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Basics of Tree Care

From proper planting location to pruning, learn how to extend the life of your tree.

Besides offering beauty and shade, trees have other things going for them. Did you know that two mature trees can produce enough oxygen for a family of four? They can also increase property values by as much as 20 percent.

Trees are valuable resources that will take care of you if you take care of them. "They're going to be here a long time, probably longer than you if you pick the right tree," says arborist Gabe Beeler.

Location, Location, Location

Planting a tree in the right spot the first time is the easiest thing you can do. Some 90 percent of the trees Beeler has removed, he says, were planted in the wrong place. On average, the majority of a tree's roots are in the top two feet of the soil surface, and they run laterally one and a half times the distance of the canopy. As a result, trees are often planted too close to the house, driveway and street.

Figure A


Mixing the watering requirements of trees and the nearby lawn can be hazardous to plant health. The result of overwatering trees to meet the needs of the grass can cause tree roots to grow too close to the surface. "Once all that water gets into the soil, it clogs up the pore space and takes up room where oxygen and rainwater would move through," says Beeler. So the roots have to surface in order to get oxygen.

Most trees prefer a slow, deep watering to keep the roots growing below ground. Apply a two-inch layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree, and the moisture will remain in the soil even longer.

Girdling roots

Periodically walk through your garden, inspecting the base around each tree. If you see roots on the soil surface, they may indicate several problems relating to the health of the tree.

Figure B

One problem you may encounter is girdling; this occurs when roots wrap around each other, constricting the vascular flow and causing rot. Here, the area where one root has crossed over another is in the beginning stage of girdling.

Figure C

Cracks, decay or growths, like these mushrooms, signify interior problems that could threaten the life of the tree. These warning signs may necessitate the services of an arborist.

Figure D

Tree structure and pruning

In addition to inspecting the roots, look upward into the tree for potential hazards. Examine the tree's structure, specifically the angles at which the branches connect to the central leader, or trunk of the tree. Ideal branch formation grows at about a 90-degree angle. "Anytime you have a U-shape formed between the branch and the trunk, you're in good shape."

Figure E

When the branches grow from the trunk at a 30-degree angle in a tight V-shape, then some problems may occur.

Figure F

Branches with small angles tend to be weaker by design and thus require more care and maintenance over the tree's life span.

"It's good to prune in the first three years to develop structure," says Beeler. "Flaws in young trees can be easily rectified by using a pair of hand pruners when they're smaller. This is much better than having a guy climb 80 feet to use a chainsaw."

Figure G

Before you grab the pruners, know what you want to achieve. Here is a good example of codominant stems, or a tree with three weakly attached trunks. If you were to look a little closer, four inches on one trunk are supporting eight inches of another trunk above. A strong wind could cause some real damage.

Figure H

Beeler shows how this young tree has already formed two codominant leaders, causing potential structural problems. He selects one stem to be the leader. On the other stem, he makes a suppression cut, or a small cut just above a bud that faces outward (away from the center of the tree). This helps to force energy to the bud so it will grow into a lateral branch.

If you have any concerns about where to make your pruning cuts or questions about your trees' health, have an arborist do an inspection. He or she will help you maintain healthy, beautiful trees. "Everybody has their own feelings about trees, which is the reason why we try to protect them so much," says Beeler. "In the life of a 100-year-old tree, there may have been 10 people who lived under it, and everybody had different feelings about it."


    • Gabe Beeler
      Fallen Leaf Tree Services
      6000 Midway St. STE 400
      Sacramento, CA 95828
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