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Winter Damaged Trees

Q. I HAD a great backyard up until the last two winters. Now my remaining five pines have had their tops snapped off and all but two of our 22 cedars have been 'topped' or fallen over. Are the pines now doomed? I have hand winched some of the cedars back to vertical, with root mounds hopefully intact. And I'm climbing what's left of the damaged pines & cedars to smooth cut the broken tops, which seems to be the only reasonable thing to do. I really like the greenness and fragrances of both trees, but I'm losing the battle. Any suggestions?
    ---Michael in Sterling, VA.
A. Plenty. But first, I'm wondering if something might be wrong here in the big picture. I'm typing this answer in my home office, praying the power holds out while wind gusts of 60 mph whip through our heavily forested landscape. We have had every type of snow this winter, including wet and heavy, and a real doozy of an ice storm that left us without power for a full day a few weeks back. There are small branches down all over the property, and as usual, the rotten tops of our oldest tulip poplars have dropped some heavy hitters (ah—there's the thud we heard at 4 am!). Over the years a few of our trees have fallen in the woods—some snapped and some uprooted, but nothing like your damage.

Trees that are planted too deeply (no root flare showing above ground) or whose soil is improved in the planting hole to the point that the roots refuse to grow beyond those comfy confines are often prone to toppling out of the ground. And trees whose bases are wrapped up in those ill-advised "decorative" volcano mounds of mulch could easily be induced to snap. You pile mulch up around the bark, the bark rots, tree fall down go boom.

In short, proper tree care can sometimes—but not always—prevent these very expensive and dangerous problems. Now, on to what you should do, should have done and should not do.

If trees topple over with their roots out of the ground in winter, you don't have to—and should not—try and replant them in frozen soil. Instead, find a supply of unfrozen topsoil or compost and 'heel' the trees in by covering their roots completely. Water the roots of your sideways trees if you have a dry spell, keep adding soil if you see exposed roots, then get some help and replant them upright (and correctly!) in early Spring, when the soil is unfrozen and they're just waking up from dormancy and have a natural urge to regrow.

For trees that have lost their tops, do even less. Clean up the ground level debris, but leave the poor damaged remnants of the trees alone. If there's enough tree left up top, it may regrow into a desirable shape or a shape that can be pruned into 'desirable' after a year or so.

"Shearing the tops" off any tree is always a bad idea. The only thing it can accomplish is more trauma to the tree and perhaps the removal of that special branch that would otherwise take over and begin the process of reformation. Cutting the top off a tree also typically makes the tree look very ugly for awhile, followed by death.

And if you just can't keep your hands off the poor things until at least Spring, I really do have to wonder if you've been compulsively pruning them (especially at the wrong time of year), mulching their trunks, feeding them chemicals or otherwise fussing over them to the point of instilling weakness into what should be your strongest plants.

Alas, no matter what, a twenty-foot high tree that's snapped off two feet above the ground is gone and should be removed. But when many trees are so affected, it's also better to wait until Spring, do an inventory and have the dead removed professionally, with their stumps pulled out of the ground. Then you can replant the area immediately with new trees—perhaps with greater care.

Q. The recent heavy snow split the trunk of a rather large Japanese red maple I have in my garden. I have read that the split may be repaired by installing a bolt to hold the two halves together and that the tree will eventually heal itself. Is this the best way to repair the tree? How do you know when a split can be repaired?

    ---Bill in Warrenton, VA
A. There may be such bolt-only repairs in the world of arboriculture, Bill, but I think you might mean the much more common 'cabling', where heavy metal cables are run through damaged trees to hold them together. I'm not sure how much actual healing takes place, but the sections of cabled trees I've seen were all still alive when they were worked on, and the cabling was done mostly to prevent the split from getting worse.

A highly skilled arborist who has experience with extreme methods of tree preservation is the best person to decide if: 1) the tree is worth the expense; and 2) the operation stands a good chance of success. And obviously, this is not do-it-yourself work. This is pay-someone-who-knows-how-to-do-it-and-has-the-tools work.

But unlike our previous question, where I believe the homeowner might be showing signs of impatience, a split requires an immediate inspection and fast-as-possible repair. It would not be unusual for a split tree to be easily repaired in January, but to be past repair after the very next ice storm makes the split much wider in February.

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