest tree on the block, whoever would have known.
This took two men and me. The guys pushed the tree up and they both held it while I worked on the splint and the wrapping and the final propping up. This is the best arrangement although it can be done with just one man and one other. But that's very tough on the one guy supporting the tree.
Actually this is the principal of grafting - but in this case it is emergency care for a tree.

10:56AM PDT on Apr 28, 2010

This cannot be done with large trees but I pass it along in the hope that it may help.
I have three times witnessed a young or smallish tree (

2:50PM PST on Feb 13, 2010

Plant & protect trees for life.......Trees are the lungs of the earth!!

12:00PM PST on Feb 13, 2010

Thank you for this information.

6:52PM PDT on Sep 6, 2009

There are many more reasons not to DIY tree work.

5:03AM PDT on Aug 28, 2009

After two hurricanes and an ice storm here (SW Louisiana) in the past 12 years, I have to say that the advice you gave is good. However, after an event like Hurricane Rita, being able to find an arborist for hire is a joke. Solution: we try to have our live oaks professionally trimmed in between calamities, and have learned safe and effective (non-chainsaw) ways to take down some lodged limbs ourselves when circumstances dictate. One live oak, maybe 40 feet high, is misshapen, although healthy. I doubt we'll see it recover its good looks in our lifetime, but as long as it is robust, here it will stay.

2:48PM PDT on Aug 26, 2009

We have two catalpa trees over 70 ft high. After cleaning up after a recent storm the tree guy shoved a hanger a good foot into the trunk of one of the catalpas. "Gotta come down", says he. We are still cleaning up the mess from cleaning up the mess so I declined but am nagged by the thought of this tree being unsafe. Is the wire hanger in the trunk a scam? The trees have never failed to bloom and have lost not a single branch that I am aware of.

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