Tree Care Myths
Excerpted from: Top Ten Tree Care Myths
Even if you’re a new or even a long-time homeowner, you may have many questions
about the trees on your property and the best way to care for them. We’ve compiled
a helpful list!
Although trees can usually take care of themselves in rural forests, in urban environments
such as your yard or community, trees need protection and appropriate care. These persistent
and insidious myths cause many costly and dangerous mistakes in tree care every year. In
some cases, some of these myths also cause many trees to be removed prematurely in their life cycle.
Although it is sometimes necessary to stake trees to keep them upright and allow establishment,
there are some adverse effects of staking trees. Compared to staked trees, un-staked trees tend
to develop a more extensive root system and better trunk taper. Allowing a small amount of
movement can help root and trunk development. Of course, the worst effect of staking is the
possibility of trunk damage from the staking wires or ties. Staking materials usually should be
removed after one year to avoid girdling the tree.
Studies using most common tree wraps have shown that they do not prevent extreme fluctuations
in temperature on the bark. In some cases, the temperature extremes can even have a worse
impact on the tree. As a side note, tree wraps have proven quite ineffective in preventing insect
entry. In fact, some insects like to burrow under it.
Tree establishment is best with unpruned trees. Although pruning the top can reduce the amount
of water that evaporates from the leaves, the tree needs a full crown to produce the much-needed
food and the plant hormones that induce root growth. The tree will develop a stronger, more
extensive root system if it has a fuller crown. Limit pruning at the time of planting to structural
training and the removal of damaged branches.
Trees don’t “heal” in the sense that wounds on people heal. Our bodies regenerate tissues
in much the same form of the tissues that were removed (to a limited extent). Trees
compartmentalize wounds, generating woundwood over the wounded area. Flush cutting
removes the branch collar, creating a larger wound than if the branch were
removed outside the collar. Also, it is likely that some of the parent branch tissue will be
removed. The spread of decay inside the tree is greater with flush cuts.
Research has shown that the common tree seals do not inhibit decay, do not prevent insect
entry, and do not bring about faster wound closure. In fact, many of the commonly used sealers
slow wound closure.
While topping these trees may reduce the potential hazard at first, they will likely be more
dangerous in the future. Topping stimulates growth of twigs below the cuts. Growth of many,
vigorous shoots leads to branches with weak attachments. Also decay spreads inside the
stubs and branches that were topped. Within 2-5 years after topping, the tree will have
regained its height, but will be more hazardous than before the topping. Topping also alters
the natural beauty of the tree. Alternatives to topping include thinning, cabling, or removal and
replacement with a more suitable species.
True, some trees such as maples and birches will “bleed” or lose sap from pruning cuts made
early in the spring. This bleeding does not hurt the tree, and the loss of sap is inconsequential.
With a few exceptions, most routine pruning can be done any time of year. The worst time is
just as the tree has leafed out in the spring. The best time is when the tree is dormant. To
maximize flowering for the following year, prune just after bloom this year.
Many people envision a large, branching taproot growing deep into the soil. Actually, taproots
are very uncommon in mature trees. If taproots do develop, they usually will be forced into
horizontal growth when they encounter hard sub-soils beneath the surface. The entire root
systems of most trees can be found within three feet of soil. The spread of the root system
however, can be very extensive, often extending 2-3 times the spread of the crown.
In most U.S. soils, the vast majority of trees’ fibrous, absorbing roots are in the top 8 inches
of soil. Roots grow where conditions are best for root growth, where water and oxygen are
available. When we place fertilizer 12” – 18” deep in the soil, we are putting it too deep.
While this is a common recommendation, research does not support it. Following root loss,
unpruned trees seem to respond better than pruned trees. Obviously, any removal of branches
will reduce the capacity of the tree to produce food in the leaves. Although the tree will probably
lose some branches as a result of the root damage (if the tree survives the trauma), it is best
to let the tree decide which ones. Thus, pruning should be limited to hazard reduction at first.
Later, after the tree has responded to the damage, further pruning would be in order.