Top 10 Myths on Tree Care
How deep must fertilizer be applied to reach the roots of your trees? Is Spring the best time for pruning? Which species of trees should be topped to keep them from falling on your house?
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. A simple search of the Internet can yield an abundance of misinformation, so we’ve compiled a list from the International Society of Arboriculture on the Top 10 Myths on Tree Care.
MYTH #1: When a tree is planted it should be securely staked to ensure the development of a stable root system and a strong trunk.
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.
MYTH #2: Newly planted trees should have their trunks wrapped with tree wrap to prevent sunscald and insect entry.
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.
MYTH #3: Trees should be pruned back heavily when they are planted to compensate for the loss of roots.
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.
MYTH #4: When removing a branch from a tree, the final cut should be flush with the stem to optimize healing.
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.
MYTH #5: Pruning cuts greater than three inches in diameter should be painted with a tree seal.
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.
MYTH #6: Certain fast-growing, weak-wooded trees such as silver maple and Siberian elm should be “topped” to make them less hazardous in the landscape.
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.
MYTH #7: If certain species of trees are pruned early in the spring, they will “bleed,” stressing the tree and causing health problems.
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.
MYTH #8: The root system of a tree is a mirror image of the top.
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.
MYTH #9: Trees require “deep root fertilization” to reach their root system.
In most U.S. soils, the vast majority of trees’ fibrous, absorbing roots are in the top eight 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.
MYTH #10: When a tree has lost a significant portion of its root system such as in construction damage, the crown should be cut back to compensate for root loss.
While this is a common recommendation, research does not supported 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.