How to Check the Health of Your Trees
Healthy mature trees can add value to your property. They help cool your home in the summer, break the cold winds to lower your heating costs in the winter and provide food and shelter for wildlife. But falling trees or branches from unhealthy trees can cost thousands of dollars in property damage and cause tragic injuries to anyone in the wrong place and the wrong time.
INSPECT YOUR TREES
It’s a good idea to inspect your trees personally after every season change, and especially after a big storm or heavy rain. Look your trees up and down and take notice of changes in foliage, branches, roots and bark.
Is the tree leaning? Is is leaning more severely than it was a week or a month ago?
Can you see any large dead branches?
Is the tree’s leaf cover thin? Are there areas of brown leaves, or are some sections dropping their leaves much earlier than the rest?
Are there areas where there are no leaves at all?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you should call a Certified Arborist for an evaluation.
Trees usually don’t grow straight, and a little lean is normal. But when your tree starts looking like the Tower of Pisa because of poor weight distribution or anchor root damage, it’s likely unstable.
Look for these signs of danger:
Cracked or heaving soil, especially on the side opposite the lean
Exposed roots around the base of the tree
An arborist might recommend cures for a leaning tree, such as:
Pruning branches for better weight distribution
A tree with multiple trunks, or with splits in one trunk, can be unstable. V-shaped or U-shaped multiple trunks are weak points for mature trees. The connective wood where the trunks come together may lose strength and be more likely to split with age and when storms occur. Also take not of any cracks that extend deeply through the trunk.
An arborist can stabilize split trunks by attaching cables between trunks and branches high in the tree. The cables won’t repair existing damage, but they will increase the safety, especially in strong winds, and extend the life of your tree.
DESTRUCTION BY CONSTRUCTION
If you’ve recently had construction crews working on or near your home, your trees may be stressed! Digging up utility lines, home improvments that use heavy equipment and other construction around your property can damage shallow feeder roots, starving and destabilizing trees. Damaged tree bark can set off a chain-reaction for disease and infestation.
Construction stress can show up immediately or years later so be on the look out for:
Reduced, smaller or no foliage
Premature autumn color
Mushrooms, conks and carpenter ants at the base of the tree. These are signs of decay and rot.
How do you avoid this? Prevention is your best option. Before construction, set up a barricade around the tree; for each inch in diameter of the tree’s trunk add a foot of protection. For example, an 8-inch-diameter tree needs a barricade with an 8-foot radius.
If the tree is damaged by construction, act fast:
Prune to reduce weight and remove damaged limbs
Install cables or bracing rods
Aerate compacted soil around the root zone
A tree is held up and fed by its root system. There are two types of tree roots: The anchoring or structural roots that are the most visible; and the absorbing roots that are much greater in number and are not seen. They provide the tree with water and nutrients from the soil.
When the anchoring roots rot and decay, the tree is in trouble of falling at any time. A tree can appear healthy and vibrant but suddenly topple over. Even if the tree is standing completely straight, a gentle wind or rainwater sitting on its leaves could cause it to topple without warning.
The ground and soil surrounding the base of the tree can provide clues to a serious root problem. Pull back any ivy or ground cover to get a good look at where the soil meets the trunk. You might see cracked or raised soil, which may indicate root disturbances and a tree in the process of uprooting. Fungal growth, such as mushrooms, on or near the tree’s roots or trunk is indicative of rot and decay. The presence of fungus is particularly serious if it is profuse, because fungus grows only on decayed wood. To determine if the tree is unsafe, that is, if it has enough strength to hold itself upright, you need to know how extensive the decay is. Call a Certified Arborist to help you make a decision about your tree.
Finally, look for coarse or fine sawdust (also called "frass”) at the base of a tree. If it’s there, your tree has probably been attacked by insects. A borer invasion (small beetles) is usually fatal to a tree, but depending upon the tree’s species, it may be possible to save the tree if the bug invasion is caught early. In this case, call a Certified Arborist inspection can diagnose which disease, trauma, or fungus is the culprit. An arborist also can determine if your tree is decaying internally, something that may not yet be obvious.
WHEN TO CALL IN THE PROS
The homeowner’s tree inspection does not eliminate the necessity of calling in a Certified Arborist periodically to come out and make sure you haven’t missed anything. Only a Certified Arborist has the knowledge and experience to spot problems that are not always visible to others.
Remember- the cheapest estimate for tree work may not always be the best deal. Most Arborists will do their best to protect and preserve your trees, unlike others who may want to profit from your lack of expertise in this area. Generally they will not recommend removal unless it is absolutely necessary.