How To Protect Your Tree After Removing Branches

How to protect and heal wounds on trees that have lost branches by pruning or storm damage.

Nearly everyone agrees that trees are beautiful additions to yards, parks and other green spaces. Stately, tall trees provide shade and warm the spirit. Their sturdy branches provide homes for wildlife, and the rustling of the leaves is soothing and pleasant. Trees add to property values and are an important part of our collective vision of beauty. However, these huge plants may need special care when branches are lost, broken or damaged. Wind, ice, disease, and injury can wound the tree, and it's important to understand how to minimize the damage and care for the tree when branches must be removed.

Sometimes wounds to trees are intentional, caused by pruning branches. There are several sound reasons to prune tree branches. These include shaping the tree, strengthening the branch structure so that it's more resistant to storm damage, and protecting property or power lines. In the case of pruning, branches can be removed carefully and safely so that the tree can easily repair the wounds much in the same way as the body repairs small breaks in the skin. Branches should be cut on an angle, and removed back to the branch collar. The branch collar is the area where the branch meets the trunk on the inside angle. Since most branches grow at least slightly upwards, the lower part of the branch stump will extend farther from the trunk than the top part of the cut. The cut should be made as cleanly as possible, and angled from the trunk outward. No sealants or covers need to be applied to most trees, as the tree's natural sap and healing process will quickly close the wound. The exception may be for some species of oaks and elms that might need protection from pests.

Proper pruning can strengthen a tree and make it more resistant to damage from storms or ice. Carefully examine branches, looking for angles between ten o'clock and two o'clock. Sharper angles are weaker, and the smaller branch should be removed. Branches should also be no more than one half to three-fourths of the diameter of the trunk. Larger, heavier branches are likely to break easily in storms. Big, heavy branches should be removed before they can cause problems. Finally, branches that rub against each other can cause problems. The rubbing can create open wounds that are susceptible to damage from disease or insects. Pruning branches in these circumstances can make the tree stronger and less likely to sustain damage during severe weather.

Dead branches should also be removed from trees. Check if a branch is dead in one of two ways. Twigs on a dead branch will snap off easily. If the branch is still alive and providing nutrition for the twigs, the twigs will be flexible and easily bent without breaking. Buds on a live branch will be full and of normal coloration. Buds on a dead branch will look shriveled and dried out. Again, when dead branches are removed, the branch should be removed with a clean cut at the branch collar.

More troublesome wounds to trees can be caused by construction damage. Equipment can cause visible damage by colliding with the tree, but more subtle damage can occur when root systems are damaged or when soil or other fill covers the lower part of the trunk of the tree. Sometimes the damage to the tree may not even become apparent for years after the problem occurred. If there is visible damage to the branches of the tree, a decision will need to be made about whether to remove the damaged limbs. To remove the damaged wood, a clean cut should be made. Use sharp tools so that no jagged edges remain. No dressings need to be applied to most trees.

Damage from storms, wind and ice can also cause major wounds to trees. Branches broken under these conditions often have jagged breaks that must be cleaned up for the tree to have a chance of healing well. A sharp knife can be used to remove loose bark and debris, but it is important not to make the wound any larger. A standard guide is that if fifty percent of the bark has been removed, the tree is not likely to survive.

When branches have been removed through pruning or damage, the tree has been wounded and is under stress. In addition to making the cut as clean and smooth as possible, there are other steps that can be taken to help the tree. Trees that have been wounded should be watered thoroughly as soon as possible, and then watered regularly (four to five times throughout the summer) for several years. The soil should be soaked to a depth of eight to ten inches in order to avoid over watering. Surrounding the tree with two to four inches of quality mulch, such as wood chips, will help the tree retain the moisture that it needs to heal and return to healthy vigor. Injured trees should also be fertilized with preparations containing phosphorus and nitrogen, as these compounds promote healing and encourage growth.

With proper care and planning, large trees can be a source of enjoyment and pleasure for decades. Preventive measures, such as judicious pruning of unsound branches and removing dead wood, will minimize the possibility of accidental damage during construction or severe weather. When a tree has been pruned or wounded, be sure the wound is clean and not jagged and do not cover the wound with chemicals or sealants. Treat the tree as a convalescing patient for several years after the loss of branches by watering it carefully, mulching, and fertilizing it. With help, many trees can recover from the wounds of lost branches and return to health and vigor.

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