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Best Practices for Tree Maintenance

Greg Frank, LC/DBM

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In order to ensure safety and aesthetics, trees require more maintenance than one might think. Proper pruning, mulching, pesticide application, watering and routine checkups will help ensure your trees live long, healthy lives that don't endanger the people who enjoy them.

Proper maintenance of a tree can play an integral part in the lifespan and growth of that tree. There may be a common misconception that trees require little to no maintenance, however this is false. Once a new sapling has been planted, it should be routinely maintained every few months to safeguard it from developing problems later on.

This article aims to provide some general information and best practices to consider when maintaining trees in your landscapes.

Vincent Aquino is the Arboriculture Manger for Facilities Management Operations at Colorado University, Boulder, a university that has been deemed a "Tree Campus USA" by The Arbor Day Foundation for nine consecutive years. When questioned what tree maintenance entails for his job, he responds by saying, "Our crew and myself conduct structural and developmental pruning, risk identification and mitigation, and tree health care utilizing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques to manage cultural stresses, disease and pest issues affecting our trees."

To begin inspection of a tree, Oscar Sanchez, a certified arborist for TreeCareLA, states that he generally starts inspecting a tree from the bottom and works his way up.

"First I look at the tree from all angles, and usually I start at the bottom. If the tree is planted too deep, that's an issue. If there is a lot of soil up against the trunk, that's also a problem. But it takes a long time to kill a tree, and it is always better to catch the problem before its too late."

Things to look for when inspecting a tree are: mold, mildew on the leaves, cankers, pests, too much water, too much moss, fungus and dead branches.

From increasing safety, to bolstering the health and formation of the tree, pruning can be done on any species of tree during anytime of the year.

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This is a certified arborist pruning a pine tree. He is using a pole with a pruner head to reach out and cut off the dead branches. Pruner heads can either be saws (inset) or clippers, like the A.M. Leonard Pole Pruner Head pictured (inset). When the branches become too large in diameter, saw heads are going to be the preferred choice. On the other hand, when the branches are small, the clipper head will be easier. A chainsaw can also be used and can be seen in this picture attached to the arborist.

The Arbor Day Foundation has an interactive animation on their website that goes over how to properly prune your trees. One good tip derived from the exercise is that "Every time you prune, it's an injury. Prune so that the resulting wound can close easily."

One of the best practices for pruning is to start pruning early in the tree's life so that the wounds are small, the tree is more manageable and it will grow to be aesthetically pleasing and strong.

Sanchez relates that he prunes based on what he has coined the "4 D's:" Damaged, Diseased, Dead and Deranged. Any branches that appear to have anyone of these four symptoms should be pruned. Furthermore, he states that pruning tools should be cleaned after use to prevent STreeD's (tree diseases and pests).

Even though pruning can be done all year long, and on any type of tree, the Arbor Day Foundation notes that fall is the least optimal time to prune because tree wounds will take longer to heal during the fall. If your purpose of pruning is to enhance flowering, you should prune in the spring after the flowers fade. To slow the development of a tree or branch, pruning should be done during the summer months, after the tree has completed its seasonal growth phase. Pruning during the winter months is the most common practice, and will usually result in "a vigorous burst of new growth in the spring..."

Recommended equipment for pruning trees would be: shears, loppers, chainsaws, handsaws, pole pruners and all the associated safety gear. A helmet is strongly advised and if a tree is too large or too close to power lines, a certified arborist should be consulted.

Other recommended safety gear includes: American National Standards Institute (ANSI) certified glasses, chaps, gloves, boots, a long sleeve shirt and ear protection (if using a chainsaw).

Pest Control
When it comes to combatting harmful tree pests, certified arborists operate under a set of guidelines know as Integrated Pest Management practices. This set of best practices was reportedly coined at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1950s, and seeks to take an "effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices," according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Sanchez says that the first step in pest management is "recognizing what a pest is."

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These trees have been badly damaged by pests. The one above had its bark chewed on by the notorious Emerald Ash Borer, while the tree on the left was infested with the Asian Longhorned Beetle. Both pests are invasive and primarily found in the eastern states. Certified tree care professionals utilize a broad-based approach, known as Integrated Pest Management, to safely combat invasive pests.

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Oscar Sanchez relates that he uses Dr. Bronner's "Pure-Castile Soap" on trees to fight mildew and other tree diseases. He mixes one gallon of regular water, two tablespoons of the castile soap, two tablespoons of baking soda, and two tablespoons of olive oil (if it is not hot outside) together in a bucket. If it is too hot outside, the olive oil will fry the leaves and should not be included in the mixture. Neem oil is also another popular pesticide that he mentions.

"If you have two aphids eating your tomato, it is not really a pest. But if you have a thousand aphids eating your tomato plant, then that's a pest, and you should do something about it."

Once that is achieved, he offers three ways to combat tree pests: physically squashing them, applying pesticides/soaps, or introducing another insect that can act as a natural predator.

"Sometimes it's just easier to prune off the affected branch or area, if that is possible. If you are going to spray the tree, do it on a day that isn't too hot or windy and spray your application from all angles. It is also very important to go back a week later and re-spray the tree, just to get any bugs you might have missed."

One good tip Sanchez offers is that if you see a line of ants crawling up your tree, you have a pest in the canopy. He says the ants are actually feeding on the sugar produced by the pest, so by removing the tree-eating bugs, you eradicate the root of the problem (pun intended) and the ants should also disappear.

A Kansas State University newsletter relays that the best time to check for scale pests is during the winter because deciduous trees won't have leaves, so the scale is more easily seen.

A Pennsylvania State article, titled "Mulching Landscape Trees," states "Tree care professionals prefer organic mulches, such as wood chips, pine needles, hardwood and softwood bark, cocoa hulls, leaves, and compost mixes, since they decompose, improving soil structure and increasing soil fertility."

Furthermore, the college claims that the best time to apply mulch to landscape trees is "in the middle of spring..."

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Trees need compost just like other plants. When adding mulch to a newly planted sapling, it should be laid in a circle around the trunk about two-and-a-half inches away. For mature trees, best practices delegate that the mulch should begin about a foot or two away from the tree, depending on overall size and girth. In all cases, the mulch should be about three to four inches thick.

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This is the Kradl tree support. It creates a ring around a young tree's trunk without touching it. This allows the tree to sway naturally in the wind and grow structurally, reducing the risk of the tree being felled by strong winds later on.

Sanchez reminds, "Make sure the flare is in the air." What he means by this is that the base of the tree will flare out where it meets the roots, and this flare should be above the ground and above any mulch coverings. This will help allow sufficient water filtration and prohibit any mold or fungus growth that might start around the base.

Things to avoid when applying mulch to your trees are: adding too much or too little, covering the tree trunk's flare and creating a mulch-volcano.

Like all plants, trees obviously require water. Sanchez suggests that the amount of watering necessary "depends on the age and type of tree."

The Vacaville Tree Foundation, a volunteer organization based in California, suggests on their website that you should add water to newly planted trees immediately after planting. You will want to supply water to the "original root ball area and just beyond this area."

Sanchez recommends about five gallons of water if the tree came in a five-gallon container. Additionally, you can create a land berm around the tree and add water until it begins to pool up on the surface of the soil.
For mature, established trees, do not irrigate directly up against the trunk, because this can increase STreeDs. Instead, water the "outer half of the area under the canopy and beyond the edge of the canopy."

Proper watering is going to really depend on common sense. Different parts of the country are going to contain distinctive soil types that are more or less adapted to holding water. Furthermore, varying geographical locations will receive different amounts of rainwater or irrigation. For instance, even within the same landscape, one tree may receive more water from the irrigation system than another. Ultimately, watering is going to vary on an individual basis and fluctuate throughout the year.

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, January 2019.

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October 16, 2019, 1:09 am PDT

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