A lot can go wrong with trees. Between weather, animals, and humans there’s a lot of factors to be worried about! Being able to diagnose problems with your trees can help you prevent these same issues in the future. Now, not all defects can be avoided. Sometimes it has to do with the species of said tree, age, drought, pests, or disease. It’s impossible to protect your trees from everything. There are plenty of measures that can be taken to mitigate damage and even fatality though. Effective pruning, ideal site location, proper planting, and periodic inspection can all put your tree in the best shape to live a long life.
Early in a tree’s life can be the most important. When picking trees from a nursery, it’s important to inspect the roots if at all possible. This can be tough with B&B (ball and burlap) trees since you can’t gain effective access to the roots to see how far the tree may have been buried. If you have a long screwdriver, bring it with you to the nursery. Lightly impale the dirt near the trunk, all the way around the tree. This allows you to locate how deep the roots are in the B&B. The root flare should always be exposed! Trees don’t need to be buried very deep. Container grown trees can be a little easier though. If they’re small enough, you can lift them out of the container and inspect the roots for circling. If roots that have the thickness of a pencil (roughly) are circling around the edge of the container, then the tree has been in said container for too long. Circling roots can choke the tree trunk as they grow, and become thicker. If you end up with a tree like this in a container, it’s important that you prune these pencil thick roots back to straight which is generally where they first emerge from the dirt, and make contact with the sidewall of the container. You’ll want to do this before planting the tree. The smaller, more fibrous, roots should be fine. Keep an eye out for girdling roots as well. Girdling roots can be caused by those circling roots once they’ve been planted! Girdling roots are roots that grow on top of other roots or the root flare of the tree trunk. These roots choke the tree off, as we said earlier. This can keep the tree from getting the valuable water and nutrients from these choked off roots.
So we’ve picked out some nice trees from the nursery, pruned the roots as needed, and now we need to find an appropriate place to plant them. Some larger species might need a little bit of foresight when picking a plant sight. You wouldn’t want to plant what will be a large oak on a small plot of grass in between a sidewalk or street, or some other tightly quartered area. Once it grows, the sidewalk will crack, the roots will have nowhere to go, and eventually that will be the trees downfall. You also don’t want it to have to battle for sunlight and water, so give those larger species their space to grow, otherwise you’ll be wasting time and money planting and then eventually taking it out. With flowering trees, it’s important that they have shielding from wind and excessive sunlight. These trees tend to be the most delicate. They don’t grow very large so they can be a little more flexible with location.
Now that you’ve got your healthy B&B or container grown tree planted, it’s time to look for the next signs of future problems. Depending on the size and species of your tree, you’ll want to “dress” it accordingly for surrounding animals, and weather. If your tree is merely a sapling, it would be a good idea to place a deer cage around it, preventing deer from picking it to death for some easy food. Pay attention to the orientation of the branches. If it appears that some of them may grow into each other or grow to be too large, it would be wise to have a structural pruning plan laid out. See our structural pruning article for more tips on that. If your tree is large enough for Bucks to come by and “rub” your tree, then it would be a good idea to put trunk guards on these trees. The rubs can be quite extreme sometimes, destroying the outer layer of the tree which can most definitely kill it. Stabilizing stakes for the first year of your trees transition period allows it to tap the ground properly and spread its roots without risk of destabilization before it can really get ahold of the ground. It’s important you don’t forget to remove the tree straps, wire, and stakes though!
Other identifiable problems that you might see are fungi, peeling bark, and wood boring insect holes. If you have fungi growing out of the ground near the base of your tree, then you have root rot. Root rot is self-explanatory; the roots have begun to rot, leaving your tree much less stable than before. The base that is anchoring your tree to the ground is much weaker. This can lead to your whole tree falling over. Fungi on the trunk of the tree can mean a few different things; none of them are good though. Most common is heartwood rot. This is the stabilizing wood in the center of the tree. External rot should be pretty visible. Regardless of which it is, it is important that you get a professional to come out and give you a diagnosis and gauge the severity of your issue. Peeling bark may mean that your tree has sun scald. This can be common in deciduous trees. You can put sleeves over your trees limbs in winter to protect from this. Wood boring insects can be an issue as well. A lot of them follow particular patterns so it may be quite simple to identify what type of insect is in your tree.
Your trees may go through some difficult conditions throughout their time, but as responsible tree owners we can give our trees the best chance at survival. It can all start at the nursery. Picking a fine specimen is a great way to get ahead! Location, pruning, identifying, planning, and acting on those plans allows us all to push up the value of these trees giving us greener, more beautiful landscapes we can all enjoy.