How to Check Tree Health for Safety During Storms
Charlotte is a city defined not only by its skyline but by its tree canopy, too.
There's no doubting the beauty that trees bring to our streets—Myers Park posts a picture-perfect image of what trees can do for your landscape. However, this same historic Charlotte neighborhood also presents some problems. Albeit gorgeous, the towering willow oak trees that line Queens Road are also quite old. Their maturity, paired with wet soil and other environmental factors during storms, can result in trees down. As we saw with Hurricane Florence and other recent storms, these fallen trees can be dangerous.
If you've wondered about some of your trees and their health, you can check your evergreens at home to ensure they will be strong enough to make it through a storm. Evergreen trees and shrubs are popular for providing privacy and year-round color. Charlotte's district manager of Davey Tree, Ray Betz, tells us how to assess evergreen tree health at home.
A dried cypress tree.
Charlotte at Home: How can homeowners asses an evergreen tree's health at home?
Ray Betz: Get outside, look at your evergreens, and keep your eyes peeled for browning. Evergreen trees naturally shed old needles as part of their growing cycle. Typically, if your tree has brown needles on the interior, then that’s part of their natural growing cycle. To confirm that, check if the soil is moist to the touch, and ensure there are no signs of an infestation or infection. If your tree passes those checkpoints, it’s likely okay. On the flip side, if you see brown needles along the tree’s margin or exterior, then you need to investigate that more.
CAH: What are some warning signs of trees or shrubs that are in trouble?
RB: Dry soil. Winter is tough on trees, but evergreens are especially vulnerable. Roots rely on water stored in tree needles once the ground freezes. The tree’s water stash can drain quickly, causing the needles to turn brown from dryness. Too many sunny days can also be harmful. Known as sun-scald, needles in direct sunlight turn uniformly brown because of the extra water loss. You may also see dead or dried areas of bark. Lastly, evergreens attract a few common pests and diseases, like the pine beetle or cytospora canker disease. Browning needles can be a symptom of infection. If you suspect that, also look for small holes, sawdust or large cankers leaking white sap on branches.
CAH: What steps can homeowners take to help a broadleaf evergreen to recover?
RB: If the tree is just suffering from dehydration, a protective spray for evergreens is a quick fix. Anti-desiccant, a waxy coating sprayed on plants to shield them from moisture loss, can help with dryness. If the tree is experiencing sun-scald, wrap bark in burlap to keep it warm and protect it from winter elements. If you think your tree is infested with a pest, using an insecticide or pruning away infected branches will get your tree back in shape in many cases.
Finally, if it’s just natural, check in with your arborist to see if it’s safe to prune browning branches for a better appearance. This way, if there is a problem, they can spot it and develop a treatment plan.
CAH: What is a reasonable recovery time for these ailed evergreens?
RB: If you help a tree that was lacking water or suffering from sun-scald, you’ll likely see your tree recover within a season, about two or three months. But if you suspect a pest or disease, a local tree expert or arborist like me will need to deliver an advanced diagnosis and course of treatment. That will detail a timeline, which will differ from tree to tree.
CAH: How long should homeowners wait before calling in an expert?
RB: If you see something odd or worrisome, it’s best to have an expert come take a look as soon as you see it. Most reputable tree companies offer consultations for free. An arborist will help diagnose the problem and determine the best course of action.
CAH: What about pruning? When is that appropriate?
RB: People assume trimming can’t be completed during the winter, but, as an arborist, I actually have optimal access when trees are dormant. Limbs are lighter and easier to handle, and leafless tree structures are easier to see. There’s nowhere for the problems to hide!
When you prune dormant trees, they have a whole season to recoup before new growth begins in spring. Actually, pruning after the onset of new growth can limit the plant’s bloom potential for the year. Dormant pruning pulls double-duty: It causes less stress while also allowing for robust new growth on plants that bloom in the spring and summer.
CAH: What are some pruning guidelines to follow?
RB: It really depends on the tree. If you’re using your evergreens as a privacy screen, we want to ensure the tree stays about the same size. That means our certified arborists prune specifically to let light into the bottom and sides. If you’re pruning any other type of evergreen, it’s all about the look that you want in your yard. Do you want something open, airy, and natural, do you want a more refined and structured look?
Generally, if you plan to prune more than a third of your evergreen, you should have a certified arborist handle that to make sure the plant survives. Or, if you would need to get up on a ladder to reach branches above your head, then that tree is too big for you to prune on your own. Likewise, if you plan to prune right before winter, have a professional do it. You want to make sure you set the tree up for success in the coming winter, not deplete it of its resources, which could cause a decline or death.