Fall tree care: Three things to do this fall to help your trees all year long

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Leaves are falling from the trees. Now is a great time to invest in some simple but important tree care...

Leaves are falling from the trees. Now is a great time to invest in some simple but important tree care activities:

Tree assessment: Your trees go through a lot in a year. Drought can devastate root systems and deteriorate soil quality. Storm damage can leave broken or partially broken limbs dangling in the canopy. This is dangerous for property and passersby below, as well as being unhealthy for your trees. Insects, pests, fungi and disease can attack. It is vital that problems be identified as early as possible, and the best way to do this is through regular maintenance and assessment. The folks at treesaregood.com provide a downloadable Tree Risk Checklist you can refer to on your own. If you see any of the signs on this list, it's a good idea to consult a professional arborist. Whether you see signs of tree risk or not, however, most arborists advise at least an annual assessment by a professional.

Pruning: The most common tree maintenance activity is pruning. Periodic pruning is an essential practice that results in better-looking, stronger, healthier trees that are not in competition with their urban envrionment. Regularly pruned trees live longer than those that are allowed to grow unpruned, and they are healthier as well. According to arborists at Arborguard, a local tree specialist company that focuses on natural and sustainable tree care solutions, "Properly pruned trees are better able to resist pests, diseases, storm threats and environmental stress. Removing dead and diseased branches not only promotes tree health, but protects you from injury, property damage and potential liability."

It's a good idea to take time in the fall, while deciduous trees still have most of their leaves, to identify dead branches in need of cutting. Between the coldest part of winter and the start of spring is the best time to actually prune your trees. Fungi spreads spores at a higher rate in the fall and cuts take longer to heal as trees are entering into their dormant state.

Proper pruning will result in vigorous new growth in the spring, but poor pruning practices can do much more harm than good. Proper pruning is a delicate art, and while you can do simple pruning yourself, pruning larger trees can be dangerous. The Arborday Foundation recommends that "if pruning involves working above the ground or using power equipment, it is best to hire a professional arborist."

Fertilizing and Mulching: Nothing is more beneficial to a tree's health than proper mulching. In addition to the visual appeal, mulch helps retain moisture, insulate the soil, protect root systems, improve soil quality and inhibit weed germination and even some plant diseases. Mulch also helps protect trees against damage from lawnmowers and weedwhackers.

Fertilizing, surprisingly enough, can actually be harmful. According to the arborists at Arborguard, fertilizing can lead to chemical imbalance and disproportioned growth. "Although a recently fertilized tree may look a little greener," they caution, "fertilizing trees is similar to taking steroids to speed up muscle growth. The side effects can be devastating."

When considering mulch and fertilizer, a good rule of thumb is to seek to duplicate natural conditions by adding organic matter, which contains micronutrients and living microbes and will help aerate compacted pore space. Be sure you don't apply too much mulch or let it pile up against the stems or trunks of your trees, as this may actually lead to worse soil conditions and attract pests such as harmful insects or nesting rodents.

When to call an expert

Some tree maintenance you can do yourself, such as minor pruning, mulching and planting, or transplanting smaller trees and shrubs. There is a whole host of resources available online to help you do so, including sources cited elsewhere in this article as well as local hotlines such as the one provided by the Atlanta Botanical Garden. But there are times when it's wise to consult a professional. Annual tree assessments, as already mentioned, are an excellent idea and have many preventative benefits. Extensive pruning and tree removal are also extremely dangerous and should only be performed by certified arborists and highly skilled tree workers for both personal safety as well as liability reasons.

However, selecting the right company to remove your tree is a serious decision. There are no licensing laws that regulate or monitor safety practices in this industry. So be sure you do your research. Tree pruning and removal is a dangerous task that can cause significant harm if not handled correctly. Trees are a long-lived and important part of our home landscapes, so the relationship you form with your arborist is likely to be long-lived as well.

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