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Over the next week or two, while the branches are still bare of leaves, homeowners are advised to take a good, hard look at the trees in their yards.
"Look for cracked branches, especially any overhanging sidewalks and roofs," Jeff Ward, chief scientist in the Department of Forestry and Horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, said this week. "A lot of trees got hammered last fall" from Superstorm Sandy.
This is the time, Ward said, for people to start assessing the health of their trees, especially the larger, older ones, and to trim away any damaged branches and call in an arborist to help. The intense storms over the past two years - Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm in 2011, Sandy last year and February's blizzard - have stressed some trees beyond their ability to recover, and removal and replacement with younger, more resilient varieties may be the best course of action, he said.
"Trees can recover if less than 30 percent is damaged, but if 30 percent to 50 percent of the tree is damaged, it's going to take a lot of extra care," Ward said.
He advised against indiscriminate fertilizing of damaged trees, especially with products containing nitrogen. This will cause the tree to put too much energy toward leaf production, he said. If left alone, a damaged tree will tend to direct resources toward healing its wounds and building up energy stores. When considering replacing damaged trees, especially in areas near power lines, Ward advised consulting the "Trees With Short Mature Heights" list created by the Connecticut Urban Forest Council.
This spring already has brought a flood of customers to local tree service companies, including Allied Tree Experts in Mystic and Sprigs & Twigs in Gales Ferry.
"It's the busiest we've ever been" said Bill Lillie, co-owner of Sprigs & Twigs.
The most extensive tree damage seems to be clustered between Interstate 95 and the shoreline, he said, while arborvitae and white pines burned by salt spray seem to have fared the worst. He urged homeowners to make sure they hire tree trimmers who are licensed and insured, warning about newcomers looking to cash in on the sudden need with just a chain saw and a truck and little if any training.
Steve David, owner of Allied Tree Experts, said he's been "horribly busy" this spring; it takes up to four weeks for his six-member crew to start a new job. He's not just felling trees, he said, but in many cases his crews are thinning the crowns, trimming hanging branches and taking other measures to save trees when possible. At several properties, badly scarred arborvitae had to be removed and replaced with new plantings.
The specific type of tree and its age are important considerations in assessing tree health, said Tom Worthley, assistant extension professor at the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service. Black oaks, scarlet oaks, gray birch, red maple, quaking aspen and big-tooth aspen that are 100 to 150 years old probably have had too much stress over the past three storms to last much longer, he said. A sugar maple in the forest can live 250 to 300 years, but in a suburban yard, 150 to 200 years may be its limit, he said. Often, the age of a tree can be estimated based on the age of the house.
"There are a lot of old trees, and people admire old trees, but what people don't acknowledge is that some trees have a lifespan of 100 or 150 years," he said. "Trees have old age too, and three major storms may be more stress than they're able to withstand."
Instead of waiting for these trees to topple in the next storm, Worthley advised, homeowners should plant a new tree, let it get established, then have the old one cut down.
"Watch your trees in early summer. A healthy tree will leaf out with a nice healthy, robust crown. If it looks as though the leaves are sparse, there are a lot of dead branches and it's suffering from old age, look to get a new tree."
He also urged people to consider how much space a tree has to grow. Think of a tree and its root system as a wine glass sitting on a dinner plate - the trunk is the base of the glass, and the plate is the extent of the roots. If a tree is crowded by sidewalks and foundations, the root system won't serve as the strong anchor it needs.
"It will have less structural integrity to withstand a strong wind," Worthley said.
In general, he said, state roads and forests are filled with too many trees dating from the early 1900s. Towns, landowners and the state can make their canopies more resilient for future storms, Worthley said, by mixing in younger trees and thinning crowded tree stands, among other steps. The Statewide Vegetation Management Task Force report, released last year, also provides a lot of useful guidance, Worthley said.
• The Statewide Vegetation Management Task Force report can be found at: http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/forestry/vmtf/final_report/svmtf_final_report.pdf
• The Connecticut Urban Forest Council's "Trees With Short Mature Heights" list can be found at: http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/publications/fact_sheets/forestry_and_horticulture/short_trees_for_connecticut.pdf
• A "Tree Owner's Manual," with information on tree planting and care, can be found at: http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/forestry/urban_forestry/tree_owners_manual.pdf