Ice may be beautiful clinging to greenery, but the damage it does to trees and shrubs can range from unsightly to downright dangerous. One of the worst things a homeowner can hear during a storm is the ominous crack of a tree limb breaking. Even woody shrubs are not immune to the ravages of ice and may need some post-storm care.
If you’re wondering how to assess storm damage in your yard and what to do if you find it, local experts can help. The Columbian talked to a master gardener, a certified arborist and Vancouver’s Urban Forestry team to help you figure out what to look for and when to call a professional.
The best time to start, however, is before the storm ever comes.
“Proper pruning and maintenance is the best defense against storm-related tree damage,” Vancouver’s urban forester and arborist Charles Ray said. “Most of the tree damage after a storm is on trees that either have been previously topped or have not been properly pruned. Proper pruning establishes good branch structure and removes dead or decayed limbs.”
Arborist Scott Clifton agreed. He’s been busy as Clark County’s snow and ice clears, but not on trees that he regularly services.
“The properties that I’m working on are people that like to defer maintenance, so they’re paying for it all now,” Clifton, owner of Treewise Professional Tree Service, treewisenw.com.
For folks looking out their windows at ice-damaged trees and shrubs today, time-travel isn’t an option. What can you do right now to assess and mitigate storm damage?
For shrubs, a quick visual inspection should give you all the information you need. Gently pull aside branches or leaves on larger shrubs such as rhododendrons to get a better view of the inner supporting structures, said Erika Johnson, coordinator of the Master Gardener program at the Washington State University Clark County Extension.
“Look for broken branches or bent branches, and then prune out any broken branches back to the trunk or a lateral branch without cutting into the lateral branch or trunk. You don’t want to make it smooth and cut into the other branch, but you don’t want to leave a stub,” Johnson said. “For a plant like lilac that has many stems that go back to the root without a lateral branch, those plants are going to be OK cut back to the damage point.”
Johnson noted that many shrubs are less vulnerable to snow and ice damage because they’re more compact, but even tough natives such as kinnikinnick can be damaged by ice because woody plants are less flexible than herbaceous plants.
Trees are a different story because of their sheer mass. An ice-damaged shrub might be an eyesore but it’s not likely to hurt you. If you have a tree with a cracked trunk or a downed branch, be extremely cautious about approaching the area.
“Sometimes the answer is, get away from it,” Clifton said, pointing out that sometimes ice damage isn’t immediately visible.
“The tree isn’t going to change color or anything,” Clifton said. “What you’re looking for is cracks or broken limbs. Even the root system, you’re going to want to look at that to see if there’s any heaving.”
If the tree is covered in ice, Clifton said, leave it alone because an icy tree is an unstable tree.
“A lot of time what people will do is, ‘Oh, gosh, look at all this ice! It’s so heavy!’ ” Clifton said. “They’ll go over there and they’ll try to knock the ice off and the whole limb will come down.”
Even if large limbs have already fallen to the ground, an expert can determine if the break has caused structural issues or made the tree vulnerable to future disease or rot.
When in doubt, call an arborist — but make sure that you’re hiring an one certified by the International Society of Arborists. To search for I.S.A.-certified arborists in Clark County (or to verify the credentials of an arborist you’re thinking of hiring), visit www.treesaregood.org/findanarborist.
An arborist will be able to assess the stability and viability of your damaged tree, but also spot other problem areas you’ve overlooked.
“I’ll do a walk-through of the entire site, because things will be missed in the initial clean-up,” Clifton said. “We may pull up on the site and there’s a tree lying on the house and that’s our immediate concern. Potentially there could be a tree around the corner that hasn’t fallen, but is about to.”