Calla Edwards K-State Research and Extension / Butler County
What a wild storm season for so many Butler County residents. As we begin to pick up the pieces, a common question is what to do with storm-damaged trees. Your first priority should be safety, checking power lines, and looking for dangling limbs or limbs barely connected to the tree. These limbs can easily fall off, injure people or property and should be removed as soon as possible. Once you’ve eliminated the dangers, it’s time to have some patience while we assess the overall situation and plan. The trees, for the most part, have stood for years and waiting a few days or weeks won’t hurt them. Often our first thought is to take care of the tree immediately, and while this is important if the tree or branches present a hazard to humans or property, general pruning can wait.
The second step is to assess the damage caused and determine the best measures to deal with it. Once you have checked the area for any safety issues (power lines, overhanging branches, etc.), inspect the entire tree from all sides if possible. Is most of the damage to small, minor branches, only the top of the tree, or are the major branches and the trunk affected? Trees that are missing less than 50% of their canopy and have little damage to the main trunk or main branches will survive with some pruning. Once a tree has lost more than 50% of its canopy, it becomes a bit more difficult to determine whether or not a tree can be salvaged. If the main structure of the tree is still intact (trunk and main branches), the tree could potentially be saved but it may not return to its ideal shape. If the tree is questionable, consider whether it has sentimental value, is an easy-to-replace variety, or a hard-to-find variety. These questions can help you determine if the shaft needs to be replaced.
Once you’ve assessed the damage to the tree and determined what needs to be pruned, it’s time to clean up the tree. If the work is high in the tree, involves large limbs, or is beyond your comfort level, it’s probably best to contact a certified arborist. They can offer advice and make the size needed. When pruning branches over 3 inches in diameter, I recommend using the three-cut method to avoid tearing the bark. The first cut is on the lower side of the limb about a foot from the trunk and only crosses part of the limb, this cut prevents the bark from tearing. The second cut is 2 to 3 inches beyond the first cut, starts from the top and runs through the entire limb. This cut removes most of the weight from the branch and makes it easier to handle. The last cut is just beyond the collar of the branch where there is a slight swelling or wrinkle in the bark of the tree. This collar contains the cells to heal the branch after cutting. If the bark was torn when limbs broke during the storm, prune the loose bark where it is firmly attached to promote healing. Wound treatments are not necessary when pruning branches and in some cases can slow plant healing.
Generally, trees collapse during storms and although large trees cannot be saved, smaller trees with at least half of their roots still in the ground could be straightened and staked. Before the tree is straightened, remove some soil from the hole so that the roots return below ground level. Once the tree is upright, cover the roots with soil as needed. Stake the tree using 2-3 lines.
After a disaster, it is very common for people to want to pamper their damaged tree and give it extra attention while it recovers. It can actually cause more harm than good. If the tree is in a yard that is fertilized, your tree is getting all the nutrients it needs and additional fertilizer will not help it recover. Fertilizers can promote fast, weak growth that is more likely to break in the next storm. Most trees don’t need supplemental water and if we get about an inch of rain a week the tree gets all it needs. If we have a long period of dry weather, you can consider watering, but it’s probably not necessary. Our trees are very resilient and very little care is needed after a storm to help them survive.
It is important to monitor damaged trees for several years after the storm, as insects and disease are more likely to infect trees stressed by the damage. Some signs to look out for include yellowing of the leaves, holes in the trunk, dying limbs, and a general declining appearance of the tree. If you start to see a problem, get it diagnosed first so you can treat it properly, then treat it according to label recommendations. Unfortunately, some trees will not recover from storm damage no matter how much care is taken, and it could take a few years for this to show up.
Unfortunately, last week’s storms will not be the last we will encounter. The best treatment for your trees is to make sure they are as healthy as possible before the storm hits with proper care and periodic pruning as needed. Although no amount of care can prevent all damage, a healthy tree is more likely to recover than an already struggling tree. Please contact our office at 316-321-9660 if you have tree damage and need advice on care and if the tree is salvageable. I would be happy to come and help you.