Ways to tell your tree is in trouble

Ways to tell your tree is in trouble

Many of us have fretted this summer over the appearance of our grass, but we might have forgotten to look up at what might have suffered even more from the excessive dry weather.

Most types of grass can survive several weeks without water, but trees cannot. Trees left too long without access to water have a much more difficult time bouncing back than grass does, which is why most tree professionals recommend twice-a-week watering. 

Trees can add beauty and value to our homes, even reduce heating and cooling costs if they’re properly placed. Without proper maintenance, though, they can be safety hazards, could damage your property and die prematurely. If you’re concerned about your trees, or have never had them inspected, your best bet is to hire a Certified Arborist. Steve Courchaine, owner of Angel Oak Tree Care in Indianapolis, recommends at least a bi-annual inspection for homeowners with mature trees.

“Things happen throughout the course of a year,” Courchaine says. “You can get a heavy storm, which will cause a split in a tree that a homeowner doesn’t notice and then the next big storm comes through you could lose that tree. A Certified Arborist is going to notice things that a homeowner doesn’t notice.”

Trees can be damaged by a host of things, including weather conditions, herbicides, pesticides and chemical runoff, and improper mulching. Ultimately, homeowners are responsible for the condition of their trees and could be held liable if a dangerous tree causes property damage or injures someone.

“All homeowners have a duty to inspect their trees,” says Andrea Dunlevy, an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist with Broad Ripple Tree Service, Inc. “You cannot be liable for what is hidden, but deadwood, hanging limbs and gaping hollows are all obvious.”

There are other signs that a tree might be in trouble. Large broken branches, large cracks, poor leaf development in the crown and discoloration and separation of the bark on the main stem are all indications that it could be time to remove a tree.

“I like that the (ISA) has developed standards to leave out the guesswork,” Dunlevy says. “One major clue to lack of vitality, or tree decline, is poor leaf development in the crown. The standard is, if over one third of the crown is dead, the tree is in decline and removal is recommended. Discoloration and separation of the bark on the main stem may be a sign that tree is structurally unsound.  (A crack in the trunk) that is not developing sound woundwood – scar tissue – is a sign of an unhealthy tree.”

Most Arborists want to try to save a tree whenever possible. A qualified, reputable tree professional will advise you of all your options.

“There are things we can do like pinning a tree together with rods, putting cables in trees and lightening branches,” Courchaine says. “Those are sometimes options to try and save the tree.”

Tree removal is highly technical and dangerous and should only be done by an experienced professional who is properly insured and follows American National Standards Institute (ANSI) safety protocol. Costs for removal vary greatly, depending on the size and location of the tree.

“The biggest thing is the safety issue,” Courchaine says. “Every month, we’ll read in our trade magazines about homeowners who tried to do these projects themselves and hurt themselves. Usually, when you get hurt with a chainsaw, chipper or branches falling, it’s pretty serious. Homeowners should always call someone who is a professional to be able to do that type of work.”

Angie’s List tips for hiring a tree service

  • Don't procrastinate: If you have trees that look structurally unsound or in decline, don't wait to have them looked at. Taking care of the issue immediately can also save you from further costs. Your trees should be inspected on a regular basis.
  • Consider a certified arborist: If you have trees that are aged or diseased, a Certified Arborist can help determine what special care you might need to keep the trees and your yard in good shape. Cutting down a tree is a dangerous job and a task homeowners should not attempt themselves.
  • Check qualifications: Don’t hire just anyone with a chain saw and pickup truck. Gather estimates from at least three companies and vet them thoroughly. Check for membership in professional organizations, such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), or the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA). 
  • Ask for proof of insurance: Make sure the company's policy adequately covers property damage and injuries that could occur.
  • Walk through the job: Have the contractor walk through the yard with you so you know exactly what trees need work and what is being removed. Map out how the areas where the contractors will be working and how they will access those areas. Make sure you've cleared those areas of cars and other items to ensure nothing is damaged by falling limbs.
  • Put it in writing: Agree to the terms and details of the project, outlined in a contract, before any work is done.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 28, 2012.

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