Taking steps in the fall will help prepare trees for winter

Slow, deep watering, wood chips and minor pruning are key to ensuring survival during the cold weather to come

The blazing yellows and reds of autumn leaves can be a joy to behold but can also serve as notice to undertake tree care before winter sets in.

Water, wood chip placement and minor pruning are the top three things tree expert Toso Bozic recommends to help trees survive the winter.

Bozic, a certified arborist, proprietor of Yard Whispers and a former specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said all trees regardless of age will benefit from deep watering before freeze up.

“Number one is slow watering before the freeze and not to put the hose close to the trunk. It’s better out at the drip line,” he said.

Watering might not be necessary in regions that have been wet this fall, but otherwise 10 gallons of water for every inch of tree diameter should be adequate when measuring the diameter at chest height.

“Slow watering is the biggest thing — and deep,” said Bozic.

If trees are young or newly planted, he recommends placing two to four inches of wood chips around the base to protect the roots from freezing. Tree roots are at greater risk when frost is allowed to go deep into the soil.

“The third one they might look at is, once the leaves fall off … do some of the pruning of any damage done during the summer time. If they can see that some branches might be broken, some branches might be growing in a weird way or could be in danger … remove some of those.”

Bozic cautions against heavy pruning in fall. Err instead on the side of minor maintenance.

He also advises against raking and collecting leaves in fall unless there is a known tree disease that might be harboured in the leaves. Otherwise, leave them where they fall.

“I suggest they keep the leaves on the ground for the nutrients purpose but also as an insulator for the roots as well. You can always rake them in spring and that’s fine. There’s no rush because otherwise we don’t replenish the nutrients.”

Trees in natural forests acquire nutrition from leaves, deadfall and dying foliage, but that’s not the case for trees in farmyards, on acreages or in small towns.

“We really don’t provide a lot of nutrients to trees. Grass doesn’t produce any nutrients, or very little.”

Many people plant trees in the fall and when doing so, Bozic said they should pack soil tightly around the roots to prevent frost penetration. A good watering will also help keep frost away from delicate roots. Water freezes at zero, but air can be much colder if allowed to seep through cracks in the soil.

“Roots can and do function and grow during winter months whenever soil temperatures are favourable, even if the air above ground is brutally cold,” Bozic said in a news release about tree care.

“The freezing, heaving and cracking of winter soils physically damages roots, particularly the fine feeder roots in the uppermost organic layers. The root damages can also trigger a range of effects such as reducing a tree’s ability to take up water and nutrients, particularly during a spring bud break, and to support stem and branch growth in summer. Severe root damages from winter will greatly contribute to whole tree mortality or part of the trees.”

If trees are at risk of wildlife damage over winter, consider erecting quarter-inch mesh, plastic tree guards or a fence and some repellent, if that is practical.

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