How to Identify and Keep Your Trees Healthy

Lucy Mercer
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While spring is the ideal time for planting vegetable and flower gardens, the cooler days of fall are best for caring for the giants of your plantscape, the trees.

This is the season to examine the trees on your property and give them the care they need before winter sets in. It’s also the best time of year to put a new tree in the ground.

If you have an older home with trees planted by a previous owner, it’s possible you’re not even sure what trees you have on your property. Begin with the leaves: trees with needles, trees with scale-like leaves and trees with leaves.

Trees with needles are evergreens and conifers, trees with scale-like leaves are cedars and junipers, and trees with leaves are further identified by having simple or compound leaves. The Arbor Day Foundation has a guide by region to help identify your trees.

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After you determine the types of trees on your property, head outside and examine them to get an idea of their overall health.

Are there broken or dying branches? Trees should be pruned annually, so grab some loppers because fall is the time for corrective pruning, the kind of trim that improves the health of the tree and improves the landscape.

The goal for fall pruning is to get the tree in the best shape possible for the cold winter months and subsequent spring growth.

Pruning will eliminate dying or diseased branches, limbs that are intruding on the landscape or that may be too close to structures. Pruning also lets more light into the tree, promoting healthy growth.

Cosmetic pruning can wait until spring.

Top tips for tree pruning:

  • Trim away dead or dying branches immediately, but for other pruning of deciduous trees, wait until the leaves have dropped. It will make your job easier and be less stressful to the tree.
  • In general, narrow angles where the branch meets the trunk are weaker than wider angles. Weak branches may break under the pressure of heavy winter snow and ice, so trim these to protect the tree.
  • Avoid cutting too close to the trunk when removing a limb. You want to let the tree develop a natural collar at the cut.
  • When a young tree starts splitting into two trunks, choose a trunk and cut it away. The entire tree will be weakened if you allow both to grow. Allowing the tree to grow older will only make the job harder down the road.

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Taking care of the trees on your property can add value and aesthetic beauty to your investment. On the other hand, poorly maintained trees can be a liability, potentially causing damage to your home, and depending on the tree’s location, neighboring property.

Pruning large trees and removing trees can be dangerous and should be done only by individuals who are trained to work safely in trees.

Certified arborists, the professionals known as tree doctors, are trained in tree care and must pass examinations and continue their education to maintain certification.

Signs that you may need a tree professional:

  • Leaves appearing later than usual or falling off earlier than normal
  • Discolored leaves or leaves without veins or with odd nodules
  • Bark that forms bumps or is split, cracked or peeling
  • Dead branches near the top of the tree
  • Fungus growing around the trunk, mushrooms forming around roots or twigs growing from the trunk

 Tools for Pruning Trees:

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 With diseased trees, proper diagnosis will lead to proper treatment. Treatments can include applying fungicides, pruning, fertilizing or altering watering patterns.

Sometimes, no treatment is enough to save a tree. It’s time to remove a tree when there are serious root or trunk problems or structural defects that could cause the tree to topple in a high wind. 

And when you remove a tree, you’ll need to plant a new one. By planting at the end of the growing season, the tree’s roots will grow and be ready to take up water when the ground warms in spring. As the tree opens its leaves, the established root system will be able to access water without stress.

keep these tree planting tips in mind:

  • Plant six weeks before the first hard frost date.
  • Consider the location and the mature size of the tree. Don’t plant too close to a house or driveway. 
  • Dig a wide, shallow hole up to twice the size of the root ball and no deeper than the root ball itself. 
  • Water the tree in and continue to water once a week for the first month.
  • When mulching around the tree, remember to make a “doughnut,” not a “volcano.” A close-packed volcano shape creates problems with pests, while an open doughnut shape provides just the right amount of moisture for the growing tree. For more information about planting trees, read Plant Trees and Shrubs for Fall.

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