Ice storms, lightning and strong winds can often lead to damage on ornamental trees in our landscapes. Branches may break, trunks may split or, in extreme, the tree may topple over to the ground. Even having a major branch or the trunk of the tree bend over to the ground without breaking may lead to damage such as canker diseases later on.

At times, you can deal with this type of damage by yourself. However, sometimes it requires the services of professional arborists with their specialized knowledge and equipment.

Determining the Extent of the Damage

In the home landscape, you may have inherited certain fast growing, weak wooded trees such as silver maple, Chinese elms, boxelder, poplars and others. These are prone to breaking into pieces under the stress of ice or wind. They may lose branches or twigs in any kind of storm and should be avoided when selecting new trees for your landscape.

Minor damage such as a few broken small branches or twigs may need no treatment at all. However, when major branches or the main trunk are involved, your first decision may be whether the entire tree needs to come down.

Imagine what the tree would look like with the damaged parts removed. Would it still be aesthetically pleasing and would it fulfill the design intent it was meant to fill. Finally, would the tree be safe? Sure you can prune or cable the damaged parts but will it be safe to walk under or would it fall onto a house, garage or play area for the kids? It is generally best to be conservative when the health and safety of our loved ones or others are at risk.

If you don't feel competent to make a decision on a tree, there are usually professionals in the area called arborists or consulting foresters who are trained to evaluate the soundness of a tree. For a fee, they will perform various tests and observations of your tree and give you a recommendation.

Fixing a Damaged Tree

If the tree is worth saving, the next decision you need to make is whether you are the one to do it. Trimming of minor branches near ground level can be done with hand tools. However, larger and higher branches will require someone to climb into the tree or use a "cherry picker" machine. That can be dangerous for the untrained gardener.

To find a professional to trim and/or cable the damage tree, check with your local tree nurseries or a local city forester for recommendations. Get recommendations from prior clients before selecting a company to do the job.

Pruning Damaged Branches

Whether you or a professional company are doing the job, there are certain rules and techniques for properly removing damaged wood from a tree.

As in any kind of pruning, there are proper techniques to assure that the tree will not be damaged even more.

  1. Cut back damaged branches to the nearest lateral branch, bud or to the main stem - Never just cut the branch at the middle or leave a stub. This will only result in the death of the branch below the cut or form a mass of sprouts called a witches' broom.

    figure_3.jpg (13670 bytes)

    Cut broken branches adjacent to the next larger branch (A) If the cut is made immediately below the break (B), decay of the protruding stub is likely.


  2. Branches that are smaller than a couple of inches should be removed with pruning shears, loppers or a pole pruner - Use sharp, bypass pruners to make a clean cup so that you do not tear the bark or make a ragged cut. Dull tools will crush  rather than cut and make an unpleasant looking result that may also be more susceptible to insect or disease.

  3. On branches too thick to be cut by hand pruning shears or loppers use a sharp saw - Whenever you think about using a saw to cut a branch, you will be dealing with a heavy piece of wood. If you just cut down from the top, when you get close to the bottom, the weight of the branch will cause it to break loose and strip some of the bark off beneath the cut. This damage to the bark may result in a disease called canker which will further disfigure the tree.

    To avoid this, the so-called three cut method is recommended whenever you cut a branch with a saw. See the figure below for the details.

    Remove larger branches using a 3-cut approach. Make the first cut (A) part way through the branch. Follow with the overcut (B) which allows the branch to fall. The final cut (C) removes the branch just outside the collar of the main stem. Do NOT use a flush cut which leaves a much larger wound that could lead to problems later.

Dealing with Torn Bark

When major branches are stripped from the tree during a storm, they may also tear strips of bark off the trunk on their way down. About the only thing you can do is to "clean up" the wound to avoid additional damage by insects or disease.

The key is to remove any flaps or loose bark from the wound. Carefully peel back the bark until you find where it is tightly attached to the wood. Use a sharp utility knife or other such instrument to cut away the loose bark. Ideally, the trimmed bark should end up in an elliptical shape as shown in the illustration below.

Treat all bark wounds to form an elliptical bark tracing. This encourages closing of the wound with minimal wood decay.

Dealing with Split Forks

Repairing the Split
- If a major fork between two branches or between a major branch and the trunk have split, there is a possibility that it can be fixed. Cable or large metal bolts are often employed to pull the two parts back together. If this is done promptly after the damage occurs, there is hope that the two parts will grow back together similar to the way a scion and stock are joined during grafting.

Cabling or bolting like this generally needs to be done by professionals. It takes some high powered equipment and know how to do this properly. To do it improperly will only result in a weakened connection between the two parts that might come down without warning.

Install a steel bolt (A) through the split fork of a tree to help hold it together. Place a cable higher in the tree (B) between the same branches to reduce the likelihood of further breakage. 

Removing the Split - If the forked branch is too damaged or heavy to pull back together with the trunk, it will need to be removed. To do this, you need to do the 3 cut techniques as described earlier. Be sure that the cuts are made at an angle which will allow rain water to drain away from the cut. If it is flat, the water accumulation could lead to rot which with further weaken the tree.

Remove a member of a split or broken fork which cannot be repaired using the 3-cut procedure.

Wound Treatments

Generally, treating cut wounds with a "wound compound" is not recommended. This is especially true for those products that are thick like tar. Research indicates that these materials either do no good or hold moisture next to the wound and may cause additional rot to occur. For aesthetic purposes, you might apply some of the aerosol sprays that will help the wound be less noticeable.

The exception to this rule includes whenever members of the red oak group are pruned during the growing season i.e. when leaves are present. These trees are susceptible to a disease called oak wilt which is spread by bark beetles that move from tree to tree. The insects are attracted to fresh, moist wounds. The best way to deal with this problem is to only prune these trees during the dormant season of late fall and winter. The insects are not active then and the tree wounds do not need to be protected.

Uprooted Trees

In the case of severe wind storms or tornadoes, some trees may be pushed over exposing their roots. Occasionally, these trees can be saved with some quick action.

First, the tree cannot be too large since it will take some power to pull them back into an upright position. This requires power equipment or wenches and cables capable of pulling the weight of the tree.

Before pulling the tree back up, remove some of the soil from the area where the roots will land. This will allow them to settle in and be at the proper level in the soil.

Once the tree is back in the hole, water it thoroughly to eliminate air spaces and to be sure the soil fills in around the root system. It will be important to keep the soil moist but not water logged for the next year or two. The tree must re-establish its fibrous roots to survive.

You will need to brace the tree with 3 guy wires anchored to solid posts in the ground. Otherwise, a weaker wind will send the tree over again.

IF you are fortunate, the tree will re-root and lose only a few twigs or branches and go on to lead its normal life. The younger the tree and the quicker you act, the more likely this is to occur. If the roots are allowed to dry out while in the air, the chances of success are greatly decreased.

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.

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