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Tips for Maintaining Trees

KEITH ROBERTS | Tree Care
There is money in tree care. It isn’t your eyes playing tricks on you; those trees really can grow dollar bills. It’s common knowledge that trees can appreciate the value of a home by most clients are willing to pay to ensure that investment.

There is a sense and practicality in adding basic tree care to your company’s profile. Tree maintenance, though it has evolved and some old-school practices have been declared damaging, is nothing to be afraid of, after understanding and following some basic concepts.

And what convenience! Look, you (or your crew) are already at the client’s property, doing what you do best. Tree maintenance doesn’t invlove any additional transportation cost or staffing complications. In most cases, it won’t even require that much more labor, and yet, you will get paid for performing a much-needed service. Here are a few free care tips that may convince you to add this to your repertoire of services.

Fertilizing

There are some people who make the mistake of thinking that fertilizer is the equivalent of tree food. Few things are further from the truth. A tree makes its food from glucose produced from photosynthesis, end of story. So what role does fertilizer play?

“Fertilizers provide elements that are essential to growth,” says Dr. Alex Shigo, renowned tree expert. “Fertilizers do not provide an energy source for trees.”

Think of fertilizers as a supplement. Vitamin A in your multivitamin is a good thing, but high doses will lead to liver failure. Fertilizer is the same; use it if the tree needs it. Most trees are able to get the nutrients they need from the soil, but some types of soil, like clay, do present nutrient deficiencies.

Young deciduous trees benefit from some additional nitrogen (such as 10-6-4), according to the Community Forestry Program in St. Lawrence, New York, but as is the case with water, don’t overdo it. Over-fertilization, like over-watering, will do more harm than good, often leading to serious pest problems. It could also cause structural damage, as research has indicated that over-fertilized trees have weaker shoots. A light application of a nitrogen fertilizer one month after planting will work just fine.

Trees that will most likely need some fertilizer are those that are surrounded by turf. Grass does a really good job of leaching nitrogen out of the soil, so an application of nitrogen every few years is sometimes necessary.

Surface application is “the easiest, cheapest, and most effective method of fertilizing ornamental trees on most soils,” according to the Community Forestry Program in New York, and a slow release fertilizer works best.

“But,” warns Christopher J. Starbuck, associate professor for the Department of Horticulture at the University of Missouri-Columbia, “don’t expect it to solve problems associated with careless planting, improper watering, or poor drainage.” According to Starbuck, low nutrition indicating a need for fertilizer includes poor tree growth, pale green or yellow leaves, stunted leaves, or early loss of leaves.

Trees respond best to fertilizer with a 2-1-1 or a 3-1-1 ratio. Starbuck lists commonly available 2-1-1 ratio fertilizers as 18-6-12, 12-6-6, 10-6-4, 10-8-6, and 10-8-4. But don’t worry, you may not even have to shop for a new bag of fertilizer, the same type used for turf is usually ideal for trees. However, do not use fertilizers containing broadleaf weed killers, such as 2, 4-D or dicamba, says Starbuck.

Soil tests should preclude your application of fertilizer, but Starbuck recommends supplying two to four pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year. “If more than two pounds of quickly available nitrogen is applied, it should be split into two applications, perhaps in April and October,” Starbuck said. “Broadleaf evergreens, dwarf conifers, and alpine plants should receive about half the rate of most deciduous plants. Excessive fertilization of pines often causes large gaps between branch whorls.”

Mulching

Mulching is one of the easiest and most effective means to a healthy tree. It seems that mulching is the tree equivalent to a wonder drug. It helps maintain soil moisture by slowing down evaporation from the soil, which saves water. It blocks sunlight to the soil, which, you guessed it, helps control weeds. It serves as an insulating blanket that keeps the soils warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. It can improve the fertility of the soil, improve soil aeration and drainage, and can inhibit certain plant diseases. It can even do your taxes. Okay, maybe not.

The idea of mulch is to keep it similar to how it is in a forest. In a natural environment, a layer of loosely packed organic matter mixes with the top soil of the forest floor to form humus. This is nature’s version of mulch. Mulch should also be kept natural, make sure it is composed of loosely shredded leaves, pine straw, peat moss, or composted wood chips. According to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), plastic mulches should not be used “because it interferes with the exchange of gases between soil and air, which inhibits root growth.” Five to six inches of organic mulch can also cause this, so don’t lay it on too thick.

Be careful not to cover the trunk of the tree with mulch; ISA recommends keeping mulch at least one to two inches away from the base of the tree. This will prevent moist bark conditions and thus prevent trunk decay. Mulch should be two to four inches deep and ideally cover the entire root system, which may extend two to three times the diameter of the branch spread of the tree. But, while this may be the ideal, it’s probably not going to be your reality. Turf, planters, and other plants are most likely going to be closer to the tree than what would be needed to mulch that far out. The ISA suggests that if this is the case, you should mulch as much of the area under the drip line of the tree as possible.

Watering

It may sound a bit simplistic, but the basic act of watering a tree comes with a few guidelines that are worth remembering. It isn’t hard, but it is different. Trees have different roots and different habits of absorbing water than other plants. Effective watering for a trees’ peculiarities will make for a healthier, longer living tree.

Droughts lead to “tree decline, pest problems, and non-recoverable damage,” according to the Warnell School of Forest Resources at the University of Georgia. That said, drought conditions in the soil should obviously be avoided. Dr. Kim D.

Coder, professor of Silvics/Ecology for the University of Georgia, expands on an idea that you might already be aware of for other plants: ideal irrigation should begin when soil moisture reaches a certain low determined by a sensor in the soil. In other words, in a perfect world, the tree should be watered only when it needs it.

Because trees, plants, and turf are all competing for the same thing, water and nutrients, they should be “zoned apart” for maximum effectiveness. Careful avoidance of over-watering cannot be emphasized enough. Too much water, and you’ll drown the tree. Roots need the oxygen in the soil, so the key is moderation. A drip irrigation system works best, but a soaker hose works just fine as long as it is moved often, so the roots can get as much exposure as possible.

Keep this in mind: nearly 99 percent of the entire tree’s root mass is usually located in the top three feet of soil; so don’t try to “deep water” a tree with a pipe or wand stuck in the ground. “Surface soaking allows tree roots more chances to absorb the water, helps maintain soil health, and helps maintain essential element cycling and transformations in the soil,” says Coder.

Avoid concentrating the water at the base of the trunk, as this could lead to pest problems. Spraying the foliage carries the same risk, and could also make the leaves prone to sun damage. Be sure the water soaks in well. For large and established trees, watering extensively over the entire area under their foliage is fine, says Coder. But new, young trees need to be watered directly over the root ball, since “water does not move sideways.”

During the growing season, if there is no rainfall for a given week, trees should be watered once or twice. A few, heavy waterings are much better than several light ones.

Hand pruning

Simple pruning from the ground may be one of the most dramatic money makers. The client will immediately see the work you’ve done, and how well it looks. If the required work is extensive and the subject is a particularly large and difficult tree, contact an arborist to take care of it, unless your company has a tree care division that can handle that kind of work load. From the ground, using pruning shears attached to a long pole, you can have access to many branches in a good-sized tree.

Pruning has a lot of benefits to property and to the tree, but it also has a lot of risks associated with it as well. Poor pruning can dramatically shorten the life of a tree, or even damage it beyond repair. It can also wreak havoc on the aesthetic appeal.

Here are some basic pointers.

* The ISA says that each cut you make has the potential of altering the tree’s growth, so no cut should be made without a

Hole method for fertilizer placement around a tree. Place fertilizer in 6- to 12-inch-deep holes about 2 feet apart in concentric circles around the tree trunk and extending about 6 feet beyond the branch spread of the tree.
Drawing courtesy: Dept. of Horticulture, University of Missouri

reason. Young trees should only be pruned with the intent of removing dead branches, whereas mature trees can be subject for a corrective and preventive intent.

* Routine pruning work can technically be done at any time of the year, according to the ISA, but wound closure is fastest if pruning takes place before the spring growth period. “Heavy pruning just after the spring growth flush should be avoided,” recommends the ISA, “this is when trees have just expended a great deal of energy to produce foliage and early shoot growth. Removal of a large percentage of foliage at this time can stress the tree.”

* Keep the pruning cuts outside the branch collar. Use sharp tools to prevent tears in the bark and use thinning cuts as opposed to heading cuts. If a large branch has to be removed, make three cuts to reduce the weight of the branch. An example would be to make an undercut 12-18 inches from the limb’s point of attachment, make a second cut directly above the undercut or a few inches beyond, and finally, cut off the stub to the branch collar. This will prevent cracking the branch collar and tearing the bark, which could invite pathogens and growth damage.

* Do not remove more than 25 percent of the foliage from a single branch and don’t remove more than 25 percent of total foliage in a year. It is best to leave 50 percent of evenly distributed foliage on the lower two-thirds of the tree’s crown.

Here are a few specific types of pruning that may help clarify what you may want to accomplish on a certain tree.

Cleaning removes dead, dying, diseased, crowded, weakly attached and low-vigor branches from the crown of a tree.

Thinning a tree removes select branches for the purpose of increasing light penetration and promoting air movement through the crown. It will also reduce the weight on heavy limbs and retain the natural shape of the tree.

Raising is aimed at removing the lower branches of a tree to provide clearance for structures, pedestrians, etc.

Reduction of a tree reduces the size of the tree. This practice is usually applied for trees threatening power lines. As opposed to topping, which is strongly discouraged as a damaging practice, reduction involves pruning back the leaders and branch terminals to lateral branches that are large enough to assume the terminal roles (at least a third the diameter of the cut stem).

No more excuses

By applying these practices of routine tree care, you can add a valuable service to your landscaping service menu and bring in more income. It’s a beautiful thing: everyone wins. The client is happy with beautiful trees that double as a sound investment, the environment will have more oxygen-producing trees to help absorb airborne pollutants, and you get more green in your pocket. What could possibly be better (besides a tree that really can grow money)?

 
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