Tree Care

The average homeowner does not have the training, equipment or expertise necessary to perform safe tree work. Though tree work may seem simple, it is actually extremely complicated, technical and dangerous. Homeowners have been injured and even killed by falling limbs, faulty/misused equipment, or general carelessness. Here are some examples of what can go wrong:

  • You are hit by falling branches.
  • Tree falls in the wrong direction.
  • Tree falls on house, car, or you, the homeowner.
  • The tree falls prematurely.
  • You find hidden decay after you have started cutting the tree/notch.
  • You realize your equipment is not adequate after you start cutting the tree/notch.
  • You underestimate the height/size of the tree.

It depends on the contractor you are working with, and the state you live in. To shield yourself from liability, always do business with reputable tree care companies with verifiable credentials and up-to-date insurance. Ask for a contract up front, and ensure it specifies conditions for liability.

Trees require regular maintenance to ensure they are safe and structurally sound. Small defects such as split branches, dead limbs, cracked stems and decayed wood all point to a defective tree. Unhealthy trees can topple without warning or collapse during bad weather. To prevent this, have a professional tree care company or arborist routinely conduct a tree risk assessment, which can reveal defects before they become dangerous.

Tree Pruning

Although it all depends on your pruning objectives, most trees can be pruned year-round, if pruned properly.

In fact, winter can often be the best time for an arborist to prune. Since the leaves are off, the view of the entire tree’s architecture is clear and a thorough check can be performed. They can locate deadwood by looking for changes in branch color, fungus growth, cracks, and other symptoms that can help them make this determination.

It’s worth noting that some areas may have pruning restrictions in place if a particular insect or disease is a problem. Contact your local county extension office to find any pruning restrictions.

Trees should have deadwood pruned out regularly, at least once per year.

If you are pruning a smaller tree, the three basic tools are: hand pruners, loppers, and hand saws. Remember that these tools need to be sharp and clean to ensure success. Do not use shearers to shape young trees. If the tree is larger and requires more attention, contact an arborist or tree care company.

These three practices are often confused. Some disreputable tree care companies will purposefully use the wrong term to confuse the homeowner. Here are the proper definitions:

  • Pollarding: This is an acceptable practice. Ultimately, pollarding is dramatically cutting back the major branches to contain the tree’s size. Pollarding must be started when a tree is young and must continue once every two years.
  • Reduction: This is an acceptable practice, depending on the tree species. A clearly-defined objective is established before pruning. Branches are selectively shortened to reduce the height and spread of the tree. This may be done, for example, on a tree blocking a solar panel. Often, reducing a tree allows a homeowner to save a tree they might otherwise have to remove. Proper reduction pruning should not cause excessive sprouts to grow.
  • Topping: Topping is not an acceptable practice. Topping is when a tree is indiscriminately cut back to stubs. Usually topping is done to flat-top the tree or cut it back on all sides. The result is unsightly. Topping is often sold as a method to reduce tree size, however studies have shown that a topped tree will actually grow larger over a five-year period compared to an unpruned control tree. This occurs because the severe cuts cause many weak, but fast-growing sprouts to shoot from the stubs.

Tree Planting

Planting trees is the most natural way to add value to your property, reduce heating and cooling costs, lend your landscape aesthetic appeal, and nurture the surrounding wildlife.

Refer to the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Wizard tool for a fun and easy way to determine which tree is perfect for your home. This tool will take your hardiness zone, personal interests, and growing conditions into account when generating recommendations.

Spring and fall were once considered the only planting seasons in temperate climates. Over time, methods have been developed to extend the planting season. Now trees are planted throughout the year unless the soil is frozen. Some species, however, seem to do best when planted in the traditionally-favored spring season, such as many magnolias.

One the most common mistakes is poor planning! Before you plant your first tree, visualize your “dream landscape” and work backwards to ensure you have adequate space and resources for your project.

Inexperienced homeowners also sabotage their trees by planting them in narrow, deep holes. This suffocates the tree, and impedes growth and nourishment. In general, the hole should be a minimum of 1.5 times the width of the root ball and have sloping sides and an undisturbed base. The size of the planting hole will need to be increased if your soil is poor or compacted.

Fertilizing is not recommended at the time of planting. However, a robust plant health care (PHC) program will help your tree canopy thrive in the years to come. Ask an arborist or a professional tree care company for recommendations and a fertilization schedule.

A long-handled shovel with a sharp blade. You can file the edges to cut through the grass and soil.

For the best growing success, purchase a good quality tree from a nursery or grower. A good quality root system, as well as above ground growth, is important for long-term tree health. Ask your county extension office for the names of reputable growers in your area. Avoid season-end trees marked down in price. The market price of trees will vary by area.

Use the following checklist (adapted from A300 Part 6 Planting & Transplanting standard) to help you select a superior quality tree:

  • General health
  • Structure of tree (i.e. – Does it have a strong central leader and well-spread branches?)
  • Trunk flare and condition (i.e. – Is the trunk flare visible and free of decay? The trunk flare is at the bottom of the trunk where it flares out and widens to roots. Look for the first large root if you are having trouble finding the trunk flare)
  • Crown shape
  • Size and quality of rootball (i.e. – Is the rootball large enough and stable enough to support the tree? Container plants should not be pot-bound)
  • Foliage colors and density (i.e. – Is there adequate foliage and does it appear healthy?)

Plant Health Care

In general, a healthy soil is free of crusts, compaction, pesticides and other toxins, salt buildup and excessive erosion, and contains sufficient organic matter and nutrients in proper balance to support a large and active population of native organisms. Your soil may look different depending on the region you live in, so make sure to compare your soil to local samples.

Homeowners may use a pH test kit from a local nursery or hardware store. A professional arborist can follow up by analyzing the soil and submitting it to a laboratory, and can provide a plan to correct soil deficiencies. Homeowners can also take a soil sample to send it to their local university cooperative extension for analysis.

The pH scale measures how “acidic” or “basic” a substance is, on a scale of 0 to 14. Trees require specific pH levels (depending on the species) in order to thrive. Testing your soil pH levels prior to planting will tell you what adjustments you will need to make with fertilizers.

Fertilizers can be applied to the soil or foliage, or they can be injected directly into the tree. Sub-surface soil application is the preferred technique, and it is recommended to adequately fertilize the soil before planting the tree, as surface applications are less efficient. Foliar spray or trunk injections should be reserved for rare cases when soil application is not effective or not practical to apply.

This will change depending on the condition of your soil and your tree’s nutrient needs. When choosing a fertilizer, homeowners should select a fertilizer that is at least 50% slow-release, and has a salt-index of less than 50. Avoid fertilizers with a high ratio of potassium and phosphorous. If you correctly select and apply a slow-release fertilizer formulated for your tree, you should only need to apply 2 to 4 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per application. The total application for a growing season should not exceed 6 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet.

It’s impossible to guarantee that pests won’t become a problem on your property. But there are some proactive measures to keep in mind.

Many property owners have lots with just a single or a few trees. Others have small backyard woods, which have become an important component of the urban environment. Small woodlands with a mix of tree species are often less susceptible to pest outbreaks than woods with a single species.

A diversity of tree ages also reduces the risk of pest outbreaks. As with species diversity, age diversity increases the complexity and stability of the ecosystem. A natural balance of organisms is more likely to develop as age diversity increases. For example, potential pests of young trees could be regulated by parasites and predators already well established on older trees.

A healthy landscape is less susceptible to pest outbreaks and is more resilient if an outbreak does occur. When trees are overcrowded in your landscape, competition for light, water, and nutrients results in increased stress. Trees under stress are more likely to be attacked by pests.

You have your maintenance done on your car, right? It’s essentially the same. Think of it as preventative maintenance on your plants. Additionally, the cost of plant health care is typically less expensive than trying to rid your landscape of diseases and pests once they’ve taken root, or to remove trees and shrubs killed by pests.

Don’t forget: trees, shrubs and other ornamental plantings represent a sizeable investment and asset to most homeowners. It’s worthwhile, aesthetically and financially, to keep them healthy.

They did a great job! Responded within hours of my request. Work completed within days. Professional. Very, very satisfied. —Happy Customer in Potomac

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Branches Tree Experts provides the DC metro area with professional tree and plant health care services.

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Washington, DC, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County

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