How Do You Care for an Older Tree?

It’s a privilege and an honor to be a caretaker for a mature tree. A tree that has seen generations come and go, that has held fast through brutal storms and long, dark winters, is a responsibility to take seriously. So, if you’ve recently (or not so recently) become the owner of a home with an older tree, read on to help your tree stay healthy and happy during your stewardship.

[Related:Benefits of Planting Trees in Your Yard]

Why Should You Care for a Tree?

When you bought your home, one of the selling points was almost certainly “mature landscaping,” which included your older tree. But a large older tree isn’t just a piece of lawn furniture, often it’s also part of your home’s climate control system.

“Strategically placed mature trees in the landscape reduce energy bills by shading the home and can insulate your house from damaging winds and heavy snow loads,” says Brigitte Zettl, the director of horticultural production at Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri.

Another reason to take care of the trees you have is because of the role they play in the local ecosystem.

“Trees provide habitat for any number of bird, animal and beneficial insect species,” says Samuel J. Schmitz, horticulture instructor at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois. “If you enjoy having nature up close and personal, trees are a great way to encourage animals and birds to enjoy the space along with you.”

There’s one more important reason that your trees deserve proper care and attention: They can affect your health for the better.

“Perhaps most importantly, and less understood, trees positively impact our health,” says Shane Brockshus, chief operating officer at Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Exposure to trees and other plants in one’s environment promotes lower levels of stress and depression, improved learning and memory capacity, higher levels of physical activity, even accelerated healing.”

[READ: 5 Outdoor Lighting Ideas for Your Yard]

Basic Tree Care for Mature Trees

As a tree caretaker, it’s important to understand what you’re up against. Although mature trees are often worry-free, there are issues that can crop up overnight. Aging trees are much like aging people and simply aren’t as spry as they were in their youth.

“As trees age, they may not be able to overcome stress in the same way they did when they were younger,” says Chris Kemp, a certified arborist and manager of plant health care + tree care divisions at Piscataqua Landscaping & Tree Service in Kittery, Maine. “Drought, attack from insects or diseases, and physical disruptions, such as damage to roots or major limb loss, can have major negative impacts on old trees.”

Pruning is one of the most common tasks involved in caring for older trees, and one that you can easily get wrong. Always plan to do pruning when the tree isn’t growing aggressively.

“The best times to do pruning cuts on a tree are in summer and winter when the tree is dormant,” says Zettl. “In spring, the sap of the tree is actively flowing upward to feed the leaves. and in fall the sap is actively flowing downward to store nutrients in the roots. If you cut the tree during these high sap flowing times, it can literally bleed out.”

It’s also important to prune minimally, removing no more than 20% of the canopy during any single season, according to Schmitz. He suggests moving at the pace of the tree, not on your own schedule. “Trees know they have a long time to get where they are going, so they don’t do many things quickly, especially at maturity.”

When you prune your tree, do it with great care and purpose, since everything about your tree’s health can flow from this single choice.

“If you are going to attempt to prune your tree yourself, get educated on how to properly do this,” says Brockshus. “I have seen many good trees doomed by poor pruning. Once you cut, you can’t change your mind.”

Things to Never Do to Your Tree

How can you tell if your tree is happy and healthy? Well, it just looks right.

“If it doesn’t look wrong, it is probably OK,” says Schmitz. “Full leaves, healthy flowering and fruiting, no dead limbs, no fungus on the bark, a full canopy, round trunk with no recesses or bark peel, intact bark with no insect or bird feeding evidence, and healthy new growth in the spring are all evidence that your tree is just out there living its best life.”

To keep your tree living its best life, along with regular reviews and maintenance, avoid these things:

Topping Trees

It can be tempting to cut trees right across the top to promote growth further down on the trunk or to remove overgrowth all in one fell swoop, but it’ll doom your tree.

“Topping trees, or cutting straight across the top of them to keep control of their height, should never be done under any circumstances,” says Zettl. “This practice will result in the roots of the tree dying back drastically, destabilizing it and causing it to be at risk of falling over onto your house.”

Damaging Tree Roots

Tree roots grow deep into the soil, so they’re protected from the things we do up above, right? Not exactly.

“Any time you dig through the soil under a tree, you are likely damaging tree roots,” says Schmitz. “While a mature tree can handle a bit of damage and still recover, significant losses to the root system will have a direct impact on the limbs of the tree above the damaged root section. If there isn’t enough root system to support the limbs, the tree will shed them to compensate for the loss underground.”

Compacting the Soil

A tree’s roots are a lot more sensitive than we generally acknowledge. Along with not disturbing them by digging, we should be careful to not compact the soil under a tree. Soil compaction occurs when soil particles are pressed together, reducing pore space between them. Heavy equipment can compact the soil, but so can repeated crossing of animal (or people) feet.

“Compacting soil over the roots of older trees, as may happen when construction occurs on the property, can negatively impact tree health and even kill your trees,” says Zettl. “Care should be taken to cordon off sensitive areas to avoid this type of compaction when making improvements to your home.”

Purposeful Care Is the Best Tree Care

Tree care may seem complicated ~ in that you need to know a lot to do it right — but acting with purpose and thinking about the tree from its own perspective and time scale are the best ways to be the ideal tree guardian.

“Treat your tree with the respect you should give any living creature,” says Schmitz. “Don’t cut off random bits without a purpose. Don’t nail stuff into it. Don’t wrap anything around the branches and end up damaging the vascular tissues. Don’t till up the root system or dig next to it and sever the major roots. Learn about it, respect it and care for it. In turn, the tree will give you decades of shade and the enjoyment of bringing nature to your doorstep.”

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