First, Assess the Damage
Before writing off a damaged tree as a “goner,” homeowners should evaluate their trees by asking the following questions:
- Other than the storm damage, is the tree healthy and vigorous? If the tree is basically healthy, is not creating a hazard and did not suffer major structural damage, it will generally recover if first aid measures are applied immediately after the storm.
- Are major limbs broken? The larger a broken limb is, the harder it will be for the tree to recover from the damage. If a majority of the main branches are gone, the tree might have little chance of surviving.
- Has the leader (the main upward-trending branch on most trees) been lost? In species where a leader is important to upward growth or desirable appearance, it might have to be a judgment call. The tree might live without its leader, but at best would be a stunted or deformed version of the original.
- Is at least 50 percent of the tree’s crown (branches and leaves) still intact? This is a good rule of thumb on tree survivability. A tree with less than half of its branches remaining might not be able to produce enough foliage to nourish the tree through another season.
- How big are the wounds where branches have been broken or bark has been damaged? The larger the wound is in relation to the size of the limb, the less likely it is to heal, leaving the tree vulnerable to disease and pests. A two- to three-inch wound on a 12-inch diameter limb will seal over with new bark within a couple of years.
- Are there remaining branches that can form a new branch structure? The remaining limbs will grow more vigorously as the tree tries to replace its missing foliage. Look to see if branches are in place that can eventually fill out the tree’s appearance.
- Is the tree a desirable species for its location? If the tree is in the wrong location (such as a potentially tall tree beneath a power line), or an undesirable species for the property (messy fruit, etc.), it might be best to remove it if it has serious damage.
It’s a Keeper (20% OR LESS LOSS)
When there is only slight damage to your tree, you should remove damaged limbs and let the tree begin the process of repairing itself. DO NOT paint over wounds or wrap wire or strapping of any sort around a damaged branch to let it “heal.” If a branch is damaged, the tree will prepare to cut off resources to it anyway, and it will die. Trees cannot “heal” tissue like people do. You need to remove these branches using good pruning cutting techniques.
Wait and See (20% – 40% LOSS)
When a good portion of limbs are broken, but it is still hard to tell what to do with the tree, you should remove damaged limbs and evaluate the tree over time. Sometimes these trees will recover, and sometimes they won’t. Its environment, what species it is, and where the damage occurred on the tree can all play a big role in determining the tree’s survival. THE ONLY EXCEPTION TO THIS is when the tree in this situation is near a house, an above-ground utility line or anything its limbs might hit. If your tree is remotely close to any above-ground utility, you should contact that utility and have them evaluate the situation. DO NOT endanger yourself by trimming close to an electrical line. If a tree is close to your house, please hire a professional tree company to do the trimming. A tree in this circumstance is going to need close monitoring and care over many years to make it viable again. Proper watering and pruning over time will be crucial to this tree’s recovery.
Say Goodbye (50%+ LOSS)
When there are fewer branches on your tree than off, you need to consider removing the tree. It is not possible to have a tree recover completely from this type of loss. Removal is the best option. If it is not removed, it is very likely the tree will die eventually from disease or insect infestations. If it does live, it will never be tree-shaped again and will continue to have structural problems which could eventually pose a hazard to anything around it. Hiring a professional tree care company is the best option for this situation.
Tree First Aid
- 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 they are generally listed in the telephone directory under “Tree Service.”
- 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. 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.
- Remove any broken branches still attached to the tree. Removing the jagged remains of smaller sized broken limbs is one common repair 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.
- 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.
- Resist the urge to over-prune. Don’t worry if the tree’s appearance isn’t perfect. With branches gone, your trees might look unbalanced or naked. You’ll be surprised at how fast they will heal, grow new foliage and return to their natural beauty.
- Don’t top your trees! Untrained individuals might 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 might 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 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.
Preventing Future Damage
Here are some preventive measures home and property owners can take to help their trees be stronger and more resistant to storm damage:
- Encourage good branch angles. For most deciduous (broadleaf) trees, narrow angles between branches signal a point of future weakness, whether in the trunk or in the crown of the tree. This happens because as two branches grow closely together, neither has sufficient space to add the wood needed for strength. Instead, they grow against each other, creating a weak joint. The effect is similar to hammering in a wedge between them. To prevent this, remove one of the two branches when the tree is young. For best branch strength, the ideal branching angle in many broadleaf tree species approximates 10:00 or 2:00. Branches at those angles should be encouraged by removing competing but less desirable neighbors.
- Encourage strong branch/trunk size relationships. The relative size of lateral (side) branches is also important in determining branch strength. Ideally, lateral branches should be no more than 1/2 to 3/4 the diameter of the trunk. Branches larger than that are often heavier than the trunk can support, and they are candidates to break when wind, ice or snow come along. Trees grow by adding new layers of wood on the trunk and branches each year. As the trunk grows, it will strengthen the joints with branches by adding wood around it, like a dowel in a chair leg.
- Maintain a stable center of gravity. Wind, winter snow loads or previous loss of a major limb can create situations where the tree’s center of gravity is not positioned over the trunk. Then when a severe storm hits, a slight bit of extra weight or wind pressure can break limbs, snap the trunk off, or even topple the tree, roots and all. You can help reposition a tree’s center of gravity by selectively removing branches on the leaning side and encouraging branches on the opposite side.
- Remove rubbing branches, suckers, watersprouts and temporary branches. Branches that rub against each other produce wounds and decay. One of the offending branches should be removed. Watersprouts and suckers can occur at the base of the tree or inside the crown. They are rapidly growing, weakly attached and upright branches that do not follow the tree’s normal growth pattern. On trees that have been severely damaged, these kinds of branches might be temporarily needed to provide foliage. In healthy trees; however, they most often use more energy than they return to the tree, and it is best to remove them as soon as possible. Temporary branches grow low on the tree when it is young and protect young bark from injury by the sun. After a tree is three to four years old, these temporary branches should be gradually removed. Because leaves are vital in providing the tree with nourishment, never remove more than one-third of a tree’s leafy crown when pruning.
- Don’t cut branches back to stubs. Often people have the mistaken idea that long natural limbs on a tree will break more easily in a storm and should be cut back to make them stronger. Just the opposite is the case. When a branch is cut back to a stub, new branches will grow from the edges of the stub. Because they cannot form a strong union with the stubbed branch, these new branches are even more likely to be broken in a future storm. If a branch needs to be removed, cut it back to a main branch or to the tree’s trunk. Never leave a stub.