Helping trees, shrubs spring back from wicked winter
Updated 4:22 pm, Monday, April 11, 2011
With the arrival of spring, the winds have lost their fierce bite. Snow surely, at long last, must be a thing of the past. And bundling up in coats as big as igloos is no longer needed.
But even as the temperatures rise and greenery slowly sprouts this early April, evidence of the harsh winter remains, as seen in the toll taken on trees and shrubs
From tall to relatively small, no tree or planting was safe. If it wasn't the damage caused by heavy snow and ice bringing down limbs, it was ravenous wildlife -- cut off from their usual foods by thick blankets of snow -- stripping bark off shrubs and trees.
Now that the snow is gone, the extent of damage to shrubs is only now being discovered by homeowners, according to John Weymouth, an arborist with Westport-based Coastal Tree Experts.
Fairfield Tree Warden Ken Placko notes that over the last month or so, as the snow finally began to disappear, smaller trees and shrubs have shown signs of splitting because of the onslaught.
"It was an unusual year for the amount of snow we had," Placko said, adding that base -- or foundation -- plantings, such as Japanese Maples, Azaleas and Boxwoods, to name a few, fared worse than plantings farther from structures. That's because snow from roofs often pummeled shrubs long after the storms stopped, especially when homeowners used snow rakes to clear their roofs.
Westport Tree Warden Andy Puskas said evergreen trees suffered more this snowy winter than deciduous trees.
"Deciduous trees don't retain the force of the wind; the wind blows through them," Puskas said. The evergreens, which keep their needles, also retain more snow than deciduous trees, which lose their leaves, so there is more limb damage to evergreens.
That's not all. Wet ground tends to have more of an impact on an evergreen, Puskas said.
As winter wears on, the ground softens up, rocks push up and the voids below the rocks fill with water. This causes ground to become less solid, so it's tougher for tree roots to anchor.
"Heavy snowfall does an evergreen more harm than good," Puskas said.
However, Jeffery Moore, co-owner of Weston Arborists, which does work in both Fairfield and Westport, said snow cover can help certain trees, especially ornamental trees, as it can prevent deep frost.
"Snow is a great insulator," he said.
Moore said some of this past winter's damage to trees and shrubs was caused by lack of maintenance.
"The best thing you can do is walk around [your property] with an arborist and identify potential issues," he said.
"It could be an issue that's going to occur five years down the line. Now's the time to address it."
An arborist can point out, among other things, diseased plants that a homeowner may not notice, plantings too close to structures, or plantings that get the wrong type of exposure, such as full shade or full sun.
Even in these tough economic times and with the high price of gasoline, his company still provides free consultations.
Puskas said the average person, though no expert, still can spot tree and plant problems, such as leaking caused by frost cracks, usually in the V-crotch of a tree. When the ice on a tree melts in the spring, "the tree will move where it's not supposed to move," Puskas said.
"The crotch will move instead of the whole stem of the tree, and push the tree apart in that spot," he said. Eventually, the crotch will weaken and the section will break off.
"If it looks like a `V' it's a weakened crotch, if it looks like a horseshoe it's still strong," Puskas said.
The town of Westport typically loses 100 to 400 trees a year, even with good maintenance. But over the past 12 months, it lost about 700, Puskas said.
Around this time a year ago, the town lost 360 trees in one month because of a major storm.
The tree warden said he does the best he can with a limited budget.
The tree removal budget is about $85,000. However, it can cost as much as $2,000 -- sometimes even more -- to take down a large tree, according to Westport Public Works Director Steve Edwards, Puskas' boss.
In Fairfield, Placko said there was so much snow this past winter that it was often difficult to find the markings on the trees slated for pruning or removal, even though those marks were often 4 to 5 feet above ground.
The snow also left Placko shorthanded. His helpers, employees of the Public Works Department, often were busy plowing snow, unable to help with tree maintenance.
Sometimes, a crew hired from out of town, or even out of state, lends a hand with tree care, but this year, all the snow posed travel problems.
"It was an exceptional feat for them. In some cases, a trip to Fairfield, even for a crew from New Haven, took one to two hours," he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Eric Rogers, co-owner of Westport-based Coastal Tree Experts, was busy attending to trees.
With one helper, a Bobcat loader and an aerial-lift truck, Rogers was working at the rear of a house under construction on Morningside Drive. Among his tasks was a "crown reduction," or pruning branches, on a plum tree.
He said much of the damage caused by the winter would have been lessened had property owners kept up with maintenance such as crown reduction and thinning, removing dead trees and support cabling for multi-stem trees.
"People are starting to wake up because of all the damage," said Rogers. "But of course the economy isn't helping at all. People are calling (his company), but they're also doing a lot of shopping around."
While many hesitate to do preventive maintenance, Rogers points out that doing so "would save them money in the long run."
Whether a tree or shrub, Rogers advises homeowners to address not only the obvious, such as a broken limb, but to also have the root system examined.
"If you want to keep healthy trees, you have to focus on the roots," he said. "You're not going to have proper growth, sustained growth, without doing so, and flowering trees won't flower as well," he added.
Another lingering effect is "winter burn" -- when harsh winds cause the leaves and needles of ornamental shrubs and medium-sized evergreens to turn brown. Trees closer to the shoreline usually suffer more severe winter burn, Moore said.
It's not as serious a problem as a decaying tree, for example. "It's mostly an unsightly thing," he said.
However, this, too, can be avoided with preventive measures, specifically by applying anti-desiccant spray -- basically an organic sealant -- to conserve moisture vital to good health.
But even if more safeguards had been taken, this was a winter like no other in recent years. Mother Nature was bound to leave destruction in her wake.
"Every year there's some storm damage, but not as much as this year," Weymouth said.