By Lincoln Earle-Centers
Like plants in the garden, trees need the fundamentals — sunlight, good soil, and plenty of water. While we are attentive to our gardens and shrubs, we often take for granted that the trees take care of themselves. It is important to remember that the trees around our homes have different vulnerabilities than trees in the woods, and face different risks. And unlike a garden, when a tree needs attention it can become dangerous.
The Fundamentals — Sunlight, Soil, and Water
Besides choosing where to plant new trees, or occasionally trimming or removing something to give more room or light for other trees, sunlight is most often out of our control.
Roots need to feed, breathe, and network. Just like plants in a garden, trees thrive on rich soil. The more organic material, the better. Consider mulching around the base of the tree, rather than having grass right up to the trunk. Let leaves stay on the ground to feed the soil around your trees (or mow them in). If your soil seems like it could use amending, consider compost or mulching lightly around the tree. Be aware that too much cover can suffocate the roots, and cover too close to the trunk can cause burning.
Beware of activities that compact soil around trees. Healthy soil feeds the roots, lets the roots breathe, is teeming with all sorts of beneficial complementary life, and retains water.
Our summers have become more and more dry, and sometimes the trees, even with their deeper roots, need help getting enough water during a dry spell. We remember to water our other plants, but often don’t think to water more established trees. If there is a long dry stretch in the forecast, consider watering your trees in the morning. Watering at night can cause fungal issues. But, just before dusk at the end of a hot day is the best alternative to morning watering.
Younger trees require more frequent watering. Slowly soaking is preferable to watering all at once if run-off is happening. And be careful, too much water can suffocate the roots, just like compacted soil.
More details about mulching, composting, and watering can easily be found online with a quick search. If you feel like everything is good with your soil and water, but your tree is struggling, the tree may be planted too deep or has girdling roots choking the trunk. These can be assessed and addressed doing some root collar excavation with an air tool.
There is an important distinction between clearance and safety. Once you have the clearance you want around property, the lowest limbs are the safest, and act as a protective umbrella against anything falling from farther away.
If you trim your own trees, be careful not to tear your trees. Take the time to learn about the three-cut rule. And don’t leave stubs. Learn about how trees compartmentalize wounds, and where the branch collar is to make your finish cuts.
After high winds, take the time to look up at your trees for damage, and look down at the ground around the base of the tree to make sure there is no heaving around the roots.
The most dangerous conditions to watch for in larger trees are:
Damage, rot, and decay.
Joints with included bark, where you see a crack extend down from the joint.
Trees left behind when other trees nearby have been removed or come down. They now potentially catch more wind, or have less stable soil.
Trees affected by construction or other projects where roots have been harmed, soil piled or compacted, or water patterns altered.
I’m grateful to live in an area where so many people are attentive to the natural world around us. We can all appreciate with reverence the trees around us for the beauty, shade, and life-giving sustenance they offer and tend to them when they need our care.
Lincoln Earle-Centers owns and operates Sylvan Tree Care and is an ISA-certified arborist, practicing since 2004.