Spring's time for paying attention to trees

Friday, March 9, 2012
Chip Ford / Carroll County News Cleaning up debris around trees and carefully pruning are jobs best done in the spring, and will help ensure a long and healthy life for your trees.

Nights are getting warmer, cowbirds are returning to our feeders and we hear the crack of aluminum on baseball fields, which all mean it is time to check on our trees.

Sometimes it is the trees that make the yard. There might be flowers galore accenting manicured lawns, but everything is framed by the trees and shrubs. Because they grow tall and strong, it would be easy to assume trees don't really need our assistance except to clean up fallen branches and rake the leaves. Well-established oaks, birches and maples don't require much maintenance, but young saplings, ornamentals and fruit trees might appreciate some attention in the early spring.


Spring is good to clean up the fallen branches, twigs and other debris under the tree, especially within the dripline or a proximity to the trunk. For fruit trees, leftover leaves and fruit from last year can spread diseases, so they should have been removed several months ago.

Clearing out grass and weeds near the base of the tree means their root systems won't compete with the tree's roots for water and nutrients. Once the ground around the trunk is clear, add an organic mulch of bark or shredded leaves.

The mulch helps to create a healthy environment for soil organisms so that they can build sustainable economies for themselves in the top several inches of soil thereby, over time, adding to the soil tilth and moderating soil deficiencies. Mulch will also help retain moisture in the soil where it is most useful to the tree.

Once the soil around the tree trunk is tilthy and vibrant, a person could introduce a groundcover or jonquils and other narcissi, but for now we'll focus on trees.


There are elements of tree pruning which are easy to explain and understand, and then there are fruit trees. For all trees, the rule, like in Standard First Aid, is do no harm. Before you prune anything, sharpen your tools. Blunt pruning shears or dull saws will not make a sharp, even cut, and most likely will tear bark away from the cut, leaving an ingress for critters to crawl inside.

The obvious first cuts to make are broken or damaged limbs. You don't have to wait until spring to remove damaged branches. Make the cut as close to the trunk as possible without leaving a stub, which provides entry for pests and pathogens, or cutting off the branch collar which provides protection for the open wound.

Trees can naturally handle a clean cut, and surprisingly, younger trees heal better from bad pruning than older ones.

Once unhealthy limbs are gone, determine for yourself how much pruning the tree needs. It is good for the tree or shrub if you take off branches which will rub across other branches.

Generally, you should keep branches growing from the center outward rather than perpendicular ones. Try to envision space for each branch. It can be like a three-dimensional art project that requires the pruner to see into the future.

It is also best to get the pruning done before the tree leafs out. Trees store vital nutrients during the dormant winter season. Much energy is expended during the burst of spring growth. If pruning occurs before the spring explosion, the growth channels through fewer, although healthier, branches. This is especially important with spring flowering trees. If a tree is only a year or two old, prune lightly.

As leaves grow, photosynthesis begins in earnest again and the trees begin to collect energy for the summer growth. Major pruning after the spring leafing would interrupt the nutrient collection and debilitate the tree. This does not mean lopping a limb or two on a well-established tree at any time would be a problem. However, early spring is when trees heal fastest from pruning.

Speaking of well-established trees, spring is a good time to remove branches that want to extend toward or over your house or other structures. Sometimes these cuts can be tricky, and there are professionals with equipment, insurance and experience who can do this work for you.

Once the undesirable elements have been carefully pruned, consider the shape. When you prune, consider the long-term effects on appearance. Trees are going to find their instinctive shapes without our meddling, but we can choose, for example, whether we want the visual barrier of the bottom branches of a magnolia or do we intend to sit in the shade underneath it? In other words, why is this tree here?

Planting a tree and watching it grow is one of life's wonders, but consider carefully which tree goes where so that, sooner than you expect, the spreading roots of the once-young sapling are not buckling your sidewalk or leg-wrestling with your foundation blocks.

Typically, pruning of fruit trees occurs in the fall or winter, but fruit trees can take light pruning in the spring. As branches begin to leaf out, you can see which branches are productive and which ones are dead. Lop off dead or unproductive branches. Light pruning will direct more growth energy into making fruit.

Correct pruning of fruit trees takes much experience, but generally it is a good idea to remove watersprouts, which are vertical branches which grow quickly and clutter up the center of the tree, and remove suckers which grow out of the base of the trunk.

One type of pruning generally discouraged is topping off, which damages strong upper limbs, creates longer and weaker branches below and generally ruins the natural shape of the tree forever. If a tree requires topping, maybe it should not be there. How about planting one that fits the space better?

Feeding and watering

Trees feed themselves through photosynthesis, so they usually do not require regular feeding like flowers and vegetables do. Look at the leaves to see if they look healthy. Young saplings and fruit trees appreciate a generous dose of manure and dolomite, but greater attention should be paid to watering.

Wait until the ground has thawed so that the water can penetrate. Water the entire area around the trunk so that the roots will reach out and thereby provide a stronger foundation for the tree.

Watering slowly with drip emitters is preferable to sprinklers or hoses because the water will have a chance to seep slowly where it is needed without running off.

Also, avoid too much water unless you have willows or tupelo trees. Oversaturation will disrupt normal soil chemistry and roots won't get enough oxygen.

Long-term care

Approach your tree maintenance by offering small doses of regular attention, but with forever in mind. Trees have an aura of invincibility, and they can stand tall against most anything except for ice storms, tornadoes, tree-boring beetles and over-aggressive homeowners without a clue. And wildfires.

Caring for the trees around us can be one of the simple pleasures that takes us away from the technical, commercial, busy world and remind us of our connection to nature. Trees bloom, flower, grow and then rest when the winter comes in perfect seasonal rhythm.

We can respond to the seasons by caring for the trees when they need it or sitting beneath them when it feels good. We don't all have room to plant more trees, but there is no reason not to pay attention and learn from the ones nearby.

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