For the most part, it is the trees that many gardeners and homeowners worry about during hurricane season, and for a good reason. During recent years, storms from the Gulf Coast through the northeastern US have caused many trees to fail, resulting in millions of dollars in damage to urban areas. Unfortunately, the backlash against trees has resulted in a rash of poor pruning practices. The cry has been cut that tree, it is too tall. Plant and prune trees right for best results during hurricane season.
New residents to Florida may have let the beginning of hurricane season pass without a thought or care. However, for those who have lived in Florida awhile, the onset of hurricane season is something we take seriously and check preparations carefully.
Here is the secret to safe trees during hurricanes; healthy trees, well placed, maintained, and pruned, are the safest. The process begins with selecting a site that will match the trees’ needed growing conditions and that the tree will be planted in the right place. As to proximity to the house, it is recommended that no tree is planted closer than 15 feet to the structure; most trees require more space; consider the average tree height and where it will land if it fails.
Research suggests that correctly pruned trees are more resistant to bending the trunk during high wind events. Work with a certified arborist to determine the proper formative or structural pruning for young trees and mature tree pruning for best wind resistance. However, pruning a tree severely or topping the tree by cutting more than 25% to 30% is not wise and results in a hazardous tree.
If there is a tree near your house that you think is “too tall,” there are several options. The tree can be removed and replanted in a different location and replaced with a smaller maturing species. A good arborist can help prepare for strong winds by thinning the tree. Thinning allows sunlight to penetrate to interior foliage that will help keep interior branches alive. Thinning also increases airflow, and when more air passes through the canopy instead of pushing against it, trees resist storm damage more effectively.
Another arborist tactic for pruning is a canopy reduction. This is a process whereby about 25% of the crown of the tree is removed. The cuts on the branches are precise and leave the tree in a natural form and shape. Crown reductions take time which means they are more expensive, and once the tactic is employed, it should be repeated every year or two. A well-done crown reduction may not be noticeable by an untrained eye, but it results in a smaller, safer tree when combined with proper thinning.
Cutting a tree canopy down so that it is shorter is not a good pruning practice. This procedure is known as topping or hat-racking and creates a whole host of problems for the tree and the surrounding area.
- Topping is stressful to the tree by removing most of the engines (leaves) that support growth. The tree essential starves for many months or years while trying to grow with no leaves to do the work; if there are insufficient reserves to do this work, the tree will weaken and die.
- Topping causes decay in the branches and trunk, leading to cavities or active infections that severely weaken the tree.
- Topping forces the growth of many lateral buds close to the surface of the cut branch. This creates many leafy branches that tend to quickly grow to make a dense, loosely held canopy that is much more susceptible to failure during a storm.
- Topping is ugly; a topped tree will most likely never regain its natural, graceful form.
- Topping is an expensive, high-maintenance procedure, once initiated, will have to be repeated every year.
- Topping reduces property values and is a potential liability. Topping is considered an unacceptable hazardous pruning practice, and any damage caused by failure of a topped tree may lead to a finding of negligence in a court of law.
- Topping is also called “ten-year takedown” because the decline can cause the tree to slowly die.
Preparation for the storms to come is a responsibility not to be taken lightly; well planted and pruned trees are safer during hurricane season.
This article first appeared in the Treasure Coast Newspapers.