Connolly: Advice on dealing with storm-ravaged trees

Prune it or take it down? Between Superstorm Sandy and the weighty snows of February, many of us will face that question as spring arrives.

There is no simple answer in many cases, according to Glenn Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum. "It's not just how much damage, but the type of damage," he said. "If a third of the tree is gone, it's going to be pretty hard to have the tree return to health. But it's not always that clear."

What is clear is that mature trees have a lot of ecological value - which makes many worth the effort of saving. "The bigger the tree, the more its ecological benefits," said Dreyer. "There's more shade, more air pollution captured, more soil protected, more wildlife habitat, more carbon capture."

Still, safety has to be addressed. Damage is not always obvious and sometimes trees continue their decline over several years after a major weather event.

"The safety questions are best answered by a licensed arborist," said Dreyer. If the tree is deemed safe, Dreyer said it's worthwhile to be patient with damaged trees. "They may not look like they did before the storm, but in one to three years, they may begin to fill in," he said.

He noted that the recent snowstorm affected the evergreen trees and understory shrubs more than large deciduous trees. "There's a lot of damage at lower levels," he said. Especially problematic are the cracked branches and peeled trunks. "If the damage goes around more than 50 percent of the trunk, that's a big deal," said Dreyer. "It really opens the tree to disease and insects."

Pruning is the antidote to complete removal, but it is both art and science. Pruning has a lot of impact on the long-term health of trees and shrubs, so Connecticut requires anyone performing this work professionally to have an arborist's license. Professional arborists are trained to do pruning correctly.

In addition to careful pruning, Dreyer said to give recovering trees beneficial conditions this spring and summer. "If we have a prolonged drought this summer, don't forget to water your trees and shrubs, particularly the young ones."

There are other simple things you can do to help your trees and shrubs regain health. Keep mulch, soil and leaves away from the base of trunks. If you mulch a tree, keep the mulch layer less than 3 inches. Keep lawn mowers and weed whackers away from the base of the tree as well.

What about fertilizers? "They're not always necessary," said Dreyer. "Apply fertilizers only after you get a soil test that says they're needed." Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station provides soil tests at no charge.

KATHY CONNOLLY IS A GARDEN WRITER, LANDSCAPE DESIGNER AND SPEAKER. EMAIL HER AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM. FIND HER BLOG AND PRESENTATION SCHEDULE AT WWW.SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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