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Pick Up Sticks

Assessing Post-Sandy Tree and Shrub Damage

The Northern Virginia area escaped relatively unscathed through Hurricane Sandy’s onslaught. The forecasts of heavy winds, storm surge and flooding were lessened by Sandy’s eventual track, and we were spared the kind of damage that devastated our neighbors to the northeast. Some large trees did succumb to the sixty-mile-an-hour wind gusts and saturated ground, but most of the debris seems to consist of large tree limbs, small branches and leaves…lots of leaves.

While we pick up and bag this debris from our yards, gardeners should assess whether any hidden damage was done to those trees and large shrubs left standing after the storm.

Trees and shrubs adapt to the normal stresses of wind flow as they sway in reaction to this pressure; the swaying motion can even strengthen the development of woody tissue. This gradual strengthening during the growing season helps the tree or shrub survive winter winds and some ice buildup later in the season. Despite their resiliency, however, trees and shrubs can still be damaged during severe storms.

Damage to trees and shrubs from severe weather can run the gamut from toppling the entire tree as the root ball is lifted from the ground, to the felling of large sections of branches and trunk that snap as they are twisted by severe wind forces. Damage to root systems and branches of trees and shrubs that have not fallen will weaken a tree or large shrub over the years. 

It is important to identify and repair this more subtle damage as soon as possible. As you go through your yard collecting debris, check to see if each tree has retained its largest branches, if the trunk has not sustained gouges or large breakage, and that at least fifty percent of the crown of the tree (the main branches and leaves) is still intact.  If so, your tree will most likely recover from any damage sustained during the storm.

Any broken branches or stubs of branches that remain on your trees should be pruned off to minimize susceptibility to disease or insect damage.  Proper pruning technique is important in this task; I have provided a link to information being given out by Fairfax County to its Master Gardeners regarding first aid procedures for trees. Homeowners should not prune or remove any branches that are caught up in wires, or very large branches—such pruning is best left to professionals who have the training and equipment to remove them safely.

Small trees that are ten inches or less in diameter that have been blown over, or are leaning with exposed roots, can be saved by straightening the tree and supporting it with stakes and wire for the next nine to twelve months until the root ball becomes re-established.

Shrubs are less affected by high winds than are trees, as wind gusts are less severe closer to the ground, but all storm debris should be removed from shrubs, and damaged branches pruned.

If you do need to replace trees lost in Sandy’s wake, or if you are in the process of fall planting, you should take the following five steps to proactively cope with the next storm whipped up by Mother Nature: 

(1)  Choose your replacement tree carefully — that small tree will eventually grow to a mature one. Choose trees that are not as susceptible to wind damage — avoid species such as eastern white pine, Leyland cypress, box elder, Bradford pear, willow, poplar or silver maple trees.

(2) Don’t plant trees where they are likely to interfere with power lines or close to your home. 

(3) Maintain the health of your trees by setting up an annual pruning schedule.  Start when trees are young—proper pruning strengthens trees by removing dead wood, crossing branches or weakened branches.

(4) Take care to avoid damaging tree roots during installation, and make sure that any new construction does not damage or compact the roots.  Trees have large root systems composed of two types of roots-- woody and fibrous roots.  This root system can extend well beyond the trunk of a tree into the drip-line of the tree—the drip-line is an imaginary line drawn around the outer circumference of the tree’s branches.

(5) Make sure your trees have sufficient water during the growing season and that they are fertilized once every two to three years in the spring.

Trees and shrubs are important to the enjoyment of our gardens and neighborhoods.  They provide shade and beautiful foliage in the spring and summer; color in the autumn; and form and texture in the winter.  They also provide shelter to a myriad of animals, insects and birds. If we take proper care of our trees and shrubs they will repay our efforts many times over.  And let’s hope Mother Nature continues to spare us her greatest wrath in the months and years to come, while we pray for the quick recovery of those who were not so fortunate last week.

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