Is my tree truly healthy?

Identifying and preventing potential hazards in your landscape

Minnesota tree / Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Severe storms can cause immediate visible damage like downed power lines, flooding, and broken branches. However, some trees may just appear undamaged after a storm, leading to a false sense of security.

Local arborist Travis McDonald, local arborist and district manager of Davey Tree in South Minneapolis, says, “The true effect of thunderstorms, ice, drought, and even pests and diseases can be hidden for a long time in trees. They might have been more damaged than a homeowner originally thinks.”

McDonald says that a dead tree standing, also known as a zombie tree, is a tree that looked okay after a storm or drought and may just now be starting to show signs of trouble. Some of these trees may be able to be saved, while others may be dying from the inside out and need to be removed.

These risky trees can present danger to unsuspecting property owners, since they may not seem unsafe in the days immediately following a storm or major weather event,” says McDonald.

Luckily, there are ways to spot the signs:

  • Identify issues early. Prevent damage before a storm with a home tree health check. McDonald suggests taking a walk around the yard, inspecting trees for dead wood or decay, cracks in the bark that extend into the tree’s trunk or limbs, discolored foliage, and root and architecture problems. Is the tree lifting on one side or leaning excessively? That could be a sign of trouble.
  • Get an expert opinion. If you notice any issues during the tree health check, call a certified arborist. Certified arborists can address problems visible to the naked eye – plus damage lurking inside the tree – and they can help create a plan of action. Homeowners should always check for TCIA Accreditation, ISA Certification, proof of insurance, and a list of references when hiring a certified arborist. Hiring an unqualified arborist will cost homeowners in the long run, since it may involve purchasing a costly new tree. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Know your options – and take action! Although defective trees are dangerous, not all of them need to be removed immediately. First, understand a tree’s risk level. Some defects can be addressed to prolong the life of the tree, and some of the care and maintenance can be done by homeowners! Important tree maintenance tips include fertilizing, planting the right trees and shrubs for the local climate, and proper pruning.

As cold weather sets into the Twin Cities, preparing landscapes for winter storms and maintaining tree health into next spring is the first step to preventing zombie trees.

Think of winterizing as preparation for spring,” says McDonald “some plants require extra protection from harsh conditions and salt.”

McDonald says the better you care for your landscape in the winter, the less you have to get it ready for the spring. Trees will emerge healthier and perform better when they awaken from dormancy.  On the flip side, if plants enter winter stressed, their problems will only worsen.

Regardless of what weather lies ahead, play it safe, and keep your trees in healthy this upcoming cold season with these five tips. 

Prep trees for winter with the fall five:

  1. Mulch, Hydrate and Feed. Mulching, watering and fertilization are important throughout the year, so head outside while you still have time to get your trees the nutrients they need for the long, wintry months. Horvath urges homeowners to add at least a 2-4-inch blanket of mulch over as much of the root zone as possible. Apply a slow-release fertilizer to help keep trees nourished all winter long. Come spring, your trees will be blooming and ready to show off. And don’t forget about giving newly planted trees one last deep watering. Water newly planted evergreens until the ground freezes and spray with anti-desiccant. This will protect them during their first winter from winter injury and existing evergreens that may be at risk from salt spray.
  2. Dormant Pruning. Removing dead, diseased, or crossing branches helps trees maintain a stronger structure and tolerate high winds. Certified arborists specialize in knowing just what branches to remove (and how to do it) to reduce hazards. Your arborist can tell the difference between live and dead branches even with the leaves off and they can better evaluate the trees structure without the foliage. Well-maintained, properly pruned trees are less likely to break and cause damage in heavy wind, rain, and snow. Winter pruning also helps reduce disease risk and minimizes the impact of the work on the garden underneath.
  3. Keep pests away. Apply dormant oil in the fall to stop over-wintering insects from developing further. While dormant oils eliminate harmful pests, they’re less toxic to beneficial bugs. In spring, you’ll have fewer damaging insects gnawing on fresh tree foliage and fruit. Also, now is a good time to protect yummy plants from hungry deer by apply deer repellents.
  4. If you see a tree bending or drooping because of snow and ice accumulation, think twice before shaking the branches. Branches coated in ice can become quite brittle – shaking them can cause damage or breakage. Also, since trees are flexible, suddenly knocking the ice weight off may cause branches to snap back, potentially damaging the tree. Properly pruned trees are better able to withstand heavy snow and ice.
  5. Hold the Salt. Rock salt damage can make winter unpleasant for your trees. Salt runoff washes into the soil and can be taken up by the roots causing disfigured foliage, stunted growth, severe decline and even death. Applying the gypsum to trees, plants and lawns now will help reduce the damage from the get-go. There are also environmentally friendly snow melt options available.

Dead trees standing are a hazard, but there’s no need to fear and panic. You can ensure a safe and enjoyable season by providing your trees with the necessary care and seeking expert advice for any of your tree-related concerns!

Follow these guidelines to help trees stand strong all winter. If your trees need help, contact Travis McDonald.

The Davey Tree Expert Company, established in 1880 and headquartered in Kent, Ohio, provides research-driven tree services, grounds maintenance and environmental consulting for residential, utility, commercial and environmental partners in the U.S. and Canada. With 11,000 employees, Davey Tree is the eighth largest employee-owned company in the U.S. Visit to learn more about Davey Tree and discover your next career opportunity.