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Speaking Tree

February 23, 2011

One of my New Year's resolutions is to learn a new language. I work with several arborists fluent in Spanish, and they've inspired me. I've purchased audio aids, manuals, and am even enrolled in a Spanish class at a local community college. Well, it turns out that this is much harder than the commercials make it sound.

As I was absorbing Spanish on my way into work yesterday, it occurred to me that our trees communicate through their own language. They have something to tell us, but we have to be able to understand them. This is one language I am comfortable speaking, so when my landscape wakes from its winter slumber, I'll be ready to listen. Here are a few pointers from my experience as a landscape interpreter:

First, listen for obvious cries for help. Are there any dead or dying limbs, branches that may have broken or split during the harsh winter?  If so, prune out the dead tissue to support healthy growth and prevent injury to anyone who might be passing under the tree. Be on the lookout for damage from animals feeding on buds, bark below the snow line, twigs, and small branches. Even if you're new to "speaking tree," trust your instincts here; if something looks wrong, you may have a problem.

Next, turn your attention to not-so-obvious communication. Perhaps the tree has damage from low or unstable temperatures. For example, winter drying, caused by low temperatures and reduced humidity, decreases a plant's ability to find and retain adequate moisture. Winter sunscald is another condition that can impact your plants, rupturing tissue when they are warmed by bright, direct sunlight then suddenly exposed to frigid nighttime air. This often creates a vertical crack in the bark.

I'm not going to stop there, though. I'll be on the lookout for other potential signs of winter damage, such as poor leaf color, discolored bark, fungus growth, abnormal bud appearance and leaf size, heavy shedding of twigs, and oozing sap, all of which could be signs of root, leaf and needle injury.

spring tree inspection

I'll continue the dialogue with my shrubs as well, as certain common varieties such as rhododendron, holly, and English boxwood are prone to winter damage.

So once you've decoded these messages, what should you do?

Your local professional arborist can recommend specific treatments depending on the injury, but often the best advice is to maintain good cultural practices to help your trees thrive. Stay on good speaking terms with your trees by properly watering, mulching, and fertilizing them.

Like any relationship, the better you communicate, the happier you'll be. Hasta la próxima vez.

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