10 Bad Things We Do to Our Trees

Damage could have been avoided with better tree practices

Young plant in the morning light on nature background
boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images

More often than not, a tree owner doesn't realize that a tree is in significant trouble until it's too late and the tree either dies or is harmed badly enough that it needs to be cut down. All these harmful tree practices can be avoided.

Here are 10 common ways we harm trees growing in yards and urban wood lots:

01
of 10

Loving a Tree to Death

Over Staking and Mulching

Steve Nix

Staking and mulching newly planted trees seems to come naturally to even the beginning urban tree planter. Both practices can be beneficial when done properly, but they can be destructive when not done well or overdone.

Staking and guying can make a tree grow taller, anchor a tree in heavy winds, and protect trees from mechanical damage. However, some tree species need no staking, and most trees need only minimal support for a short time. Staking can cause abnormal trunk growth, bark damage, girdling, and top-heaviness.

Mulching is a great practice but also can be done improperly. Never apply too much mulch around a tree. Mulching around the base of a tree over 3 inches deep can affect root and bark function. Avoid mulching right next to the base of the trunk.

02
of 10

Girdles Aren't for Trees

Girdling a Tree

Steve Nix

You see tree girdles (like the one in the photo) all the time. Girdling a tree results in its eventual strangulation. This tree owner saw an easy way to protect a crepe myrtle from lawnmowers and string trimmers but didn't realize the tree would suffer a slow death from this protection.

It isn't good practice to cover a tree's base with plastic or metal for protection from mechanical yard tools, especially permanently. Instead, think about using a good mulch to keep the tree's base weed free and worry free. Paired with annual herbicide, mulch will conserve moisture as well as prevent weed competition.

03
of 10

Avoid Power Lines

Power Line Problems

Steve Nix

Power lines and trees don't mix. You can invest in a sapling and years of growth only to see the tree topped by an electric utility crew when the limbs touch the electric wires. You'll get no sympathy from the power company and can expect a fight when you ask them to spare your tree.

Utility right-of-ways are a tempting place to plant trees; they are usually open and clear. Please resist that temptation. You can get by only if you plant a small tree with a projected lifetime height lower than the height of the power lines.

04
of 10

Classic Tree Abuser

Classic Tree Abuse

Steve Nix

A tree's health and care often take a back seat when problems and opportunities demand our time and we let things slide or improperly care for our trees. Being a tree owner comes with a responsibility that some of us put off to the point that a tree suffers permanent harm.

This Bradford pear has not only suffered mechanical injury but also a pruning job done as an afterthought. It's just as important to nurse a tree back to health as it is to plant and prepare it for a healthy future. Tree injury and improper pruning can lead to the death of a tree. Regular maintenance and proper attention are necessary when a tree sustains injury.

05
of 10

Forcing Lethal Competition

A Fatal Tree and Plant Union

Steve Nix

This isn't a tree. It's a wisteria vine that won the battle for survival against a beautiful live oak. The dead trunk is all that's left of the oak. In this case, the owner cut off the tree crown and allowed the wisteria to live.

In many cases, trees can't compete with an aggressive plant that can control all nutrients and light. Many plants can take advantage of their spreading habit (many are vines) and overwhelm the most vigorous tree. You can plant spreading shrubs and vines, but keep them away from your trees.

06
of 10

Suffering in the Dark

Light Deprivation of Loblolly Pine

Steve Nix

Some trees, depending on the species, can suffer from too much shade. Many conifers and hardwood trees have to be in full sunlight most of the day to survive. Foresters and botanists call these trees "shade intolerant." Trees that can take shade are "shade tolerant."

Tree species that can't tolerate shade are pine, many oaks, poplar, hickory, black cherry, cottonwood, willow, and Douglas fir. Trees that can take shade are hemlock, spruce, most birch and elm, beech, basswood, and dogwood.

This pine (see photo), planted under mimosa, black cherry, and hackberry, will be continually stressed and eventually die. The loblolly will never be able to overcome these low lighting conditions near the canopy floor.

07
of 10

Incompatible Neighbor

Tree Competition and Spacing

Steve Nix

Every tree has unique growth potential. How tall and wide a tree grows isn't determined simply by its health and the condition of the site; the final size also will be determined by its genetic growth potential. Most good tree guides give you height and spread information. You should refer to that every time you plan to plant.

This photo shows a disaster in the making. The oak was planted in a row of Leyland cypress and is dominating the two cypress planted next to it. Unfortunately, Leyland cypress is fast growing, and these won't only outgrow the oak; they were planted too close together and will decline if not pruned radically.

08
of 10

Tree Roots Need More Respect

Tree Root Damage

Steve Nix

A tree's root system is its most vital organ. When roots fail to work properly, the tree will decline and eventually die. Common mistakes made by tree owners are to build or pave over roots, excavate in and around the tree trunk, and park or store equipment and/or toxic material over the root zone.

The attached photo is of a magnolia showing signs of stress due to trailer and building materials invading the root zone. In this case, it's the tree owner's neighbor doing the damage.

09
of 10

Battle Between Tree and Property

Poor Tree Planning

Steve Nix

Poor tree placement and lack of a landscape plan can harm both your tree and the property it battles to live with. Avoid planting trees that will outgrow the space provided. Damage to building foundations, water and utility lines, and walkways is the usual result. In most cases, the tree has to be removed.

This Chinese tallow tree was planted as an afterthought between power and phone service locations. The tree has been mutilated and still puts home utility connections at risk.

10
of 10

Flag Poles and Fence Posts

A tree flag pole

Steve Nix

Trees can easily become convenient fence posts, light poles, and ornament stands. Don't be tempted to use a standing tree for utility and decoration by loading them with permanent invasive anchors.

This yard-of-the-month looks beautiful; you would never suspect damage being done to the trees. If you look closely at the middle tree, you will see a flag pole (not in use this day). To make matters worse, lights are anchored to the other trees as night display lights.