Trees will thrive as long as they are planted in the right location. A certified arborist can help determine what trees will work best in your yard -- and your geographic region -- and can help come up with a variety of trees to beautify your landscape.
Unfortunately, the most desirable trees grow slowly. In the eastern U.S., homeowners often plant silver maples because they grow relatively quickly. However, they also have shallow root systems that can damage patios, driveways and sidewalks. The wood is also less dense and therefore more prone to break during a storm.
Red oak and sugar maple trees, on the other hand, tend to hold up better -- but take longer to mature.
Pear, mulberry and other fruit-bearing trees should be kept away from driveways, patios and sidewalks because the fruit will be a nuisance and stain the pavement.
Disease resistance is another factor to consider, but difficult to predict with any certainty. Dutch elms died out by the millions in the mid-20th Century and in recent years ash trees have been devastated by infestations of the emerald ash borer.
When to Treat and Remove a Tree
Pruning and 'topping' trees
There are many reasons to prune a tree -- the most important being safety. Branches that overhang the house or brush against it must be removed. Branches that block visibility near streets and intersections should also be trimmed away.
Dead branches should be targeted, along with any that cross and rub against each other. The right pruning techniques will help the tree develop strong roots so it can weather the storms. Pruning is a great way to enhance the shape and stimulate fruit production.
RELATED CONTENT: Click here to download the Angie's List Guide to Spring Maintenance
The best time to prune is in the late fall or winter. Because the sap is not running, sap loss is minimized and the tree will not be stressed. Insects are also dormant, helping to prevent infection.
Tree branches should always be cut at a node, or the point where the branch connects to another branch. The cut should be just outside of the ridge of bark that develops at this intersection. Angle the cut down, creating as little branch stub as possible.
Crown thinning: This technique is mainly used on hardwoods. It is a carefully and highly selective removal of branches in the crown of the tree. Do not prune away more than a quarter of the living crown at any one time.
V-shaped unions: Branches that split off in a sharp V-shape will have a wedge of bark in between that rolls in. This wedge represents a weak spot in the tree, and one branch should be removed.
Crown raising: Branches that hang low pose a problem to pedestrians and should be trimmed away.
Pruning large branches requires the right tools. Start with a rope saw that can be used to trim high tree limbs from the ground. A pole pruner can be attached to an extension pole to safely trim branches without the ladder. Portable buck saws are ideal because they are lightweight and collapsible for storage. Always clean the tools after use with soapy water to prevent spreading disease between trees. Hire a company that provides tree trimming service if you don't feel comfortable completing the job.
Mike Raffo, owner of All Access Tree Care, one of San Diego's most awesome contractors, works on the trees in the front of a home in El Cajon, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Crissy Pascual/©INFINITE MEDIA WORKS)
Hiring a professional tree service
Don't hire just anyone with a chain saw and a pickup truck. Here are some tips:
Decide what you need: Figure out what type of work you need done – trimming service only or do you have dead trees that need to be removed? The most important thing to look for is low hanging or dead limbs that can fall under the weight of severe storms. Low-hanging limbs can provide easy access to your attic for squirrels and other pests.
Don't procrastinate: If you have old trees or low-hanging limbs, don't wait until bad weather hits or you're going to wait a while for service. Taking care of the issue immediately can also save you from further costs.
Compare your options: Check Angie's List reviews to find the best tree service companies in your area. Customers give service providers letter grades (A-to-F) so you'll be able to pick an A-rated service. Discount coupons are often available to Angie's List members.
Check qualifications: Make sure the company is equipped to do the job you need done. For instance, if you need a large tree removed, are they experienced in stump grinding and other necessary aspects of the job?
Consider a certified arborist: If you have trees that are aged or diseased, an arborist can help determine what special care you might need to keep the trees and your yard in good shape.
Ask for proof of insurance: Make sure the company's policy adequately covers property damage and injuries that could occur on your property.
Disposal: Find out how the debris will be handled. Will the company remove it or are you responsible for removing it? Do you want the firewood and/or mulch?
Walk through the job: Have the contractor tag or 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.
Gordon Adams of highly rated Ping’s Tree Service Inc. in Indianapolis demonstrates a proper technique to prune trees. (Angie's List/Brandon Smith)
Tree and stump removal
Trees need to be removed for reasons such as unhealthy and diseased trees and trees are in the way of landscape or structures. Sometimes trees are just old and pose a safety hazard.
Property owners and gardeners can know that a tree needs to be removed when trees have dead wood of either multiple branches or the trunk. Dead branches can fall and be a danger to people or at least destructive to property. When a large branch breaks off the main tree and gets lodged within the other branches or if a significant crack is found, the tree should be removed.
Most tree service companies offer a tree removal service, and the best methods for removing trees are those used by trained arborists. Tall trees that are near other trees and structures should be removed in pieces starting at the top. Trees in an open area can be cut mostly on the side toward which the cutter wishes the tree to fall.
Homeowners can save money by cutting a tree down themselves, but this is a dangerous job. Make sure you are accurately assessing the height of the tree and where it could land. If the trunk of the tree is partially rotted, it will be difficult to predict whether it will split away from your cut line. And once the tree is down, you will still have a lot of work to do.
What about the stump?
Often when a tree is cut down the stump can be left to rot away on its own, but if it's in the way or keeps sending up new shoots you may elect to have it removed.
Farmers used to use tractors to pull stumps out by the root, but now there are special machines that grind out the stump to below ground level.
Stump grinding is done with a stand-alone machine or an attachment grinder for a backhoe. The mechanism sits on top of a stump and chews-up the stump, spitting wood chips chipped from the stump and roots.
A homeowner can rent a stump grinder at a tool rental store, but these are dangerous machines that are generally best left to those who are well-trained. Accidents can happen with any tool and this is one that can take off your foot in a second. No matter who is running the machine, bystanders should keep a distance because wood chunks can be thrown at high speed.
A crew member of highly rated Ping’s Tree Service Inc. in Indianapolis demonstrates a proper technique to prune trees. (Angie's List/Brandon Smith)
Tree watering tips
Tree roots require a thorough, deep soak so a sprinkler isn't always the best method for watering. It might be more efficient to use a hose or 5-gallon bucket to drench the drip line of a tree. The drip line is the entire area on the ground directly below a tree's canopy. It's where a majority of the tree's feeder roots reside.
Most arborists agree that mature trees require the equivalent of 1 to 1.5 inches of rain per week during the growing season. However, it's not always practical to rely on nature to deliver enough water, especially in drought conditions.
Some arborists say you should add 10 gallons of water for every inch of tree diameter. Another option is to apply 1/2 gallon of water for every square foot of soil under the drip line. Ideally, a tree with a 20-foot drip line should get about 150 gallons of water per week. To put it in perspective, a standard bathtub holds around 50 gallons of water, so it would be like filling up a bathtub three times.
Watering early in the morning or after the sun is set will reduce evaporation and help the water to soak deep into the soil. If you do use a sprinkler, make sure you're not wasting water by spraying outside of the tree’s drip line, or hosing down your sidewalk or driveway. To measure how much water you're using, place an empty tuna can or similar container inside the spray area. When it’s full, you’ve watered enough.
Mulch also helps to preserve moisture around the tree's root system. Ideally, you should add 3 to 4 inches of mulch. However, if you pile it too high or create a "mulch volcano" around the tree, you could do more harm than good. Excessive moisture around tree roots can block oxygen and lead to root rot.