The massive heavy snowfall this past week caused a lot of damage to landscape plants, and it's not over. Trees fell on other trees, shrubs or property. Major branches cracked, some crashing to the ground, some remaining half attached to the trunk. Mounds of ice slid off roofs and gutters, smashing foundation shrubs. Other trees and shrubs are still tipped or bent way over, some of them pulling roots out of the ground and exposing them to potentially fatal desiccation. These are not good things.
First decide what can wait and what requires early action. Then decide which problems you can handle by yourself and which call for an arborist or landscape professional. Evaluate these factors:
Danger: The larger the limb or tree you are cutting, the greater the risk of hurting yourself (or someone else). Use common sense, and don't start learning to use a chain saw on this particular job! Never cut over your head or climb a tree with a sharp tool. Don't underestimate the "whiplash" potential of a limb held down by another, because once a branch is freed there is no stopping its impact. (Professional arborists will tell you of terrible accidents, even a beheading, caused this way.)
Worse damage to follow: Some situations can't wait. Obviously, if a branch is dangling over the roof or the bus stop, something has to happen soon. Look around and look up (not during a wind storm). If a branch is still attached to the tree, there is risk that it will strip bark down the trunk when it pulls off, and you or a professional need to make the right cut first. If the roots of the plant are exposed to air, you must right the plant, packing compost or soil around the roots, and wrap the base with a covering to prevent additional drying out. (It may be too late.)
The value of the plant: Even if you are sentimental about it, some shrubs and trees may not be worth saving and this might be the time to accept that. Many of our plants were never good choices or located intelligently in the first place. Some trees just break and drop branches easily. Countless plants were placed too close to your house or under utility wires where they don't fit. If the same problems will happen during another storm, get realistic now. Trees have a natural life expectancy -- shorter in imperfect landscape conditions -- and this may be it. On the other hand, large trees add huge value to our landscapes and lives. It is well worthwhile to hire a professional to do safety and corrective pruning and lighten the load -- thus prolonging the life of the tree.
Fixing a broken tree
Two things not to do: Don't let somebody cut off a limb and leave a stump sticking out there. And don't make cuts flush with the trunk. The proper cut is just outside the branch collar (the thick area where the branch meets the trunk), and you may need a book with diagrams or a pro to help. In future weeks we'll address more corrective pruning. For now, good luck and be careful out there.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.