10 Bad Things We Do to Our Trees

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Loving a Tree to Death

Over Staking and Mulching
Over Staking and Mulching. Photo by Steve Nix

Here are ten common ways you can harm trees that grow in yards and urban wood lots. More often than not, a tree owner does not realize the tree is in significant trouble until it is too late and the tree either dies or is harmed to the point where it needs to be cut. All of these harmful tree practices can be avoided.

I have talked to thousands of worried tree owners in my 30-year forestry career and they all might have benefited from reading this pictorial on human-caused tree problems. Read this and reassess your yard trees.

Do Not Love a Tree to Death

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

Staking and guying can make a tree grow taller, will anchor a tree in heavy winds and can protect trees from mechanical damage. Still, you must remember that some tree species need no staking at all and most trees need only minimal support for a short time. Staking can cause abnormal trunk growth, bark damage, girdling and cause a tree to become top heavy.

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

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Girdles Are Not For Trees

Girdling a Tree
Girdling a Tree. Photo by Steve Nix

You see tree girdles (like the one in the photo) all the time. Girdling a tree results in the eventual strangulation of a tree. This tree owner saw an easy way to protect a crepe myrtle from the lawnmower and the weed eater but did not realize the tree would be suffering a slow death from this protection. Seems it really needs protection from the tree owner.

It is just not a good practice to cover a tree's trunk base with plastic or metal for protection from mechanical yard tools — especially on a permanent basis. Instead, think about using a good mulch that will keep the tree's base weed free and worry free. In combination with a small amount of annual herbicide, the mulch you apply will conserve moisture as well as prevent weed competition.

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Avoid the Power Line

Power Line Problems
Power Line Problems. Photo by Steve Nix

Power lines and trees just 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 their electric wires. You will get no sympathy from your local 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 that has a projected lifetime height that is less than the height of the power wires.

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The Classic Tree Abuser

Classic Tree Abuse
Classic Tree Abuse. Photo by Steve Nix

A tree's health and care often take a back seat when problems and opportunities demand most of our time. I am as guilty as anyone and regret the times I've let things slide or improperly care for my tree. But being a tree owner comes with a bit of responsibility which a few of us tend to put off to the point where the tree suffers permanent harm.

This Bradford pear has not only suffered mechanical injury but the pruning job was done as an afterthought. It is 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.

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Forcing Lethal Competition

A Fatal Tree and Plant Union
A Fatal Tree and Plant Union. Photo by Steve Nix

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

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

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Suffering in the Dark

Light Deprivation of Loblolly Pine
Light Deprivation of Loblolly Pine. Photo by Steve Nix

Some trees, depending on the species, can suffer from too much shade. Simply put, many conifers and hardwood trees have to be in full sunlight most of the day to survive. These trees are what foresters and botanists call "shade intolerant". Trees that is can take shade are shade tolerant.

Tree species that cannot tolerate shade well 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, planted under mimosa, black cherry and hackberry, will be continually stressed and eventually die (see photo). The loblolly will never be able to overcome these low lighting conditions near the canopy floor.

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The Incompatible Neighbor

Tree Competition and Spacing
Tree Competition and Spacing. Photo by Steve Nix

Every tree has its own unique growth potential. How tall and wide a tree grows is not only determined by its health and the condition of the site, but the final size of a tree will also be determined by its genetic growth potential. Most good tree guides will give you height and spread information. You need to 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 are fast growing and will not only outgrow the oak, they were planted too close to each other and will decline if not pruned radically.

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Tree Roots Need More Respect

Tree Root Damage
Tree Root Damage. Photo by Steve Nix

A tree's root system is the most vital organ on a tree. When roots fail to work properly the tree will eventually decline and die. A few common mistakes made by tree owners is to build or pave over roots, excavate on and around the tree trunk, 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. Actually, in this case, it is the neighbor of the tree owner doing the damage.

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A Battle Between Tree and Property

Poor Tree Planning
Poor Tree Planning. Photo by Steve Nix

Poor tree placement and the lack of a landscape plan can harm both your tree and the property it battles to live with. Always avoid planting trees that will outgrow the space provided. Damage to building foundations, water and utility lines and walkways are the usual cause of damage. 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.

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Flag Poles and Fence Posts

A tree flag pole
A tree flag pole. Photo by Steve Nix

Trees can easily become convenient fence posts, light poles, and ornament stands. Don't be tempted into using a standing tree for purposes of utility and decoration by attaching them with permanent invasive anchors.

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