What a major mess we have after last week’s ice storm. Many places looked like a war zone! It was only ten years ago that we dealt with the last devastating ice storm. I think this one was even worse, as I have observed more of both evergreen and deciduous tree limb breakage than last time. River birch, in particular took a nasty hit. So did some Chinese elms, particularly those on Broad Street.
Naturally though, the trees that sustained the most damage were evergreen, namely pine trees. The old Darlington oaks in the hill section of town were hit hard because they still have most of the leaves on the trees, not to mention that most are in a state of decline with so much decayed wood. Other popular evergreen trees that sustained a lot of damage were magnolias, wax myrtles, and live oaks. In some cases, some trees uprooted. In other cases, some trees are bent over. I will try to address different scenarios and questions I have gotten over the past week regarding plant damage.
With the pine trees, we have some that lost many branches while some lost the whole top. Those trees that lost the whole top eventually need to come down as pines will not resprout new foliage. Only leave them standing if they won’t hurt anything if they fall and you want it used for wildlife.
With the pines that have some tops left, the rule of thumb (and with other trees as well) is that if a tree has lost more than 50% of its crown, the probability of future survival is poor. This is not a hard and fast rule but just a guide. Pine trees with more than 50% of the crown left but with tops completely broken out may also die. If you don’t cut one down like this, keep a close eye on it, particularly during the summer and fall.
For pine trees that kept more than 50% of its crown the main concern, for the most part is aesthetics. Pine trees may seal off those limbs and prevent decay from entering the main trunk. A couple or more years from now, some of those limbs that die will fall, so eventually it can be a safety concern. Most of you know that pines self-prune the lower limbs that eventually fall anyway.
Ten years ago, I wrote in my column that these pines should not be any more susceptible to pine beetle attacks than normal as they seem to be more tied to severe drought. However, in researching what happened 10 years ago, I see that on August 13, I wrote a column about how bad the beetles had been that summer. Then I looked up precipitation numbers only to see that we did not have much of a drought. We had over 10 inches of rain in June, but only got 1.54 in July. August was a pretty normal 4.45 inches. So bottom line is we may have more of our surviving pines get attacked and killed over the summer and fall.
With hardwood trees that have broken limbs, the higher the break and smaller the diameter of the break point, the higher probability that the tree will recover. Broken branches generally do not affect tree survival unless more than 50% of the crown is involved. If these branches are allowed to remain, it may eventually lead to decay organisms entering the wounds. Prune torn limbs back to the main trunk or where they join another limb. This keeps them from sending out unnatural sprouts.
Some trees have torn bark. To improve the appearance and eliminate hiding places for insects, carefully use a chisel or sharp knife to smooth ragged edges of dead or dying bark. Remove the bark back to a point which is attached to the trees. Try not to expose any more cambium (inner back). Round the ends to prevent dieback of the cambium at these points. Keep the wound as narrow as you can to hasten wound closing. Wound paints or tar does nothing to promote healing on these tears as well as pruned branches.
In some cases, we had trees that were uprooted, some completely, others just partially. Partially uprooted trees that are small enough can usually be saved. Lift up the back and try to do so before the root ball dries out. You may need to get the help of several friends or neighbors or a winch. But before you start, trim any broken roots and excavate the hole under the root ball. As the tree becomes vertical, the root ball needs to settle back in its former hole without obstacles. Then use a strong rope or wire tied to sturdy stakes to hold the tree in place until it gets anchored again, it you use wire, pad it where is touches the trunk. One trick is to use a short piece of water hose to pad the wire. Even better would be to use wide nylon strapping which is even less likely to harm the trunk. Even though you can’t see them, roots under the root ball on the other side of the broken ones may have snapped or bent when they were tilted. Plan to water your uprighted tree as if were newly planted this spring and summer. If the tree is too large to stand back up, you probably should cut it down.
Some evergreen trees (not pines) may eventually show signs of wilt due to the root loss. If this occurs, prune back the canopy by one third to compensate for the loss of roots. Prune the top back to where it joins another branch so it will establish a new central leader and help it grow back to a more natural state.
On the subject of bending trees, the recovery to an upright position will depend on the degree of bending and the length of time the tree has remained in the bent position. Trees bent near or past horizontal will probably not recover. Individual tops, or even entire trees, can sometimes be staked and tied to speed recovery. However, the results are mixed as some trees recover while others do not.
A lot of damage occurred on small trees or shrubbery that got hit and broken by the big limbs falling on them. For small trees that were split down close to the ground. You may have to wind up cutting them down. If only a few limbs were broken, you can prune them out, again cutting them below the injury, and to where they join the trunk or another limb. The same thing applies to shrubbery. Pruning out this injured wood cuts down on the possibility of infectious diseases and insects that may attack later on.
Going forward from here, there are still a lot of broken branches hanging in trees. This can create a deadly and dangerous situation if they are not removed. I had a large pine limb hanging in one of my back yard trees but it fell sometime during Saturday night or Sunday morning. At least I don’t have to worry anymore about that.
Fortunately, ice storms of this magnitude don’t happen very often, but after this damage, you might want to consider whether you want any large evergreen trees, particularly pines, to have any branches hanging over your house. Just like 10 years ago, I have heard many people say they want all of their pine trees gone from their yard, regardless of how close they are to their house.
Reach Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, at (706) 821-2349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.