Taking care of trees. Three basics: feeding, pruning, and watering

The silence of a spring morning is broken by the sound of power saws. Another large but ailing tree falls and is reduced to mulch by a well-intentioned homeowner. That summer, the homeowner uses his air conditioner more frequently, his grass and flowers demand more water, and he plants a young tree that requires 30 years to mature. Homeowners like the above are horribly misinformed on the subject of tree care. They remove, at great expense, a declining tree, when inexpensive restorative methods -- often as simple as feeding, pruning, and watering -- are available. They fail to recognize the benefits of a healthy shade tree until it is removed, and they don't know how to select the right replacement tree for their needs.

Besides removing carbon pollutants from the air, replenishing oxygen, and muffling noise, trees flatter a home as nicely as a frame flatters its painting. Look-alike housing in modern suburbia is softened and individualized, while hot, sun-baked streets are transformed into refreshing vistas beneath canopied leaves. And this translates into dollars: Properly placed shade trees can reduce summer room temperatures by as much as 20 degrees, while well-landscaped property can net a homeowner from 5 to 15 percent in improved resale value.

So, in acquiring and caring for trees, some careful steps should be observed:

Buy the right tree. Define your needs. Choose medium- or fast-growing trees for ornamentation, spreading evergreens for privacy. Local parks and arboretums are good places to assess a tree's performance. Note its height, density of foliage, and width of crown. Contact county cooperative extension bureaus for free or low-priced fact sheets on tree selection, habits, and care.

Shop carefully. Avoid trees with wilted, undersized, or yellowed foliage, broken limbs, or damaged bark. Buy medium to small trees rather than large trees, which inevitably lose more of their roots in being dug up.

Although spring or fall planting is preferred, most container-grown or balled and burlapped trees can be planted at any time. (Some ``burlap'' is a form of plastic and will not decay naturally, so it should be slit in several places or removed before planting.)

Select a variety that is hardy and clean. Ask questions before buying: Is the tree disease-prone or insect-prone? Fast or slow growing? Is it a tidy tree? Some people like to avoid messy trees -- ones that continually drop leaves, twigs, and fruits -- or those susceptible to wind damage.

Plant wisely. Place deciduous shade trees 15 to 30 feet south or west of the house. Allow smaller ornamentals to frame, not block, windows, porches, and patios. Keep spreading and weeping varieties away from walks where wet branches drip or brush against pedestrians.

Caring for the young tree. Rich Savory, diagnostician of Savory Tree Service and a member of the National Arborist Association and International Society of Arboriculture, suggests feeding young trees once a year, either in spring or fall, with a 10-8-6 balance fertilizer. Follow directions and never exceed recommended amounts -- overfertilizing can burn the roots.

Staking a tree is usually unnecessary, especially if the tree has a good-sized root ball. However, young trees with heavy crowns sometimes need the extra support. Thoroughly water each week for the first year. Remove grass and mulch around the tree's base or hand trim around the tree.

``One of the biggest problems,'' notes Savory, ``is bark damage caused by lawnmowers and automatic weed trimmers. This will kill a tree.''

As the tree grows, help it obtain a nice shape by pruning off suckers and low-growing, rubbing, or crossed branches. Cut close to the trunk.

Caring for the mature tree. Older trees don't need as much care as younger stock, but they should not be totally neglected. Like young trees, they also suffer from drought but won't show signs of distress until the following year. After a four-week period without significant rainfall, place a slow-running garden hose beneath the tree for about two or three hours.

Fertilize older trees every two or three years. Fine prune regularly (frequency depends on quickness of growth) to open up the tree, lessen wind resistance, increase health and vigor, and enhance its natural shape and beauty.

``Prune from the inside out,'' says Robert Felix, executive vice-president of the National Arborist Association. Remove dead, crossing, and unnecessary limbs, he adds, and preserve the general shape and configuration of the tree.

Topping or pollarding a tree is not recommended. ``It does nothing but cause grief for the tree,'' Mr. Felix says.

Tree troubles. The best protection is proper feeding and watering. But even well tended, hardy trees can fall victim to preying insects or disease. Symptoms include browning, yellowing, undersized or chewed leaves, sawdust on the trunk, leaf spot, sticky cottony sacks, webbing, dieback of limbs.

Often a hard spray once or twice from the garden hose is enough to eliminate unwelcome pests, but sometimes harsher treatment is necessary. To treat an unidentified problem, call a local cooperative extension agent for advice, or remove a small twig, enclose in a plastic bag, and take it to a nursery -- personnel can usually identify the problem and recommend treatment.

Some trees are damaged in ways that reduce their ability to take up water and nutrients. Symptoms are slow and subtle -- premature fall coloration, smaller, fewer leaves, early leaf drop, dieback. The causes might range from root damage, drought, salt injury, and gasoline contamination to trunk wounding. Have a professional examine the tree and recommend the appropriate steps.

Care is needed in seeking a qualified tree service. The industry is largely unregulated, and enthusiasm is no substitute for professionalism. Select a service that belongs to the National Arborist Association or the International Society of Arboriculture. See that it is insured and can provide references and the names and addresses of two recent jobs.

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