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Photo: Massachusetts' The Daily Shrewsbury.

Surviving Snowtober

November 8, 2011

Autumn - when lively green leaves turn to ruby, gold, orange, brown … and white.

Fall color viewing was cut short by a rare, record nor'easter that piled heavy, wet snow in every Northeast state from Maryland to Maine, burying autumn leaves in as much as 30 inches of white, and causing power outages and falling and broken tree branches.

Events like this unusually early snowstorm, while unfortunate, are all valuable opportunities to observe and learn what makes your trees durable and what makes them more susceptible to damage, explains R.J. Laverne, a master arborist and The Davey Tree Expert Company's manager of education and training.

Many people are worried about the state of their trees. Since much of the leaves were still intact, they acted like bunches of tiny shovels, collecting the snow and snapping branches that may have held better if the storm hit after the leaves fell.

After a storm like this occurs, the cleanup priority is focused on public safety to restore power and eliminate any possible hazards, including tending to ripped branches or split trunks.

Next, there are a few things homeowners can do to keep track of any other potential damage and protect their trees.

Right now, with weight pulling trees down, there may be some obvious weakened or broken branches. While the snow is on the trees, take some photos, Laverne suggests. This is important because when the snow melts and the branches bounce back, those weakened spots may be harder to see or remember. "The photos will remind you, and give you something to share with your licensed arborist when you bring him in to examine your trees," he says.

NASA's impressive satellite image of Snowtober.

After that, despite having itchy pruning fingers, arborists recommend homeowners don't make pruning cuts right away. "Unless it's an urgent hazard, it's best to let snow and ice melt to allow the branches to spring back before pruning," explains Davey Tree Expert Company Tech Advisor Greg Mazur.

Regardless of how long it takes for the snow to melt, the sooner an arborist can take a look at a tree while the damage is as visible or apparent as possible, the better off homeowners will be in terms of removing weakened or broken branches before another storm comes through and unexpectedly takes down a branch that was ready to break. "If you're worried about your trees, you don't have to wait until spring to have someone take a look," Laverne says.

When it's time to prune the tree, make proper pruning cuts. Avoid cutting branches off immediately behind where they broke in the storm. This could leave branch stubs that could become diseased or full of decay and cause further problems for the tree. "If you're going to remove a broken branch after a snow or ice storm, make a proper cut," Laverne advises. "Cut just outside of the branch collar and allow the pruning wound to grow new wood and close as quickly as possible. Just because this is a post storm pruning, doesn't mean you shouldn't use proper pruning cuts made with an eye toward the future health and stability of the tree."

In addition to proper post-storm maintenance, proper planting can also help keep your property strong during Mother Nature's worst. Pay particular attention to selecting the right species that can better withstand storms and snowfall, Laverne suggests.

snowtober - Central Park
A jogger makes their way through Central Park as snows falls Oct. 29 in New York. Photo: New York Daily News

For instance, some trees put leaves out earlier in the spring and some trees hold on to their leaves later into fall. With late ice storms and early snowfalls, these types of trees can suffer more damage.

"It's important you look for species that are native to your area," Laverne says. "Also, make sure the planting stock you purchase comes from a climate zone that is similar to where you're going to plant it. In other words, know where your nursery gets its trees from. If you live in the North, for instance, you're not going to want to purchase trees that came from the South and aren't adapted to your growing conditions."

Wood characteristics are also important to consider. "A rule of thumb is slow-growing trees generally have denser and stronger wood than fast-growing trees," Laverne says. "As an example, with all things being equal, silver maples will experience more snow damage than sugar maples."

And, of course, preventive maintenance throughout the year can ensure strong trees when storms strike. "Preventive maintenance significantly improves the chances a tree will stand strong during an unexpected storm and reduce the risk of future damage - not only to the tree but to the surrounding property as well. After storms like this one in the Northeast, we'll typically find the majority of branch failure comes from the branches that were showing subtle signs of weakness before the storm."

Think of trees like cars, Laverne says. "When you buy a new car, it's an asset, it's valuable and you love it," he explains. "You can't wait to replace the brakes until they fail. You conduct preventive maintenance so you can detect the first signs of grinding and then take the car in to have the brakes fixed. This way the car continues to be a valuable asset.

"The same thing is true with trees," Laverne continues. "You plant trees, you love them. They provide you all sorts of benefits from beautiful flowers to perfect shade in summer to excellent fall color. You don't just plant a tree and let it grow waiting for something to happen that could potentially ruin your investment. You take care of it, and it takes care of you."


Whether your winters are mild, or a wonderland, this is a great time to inspect your trees and prepare them for a healthy and happy New Year! Check out Davey's winter weather checklist.

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