Skip Navigation

How to Care for Winter-Damaged Trees

That snap, crackle, and pop you hear on an icy winter’s morning might not be the sound of your Rice Krispies becoming soggy. It might be the sound of your tortured trees succumbing to their unbearable loads of snow and ice.

Chinese elm of Rich Wengert, Lebanon, damaged by Dec. 16, 2007, ice storm

It happens most every winter. But some years, Mother Nature dumps an unusually excessive amount of winter precipitation, and the damage to trees can be extensive and calamitous.

Sometimes there’s no escaping Mother Nature’s fury. But when the worst occurs and your trees suffer damage, you can make the best of a bad situation by making a measured and careful response.

Evaluate And Plan

When you have lots of broken limbs to deal with, it’s time to dig out the saws and start cutting, right? Wrong.

The first step to perform in the wake of a winter storm is to carefully evaluate the damage and devise a plan-of-action. The saws will come into play soon enough, but not quite yet.

First, evaluate whether you should do the cleanup work. Begin by calling your insurance company. It may be that your homeowner’s insurance will cover the cleanup, and that you won’t have to do the work yourself.

If your insurance policy won’t be coming to the rescue, honestly evaluate whether you can safely perform the work yourself. You should get professional help with your cleanup project if the work involves situations such as:

  • dangerous heights
  • dangerous situations, such as perilously dangling limbs, or trees partially uprooted
  • tough-to-handle problems, such as split trunks
  • clearing dangling limbs from around power lines

The power company, of course, should handle any damage cleanup that will occur around power lines. A tree-pruning service can help with handling dangerous situations or dizzying heights. And a professional arborist can make all the difference in saving a tree that has suffered damage beyond your ability to repair.

Selecting the Pruning Cuts

Once you’ve decided that you’re equipped and able to safely handle the cleanup chores, plan the pruning cuts you’ll be making. Approach the project with the mindset of doing as little cutting as possible. Your goal will be to remove only the broken branches.

Branches that are loose and dangling should be removed first. Then remove branches that are split or cracked.

Sometimes collateral damage can occur in the form of stripped bark when a dangling or falling branch rubs against another. If a branch has been stripped of bark that exceeds a third of its circumference, it’s unlikely to survive and should be removed.

Proper Pruning Cuts

When you’re removing an ice-damaged branch, be sure to cut only the branch. Don’t cut into the trunk of the tree. When the damage occurs on the outer portion of a large branch, it may be enough to just cut the damaged portion back to a fork in the branch.

When removing an entire branch, the best place to make your cut is called the ‘branch collar.’ A branch collar is often formed where the bark at the junction of the branch and trunk has been pushed up into sort of a ridge, forming a collar-like effect. Sometimes the branch collar can be found on the underside of the limb.

If you can locate the branch collar, start your cut just outside of the collar, and angle the cut slightly away from the trunk. Never make your cut flush with the trunk of the tree.

When you’re removing a large branch, the safest approach is to use the 3-step procedure:

Make the first cut on the bottom of the branch, roughly a foot and a half out from the trunk. Don’t cut all the way through. Just cut about half of the way through, or until the branch starts to sag against the cut.

Make the next cut from the top, an inch or two outside (away from the trunk) the first cut. Cut all the way through, dropping the branch.

Now remove the branch stub by cutting all the way through at the branch collar, cutting from top to bottom, and angling slightly away from the trunk.

The 3-step approach is safer for you because you’ll have more control over how the limb falls. And it’s better for the tree because it eliminates the possibility of the branch stub splintering and damaging the trunk as it falls away.

When the weight of ice tears a branch from a tree, sometimes the bark may be torn loose at the junction of the branch and the trunk. When that happens, trim away the loose bark, taking care not to cut into the tree trunk. Try to conform to an elliptical-shaped pattern when you trim away the loose bark.

Don’t Hesitate to Get a Professional Opinion

If you have any doubts about how to proceed in caring for an ice-damaged tree, consult a professional arborist. Sometimes a tree that may seem beyond hope can be salvaged with professional care.

Conversely, making the wrong moves can cause grievous damage to a tree that would have been just fine with proper care. And wouldn’t it be a shame to doom a majestic decades-old tree simply because of a brief moment’s carelessness?

This entry was posted on Monday, January 6th, 2014 at 2:38 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Find out the latest from Bob Carr