Dealing With the Aftermath of Storms in Home Landscapes

Posted 3/17/19

The recent round of tornados and storms certainly brought about a reality check to this holiday season. It is at times like this that we should all take time to remember and to offer assistance to …

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Dealing With the Aftermath of Storms in Home Landscapes

Posted

The recent round of tornados and storms certainly brought about a reality check to this holiday season. It is at times like this that we should all take time to remember and to offer assistance to those who suffered property damage or even worse personal injury and loss of life during the past couple weeks.      

Now is a great time to give your entire landscape a “once over” especially in light of the recent tornados, thunderstorms and heavy rains that we have encountered. Damaged trees that are left standing in your landscape or other places on your property for that matter can create potential hazards in the near future in addition to detracting from the beauty and functionality of your landscape.

Inspect your trees in three primary areas….the crown (area from the top of the trunk to the top of the foliage), the trunk or stem, and the critical root zone. A good rule of thumb for the critical root zone is to go one foot from the trunk for every inch in diameter of the tree.

Root failure is a common occurrence that causes trees to fall in high winds. We all know that in addition to taking up water and nutrients, the roots also anchor the tree into the ground. A weakened or decaying root system often evidenced by the presence of slipping bark or mushroom growth at or near the soil line indicates the tree may give way and fall even under light wind conditions much less hurricanes, tornadoes, or thunderstorms.  Another indication of impending root failure is soil that is elevated or bucked up particularly on the side of tree from the direction the wind event came from (opposite the lean of the tree).

There are many ways in which an ornamental tree can be damaged during high winds and rain.  Primarily we classify the damaged trees as “leaners”, “splitters”, and “hangers”.

Leaners are trees that have been partially uprooted and are leaning to one side or the other. Winds alone can cause this; however, it is more common that heavy rains saturate the ground weakening the tree’s anchoring system and then the wind does the rest. Any tree that is found to be leaning even slightly to one side or the other should be immediately assessed very thoroughly.

Large trees that have been uprooted in this manner usually cannot be saved and therefore must be removed. It is possible (though not easy or in some cases not cheaply) to correct smaller trees that are leaning or partially uprooted if more than ½ the root system is still in the ground and intact. The displaced roots must also be compact and undisturbed.  Before righting the tree, remove some soil from beneath the root mass to allow the roots to fit back into the ground. The trees will need bracing such as guy wires or cables and additional watering for some time while they become re-established. It is a potentially very expensive and labor intensive job and often requires heavy machinery. You must first evaluate whether the tree is worth the time, money, and effort or should it just be removed and a new tree established.

Cracks and splits often occur when forces of nature such as hurricanes, tornados, and even winds produced by late summer and early fall thunderstorms exert more force on the tree than it can bear. In these cases the structural soundness of the tree has usually been compromised and in many instances the tree should be removed for safety sake. In the home landscape many weak branched trees such as Bradford pears are especially susceptible to this kind of damage. Some split forks or partially cracked branches may be repaired by inserting rods or bolts through the affected areas; however, I am of the opinion that this should be reserved for only very high value landscape trees. Most often the best answer is to simply remove such trees and replace them.

Certified arborists trained in performing such procedures should do repairs of this nature. Again, this type of repair is very costly and labor intensive and can only be performed in a few cases such as with very high value trees or trees with immense sentimental value and should only be completed by trained professionals such as certified arborists.

Remember that trees heal basically by compartmentalizing the damaged areas and growing new wood to enclose the affected area. Severely damaged trees may look healed on the outside but the long-term effects of the damage can mean a hollowed out, structurally unsound tree that  will be more likely to split and fall in the future. Old injuries are also a good place for diseases and rot to get started.

Finally, the most common of all storm related damage to landscape trees are what I term as “hangers”. This occurs when partially broken limbs are left hanging often at 90 degree angles from their original position on the tree. It is only a matter of time before such limbs will fall to the ground perhaps damaging other limbs or structures or even worse injuring some one on the way down. These branches should be removed immediately. Also don’t forget to check trees for suspended branches that have become lodged in the tree. Suspended branches create an immediate danger to people as well as structures.

Branches smaller than three inches in diameter can be removed by using a sharp pruning saw or pole-pruner. A sharp saw or set of pruners will make a clean cut that should heal quickly and will reduce your clean-up time. For larger branch removal where power saws are required it is best to use a three cut method. The first cut should be made to the bottom side of the limb and should be made upward two inches or so into the branch. The second cut should be made from the top to the outside of the first cut to remove the entire branch or limb.  The final cut should be made to remove the remaining stub. Make sure you do not flush cut the tree; rather, leaving just a small amount of the limb collar to promote faster healing. Removing larger limbs in this manner will prevent further damage caused by tearing bark on the undamaged portion of the tree.

Pruning sealers or paint is usually not required if the limb is removed properly. The pruning wound should heal properly on its own. Use of pruning sealers can; however, provide some aesthetic value and should at least do no harm. The best strategy when in doubt as to whether a tree can be saved is to contact a certified arborist.

 While many of us use chainsaws especially while clearing away such damage on our property and in our landscapes, few people know that one of the most common injuries seen at emergency rooms after such storm events are chainsaw related injuries. 

 Make sure first of all that your chainsaw is in good working order and that the chain is sharp and has the proper amount of tension (not too loose or too tight). You can refer to your owner’s manual for assistance with checking the operation of your saw. There are also a few basic personal safety strategies that will help you reduce your chances of chainsaw injuries. The most often overlooked safety precautions are to make sure you use both eye and ear protection to guard against sawdust and other debris from being slung into your eyes and also to protect your hearing from the high decibel level of your saw.

Make sure you wear appropriate clothing including protected work pants, steel toed boots if possible, and hardhat to protect you from falling debris. Watch out for “kickbacks” that are caused when the upper corner of the saw bar contacts objects. The kickback action violently forces the saw blade upward toward the upper body or downward toward the feet and legs and exposes the chainsaw operator to hundreds of cutter teeth per second at full throttle.

Keep in mind as well that bent, twisted, or leaning limbs and trees have a lot of stored energy that can cause your saw to become lodged or else when release or cut through can fly backwards causing serious injuries. Never operate a saw around downed trees or limbs that are in contact with power lines. Using the saw to make cuts above shoulder height also creates a hazardous condition.

The Walker County Extension Office has a great publication ANR-1255 “Homeowner’s Guide to Safer Trees” that is available free of charge as a pdf download at https://ssl.acesag.auburn.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1255/ANR-1255-archive.pdf.  This publication will offer many pointers and suggestions as you work with your certified arborist or landscaper to make your determinations about the trees in your own lawns and landscapes.