In “Gone with the Wind,” Ellen O’Hara longed for a sliver of ice to moisten the lips of her feverish daughters. Well, we certainly weren’t without that now taken-for-granted luxury last week as an onslaught of winter weather brought destruction to many yards that seemed to rival Sherman’s March through Georgia.
Now that downed power lines and limbs hanging over roadways are almost behind us, we can take a realistic inventory of which trees and shrubs can be saved.
There is no rush. You shouldn’t buy a chain saw or be in a hurry to make decisions. It’s worth waiting for advice from a well-known, reputable tree company that has a certified arborist on staff who can visit your site.
Beware of people knocking on your door offering to remove trees – the best scenario is to save them. There are a few general guidelines that may help you begin to plan for large scale pruning or removal by experts and to handle by yourself damage that doesn’t require special equipment.
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Pine trees with broken tops or large-scale canopy loss will need to be removed unless your property is big enough to safely leave one or two as snags for cavity-nesting birds. Shade trees with their tops broken relatively high but which still have most of their canopy may be salvageable but with a less appealing form; you may feel the tradeoff of a cooled screened porch is worth a slightly less beautiful silhouette.
If a hardwood tree has lost numerous major limbs, it most likely will need to go. If only one major limb has broken but not split the trunk of the tree, that tree is worth saving. When a tree splits down the middle, you may be able to put it back together with expensive cables but that’s a pricey fix compared with replanting with a tree that will have a much longer life span.
Small hardwoods that have the top broken in the upper third can develop a new central leader and go on to live a long and productive life. Ideally, you prune to a lower limb to avoid a topping cut; that limb will assume an upright growth habit and restore a natural form to the tree. Trees only partially uprooted, with the majority of their root ball still intact, can often be straightened and staked until firmly reestablished.
If there are broken limbs you can safely reach that are less than 6 inches or so in diameter, you can use good, sharp hand saws to remove them. Research and understand the branch bark collar interaction that guides where to make your cuts – you don’t want flush cuts or cuts that leave stubs – those just invite disease and insect damage to an already weakened tree.
Don’t over-prune trying to immediately reestablish a good looking small tree or shrub – your plants need all the foliage they can to make nutrients needed to repair and regrow.
Live oak trees with their ever-present leaves got a real beating from heavy ice – but they’re famous for compartmentalizing – sealing off wounds so that decay doesn’t enter. Since they naturally develop an open and irregular canopy as they age you haven’t lost an irreplaceable form. These long-lived trees are worth the skilled pruning of a specialist if they are features in your landscape.
Evergreen magnolias are another species that really suffered from the ice. The oldest magnolia in our yard (more than 100 years old) lost 30 feet of its top in Hugo. A couple of years later you couldn’t tell it had been damaged. Now it has lost several limbs over 15 feet long. At the moment it has great character but will probably fill in those gaps as the years pass.
Sago palms that enjoyed years of warmer than normal temperatures now look horrible! Most will recover, although the burnt fronds won’t. But don’t cut those off yet; wait until we’re sure the last frost is over as they help protect the trunk from further damage. If the trunk doesn’t feel mushy give it time to muster up the courage to send out new growth. Sometimes after severe damage it may be mid-summer or later before new fronds begin to unfurl.
Our state “tree,” which is actually a monocot and not a woody plant, has those marvelous tropical leaves that held a heavy load of ice and many were bent under the weight. As long as a palmetto leaf has a green stem where it connects to the trunk and has some green areas in the frond, it’s a valuable, producing part of the plant. If you cut drooping, partially brown fronds off you’re in essence giving your tree a gastric bypass and reducing its ability to grow and stay healthy. Don’t expect or demand immediate perfection from your plants; wait until those palmetto fronds turn completely brown to remove them.
The loss of whole trees is depressing and removing them is expensive. River birches and silver maples, valued for their quick growth, are among the most susceptible to ice damage. Try to make a plan for the long term by selecting trees that when mature will be the right size for their space and that are good candidates for life in the ice zone.
The factsheet I found most helpful when looking for information about ice damage is number G6867 from the University of Missouri Extension, First Aid for Storm-Damaged Trees. At Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center, you can find truly helpful information on how to prune trees and shrubs.
The basics of pruning aren’t hard to understand – you just have to be willing to get educated! Then you’ll have a skill that will let you deal with damage situations appropriately but most importantly make decisions early in the life of your trees and shrubs that will help them be best shaped to deal with nature’s vagaries.
Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org.