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Cleaning up winter storm damage

One of the great challenges through winter is to keep up with storm damage and breakage from snow weighing down tree branches and shrubs. Ideally, all your susceptible shrubs and trees would be wrapped, or pruned back annually to prevent overly long and weak branches from ever forming, but we all know, life sometime throws curves and even well-maintained trees and shrubs can have twigs and branches break and fall from winter damage. Another unique wildcard here in Anchorage are the pesky moose that prove quite hungry and are more than capable of doing major damage to landscape plants. They can effectively brose over eight feet in height and that’s without even rising off their front feet to stretch higher when the need arises.

At any rate, it’s best for trees and shrubs to be “cleaned up” as soon as possible after being damaged. Small twigs rarely require such attention, but if you have a branch fall in a storm that exceeds ½ inch in diameter, it’s a good idea to look for its origin and cut back the stub to a clean cut, close to the trunk or adjoining branch. Larger branches or ones that not have broken all the way off are easiest to spot, but they also require more care.

If the break is only slight and the branch is one you want to save, it can be a real challenge for the first year or so, but sometimes partially broken branches are worth the effort to save. If this is the case, find a brace that is approximately the same diameter as the broken branch, or even somewhat larger. Have some twine, rope or twist ties readily available depending on the size of the branch. Carefully prop the branch back to approximately the original position, taking care not to further damage it. Tie the brace in place both above and below the break.

Assure that the broke twig is held in place and perhaps even trim off up to 1/3 of its length to ease the weight and trigger fresh growth in response to cutting. Maples and fruit trees sometimes “bleed” excessively and can benefit from being tightly wrapped with raffia, burlap or other breathable twine or fabric that can be removed later in the season.

If the break is beyond saving, it’s best to cut it nearly flush to the trunk. For small branches a set of hand pruners will do the job, but larger ones need loppers or a pruning saw to complete the job. In rare instances, you may need a chainsaw or power pruner to accomplish the work. Pole saws allow you to reach a lot of branches while remaining on the ground. That can save a lot of time moving ladders and greatly reduce the risk of injury while trying to work atop such a ladder. Large branches should be taken out in small, manageable sections. Saw off a few feet at a time rather than the entire branch, which could tear loose halfway through and knock over your ladder! It’s always best to have an assistant if you have an extremely large branch to cut.

Each branch has a small ridge at the top of where it joins the main trunk or closest stem. The ridge is called a bark collar and is where hormones are concentrated that speed healing of a cut or wound in the area. It is also the site of dormant buds that can send out shoots to replace the branch. Make the cut just outside of this small ridge and angle away from the trunk slightly to avoid cutting or disturbing this ridge that nearly encircles the base of the branch. Cutting too close, removes the bark collar and drastically slows healing, setting the tree or shrub back significantly, while cutting too far away from the bark collar leaves a stub that will die back to the bark collar and take years for living bark to eventually close over, thus sealing outside elements and pathogens from the vulnerable heartwood.

When you see an older tree with heart rot or severe dieback in its canopy, you can almost always trace it back to improper pruning or a broken branch that wasn’t “cleaned” up in time to prevent insects or disease gaining access to the structural heartwood. Trees respond very well to a little maintenance and cleanup pruning on a regular basis, and most can live for generations. Shrubs also respond to regular upkeep by flourishing after a few well-placed pruning cuts. So since it’s not always possible to avoid winter damage, it’s not too difficult to assuage the damage.

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