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What to do with your ice-downed trees

By David Hallauer

Meadowlark District Extension Agent

Except for moving ice-downed limbs that are an immediate hazard, homeowners would do well to wait until the ice melts before dealing with damaged trees and their debris.

Trying to operate a chain saw while also trying to brace yourself and stand firm on icy ground is practically asking for an accident. You could easily shake a tree enough to cause further breakage overhead. And, you could lose your footing while holding onto a powerful machine that's designed to cut things up."

Attempting to help weighted-down plants by knocking off their ice isn't wise, either, he said. If nothing else, that activity positions a good Samaritan below a tree that could have weakly attached or even unattached "hangers," ready to fall with the slightest breeze.

Besides, when everything outdoors is cold and slick, you'll probably be hurrying, as well as acting a little bit clumsy. Your efforts could create more plant damage than the ice alone would cause.

If you've just got to do something, you may be able to prevent breakage of small fruit or flowering trees that are ice laden by propping up their vulnerable branches with padded boards. You also can reinforce upright, multi-stemmed evergreens, such as arborvitae and yew, by tying the interior branches together with wide straps."

In addition to falling branches--which literally can weigh thousands of pounds--fallen and sagging utility lines are another hazard that ice storms can bring.

Any damaged wires in or around your trees could still be energized. So, you should let the power company complete its repairs before any tree work begins. You'll also need to report any damaged street trees that are on the public right of way by contacting your community's forestry department.

Whatever else you do, though, don't be tempted to use a pole pruner anywhere near utility lines. If necessary, hire a certified arborist trained in that specialty.

Arborists certified by the Kansas Arborists Association and/or the International Society of Arboriculture have credentials that homeowners can ask to see.

The horticulturist warned that ice storms can bring out unprofessional chain saw operators who want to capitalize on tree owners' plight. These operators may have no idea of whether a damaged tree truly is beyond recovery. If they can't talk homeowners into bringing a tree down quickly, they may suggest "trimming" it by cutting the tree's main limbs back to oversized stubs.

That's a discredited practice called topping a tree. It's a sure way to produce a witch's broom canopy that's as weak as it is ugly--leading to more damage in the future.

After the ice melts off is the best time to assess the full extent of trees' ice storm damage.

Beyond obvious breakage, look for cracks in crimped branches that haven't broken cleanly. Check for vertical splits below branch crotches. Never declare a tree a complete loss before considering its potential for recovery.

In general, a tree may not be worth salvaging if more than half of its crown is gone, its overall form is ruined or the main trunk is split.

Sometimes, however, new growth can re-establish the framework of a damaged tree. Once their ice load is gone, limber branches may return to their natural upright position. On trees with that kind of comeback potential, the first actual pruning task is to take care of any "hangers" or other dangerous branches still in the tree.

Whether you should attempt to do this job yourself depends on lots of factors. The bigger the damaged branch, for example, the more hazardous bringing it down can The higher in the tree it is, the harder it is to prune safely without specialized equipment. Confine your efforts to what you can reach from the ground without the help of a ladder.

Even at that, if you have any doubt about your knowledge and self-confidence level, I'd strongly suggest finding a respected tree care company and asking for a certified arborist.

Every county and district K-State Research and Extension office can provide "how-to" information on pruning that also promotes tree health. Plus, the office can help homeowners identify strong tree species to plant as replacements.

Some trees can be damage waiting to happen

Ice and wind storms often expose a weakness or defect that can predispose trees to damage. For example, breaking is simply "in their nature" for such inherently weak trees as the Siberian elm, Bradford pear and silver maple.

Trees that have never been pruned - particularly while they're still young--have higher odds for storm damage, too. Proper pruning as trees develop eliminates both multiple leaders up on top and any side branches arising from the trunk at a tight, narrow angle. By definition, a narrow branch "crotch" is a weak attachment.

Ice storms always are a bigger threat to trees that retain their leaves or seed pods into winter, thus increasing the surface area on which ice can build up. This includes the evergreens.

A twiggy or finely textured branching habit also makes trees more vulnerable to breakage, as do old age, previous topping out, disease, decay and insect infestations.

Repairing winter ice damage to trees

Winter weather with freezing rain and ice has once again damaged trees in several areas of the state. Ice accumulation on branches and twigs creates massive weight far greater than many trees can support without breakage. Wind, in ice-laden trees, can compound the problem. Every ice storm of significance separates the "hard-wooded" more durable trees from their "soft-wooded" cousins. Trees such as Siberian elm, silver maple and willow may sustain much damage while the oaks, for example, have little or no damage.

A properly pruned tree will suffer less ice damage as will a tree that has wide-angle branch attachment. Narrow-angled branch and scaffold limb crotches are weak and subject to ice or wind breakage. One of the characteristics of "weak-wooded" trees is that they commonly have narrow-angled crotches.

Ice-laden trees usually appear to be more damaged than they actually are. Prune only broken limbs at first, allowing time for branches to recover and assume their normal positions in the tree. Branches that exhibit internal breakage or severe enough damage that they do not assume their normal positions after several weeks may be removed later if need be. Don't do any work on your tree, other than emergency work, until the ice has melted.

Beyond obvious breakage, look for cracks in crimped branches that haven't broken cleanly. Check for vertical splits below branch crotches. Never declare a tree a complete loss before considering its potential for recovery. In general, a tree may not be worth salvaging if more than half of its crown is gone. Its overall form is ruined or the main trunk is split.

A list of some common trees and their degree of susceptibility to ice damage may be picked up at the Meadowlark District Extension Offices.

------SIDEBAR--------

K-State website has links to helpful information

Kansas

Wintry weather has arrived in the Midwest. To help Kansans and others prepare for and recover from storms, Kansas State University has a place they can visit on the Web.

The K-State Research and Extension website at www.oznet.ksu.edu contains information produced by K-State and other university specialists. (Click on "Ice and Winter Weather Safety.") The site covers such topics as food safety during power outages, putting together an emergency kit, wintertime car care and more.

It also contains links to such agencies as the Kansas Department of Transportation for road conditions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others.

K-State is part of the national Extension Disaster Education Network. EDEN's website is linked to the K-State page or can be found at http://eden.lsu.edu.

1/7/08
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Date: 12/31/07


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