Tree Maintenance

Careful tree selection, proper placement and regular maintenance vastly decrease the financial repercussions of tree damage after hurricanes and storms. Nearby buildings and structures are at high risk when a sickly or poorly pruned tree loses a limb, uproots or whips into wires. Take steps to prevent damage by considering the tree species and placement, and then continue preemptive damage control with regular maintenance and a skilled arborist.

Regular Maintenance

To ensure healthy growth, water and mulch trees regularly. Water beneath the foliage of the tree in a circle three feet from the trunk and let the water seep in rather than run off.  Aim for moist, not wet. Watering is especially important for transplanted trees to encourage root growth. Spread a two- to three-inch layer of mulch over the soil to trap in moisture, but leave a little circle of breathable soil around the trunk of the tree.

Always inspect trees for loose or fallen limbs after a storm and perform impromptu inspections four times a year. Check for any rot, decay or fungus and address problems immediately to prevent weak trunks and roots. Cracks along a limb indicate a weak branch that should be removed.

Seasonal Maintenance: Pruning

By far the most important aspect of tree care, pruning is also the most difficult. Pruning is the tree equivalent of a doctor’s visit, cleaning out dead branches and cutting back limbs to encourage growth. It is best to prune at the appropriate time of year.

For flowering trees that bloom in mid to late winter or early spring, such as Japanese Magnolias and Redbuds, it is ideal to prune upon completion of budding (the spring) so that you do not risk removing buds. In addition, you will want to avoid pruning in mid to late autumn because at that time the plants will be putting out buds that will be next year’s blooms.

For other types of trees, prune in the winter (usually February) while the root system is dormant.  This is important for two reasons: 1.) When you prune, you create an open wound on the tree. In warmer weather when insects are abundant, there is a greater chance that your tree will become infected before the wound has a chance to become callous; and 2.) In the spring, trees are expending a great deal energy in producing new shoots and leaves, whereas in the winter trees have a greater energy reserve. This energy reserve is necessary to help the tree heal quickly after pruning.

It is also beneficial to prune during the dormant period because you will be able to observe the tree without being obstructed by foliage. Even the canopy of an evergreen thins out in the dormant period.

Sometimes, however, trees need to be pruned at an inopportune time to address structural damage as a result of a storm or tornado. If this is the case, take extra care when pruning, or use the services of a trained arborist.

 Prune the inside branches to thin out a tree; avoid cutting off the top branches to reduce height (topping) and never cut random lateral branches to restrict width (tipping). Keep all tools sanitized to prevent the spread of disease; be sure to sanitize all tools before moving on to another tree. Focus on removing dead or dying branches and thinning out thick areas to facilitate air flow.

Hiring an Arborist

According to Gerald Roberts, Horticulturist/Master Gardener Program Coordinator at LSU AgCenter, there are two things people underestimate when pruning trees: 1.) the weight of limbs and; 2.) what the limbs or branches will do once they detach from a tree. Even small branches can weigh more than expected and can cause serious injury and even death if they fall on an individual. Also, when sawing off a limb or branch, it is very difficult for a non-professional to know what direction it will take. Not only is it potentially fatal to prune a large tree without proper training, but improper maintenance can lead to weak and unsafe trees.

An aborist is a tree specialist with the ability to care for the tree, remove it when necessary and perform emergency services after a storm. It is fiscally prudent to hire a certified arborist to prune the trees and perform an annual inspection. Be sure, however, to fully vet the professional before hiring him/her. You will want to make sure the arborist is licensed and insured and can provide you with several references.

Local Resources

The Louisiana State University Agricultural Center (known as LSU AgCenter) is an excellent resource for tree maintenance advice and questions. You may call the AgCenter to request that a horticulturalist visit your church grounds to make an assessment and provide recommendations. This valuable service is provided free of charge. Contact LSU AgCenter, 1010 Lafayette Street, Suite 325, Lafayette, LA, 70501, Phone: (337) 291-7090.

Advanced Planning: Selecting and Planting a Tree

If you plan to plant trees on your property, consider a tree species that grows well in the type of soil, shade and water levels on the property. Look for a strong tree with healthy leaves, good foliage color, well-attached bark and a single trunk. Trees prone to certain insects or fungal infections need expensive products to stay healthy. Fast-growing trees require more care because of their weak limbs and trunks. Consider the shape and size of the mature tree, since a tree’s structure determines its ability to withstand wind and ice storms. 

Things to avoid when planting a tree*:

  • Planting large trees under utility lines.
  • Blocking traffic signs or views at corners.
  • Planting trees or shrubs too close to ground transformers.
  • Planting large trees (taller than 20 feet) too close to buildings.
  • Blocking windows or desirable views.
  • Planting where roots will damage pavement.
  • Spacing trees too closely or shading gardens.
  • Encroaching on your neighbor’s property.

Extra Support

Sometimes a tree needs a little structural support even when properly maintained. If a tree has one or more “V” splits in the trunk (known as crotches), it is likely to break at those junctures. Long, thickly-branched limbs that bend downwards and a weak root system also lead to higher risks. Prevent damage by installing brace rods, cabling, pruning, staking, or removal.

Water Oaks

Water oaks are among the shortest-lived species of oaks. Generally, they begin to decline when they reach 40 – 60 years of age, becoming structurally weakened and highly susceptible to broken branches, hollow trunks, rot and decay. They are especially fragile in conditions of heavy rain and strong winds.

The climate of Louisiana is not suitable to water oaks; the heat and humidity create ideal conditions for fungus diseases, among other ailments. In addition, the heavy clay soil of the region combined with a high water table leads to drainage issues. Mr. Roberts points out that most of the water oaks in Louisiana are seedlings that occurred naturally and were not planned or transplanted by people. As a result, many water oaks are located in areas where, as they decline, they pose a threat to structures such as houses, garages and high power lines.

Once a water oak starts to show signs of decline, it is critical that you seek the advice of a professional arborist who can assess the integrity of the tree.

Download Tree Maintenance Guidelines for a summary of the information above.

*Source: Native Tree Growing Guide for Louisiana, LSU AgCenter Publication 2926,

© Copyright 2011 Bree Publishing.