Keeping vines from harming your trees

Vines can sometimes be a beautiful part of a garden. They'll spread out to provide a useful groundcover, add a leafy blanket to a fence, or give a collegiate look to a house or outbuilding.

Unfortunately, some vines can be harmful to trees and shrubs. They can wrap tree trunks tightly enough to strangle them, and block sunlight from reaching the leaves once the vine reaches the canopy. The roots of the vine system can trap moisture and debris against the trunk, increasing the possibility of disease. By weakening the tree, adding extra weight, and capturing heavy snow or ice, vines can cause branches or even the entire tree to come crashing down.

Periodically checking the trees and shrubs around your home will let you know if a vine has started using one as a trellis. Identifying the vine will let you know what steps you should take, and if you need to take any special precautions. Some vines, namely smaller or less aggressive species, are less likely to cause harm and can be left on a tree.

Identifying the vine will also let you know how it propagates and how difficult it will be to remove. For example, the University of Maryland Extension says mile-a-minute vines have minimal roots systems and can easily be torn out of the ground. Kudzu, by contrast, can spread at a rate of up to one foot a day, start root systems when a node touches the ground, and send out up to 30 shoots from a single crown.

It's important to wear appropriate clothing when working to remove a vine, since some species will have thorns or toxins. Lynn Coulter, writing for HGTV, says it's helpful to wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and closed toe shoes, along with protective work gloves.

Destroying vines by hand can be time-consuming, but is typically safer and more effective than methods such as applying herbicide or removing flowers before they drop seed. The best option is to sever vines at the ground level, while also cutting the vine as high up as you are able to manage.

This control method will only eradicate the vines that have climbed into the higher portion of a tree, but it still provides a variety of benefits. The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences says it helps you identify and cut all of the existing vines, reduces the obstacles presented by hanging vines, and clears the ground area to make it easier to attack the root system.

The upper portions of the vine can simply be left on the tree, as they will gradually dry out and wither away. Since the vine can securely attach itself to the trunk and branches, trying to pull down the vine risks damaging the tree. Todd's Marietta Tree Service, a Georgia company, says you can trim the vine's leaves if you want to restore the tree's access to sunlight more quickly.

Sharp shears or hedge clippers are usually effective in severing vines, though you may need to experiment with different tools. Susan Lundman, writing for SFGate, says you may need to pull away thicker vines using a screwdriver or pry bar before you can make the cut. You might also use a handsaw to cut the vine, although you should be careful to avoid damaging the tree's bark.

The remaining root systems can spawn new vines, so you'll need to tackle them as well. You may be able to tear the root out of the ground by hand. Tree Stewards, a sustainable forest group in northern Virginia, says this process is easiest to do after a rainfall has moistened the soil.

Aim to remove any roots from an area at least two feet around the tree. You can fill this circle with mulch or wood chips, leaving a gap of about three inches from the bark to promote air circulation, to help crowd out weeds and keep lawn mowers a safe distance from the trunk. This process will also make it easier to see if any vines are attempting to climb the tree again.

Herbicides can be helpful in eliminating the root systems of harmful vines. The University of Maryland Extension says painting or spraying the stumps within five minutes of cutting will be most effective. You can also cut into the bark of woody vines and spray these slashes with liquid herbicide.

Treating the stump may slow the vine's ability to put out new growth but not stop it altogether. The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences says one effective option is to let the vine regrow for about six weeks, then use a herbicide designed to attack the foliage. This will help transmit the herbicide to the root system, weakening it and preventing the vine from spreading further.

Be cautious when using herbicides and check for any potentially harmful effects on other plants in your yard. Lundman says you should avoid using herbicide in the evening to minimize the harm to bees. Don't use the product when rain is forecast for the near future, or near ponds or other water sources that can be harmed if herbicide is carried off by rainwater.

Vines should be thrown away instead of composted, since any remaining seeds can germinate in the compost pile. The debris can also be burned, but only for certain types of vine. Coulter says vines such as poison ivy or poison sumac will release harmful fumes when incinerated.

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