A Certified Arborist Shines a Light on Tips of the Trade

SEH certified arborist Anna Springer sits down and answers some common questions you might have about tree care.

  • When to do it yourself vs. hiring a professional.
  • How to avoid common tree problems.
  • Popular tree species to avoid.

For many, cutting a limb off a tree seems like a DIY effort, but when should you hire out tree work?
If you don’t know what a branch collar is you should hire a professional to trim your trees. This will maximize the life and benefits of your trees. Trees don’t ‘heal’ when wounded — they ‘seal’— meaning every cut on a tree stays with it for the rest of its life. Proper pruning minimizes the wound, while improper pruning will be a problem for the rest of the tree’s life. Proper pruning cuts seal in a way that reduces decay and the introduction of insects and disease issues to your trees.

Trimming a tree requires a very specific approach, so the tree remains healthy.

If you are removing trees or shrubs, follow your gut. Do you feel comfortable with the task at hand? If you have to leave the ground to accomplish the task, my suggestion is to hire a professional. Tree work is expensive (tree care providers pay high insurance and worker compensation rates due to the industry’s high injury/fatality rates, and they operate expensive, specialized equipment), but it’s a lot cheaper than personal injury or property damage!

Tree work is a specialized, often dangerous task. It’s important to hire professionals to get the job done right.

When hiring professional help, what should you look for in qualifications?
Any tree care company worth their weight in salt should have an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture on staff. Unfortunately, local licensing processes usually require little more than the payment of a fee to get a license to trim trees in your city, so this is not a good indication of qualifications. Ask them to explain their pruning techniques and/or philosophy. If they balk at the question or fail to mention pruning to avoid injury to the branch collar they will likely do more harm than good.  

While an arborist can perform many tree care techniques, for the rest of us, what’s the single most important thing you can do to care for your trees?
Water during dry periods. Trees are pretty tough, but when they’re stressed, the secondary invaders such as bark borers and aphids quickly take advantage of the tree’s weakened defense system. When rainfall is lacking, set up a sprinkler and an empty bucket under the crown of the tree. When the bucket has an inch of water in it, you’ve adequately watered your tree for the week.

It’s very important to water your trees during dry periods. Not enough water can make them prone to disease and insect attacks.

When should you prune? Fall, winter, spring? Does it vary by tree?
When it comes to pruning live tissue from trees, winter is the best time to prune, as wound sealing is maximized if pruning takes place before the spring growth flush. Dead branches can be removed anytime of year-as long as the aforementioned branch collar is not compromised! For many species, winter is the ONLY time to prune live branches in order to avoid insect and disease issues. Oaks, Elms, Honeylocust, and crabapples should be pruned in the winter to avoid oak wilt, Dutch elm disease, nectria canker and fireblight, respectively.

Do you need to routinely prune trees?
In short, no. There are many variables that play a part in when trees need pruning, including tree species and form, tree age/maturity, and overall health and structural integrity of the tree. Pruning is part science and part art, and unfortunately there are many untrained people in the marketplace who offer pruning services without having the knowledge and skill to properly prune trees. In the case of pruning, more does not always mean more.

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What’s the best thing to do for young trees to ensure a long, healthy life?
Young tree training sets your trees up for future success! Trees with a strong central leader, rather than those with co-dominant leaders, are less likely to fail during wind events. It’s much easier to train a small, young, vigorous tree to have good structure than it is to prune a tree that is 25 years or older.

Is there a particular tree you should completely avoid planting in your yard?
Avoid planting Colorado Blue Spruce in the Midwest. As the name implies, Colorado Blue spruce are suited to the Western region of the U.S. When planted in the Midwestern climate they are prone to suffering from Rhizosphaera needle cast and Cytospora canker as they mature. Consider using Black Hills Spruce as an alternative.

What does it mean when a tree’s roots run along the surface?
Surface roots typically indicate shallow watering depths; roots seek out moisture and oxygen, and if your irrigation pattern consists of short, frequent waterings, tree roots will respond. Change your watering schedule to deliver longer waterings that infiltrate further into the soil. This will result in fewer root/human conflicts.

When a tree’s roots run along the surface, it can indicate that current watering patterns are too short and moisture is not infiltrating far enough onto the soil.

Should you water in fall or winter before the first freeze, so plants roots get a good soaking?
If conditions have been extremely dry, it is good practice to water your trees in the fall, especially for evergreen trees that are at risk of their needles drying out over the course of the winter. If there has been adequate precipitation, extra watering is not necessary. Be careful, watering too much can be just as harmful as not watering enough.

About the Expert

Anna Springer

Anna Springer is a landscape architect and certified arborist who believes in the universal benefit of trees. Contact Anna

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