Reprinted from

March 2007

A Journal for Community Association Leaders
By Robert Booty

Can You Sleep on a Stormy Night?
What you can do to protect your trees during winter months


nce there was a farmer, who hired a new hired hand. When the farmer first sat down with him to inquire about his skills, he asked, “Just what do you do?” The reply was, “Well, I can sleep on a stormy night.” The farmer thought this was a strange response, but he showed him around the farm and his sleeping accommodations. As time passed, a fierce winter storm awoke the farmer from a deep sleep, momentarily disorientated. He quickly dressed to check his animals. As he entered the barn he was delighted to see that his pigs were in their pen, the chickens were on their roost, and the cows and horses were all put away and safe. The next day the farmer approached his newly hired man and said, “You knew that this storm was coming, didn’t you?” He got this reply: “No, but I told you that I could sleep on a stormy night.” have their way with them. When you Every winter season there are dozens of storms that affect our trees. And sometimes, even when our best efforts are utilized to protect our trees, we are saddened when the forces of nature
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think about mature trees, you realize that they provide so many positive things for a community, including high-

“It looks like a war zone!” cried one homeowner, as she awoke after the year’s first winter storm.


It seems that we have always had an ongoing love-hate relationship with trees. We love to surround ourselves in their beauty. We admire their strength and stature, and we are in awe that some have survived for so many years. On the other hand, we dread the day of their failure. Can anything be done to minimize tree failure during storms?
Very little wind filtration

A few positive things can be done with trees to help them get through the winter months. Start by having your trees inspected by someone who has documented knowledge and experience. This will help you feel more comfortable by understanding that such experts know what they are looking for and talking about. They will provide an unbiased evaluation of what needs to be accomplished. You should have such inspections done well before the winter season arrives. Then trees should be properly pruned using the principles of tree care developed and standardized by the International Society of Arboriculture. Many of the reasons trees fail result simply from the way they were pruned. Some of the most widespread pruning techniques, such as topping and lion’s tailing, actually damage trees and create problems because they change the tree’s natural structural integrity. Trees that have been topped become hazardous as they replace their canopies. Generally the new growth is weakly attached to the tree and is subject to failure, especially as the branches become larger. The failure usually happens during windstorms. Lion’s tailing is a pruning technique that is so widespread it is now at epidemic proportions. Lion’s tailing occurs when all the living foliage is removed from the center of a tree. The limbs of the tree look like a lion’s tail after pruning; the limbs will appear long and slender with a “puff” of foliage at the end. This creates an uneven weight distribution in the tree canopy. And when limb failure occurs, it is usually because all of the canopy weight has been moved to the end of the branches. Trees will often fall apart under their own weight even without a windstorm.

Problems caused by trees infected by Armillaria root disease

Structurally pruned for wind filtration

er property values and improving that special character to a neighborhood. It’s not too surprising that a survey by Arbor National Mortgage, Inc. in 1993 revealed that “Eighty-four percent of real estate agents feel that a house on a lot with trees can be as much as 20% more salable than a house on a lot without trees. In addition, 62% of the respondents said that the existence of healthy shade trees strongly influences a potential buyer’s impression of a block or neighborhood; 60% thought healthy shade trees have a big effect on a potential buyer’s first impression of a property; and 56% felt healthy shade trees are a strong factor in a home’s salability.” Most people are drawn to communities with mature trees because of the benefits and ambiance that they provide. However, when trees fail, they can be destructive and deadly. One attorney who works with tree litigation cases made this statement about trees: “Trees can be managed, but they cannot be controlled. To live near trees is to accept some degree of risk. The only way to eliminate all risk associated with trees is to eliminate all trees.”
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Protection of your trees begins with inspection by qualified individuals The role that a certified arborist plays in tree protection is vital to every property owner with mature trees. The ongoing training and education they receive on an annual basis keeps them up to date with the most recent understanding of how trees respond in different situations. This includes preparing trees for adverse weather conditions. These individuals are different from persons who are simply licensed by the state of California as a tree contractor or landscaper. Why? California does not provide or require any specific educational testing of one’s knowledge regarding tree care by individuals wishing to be a contractor, before they take the state test. Nor does the state require any ongoing education on the part of the individual to retain his or her license. Certified arborists, however, must do this to keep their certifications active. Can anything be done to prevent tree failure? No, arborists cannot detect every condition that could possibly lead to the structural failure of a tree. Trees are living organisms, and they can fail in ways we do not fully understand. Adverse conditions are often hidden within a tree’s structure or below ground. Arborists cannot guarantee that a tree will be healthy or safe under all circumstances or for a specified period of time. Likewise, results of other remedial treatments, e.g. medicines, cannot be guaranteed.


Tree inspection is vital to identify structural failures before winter arrives Trees lean for one of two reasons: 1. Phototropism (how’s that for a $10 word?)—This is the bending of a plant (tree) toward the direction of more intense light (sunlight). A tree becomes top heavy as it becomes larger and then, because of its size or wet condition, root failure is likely to occur. 2. Root failure—Usually during prolonged wet conditions the tree experiences loss of anchorage. It is in the process of falling, but it’s just not on the ground yet. This is sometimes more common with trees planted in lawn areas. Root disease is like a ticking time bomb because its activity is for the most part unseen, underground, and involves the part of the tree that keeps it in an upright position, the roots. Armillaria mella or oak root fungus is one of the most common root problems affecting trees; and it’s something a trained arborist can usually identify. Armillaria decomposes the tree’s roots so that it may suddenly fall over on a clear windless day or wait to go down in a storm. Sometimes there are outward signs of structural problems, such as conks at the base of a tree or a cavity eaten away by decay, that are noticeable to a trained arborist. Conks are the fruiting bodies of decay-causing fungi that are hidden out of sight within the trunk of a tree. The presence of mushrooms indicates there is dead organic material. Evidence of any of these should alert us to a potential problem and appropriate action taken.
Sulfur fungus on a Eucalyptus tree

Ganoderma conks at the base of an Acacia tree

How can trees be pruned so they can withstand winter storms? We need to understand that, when a gust of wind pushes against a tree and it cannot pass through the canopy easily, the chances of tree or limb failure increase. In order to minimize this problem, a tree needs to be properly thinned. The thinning process should
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be focused on the outer canopy of the tree. In effect this opens up what might be described as windows in the tree. This procedure will allow the wind to pass through the tree canopy with less resistance, minimizing damage to the tree. The thinning should involve no more than 25% of the living foliage with the interior foliage left intact.

There are times when decay in trees is very difficult to identify, because there may be no visible or outward signs of its presence. This problem often makes its presence known during a storm. The degree and variety of training among certified arborists vary. Some have specialties that they focused on in their careers in arboriculture, such as forensic investigations. Using specialized tools, such arborists are able to provide a valuable service by identifying decay in trees that may not have

TreeRadar is the most advanced method for determining tree health

shown any visible signs of having a problem. One of the most widely used devices to identify hidden decay is called the resistograph. With this tool the arborist uses a special drill with a long small wire bit that is drilled into an area chosen by the technician to explore for decay. As the bit is drilled into the tree, it measures and records the resistance the drill encounters as it passes from solid wood into softer wood that has been compromised by decay. After a series of such inspections an arborist is able to provide his recommendations concerning how advanced the decay is and how to proceed. One of the most recent and promising tools for decay detection is called TreeRadar. This appears to be the most advanced method to measure wood decay because it is totally non-invasive to the tree. One concern people have had with traditional methods of decay investigation is that holes are drilled into a tree that they are trying to save. TreeRadar safely uses radar to provide a virtual image of the interior of a tree trunk, much the same as if one were to

visit a doctor and receive an X-ray or MRI to evaluate his or her own health. In spite of all of our advanced technology and expanded knowledge of trees, they do continue to fail at times. Society has accepted the risk of living among trees and, hopefully, the responsibility to care for them. When maintenance has been deferred or improperly performed, problems arise. We live in a time when the knowledge to care for mature trees properly is readily available. So why is it that we continue to see disasters such as the one shown at the start of this discussion? Sometimes an arborist’s recommendations are ignored, and this can be a problem. It’s often not easy to tell clients something that they may not want to hear. However, experts have an obligation to be forthright, not just say something people want to hear. Similarly, board members and managers have a responsibility to listen to an accurate assessment of a problem and then act to remediate it. As you are reading this article, your thoughts might be drawn to the beautiful trees that grace your property. You may notice that your mind wanders to some questions: “What about our trees? Have we utilized qualified individuals? Is our budget sufficient to care for our real needs or have our trees become a liability? Is our community relativity safe or are there real concerns involving some of our trees?” How you answer these questions will determine how well you sleep on a stormy night.

Robert Booty is the principal consultant for Arborist OnSite.™ He is an ISA Certified Arborist and a member of the American Society of Consulting Arborists. He is a member of the ECHO Maintenance Resource Panel.

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