Trees give us so much — food, shelter, oxygen, beauty and a host of other physical, psychological, economic and social benefits — so it seems only fair that we give them a hug every now and then. And April, the month in which we commemorate Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 29), offers us an excellent excuse to embrace our trees, at least metaphorically.
In many communities around the world, Arbor and Earth Day celebrations involve tree planting activities, but here in Alabama, April is a bit beyond our prime tree-planting window. In fact, we celebrate Arbor “Day” during the last week of February, which is at the tail-end of our best tree-planting weather (mid-December through February depending on where you are in the state).
Yes, we can plant trees now — just be prepared to water them throughout the summer — but in lieu of planting, there are plenty of other things we can do this month and year-round to care for our existing trees, especially those trees living in compromised settings, says Alabama Cooperative Extension’s statewide Community Forestry and Arboriculture Specialist Beau Brodbeck.
According to Brodbeck, while trees in roomy yards and public parks tend to fare well, those in more urbanized settings face challenges. “As you move toward a spectrum that is more and more urban, the space for trees becomes more and more limited and the environment, especially the soil, becomes altered,” he says.
These factors can significantly shorten the lifespan of a tree resulting in the premature loss not just of their beauty but also of their ecosystem services, which typically are provided by trees with larger canopies. Still, no tree can live forever, so how do we find a balance?
According to Brodbeck, it’s by protecting the trees we have while planning and planting for the trees of the future. For new plantings, that means always choosing tree species that fit each site’s space, sunlight and soil requirements and using best planting and maintenance practices. For established trees, it means paying attention to their needs starting with a thorough annual inspection.
“Walk around the tree and look for evidence of root heaving, decaying fungal bodies at the base, lightning strikes or cracks on the trunk and cracks or decay at unions of major scaffold branches,” he says. “Also look at the canopy. Trees die from the tips of branches in toward their center so a tree that is starting to decline will have dead branches at the tips.”
If a tree shows signs of trouble, many of those problems can be solved with a little expert help, including correctly diagnosing the problem before treating it and using proper pruning practices. Improper pruning can not only ruin the look of a tree, Brodbeck says, it can create opportunities for rot and disease to enter a tree and effectively cut its lifespan in half. That’s why he always recommends using a certified arborist to prune landscape trees, to help evaluate health issues and to assess threats posed by dead or dying limbs and trees.
“Anytime you are asking someone to prune a tree or do any type of health care or risk evaluation, you need to make darn sure they are certified,” he says. “If not, you are solving one problem in the short term and creating three new ones in the long term.”
It’s a great return on investment, he says, and a great way to show your trees some love — in effect, give them a hug.
To find a certified arborist in your area go to treesaregood.org/findanarborist. For additional expert tree advice, visit the ACES website (aces.edu) or check with your local ACES office. Your local municipality may also have an arborist, forester or horticulturist who can help. Alabama also has two Plant Diagnostic Laboratories, one at Auburn and one in Birmingham, that can identify many disease and pest issues on trees and other plants.
Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.