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Expert Advice for Fall Tree Care

Trees represent significant investments of time and money in our home landscapes, and they can enhance property values. What are some things you can do this fall to minimize potential injury to trees and enhance their chances to survive and thrive well into the future?

Lindsey Purcell, Purdue urban forestry specialist, wrote an article for the Purdue Landscape Report ( entitled Fall Tree Care Tips, from which we will glean some expert advice today. I’ll add some tips I’ve learned in my 25+ years with Purdue Extension, as well.

Purcell urged homeowners to scout for pruning issues after leaves have fallen. It’s much easier to see the branch structure and potential issues that have developed. Most of the heavier pruning (if needed) should probably be delayed until spring at this point, but non-beneficial plant parts can be removed. “These include any dead, broken and crossing branches which can be removed,” he said. “Also, search out and remove those epicormic sprouts in the canopy and basal sprouts emerging from around the trunk and root collar.” For more information, find Purdue Extension’s publication on pruning, entitled Tree Pruning Essentials, at:

Fertilization at or shortly after leaf drop will help trees. “Typically, tree roots will produce more root growth during the fall,” said Purcell. “Root systems are important as storage organs or banks to reserve energy for later.” For more specific information, access Purdue Extension’s publication entitled Fertilizing Woody Plants at the above-mentioned link.

Purcell urged homeowners to complete their cultural practices for young trees. “It’s always beneficial to the tree to replenish mulch to give root systems an extra layer of protection against temperature extremes,” he said. “This helps maintain the moisture levels in the soil during those drier winter months as well.” He added that 2-3 inches of mulch over the root zone provides great protection. Don’t pile up mulch against the tree so that it looks like a volcano. This can be harmful to the tree over time.

One really unfortunate condition for homeowners is when permanent winter injury has occurred to trees. This winter injury appears as a long vertical split in the bark. To proactively mitigate against this, homeowners should water trees until the ground freezes (in the absence of adequate rainfall), and to use tree wrap over the winter. “It may be a good time to consider providing protective wraps on thin-barked or newly planted trees, if needed,” Purcell said. We generally recommend tree wrap from the ground up to the first branch. You may use white corrugated tree guards or other types of tree wrap/tree guards that are available commercially. Remove in the spring when trees begin to bud out again.

Tree guards may also provide some protection against rodents, or additional rodent guards may also be added. Voles and rabbits are two of the critters we worry about the most in this regard.

While it still may not be too late to plant trees this fall, Purcell said that homeowners should check their property for potential locations to install new trees next spring. “Research during the winter allows plenty of time for good decision-making, which includes proper species selection and suitable locations,” he said. For help with this task, consult the Purdue Extension publication entitled Tree Selection for the "Un-natural" Environment.

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