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Learn to Speak Tree

Have you ever noticed bark chipping off your tree's trunk and wondered if it was normal? Have you spotted beetles or bugs hanging out in your tree's leaves and wondered if you should spray some insecticide? Are you worried that, even though it's officially spring, your tree still doesn't have any leaves on it?

We know that even though most homeowners have the best intentions for their trees, reading and understanding the signs they give you can sometimes be like trying to speak another language. Luckily, Blue Ox is here with a little Tree-Speak 101. Read on to find out more about what tree signs should and should not raise a red flag, common care tips to keep your trees looking and feeling their best, and other tidbits we thought you might like to know...

How alive is your tree?

Unlike us, trees have a lot more grey area between alive and dead. And with spring rolling in, it's a good time to check for signs that your tree is in great health. A simple rule of thumb is that the percentage of a lateral lead that's budding is the percentage of life still in your tree. So, for example, if a horizontal branch is only budding about halfway out, your tree is only half alive.

You can also check the buds themselves. In early spring, a tree's buds begin to swell, and they should be firm to the touch. If a bud is dry and collapses between your fingers, it's dead. As long as a branch's node has any live buds, there's still life in the lead, but if you can only find these dry, brittle buds, it may be dead.

Dead wood pruning by Blue Ox

Be careful not to mistake dead wood for a dead tree. Most of a tree's slender branches should be fairly supple, and able to flex. If they're brittle and easily broken, they may be dead. But dead wood is natural for trees, and as long as there's more live wood than dead, there's probably no reason for alarm. Dead wood occurs because of a tree's gift for compartmentalization, which is a defensive mechanism that prevents the spread of disease. If one lead is damaged, wounded, or becomes infected, the tree can cut that lead off from the rest of the tree to prevent the spread of injury or disease, which then results in the lead dying but the tree surviving. Dead wood doesn't mean the tree itself is dying, but it should be regularly removed since it can be hazardous to people and property if it falls out of the tree, and because dead wood is a breeding ground for insects.

Another sign that a tree may be ailing is its bark. There should be bark covering the whole trunk and every branch--if you see patches of bare, smooth wood, there could be a problem. And don't forget to keep an eye out for fungi growing along the trunk. There are symbiotic fungi that can actually help your tree, but there are more harmful species as well. Saprophytic fungus feeds on dead organic matter, and, while it's usually not the cause of a tree's woes, it can cause structural damage. There are also parasitic fungi species that live at the direct expense of their host trees. If you see fungi growing and have any doubt at all, contact your friendly neighborhood arborist to come have a look.

Is your tree getting along with its neighbors?

A tree's best friend is mulch. It insulates the surrounding soil, protecting against changing temperatures and helping retain moisture for the roots. It can also discourage the growth of weeds and other competitors. As long as it's kept away from the trunk and isn't too deep (a layer of mulch only needs to be 2" thick), mulch can be a huge help, particularly to newly planted trees. Even trees in great health can benefit from a new mulch ring at the beginning of each summer if you're so inclined. Generally, a ring of mulch should be about one foot in diameter for each inch of the tree's trunk diameter. And, again, make sure to leave about an inch of space closest to the trunk clear of mulch. Your ring should end up looking like a donut.

But what if you want more than just mulch? After all, your tree could make a great centerpiece for a small flowerbed or garden. There's no reason you shouldn't add some oomph around the base of your tree, but there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it.

One common mistake is to make a raised bed around the tree, believing it will create better soil for the flowers or other plants. This can suffocate the tree's surface roots, which require oxygen, and can cause decay at the base of the trunk or even kill your tree. All you need is a couple inches of compost to create a bed that will benefit both the aesthetics of your yard and your tree's health.

When it's time to plant, be careful of the tree's roots. Use a hand shovel and dig as small a hole as possible, just large enough for your plant to fit into. If you do hit a root while digging, simply refill the hole and try a new spot.

Finally, remember to research your plants. It's a good idea to use smaller plants, as large or spreading plants can create competition for resources with your tree, and taller plants can grow into your tree's lower canopy. And please don't use climbing plants, which will eventually weaken and possibly kill your tree. Find plants that are compatible with your environment and with your tree so that your urban forest can thrive.

Is your tree getting hurt?

Trees are big, still, and silent, so we don't tend to think of them as vulnerable or reactive. But your trees can be wounded or injured, and they do react, even if it may take a long time for their reactions to become evident.

It should be pretty obvious, but it still needs saying: keep your gas and electric lawn tools clear of your trees. You can easily damage surface roots (this is another advantage of mulching around your trees) with a weed whacker or lawn mower.

Less obvious is the tree's bark. Most of us probably wouldn't think twice about scraping or cutting bark--it's a tree, after all; it's covered in the stuff. But the bark's inner layer contains the vessels that carry water and nutrients throughout the tree. Think of it like severing an artery or snipping out part of the digestive tract. It's a bigger deal than you might assume.

Finally, remember this--grass is easily replaceable. You can seed or sod, and have a newly established lawn in just a few weeks. But your trees have taken years or even decades to get to where they are. If you can take just a few simple precautions to keep them healthy, we believe it's worth doing.

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