Mindful Gardening: Protecting Your Trees

Post-Sandy cleanup
BBG's vice president of Horticulture and Facilities, Melanie Sifton, documents the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Elizabeth Peters.

More than a month after superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers are still addressing the extensive damage to the city’s trees. Fallen trees blocked streets, limbs lay scattered on roofs and cars, root balls had pulled apart sidewalks—we saw just how vulnerable these giant plants can be during storms. Now seems like a good time to share some guidelines on caring for trees so that they stay strong and healthy through any weather.

Tip: Educate Yourself

A text like BBG’s guide The Tree Care Primer is a great way to acquaint yourself with the basics of tree health. The book covers age-appropriate care for young, mature, and dying trees, along with illustrations of various challenges and solutions. Many communities have tree-care programs you can consult, like MillionTreesNYC or BBG’s Street Tree Stewardship. Or ask a garden center for other good references so you know what you’re looking at.

Tip: Look Up

Look your tree over to confirm good health or spot decline. Arborists use the reminder of “DDDI” to identify problems with a limb: Is it dead, diseased, damaged, or interfering? Look for signs of pests or diseases such as deadwood, discoloration, wilting, or early leaf drop. Check also for broken limbs or hangers, and look for structural stability. Make sure the branches are not interfering with utility lines, buildings, or other trees.

Tip: Look Down

A tree is much more than what is plainly visible to the eye. Taking care of a tree’s root system is essential to maintain its overall health. Keep in mind that even on a very large tree, the most important roots are often in the first 18 inches of soil, and they can extend even farther than the tree’s canopy. Avoid compacting the soil around tree roots. Take care not to drive a vehicle over the root zone and, as much as possible, not to tread back and forth on them.

Tip: Be Sensitive to the Soil

Ground compaction not only injures roots but also reduces the air, water, and nutrients available to the tree. Compaction also creates problems for the many microorganisms that help keep soil nutrient-rich and healthy. Protect the root zone. Avoid introducing toxins, such as the runoff from washing your car, road salt, or other harmful substances. You can gently scuff the top few inches of root-zone soil to keep it loose and aerated. A one-inch layer of organic mulch around the root area will help retain moisture and protect the soil from unwanted debris.

Tip: Call in the Pros

If you detect something of serious concern like an unstable limb, hiring someone certified in tree care is probably your best bet. A trained and licensed arborist will be able to help you evaluate your tree or address problems. Many arborists offer maintenance plans. The expense of working one-on-one with an expert will be offset by knowing your trees are getting the best possible evaluation and treatment, helping them stave off future problems.

Tip: Care for Your Trees All the Time

If you wait to attend to a tree until you hear news of a weather event approaching, it’s probably too late. The healthiest and most resilient trees are often those that are regularly checked and cared for. It doesn’t have to be frequent—once a month should be a good interval in most cases—but it does have to be consistent.

For more information:

Learn about Caring for Street Tree Beds

Download a Guide to Tree Care (pdf)

Order Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens

Order The Tree Care Primer


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