Take Good Care of Trees This Fall

Spring and summer have come and gone and you may be looking at your landscape with despair because you didn’t accomplish what you intended with tree care. But fall is actually the ideal time to give trees extra tender loving care and prepare them (and related woody plants) for the five to six months of winter ahead.

This seasonal period of winter dormancy is dramatic and often misunderstood. A common myth is that trees, because of leaf drop, are shutting down and essentially going to sleep for the winter. In many ways, trees are actually going through a period of growth and vigor. From September through December, trees experience some of their most dramatic growth as twigs, branches and roots begin collecting and storing the critical food reserves needed for the next growing season. Much of this growth occurs below ground, unseen and unnoticed, but it’s of critical importance to the tree and the coming spring growing season.

Winter can be difficult for both evergreen and deciduous plants. With potential temperature fluctuations of 50 degrees on any given day, water loss from cold, drying winds and subzero temperatures, Nebraska’s trees face a harsh environment every winter. The food reserves stored during the fall must be carefully conserved for the coming needs of spring and regrowth. What can you do to help your trees better prepare for and withstand the Nebraska winter ahead of us? A few key activities in fall can pay great dividends for the next growing season and create a more vigorous and structurally sound tree.

Top Fall Tree Care Activities

– Identify. Make a list of your trees’ needs and potential health issues. This is a proactive way to approach plant health care before problems arise. It also helps prioritize your efforts.

– Consult. Know and understand your limits with pruning and tree care. Consult with a certified arborist who can identify and manage needs for large and mature trees. A listing of certified arborists is available online through the Nebraska Arborists Association or the International Society of Arboriculture.

– Mulch. Spread a 4 to 6-inch layer of organic wood chip mulch around the base of trees. Take the mulch to the edge of the dripline on smaller trees or as far as you can for larger trees. A 6 to 8-foot mulched diameter is ideal for most trees. Do not pile mulch against the stem of the tree, which can cause long-term damage and even death.

– Aerate. Aerate soils if they are compacted or poorly drained. Avoid getting too close to trees and damaging tree roots.

– Remove. Correct or remove structural faults and any visible dead wood. Focus on making smaller cuts to minimize wounding and exposed heartwood.

– Prune. Remove damaged and declining twigs and branches with a proper pruning cut to a healthy lateral branch.

– Protect. Use paper tree wrap on young, recently planted trees that have not developed protective bark. Use tree tubes or tree guards to protect young trees from mechanical and animal damage. Winter damage from deer, rabbits and squirrels can be severe on young trees, so this protection can pay big dividends.

– Water. Watering may be needed during a dry fall and winter, especially for newly planted or newly established trees. Following the recent drought, “newly established” can mean anything planted within the last 10 years.

– Fertilize. Do not fertilize unless your soils have a known nutrient deficiency. Fertilizing trees unnecessarily can actually harm trees by promoting vegetative growth that attracts insects and by altering the normal growth of the tree canopy.

– Plant. While fall is a great time to take care of existing trees, it is also a great time to plant new trees and prepare for future generations. Even after the first hard freeze, growing conditions are ideal for newly planted trees and excellent root growth. Trees planted in fall get a jump-start for spring regrowth.

– Recycle. It’s disheartening to take a fall drive through the neighborhood and see house after house with bagged leaves at the curb ready for pickup.  It’s like bagging up money and setting it curbside. Leaves and yard debris are excellent sources of nutrients and a necessary component for healthy, “living” soils. Recycle, reuse and repurpose by using this debris for mulching, double grinding with a mulching mower or filling up the compost pile.

Trees provide enormous social, economic and environmental benefits. A short time invested in fall tree care can yield large returns next spring. See you at the leaf pile!  More tree care resources at nfs.unl.edu/tree-care.

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