Maintenance Matters for Climbing Equipment

As with any type of skilled labor, high-quality tools and equipment are necessary for safe production tree climbing. As important as knowing how to use these tools and equipment can be, keeping them functioning properly, inspected for signs of wear, and knowing when to retire them is equally important. Tools can only perform as designed if they work and are used as intended. Just as a chain saw must be tuned, fueled and sharpened for effective cutting, climbing gear must be properly maintained. While a malfunctioning saw could be a safety concern, it is more likely to be a frustrating nuisance. However, when it comes to life support equipment, the results of poor maintenance are guaranteed to be much more severe.

Through knowledge, regular inspection and maintenance, climbing gear can be kept in tip-top shape, performing safely and as designed for many jobs today, tomorrow and many days to come.

Instruction manuals

Realistically, we can only discuss general guidelines. The vast amount of gear available to the modern tree climber coupled with the multifaceted way it can and is deployed would lead to a tome of epic proportions in trying to cover every detail. However, there are similarities and processes that can be applied universally across the range of climbing equipment.

Furthermore, there are instructions. Equipment manufacturers provide detailed instructions for the use and upkeep of all gear. These may come with the equipment or tool or can be obtained online in a digital format. Keeping a file of these for reference is a great first step in proper maintenance. Use these as the guidelines and training tools for which purpose they were developed.


Much like the high-tech industry, climbing hardware refers to the infrastructure items on which we build our systems. These are the ascenders, connecting links, adjusters and anchor points we use to get up, go to work and get down safely. Start by checking for ratings and markings. Most life support equipment is constructed of metal. As such, it will have ratings etched, stamped or molded into it. Find these and be sure they are still legible. Even properly rated equipment with unreadable marking can be a bone of contention for insurance and/or OSHA inspectors. More importantly for the working arborist, it is a good indicator of wear and use.

For instance, a carabiner with a laser-etched rating that is worn off may be a good field guide as to the amount of metal that has been worn away. This is not to say that the carabiner has an immediate chance of failure. However, if you have properly used a carabiner to the point that the ratings, whether etched or molded into it, have worn off, then you have used that tool for a while and you should consider replacing it.

Also note how distributed the wear is over the entire body of the tool. Back to our carabiner example: If the center of the spine is worn or nicked up but the rest of the carabiner looks relatively new, there may be a gear interface issue.

Clean equipment is happy equipment! Clean hardware/equipment also functions as designed. In general, soap and water will suffice for cleaning climbing hardware. You can use compressed air, but be careful not to force dirt or tiny debris further into moving parts and mechanisms. Dry lubricants, such as graphite or Teflon, will keep dust from clinging to moving parts. However, the solvent abilities of other oil-based lubricants may also be helpful.

In tree climbing, nothing takes abuse quite like ropes and other cordage items. If they get wet, dry thoroughly as soon as possible. Protect them from excessive wear by using friction-management devices. Inspect ropes regularly and retire if any doubt exists as to the strength or integrity. Missing or frayed lockstitching on splices can be repaired. Chafe guards, by design, will wear and should be rotated or replaced as necessary.

Slings affixed to metal objects without the ability to rotate freely (i.e. girth hitched) should be rotated regularly to check for wear to both items. This also allows for faster, more thorough drying. Slings, hitch cordage, climbing lines and other cordage-based equipment can be washed.

Specialized rope washers are available and may be a great alternative. However, in many cases no specialized equipment is necessary. Disassemble gear and/or systems as appropriate. Longer lengths should be chain knotted or placed in a mesh bag. Use a machine without a central spindle. The front-loading industrial machines at your local Laundromat work well. Use warm to cold water with a mild detergent absent of fabric softener and your ropes will have a new lease on life. Wash as often as necessary.

Using fingernail polish on the head of shackles allows the climber to easily determine if they have become loose in the field. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

Using fingernail polish on the head of shackles allows the climber to easily determine if they have become loose in the field. Photo: Anthony Tresselt


Keep leather climbing saddle components supple and oiled with an appropriate leather treatment. This helps keep leather from cracking and makes drying it out easier, not to mention providing a more comfortable fit.

Lubricate buckles for smooth, proper function. Check shackles for tightness and apply thread- locking liquids as the manufacturer recommends. A small dab of fingernail polish applied to the screw head and the body of the shackle will allow you to detect movement in the field. Reapply the thread locker and marking as necessary.

Check your bridge and replace on a regular basis. Use materials recommended or provided by the harness maker. Not all cordages and webbing are created equal, and some are downright poor choices for a harness bridge. Customizability and ease of replacement are key features of rope and webbing bridge harnesses. Use these features to your benefit, and maintain the bridge with inspection, cleaning and regular replacement.

Using fingernail polish on the head of shackles allows the climber to easily determine if they have become loose in the field. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

Using fingernail polish on the head of shackles allows the climber to easily determine if they have become loose in the field. Photo: Anthony Tresselt


We’ve looked at a few maintenance issues and procedures for climbing equipment. Like all tools, from your chain saw to your brush chipper to your truck, climbing equipment is subject to wear and tear even through proper use. Keep all your climbing tools in good working order through cleaning, inspecting, lubricating and replacing when necessary. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and inquire if you are unclear. Keep manuals and literature provided with all equipment in an organized file and refer to it as necessary. This is also an excellent place to document your inspection process in a timely manner as determined by your usage patterns.

Take care of your equipment with proper maintenance and it will take care of you through a lifetime of reliable function.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published February 2014 and has been updated.

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The Importance of Work Site Communication

Communication & Your Crew

Production tree work is often fast-paced, a continuous flow of personnel, equipment and debris. New and more efficient equipment is developed rapidly, increasing the volume of work it is possible to complete in one day. This increased mechanization, coupled with more advanced techniques, adds a new and ever-increasing level of complexity to tree work. Job sites are often loud, and verbal communication between workers on the ground and climbers is impossible without stopping equipment and hence workflow.

Accurate, concise communication is necessary for safe, efficient job flow. No matter the system of communication a crew chooses, it should incorporate a command and response system. This is to say that if a worker gives a command, such as “stand clear,” another worker responds with another command, “all clear,” when he establishes the situation is safe. The first worker will take no action until the response is given and understood.

An appropriate work plan starts before the sawdust starts flying and will expedite communication during the job. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

An appropriate work plan starts before the sawdust starts flying and will expedite communication during the job. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

Plan your work, work your plan

A tree job begins with a plan. A well laid out plan can help eliminate confusion before it even starts. Having enough room for all the equipment, the proper tools and qualified personnel are all vital. Start each and every job with a pre-job briefing and site inspection. An acronym you may find useful is H.O.P.E.

The letter “H” stands for hazards. These are defined by anything that may pose a threat to the safety of the crew. A common job site hazard is electrical lines. Defining the location of hazards and establishing a protocol for how to safely remove and/or work around them beforehand will save the struggle of having to communicate safety standards or work processes during the job.

The “O” is for obstacles. These are things that can be broken, get in the way and need to be mitigated during a job. Examples of obstacles range from pedestrian traffic to swimming pools. In many cases, obstacles can be moved. Other times, obstacles demand that the crew alter the work plan. An example of this is the decision to lower limbs as opposed to just letting them free fall because an obstacle such as a patio is in the drop zone.

This brings us to the letter “P” for plan. The crew must develop an appropriate plan, keeping all hazards and obstacles in mind. The plan should maximize job flow, but at all times adhere to safety standards and protocol. Deciding beforehand who does what, and when, will go a long way to increasing productivity as well as safety. A team member that has a clearly defined series of tasks and understands how to complete them will require less verbal instruction during the course of a job.

The final letter “E” stands for equipment. A properly equipped and skilled crew is a pleasure to watch. A well-laid plan complements the equipment and space available. Pre-placed equipment adds to the seamless work flow. Equipment should be properly maintained and fully functional with all safeguards in place. Job sites are noisy enough without poorly maintained equipment adding to the decibels. Also, breakdowns can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. Get your equipment in top shape before the job starts and you won’t have to worry about inefficient pauses and the added confusion they bring.

Hand signals

Even the best-laid plans care can go awry.  A system for communicating changes or new hazards as they develop is useful. Many crews have a set of preestablished hand signals to use. A hand signal can be as simple as a wave to let the climber know you have secured the lowering line. Long, drawn out hand signals should be avoided. The chances of misinterpreting a signal rise with the complexity of the signal.

The crane industry has an excellent set of simple, clear hand signals to use when operating a crane. These signals can easily be adopted to fit many tree work scenarios, whether using a crane or not.

Whichever hand signals are used, remember to keep them simple, concise and clear. Be consistent in their use, both in form and function. Use the signals whenever necessary and use the same signals.

A look from the top down. Tight landing zones, coupled with a climbers limited sight lines, demand good climber to ground personnel communication. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

A look from the top down. Tight landing zones, coupled with a climbers limited sight lines, demand good climber to ground personnel communication. Photo: Anthony Tresselt


Noisemakers such as whistles can be used to facilitate crew communications. A preset number of whistle blasts can mean any number of things. For instance, two toots for stand clear and one for all clear. What a crew should keep in mind is that while a tree crew may understand these audible signals, to a pedestrian they are cryptic. Audible signals may work well for your crew, but they are best saved for alerting crew members and pedestrians to upcoming or unexpected hazards.

Whistles are also useful when the crew is spread out over a large area and a climber needs to attract another member of the crew’s attention. Not only will a whistle blast be louder and carry farther, it sounds a lot more professional than a shout.


Many companies offer helmet-mounted headset systems that are appropriate for tree work. The ability to talk clearly with specific equipment operators and crew members without shutting down machinery or otherwise interrupting job flow is priceless. The added safety benefit of being able to alert other crew members of new or ongoing hazards or obstacles is equally priceless. If day-to-day operations find you and your crew in loud environments with multiple pieces of equipment running to complete the job, then I recommend a quality set of radio headsets.

When checking into purchasing headsets, a few things to remember are range, privacy and ease of use. If headsets are only going to be used on small, close-knit job sites, then range is not a factor. However, if your crew will be spread out, or if using the headsets for traffic control, too short a range can hamper clear communication.

Many headsets work on the same frequency as cordless phones and baby monitors. Buy a set with as many different channel selections as you can. Nothing is more confusing than hearing an unrelated phone call between two strangers in the middle of a delicate crane pick.

Production tree work often involves multiple pieces of equipment. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

Production tree work often involves multiple pieces of equipment. Photo: Anthony Tresselt

Finally, look for ease of use in headsets. Make sure that the channel can be changed easily to avoid problems. The headsets should fit firmly to the hard hat or underneath existing hearing protection. Many models are push-to-talk, meaning the operator must push a button to speak with co-workers. This is fine, but voice-activated units, especially for workers whose hands are already full, add a lot of convenience and value.

In the fast-paced, noisy world of production tree work, communication is vital. Laying out thorough, well-suited work plans, addressing hazards and obstacles before they become an issue and developing a system for clear communications are important for safety as well as efficient work flow. We all work hard enough during the average day. There is no need to struggle with the simple task of addressing another crew member. Work together as a team to solve communication issues just as you work together to complete a job. We will all be safer and more productive for it.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2008 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Choosing Ropes and Saddles for Tree Climbing Safety

Climb On

Anytime a product — truck, tool, software program, etc. — helps us go out and earn a living, we tend to develop a little loyalty toward it. When a product helps get the job done and keeps us safe in the process … well, that’s when a real bond develops. For tree climbers, not much matters more in terms of performance and safety than ropes and saddles/harnesses. We asked a few pros which of these products they count on and why.

Hanging on by a thread

When it comes to climbing ropes, the industry standard is a breaking strength of 5,400 pounds.

“Pretty much all the ropes I know of that are marketed for arborists far exceed that,” said Jeremy Williams, certified arborist and owner of Tree Climbers Tree Services in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Williams noted that there are three main types of rope construction most commonly used in arboriculture. First is 16-strand, “which is very abrasion-resistant, but also has quite a bit of stretch,” he explained. “A lot of older climbers use that, because it’s sort of an older style rope. Also, if you’re using natural unions (running the rope through branches), it holds up better.”

Williams prefers to use a double-braided rope, which offers a little higher performance.

“It’s a little more fragile; you have to use friction savers and pulleys and things like that to preserve the rope a bit, but it has a tighter weave, so it runs a little faster and a little smoother,” he said.

The final type of rope typically used by climbers is a kernmantle (or static) rope.

“That’s really only used for going up into the tops of trees; it’s not used for working,” Williams said. “Those have a parallel core with a braided cover. They’re very fragile as far as friction, but they’re also very strong and very low stretch, so if you’re foot-locking into the tree, a lot of climbers will use these and then switch to a different rope once they get to the top.”

Williams said the choice of rope doesn’t depend as much on the type of work being done (pruning versus removals, for example), as on the personal preference of the individual climber. One of the biggest considerations is how much “stretch” you like.

“Some ropes have a lot of stretch, up to 3 percent. With other ropes, it’s 1 percent,” he noted. “Some people like that little extra bit of bounce; there’s a little more of a safety factor because it can absorb some of the shock if you were to fall. But if you’re working on your rope at a weird angle, that same rope will give a little and you’ll move back and forth a little more than some people like.”

While there are many equipment — not to mention technique – tips to be gained by watching top climbing competitors, Williams said it’s important to consider how you use equipment in real-life situations on the job.

“For example, a lot of competitive climbers will use double-braided ropes, because in a competition you’re moving faster through the tree. In a work situation, that’s not as much of an issue,” he explained.

Ryan Bartlett, owner of Sanctuary Tree Service, likes the feel of 11-millimeter rope and a “semi-old-school” leather saddle.


Ryan Bartlett, certified arborist and owner of Sanctuary Tree Service in Denver, uses a single line climbing technique with a rope wrench when working in big trees, and prefers a double rope system with a friction saver in smaller trees.

“I don’t like too much spring in the rope I use with the single line system, so I look for something with a little less give,” he explained. “I like 12- to 16-strand ropes, and I like the 11-millimeter size because I like the feel of it in my hand – it’s not so small that your hand cramps up because it’s hard to grab a hold of.” His climbing rope is from Yale, and his rigging line is by Samson.

Paul Guzenski, certified arborist and owner of Paul’s Tree Service in Alaska, started in the business using Safety Blue ropes (from New England Ropes), and more recently has been using Yale’s Poison Hi-vy ropes.

“I really like that; it stays pretty supple, even in the cold we have here in Alaska. When it’s really, really cold, the rope doesn’t seem to suck in the water as much and freeze up as quickly. And it’s always stayed round and hasn’t flattened out on me. I also like the splicability,” he explained.

Guzenski said he tries to swap out to a new rope every year.

“We have a very defined season here, and the off-season is a good time to rotate out gear and retire things. It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll let it go a little bit longer … but it’s good to go through all your gear and make sure you’re climbing on safe stuff,” he advised.

By the seat of your pants

Guzenski uses an A.R.T. Tree Austria 3.1 harness.

“I like the quick clips and all the other convenient features,” he said.

Prior to that he was using a different brand of saddle that used a floating D-ring. Guzenski said the switch to the quick clip system didn’t require much of a change in his climbing style; that definitely was the case years ago, though, when he initially moved from a fixed D to floating D saddle.

Certified arborist and owner of Paul’s Tree Service in Alaska, Paul Guzenski looks for ropes that will stay supple in the cold temperatures that are common for the state.


“That change opened up a whole new world, because my lower back and butt weren’t burning by the end of the day,” he explained. “The biggest thing is to find one that’s comfortable to you; that just means you can spend more time in the saddle without it bothering you.”

Guzenski’s most recent saddle purchase was made for practicality as well as comfort.

“The replaceable parts on the A.R.T. Tree Austria 3.1 was part of what sold me; when the bridge wears out, I can replace it. Where on the old one, as soon as that leather strap wore out the whole saddle was pretty much done.”

He uses the new saddle for all types of jobs.

“You can change it from leg whips to a bottom seat, so if I’m doing something like installing Christmas lighting, I’ll throw the bottom seat on so I’m basically just sitting down throughout the day,” Guzenski added.

Bartlett has used the same style Weaver (model 27617) saddle since he entered the tree care profession 15 years ago.

About five years ago, when he was preparing to take part in a tree climbing competition, Bartlett switched to a different, lighter saddle. “I hated it. Everyone I knew asked, ‘What happened to you? You’re so slow now.’ So I went back to the old leather Weaver. I love it,” Bartlett explained.

“It’s heavier, but it works for me. It’s a comfort thing. And I like the floating bridge … it’s a flat band that’s almost 2 inches wide; I just trust it.”

Another climber at Sanctuary uses the lighter Weaver Cougar harness that Bartlett tried and loves it.

“He forgot it one day about a month ago and spent the day in my saddle, and he absolutely hated it. It’s really personal preference,” said Bartlett, who calls his saddle “semi-old-school.” Joking, he said, “I wish I could say I run the expensive saddles, but I don’t, I’m cheap! It’s not my style.”

Williams prefers to use a treeMOTION harness by Treemagineers.

“That’s my personal favorite,” he stated. “Pretty much all saddles [available for sale now] will meet the safety requirements, so safety isn’t as big of a consideration anymore – it’s fit and function and what you’re doing.”

He appreciates the light weight of the treeMOTION, and the range of motion it provides him when pruning, which represents the majority of his climbing work.

Williams has friends in the business who like Ergovation saddles by Buckingham.

“That seems to be the favorite for those doing a lot of removals; that harness seems to work better in that application,” he noted. It is built a little heavier and can better handle the weight of a bigger saw, explained Williams. Another climber in his company prefers a Petzl Sequoia harness, because it’s extremely light and does a decent job of handling medium-sized saws and is less expensive than some other options on the market.

“Saddles come down basically to personal preference,” Williams concluded. “Each person’s body is slightly different, and each saddle is made a little differently.”

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated.

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Tree Crew Leadership

Tree Crew Leadership

Strong leadership from crew leaders and managers will result in increased safety and efficiency.

Workforce management is a subject that, while readily recognized and emphasized in the broader business world, often gets short shrift in the sweaty, sawdust-laden universe of tree care.

Without a doubt, larger tree care companies often provide some form of management/leadership training to the appropriate staff, but many crew leaders in the tree care industry are “making it up as they go along” with little to no training or education on leadership.

This is certainly not due to any willful ignorance of the importance of leadership in tree operations; after all, what semi-experienced tree crew member does not have a story about one particular crew leader’s Captain Ahab-like behavior or ineptness.

Rather, a multitude of activities in tree care can result in death or disfigurement; and it’s difficult to focus on leadership techniques and training when chain saw or chipper safety is so obviously needed.

In reality, good leadership will result in increased safety and efficiency, and a few basic principles of leadership in the mental toolbox will not only assist existing crew leaders and managers, but also plant the seed in the tiny little brain housing groups of the new folks/leaders for next season.

A good leader seizes every opportunity, should time allow, to teach, share and reinforce positive, or negative, outcomes.PHOTOS: MICHAEL (HOUSE) TAIN

Fail to plan, plan to fail

If there is no plan in place, how does the leader know what went wrong? Nothing is more frustrating, and more damaging to motivation or crew morale, than being reprimanded or disciplined for no apparent purpose or reason.

The requirement for an individual tree job plan goes far beyond that individual tree when discussing leadership, as it encompasses a basic structure, protocols, and/or standard operational procedures for every foreseen action in tree care operations. If crew members know, and have been trained, in how to safely and efficiently perform the various activities of tree care, they also know, as well as their leader or supervisors, when they have “cut corners” or done something wrong. Obviously, every tree job is not going to fit inside the parameters of the company or crew’s standard procedure, but many will; and not only will safety and efficiency be well-served by the existence of these protocols, crew members will perform better knowing what is expected of them in a given job or situation. In addition, given the right mix of leadership and personalities, the crew will develop a structure of “herd leadership” in which the individual crew members are leading one another to do the right thing.

One leadership pitfall that must be avoided with the use of these structures or procedures is being too committed to them, to the point of blindness to good ideas, techniques or methods. The protocols and structures should always be evolving to accommodate new gear and methods, within the framework of safety, efficiency and ease of use.

If it ain’t documented, it didn’t necessarily happen

A true leader never “blindsides” a crew member or peer with a correction or disciplinary action, given the time and space in regard to immediate safety. There are few things more disorienting or disheartening to a well-intentioned crew member than feeling that his or her leader has come out of nowhere with a criticism or complaint about performance.

While more paperwork/forms is something few tree folk would wish on anyone, it is imperative for good leadership. The documentation need not be anything fancy, but simply dates, times and locations where crew members created negative or positive impressions. Specifics about the incident(s) help “make the case” for the leader, and avoid a debate about the issue, while those same specifics lend credence to positive reinforcement. Just keeping track of those positive and negative impressions is not enough for the good leader. Sharing or feedback is vital to insuring that crew members are always aware of how well, or how poorly, they are doing their jobs. In addition, negative feedback should always be accompanied by the ways and means to improve the performance, perhaps even with a timeline for better outcomes.

The majority of people want to do well at their job and succeed, and they should be offered the opportunity to do so; letting them know when they need to make changes, as well as when they’ve improved or done a good job, will help them succeed. Celebrate those successes, otherwise folks who only hear criticisms will start to think they can’t do anything right.

First in, last out

While personal leadership styles will certainly be influenced by life experiences, would-be leaders should keep in mind that being in a leadership position should create more work for the leading individual, not less.

Few things are more disturbing to a crew than seeing a crew leader, operations manager or even company owner thinking that his or her exalted position means he or she can take it easy by talking on a cell phone, waving around a clipboard, or posting a new tweet on the job at hand. A leader who takes his or her leadership role seriously will find it demands more than any role he or she has ever held before; and while the toll may be more emotional and intellectual than physical, it is still a toll felt every night when the head hits the pillow.

Crew members can use the push broom to take some time off at the end of the job, or look busy folding tarps, but crew or company leaders are “on” every minute they are around; and anything or action that smacks of laziness, poor work habits or unsafe practices will be immediately recognized and discussed by crew/company members. Being a leader is a responsibility, and, while it may seem unfair on more than a few occasions, a good leader must expect and demand more from themselves than they do from their employees.

Fail to plan, plan to fail. A good leader always starts at the worksite with the plan for everybody involved.

Equal justice

Whatever the standard may be, a leader must apply them equally to all crew members or employees. It is incredibly poor leadership, not to mention very detrimental to employee morale when certain people don’t get in trouble for actions or things that other people do. The best climber or salesperson doesn’t get a pass for not wearing their helmet/hardhat, or for hanging out by the truck when raking and cleanup is going on. Everyone needs to feel, and know, that the same standards and expectations are applied to each individual and that rewards, or punishment, are based on action/inaction, not whether or not the boss likes them.

The fact that most tree folk are by nature individualistic risk takers does not simplify the subject at all, but the basic principles discussed here will help current and would-be tree industry leaders become better at leadership in a challenging and difficult environment; and hopefully result in crews not only well-led, but safer and more efficient.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated.

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Angling for a Pay Raise

salary increase

“We all work for money — we need to be paid and have security in our lives and food and shelter and all of that. We may love our jobs and where we work…but there’s no shame in trying to be paid what the market your values your work to be,” says Kelly Marinelli, an HR consultant and member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s expertise panel.

It only makes sense, then, that the best way to make more money is to increase the value of your work. For employees who feel they deserve a pay raise, Marinelli says that the best approach is “to talk about the value you are bringing to the company.”

“In the case of tree care, if you’re a super-productive, efficient performer in serving clients, and you’re getting more clients served in a day than expected, then you’re making the company more money,” Marinelli explains. “So, bringing that information to your manager is a great way to say, ‘I appreciate everything you’ve done for me since I’ve started working for you, and I just want to have a little talk about how I’m doing, and here’s what I see about how I’m doing. I think it’s time for me to get a little bump in my pay rate.’”

It’s important to have specifics and think through what you’re going to say before initiating the discussion, says Marinelli. And she cautions against focusing just on your longevity with the company; while that’s one part of the equation, it’s not as important as emphasizing your value to the company. “My best advice is always to be ready to talk about what you’re bringing to the table,” she says.

Nick Araya, an International Society of Arboriculture master arborist and owner of TreeCareLA in Los Angeles, says that employee value is one of the two main factors that typically influence company decisions about raises. “If your value to the company has continued to grow, then your compensation should continue to grow,” says Araya. This all comes down to skill level. For example, if an employee didn’t even know how to tie a Portawrap to the base of a tree when they started on the job and now is running the ground crew, their value to the company has grown, he says. Or if someone who has been working on the ground crew for a few years takes it upon themselves to watch training videos online and now can be relied on to prune small trees, their value has increased. “It shows that you’re not there just to pick up a pay check each week; that you want to actually make that money,” says Araya.

The other factor that often influences the decision to issue a raise is the overall feeling that the employer has about that employee, he says, noting that this often comes down to the “the headache factor.” “Someone who isn’t even that good with trees, but is zero-headache and is reliable, is in many ways worth more than someone who is an amazing tree worker but who can’t be relied on,” says Araya.

Being a zero-headache worker means doing the simple things: showing up on time, bringing your lunch, not fighting with the rest of the crew, Araya explains. At his company, an employee who does these basic things is in line for a raise after a year.

He emphasizes, though, that raises for taking the initiative and demonstrating your value to the company are likely to be larger than pro-forma raises just reliably showing up. “I’ll give you a raise just for sticking around, but not an amazing one,” says Araya. Conversely, an employee who has no experience and starts at the very bottom of the pay scale at $10 or $12 per hour, but who learns and grows and two years later is climbing trees and is getting certification, may very well have doubled that initial pay rate, he points out.

How the system works

Marinelli says that different companies handle the issue of raises in different ways. “Typically that has to do with how structured a company is. A larger company is usually going to approach that process in a more systematic fashion, so they might have a yearly performance review process where goals are set and then you measure performance against those goals and there will be a budget for how much raise and bonus [money] is available,” she explains. “On the other hand, if you’re working for a smaller company, oftentimes someone will be hired in at market rate for the job that they are doing, and then maybe they’ll be reviewed at 90 days, or maybe not, and there’s more of an expectation that good managers are going to recognize good performance, and grant raises hopefully on a consistent basis to reward employees for the great work they’re doing.”

Before starting his own company, Araya worked for a large, multi-regional tree care company. He’s brought some of the compensation processes from there to his own business. For example, newly hired ground crew members are given two checklists. The first includes very basic skills (like how to hook up the chipper or how to tie a chainsaw to be sent up to the climber) that, when learned, result in an extra one dollar per hour of pay; the second, with somewhat more advanced skills, is worth another two dollars per hour when mastered. Beyond this checklist system, Araya’s company tends to issue raises annually. Whatever system is used, he says it’s best for everyone if the process is clear and transparent.

“Everyone wants a raise. There’s nobody working anywhere that doesn’t want a raise. And it can really chip away at the employees’ soul — just grind away at them — if they don’t know where they’re headed with all of it,” says Araya.

“Business owners are smart when they engage with their employees on performance, and on pay, and have transparency and consistency around that process—it makes for a better business,” agrees Marinelli. “If you communicate that, then employees know what they’re getting, and they do their best work and they feel great about it.”

If your company isn’t doing that, she suggests approaching your supervisor or manager to ask for feedback on your job performance. “Ask, ‘What do I need to do to be ready to get a raise, or to qualify for a bonus? What are the things that I can be doing to make our company successful?’” This is important because raises don’t always depend just on individual performance, but also on the overall success of the company. “If a company isn’t financially secure, or isn’t growing, that isn’t going to bode well for your potential raise,” she points out. Similarly, the state of the larger economy often plays a role, as well. “If there’s a downturn in the economy and people aren’t caring for their trees the way they normally would, because they have to buy food and pay for gas, then that’s going to affect the ability of your company to grant raises.” But even in those cases, it’s OK to ask questions, says Marinelli, noting that a good manager is going to be open to having that discussion.

One strategy that Marinelli advises against is basing a demand for a raise on what another company may be offering. “It’s always good to know what your worth is in the market, but bringing up market data to try to get leverage to get a pay increase is dangerous,” says Marinelli. “Your employer may feel that you’re a very valuable team member…but if you’re continuously bringing up how you could get more money somewhere else, they may question your commitment.”

That said, if you’re underpaid, “you need to know about it…if you’re a high-performer and others are paid better at other locations, that’s not bad information to have in your back pocket,” she adds. In such a case, Marinelli suggests, tell your employer that you want to commit to them long-term, so that maybe it’s time for an “equitable increase” in pay to bring you up to where the market is. Particularly in these types of discussions, communication is key, and delivery is everything. “They have to know that you’re committed and, if it’s true that you really do want to stay there, you don’t want to hurt that perception,” she cautions.

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Hazard Trees and Hazardous Cuts

An overhead view of a mismatch or bypass cut with rope in place to snap it apart to the low cut side. Note the overlap of the cuts, which will vary with tree diameter and species. Photo: Michael Tain

Although the terms “hazard” or “danger” tree get thrown around a lot in the tree care industry, meaning anything from a structurally unsound tree next to a high-value target to an already partially fallen tree hung up in something. For the purpose of this article the latter will be discussed. Natural or human forces can create this type of hazard tree, but regardless of cause, they require special care and techniques to be safely dealt with.

Every tree that is going to be worked on by a tree crew should be recognized as containing some element of hazard, but those lodged on wires, houses or even in other trees due to felling plans gone bad should set off warning signals to any professional tree crew.

The first, and often most important, part of dealing with hazard trees is recognizing that one exists and developing a plan to deal with the situation and manage the forces involved. Once recognized, the crew must have the knowledge, skills and equipment to deal with the tree as safely and efficiently as possible. A hazard tree cannot, in most cases, be made less hazardous, but it can be cut in such a manner that the forces are managed as well as possible, and the dangers of damage, injury or even death minimized. The addition of utility wires to the hazard tree equation obviously requires that the crew involved is trained to recognize electrical hazards and knows how to handle them, and the crew must ensure that the power has been cut off prior to beginning any work.

A mismatch showing the orientation of the pull line in order to pull it toward the side of the "low" cut. Photo: Michael Tain

A mismatch showing the orientation of the pull line in order to pull it toward the side of the “low” cut. Photo: Michael Tain

Situational awareness

As stated previously, recognizing a hazard tree is the first step in this process, and one that is far too often skipped due to ignorance, inattention or lack of situational awareness.

There are two basic forces inside a tree that tree care professionals always need to be thinking about: tension and compression. They are always present regardless of the tree’s orientation or position, but changes in that position typically change the location of the forces, leading to nasty surprises to those saw operators who don’t take a moment to examine the forces’ location and likelihood.

All trees develop tension and compression wood as they grow to counter forces such as gravity or prevailing winds, but the change in position either through nature or humans in the case of a hazard tree can and will affect the location of these forces. In a tree that’s already on the ground, tension and compression can lead to “pinched” saws and frustration, never a fun process, but much less unsettling than a stuck saw when the tree is still up in the air going who knows where with targets, both human and nonhuman, all around.

Typically, a tree that has fallen into or onto something is going to have tension on the lower side and compression on the upper side. However, counterforces, such as the amount of the tree extending over the top of the wires or the presence of a large root mass, are going to affect the distribution of forces.

 Side view of a knee notch. The final back cut would be below the hinge, and the farther below would likely require more force to separate. Photo: Michael Tain

Side view of a knee notch. The final back cut would be below the hinge, and the farther below would likely require more force to separate. Photo: Michael Tain

It is vital that tree crews take a few minutes to determine where the tension and compression are in the tree; and once cutting, be quickly prepared to react if they figured wrongly. Once the locations of these two forces have been determined, an excellent way to deal with them is the acronym developed by the instructors of Arboriculture Canada Training and Education: CUT.

  • Compression side is severed first
  • Tension side is cut last
  • And “U” are in the middle

The bad dance floor

This refers to the area that the feller or cutter doesn’t want to be in when a “whole lot of shaking” starts going on. Accident research shows that the majority of injuries and deaths that happen when trees are being cut down happen within a 5-foot circle of the stump, and most often in the first 15 seconds of the tree starting to move. This information provides the basis for the 5-15-90 rule, which is meant to remind chain saw operators that being inside that 5-foot circle when the tree starts to move puts them at risk of becoming one of those statistics, and that’s just during standard felling operations.

Dancing with a hazard tree with all the additional forces and complications involved inside that 5-foot circle in the first 15 seconds of movement is going to require some Matrix-quality reactions and speed. There are more than enough methods, techniques and tools that allow crew members to be outside that circle at the moment of release of their woody dance partner’s tension and compression, but the trick is knowing about them, understanding their value, and then using them consistently. Tools such as ropes in a mechanical advantage system, come-alongs or winches, or even a simple push stick will all assist folks in being off that dance floor when things start to move.

A completed key notch with wedges in place at the bottom of the key. Remember to put the wedge on the side the key is going to be pulled toward, otherwise frustration will ensue. Photo: Michael Tain

A completed key notch with wedges in place at the bottom of the key. Remember to put the wedge on the side the key is going to be pulled toward, otherwise frustration will ensue. Photo: Michael Tain

Mismatch cut

This cut is the simplest and most basic technique for releasing a hazard/danger tree, and as such should be the first considered when planning out the job. After all, simple is typically quick and efficient, with less links in the chain or complexities where things can go wrong. It is almost exactly the same technique used up in the air when “cutting and chucking,” with the main difference being the orientation of the wood being cut and the fact that the operator’s not going to be snapping the piece apart by hand, especially if they wish to keep their hands and all their other pieces and parts functional.

The cuts are made at mismatched levels from opposite sides of the tree, remembering the CUT acronym. The amount of overlap or bypass and/or distance between the mismatched cuts will change with the diameter and species of the tree. The cut can then be “snapped” from a safe distance with a line or push stick, though keep in mind that it is typically easier to “snap” if the tree is pushed or pulled in the direction of the lower cut.

On bended knee

While some crews may feel that begging the tree on bended knee is a bit much, using a knee cut to bend the tree can be quite effective. This technique would be the next choice if the mismatch is not suitable. It’s a little more complicated and in a sense involves trying to “fell” the tree out of/off the wire or house it is resting on.

The crew will put an open-face notch of at least 90 degrees on the upper side of the tree, and then make a hinge equal to 5 percent of the diameter of the tree by using a bore or plunge cut. Obviously, a tree with a large enough diameter to allow the bore cut is required. The operator would then make a mismatched back cut beneath the level of the hinge, thereby allowing him time to get out of that vital 5-foot circle and finish the process from a distance with a pull line.

The distance between the hinge and the mismatched back cut is once again going to depend on diameter and species, but typically the farther below the back cut, the more force required to start the “felling” process.

A training situation for cutting techniques for hazard trees. Note the logs/tree leaning against non-energized lines in background. Photo: Michael Tain

A training situation for cutting techniques for hazard trees. Note the logs/tree leaning against non-energized lines in background. Photo: Michael Tain

A key to the tree’s heart

The key notch is the most complicated technique discussed here. It’s also the one that requires the most time for setup and gear for use. However, should a hazard/danger tree require it, the key notch is an excellent and useful technique.

Bore cuts are used in a manner to create a tongue, or key, that “locks” the two parts of the tree together. They can then be pulled apart to remove the two parts from a safe distance. Due to the forces and weights involved, even a smaller tree will most likely require a mechanical advantage system or a winch to separate the two parts, so users should make sure they have all the gear needed on hand before cutting.

The length of the key should be at least the diameter of the tree; and a key of greater length will provide even more strength and security. The user should mentally divide the tree into thirds from the side, with the center third being the intended key, and the outer edges of the key being completed with somewhat vertical bore cuts along the edges of the key. A horizontal bore cut is then made at the end of the key to finish it, and wedges placed on both sides to help support it.

At this point the two outer thirds of the tree are still intact. Remembering the acronym CUT, the key notch is completed with a cut from the outside compression edge of the tree to the edge of the vertical bore cut forming the edge of the key, followed by a cut from the outside tension edge of the tree to the other vertical bore of the key. A wedge in the compression side cut may be helpful to prevent pinching.

Carried out correctly, the two parts of the tree should still be stable and securely connected by the key. The wedge on the side the tree is being pulled toward is now removed, and the two parts separated from a safe distance.

This is obviously just a brief introduction to the topic of specialized cutting techniques for hazard trees. While all these techniques can be quite effective, the time to first employ them is not in an actual hazard tree situation. Training, practice and repetition in hands-on, controlled field situations will go a long way toward giving operators the knowledge and understanding to use them in a real-life situation. Trees intentionally felled into other trees in obstacle-free felling operations, or even logs laid on suitably strong ropes with grapples or other heavy equipment can help crews learn how to deal with hazard trees before a situation where the costs, and possible loss of life and limb, are all too real.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 2013 and has been updated.

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Tree Spotlight: Quercus macrocarpa

Quercus macrocarpa

Trade Name: Bur oak

General distribution: Widespread in the Atlantic coastal plain from New Brunswick, Canada to North Carolina; west as far as Alberta, Canada, eastern Montana, Wyoming and northeastern New Mexico; vast majority are found in the eastern Great Plains, the Mississippi/ Missouri/Ohio valleys and the Great Lakes region.

Wood Value: High quality and is almost always marketed as “white oak.”

Other uses: Is often cultivated by plant nurseries for use in gardens, parks and on urban sidewalks.

Family: Fagaceae

Value for rehabilitation of disturbed sites: Survival and persistence have been reported on revegetated mine sites. Can be established from seed or seedlings and grows well with herbaceous species, but isn’t recommended for soils with a pH less than 4.

Seasonal development: Throughout its range, flowers sometime between April and early June. Acorns are produced in the same year as the flowers. Acorns fall as early as August and as late as November.

General botanical characteristics:

  • Grows as a large, spreading tree up to 130 feet tall (growth form and size can vary by site).
  • Branches in the upper portion of the crown are ascending; in the lower crown, branches are larger and horizontal.
  • The trunks of mature trees have thick, deeply grooved bark and may measure 8.5 feet in diameter.
  • In the western part of its range on exposed, harsh sites, grows as a small tree or shrub and may produce crooked, gnarled branches.
  • It’s a long-lived tree — it’s common to find remnant trees that are 300 to 400 years old. In a savanna in Kentucky, a bur oak was an estimated 440 years old.
  • The sizes and shapes of leaves are variable, but generally leaves are deeply lobed and large, up to 12 inches long and about half as wide. Shallowly lobed leaves may occur on bur oak sprouts or deeply shaded branches and small leaves are common in the northern Great Plains.
  • Leaves are deep green and shiny above and coated with white hairs below.
  • Produces male flowers in 3- to 4-inch long catkins and female flowers are solitary or in clusters of up to four.
  • Typically produces extensive root systems with wide-spreading laterals and a deep taproot.

Management considerations:

  • Is a conservation concern in Canada and several bur oak communities in the Plains region are considered “imperiled.”
  • Savannas are important for lepidopteran communities. On Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, smaller forests lacking a prominent bur oak component supported 65 fewer species of moths than larger, bur oak-dominated savanna remnants.
  • Some studies suggest that bur oak establishment is best during drought conditions or on dry, open sites, while other studies indicate that establishment is best on mesic sites.

Source: U.S. Forest Service (FS.Fed. US); North American Plant Atlas

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Tree Root Growth Gone Wrong

Surface roots can pose a major hazard. Photo: John C. Fech

Like most important things in life, roots can grow well, poorly or somewhere in between. When tree roots don’t develop properly, the consequences can affect people, property and the tree itself. Little can be done to improve a poor root system, so it’s important to do what you can to ensure a healthy root system, as well as be able to recognize when a tree’s root system is unhealthy and in need of care.

Surface roots are a common issue that is hard to deal with. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Surface roots are a common issue that is hard to deal with. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Fostering good roots

Perhaps the best way to start consideration of the bad is with the good. Picture a bicycle wheel turned on its side, with the center hub representing the trunk and the spokes representing the roots. Roots are supposed to look like spokes of a bicycle wheel, but a few sinker or spiker roots are also produced, especially early in the tree’s life. In general, the radicle, the first root, is produced and oriented straight down, with the following roots growing horizontally.

Avoiding bad roots

The most effective way to prevent bad root system development is to plant trees properly in suitable locations and follow up with good maintenance. Finding the right place for a tree includes an understanding of site conditions, including hours of direct sun received, soil texture, soil structure, slope and soil moisture conditions.

As each root adds a new layer of growth, it becomes greater in diameter, just like the trunk. This occurrence is a powerful force. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

As each root adds a new layer of growth, it becomes greater in diameter, just like the trunk. This occurrence is a powerful force. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees typically lose a substantial amount of their root system while being dug from growing fields. This root loss can create significant stress on the tree during drought conditions and can limit plant vigor and establishment. Potted tree root systems are intact when planted, but circling roots within the container can lead to future defects if not corrected or removed. Bag or fabric containers are designed to limit circling roots and typically provide a vigorous and fibrous root system that maximizes initial tree establishment in dry conditions. Take special care with bare root trees, since the roots can dry quickly when exposed. The benefit of the exposed root system is that it allows for pruning of dead and damaged roots and proper root spread at planting.

Digging an adequately sized planting area will help loosen the surrounding soil and support stronger root establishment during periods of drought. Try to avoid disturbing the soil in the bottom of the hole or settling may cause the tree to end up deeper than intended. Compost shouldn’t be added to the backfill when planting the tree, but it can be used to topdress around the tree and out to where roots will grow in the future. Wood chip mulch can also be used for this purpose.

Root rot in the bole reduces structural integrity. Photo credit: John C. Fech, UNL

Root rot in the bole reduces structural integrity.
Photo credit: John C. Fech, UNL

To properly plant, place the root mass in the hole at the appropriate depth and begin filling the hole with soil. When the hole is approximately one-third full, gently replace and settle the soil around the root mass. Then continue to fill the hole, stopping every few inches to settle the soil with water. Ensuring good soil-to-root contact will help the tree maximize water uptake during dry conditions.

Chronic mechanical damage from lawn mowers, string trimmers and other motorized equipment causes long-term damage to trees that can compromise their health, predispose them to insect and disease problems, and ultimately reduce a tree’s life span. This damage can be minimized by separating the lawn from trees with a mulch ring.

Mulch should be organic material that breaks down to enhance nutrient cycling and soil porosity. It should be spread in a flat layer 3 to 4 inches deep outward from the trunk, ideally extending outward to the tree drip line. Mulch should never be piled against the bark to any depth; buried bark remains wet and has an increased potential for disease and damage. Excessive quantities of mulch can stifle gas exchange and water infiltration into the soil and also stimulate root growth in conditions that are only temporarily favorable once the mulch dries out again.

Surface roots are a common issue that is hard to deal with. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Surface roots are a common issue that is hard to deal with. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Amiss roots

If proper planting procedures and maintenance guidelines aren’t followed, tree roots can grow in an unhealthy manner and produce undesirable results. These results can be manifested in several ways.

Most of my clients are well aware of the “each year a tree adds another ring of growth” concept as it applies to the trunk. However, few of them realize this process also occurs in the roots. As each root adds a new layer of growth, it becomes greater in diameter, just like the trunk. This occurrence is a powerful force, and in some cases strong enough to heave up driveways and sidewalks.

Poor placement and tree tendencies often lead to roots raising concrete. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Poor placement and tree tendencies often lead to roots raising concrete. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Stem girdling roots are often the result of failure to inspect the root mass at planting time. Often, roots are already beginning to circle in the container and simply continue to grow in that fashion as the tree grows. Sometimes roots grow in a relatively loose potting medium and are planted into denser landscape soils. In these cases, the roots have difficulty both growing out of the original root mass and penetrating the landscape soil. As a result, the roots turn and grow back into the potting medium, eventually girdling the tree.

Whether “large and getting larger” or stem girdling, roots that are problematic in these ways can sometimes be detected through a little excavation. If you’re using a simple hand tool for the process, such as a sod spade or camp shovel, be careful not to injure roots. An air spade, though more invasive and expensive, is another option for this task. No matter which tool you use, a little digging can tell a lot and help you discover possible causal agents.

Cutting through roots during other landscape operations can create several problems. In some cases the cut root will branch out and produce more roots in a similar fashion to the subsequent growth that is produced following the shearing of a hedge. In others, the freshly cut surface is subject to various invading fungi that cause the root to soften and rot, leading to a decline in water and nutrient transport, as well as structural support for the tree.

When root rot is introduced into tree roots, the tissues can simply soften and slowly decompose, resulting in minimal consequences. However, if the tree species is a poor compartmentalizer, the decay can spread slowly and surely into the entire bole, causing a significant weakness in the tree’s stability. When this occurs, the tree may fail catastrophically, causing harm to people and property.

Stem girdling roots cause damage by impeding the uptake of water and nutrients. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Stem girdling roots cause damage by impeding the uptake of water and nutrients. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Some tree species have a tendency to produce surface roots, while others don’t. Maples, cottonwood, poplars and bald cypress are among those trees with strong surface rooting tendencies. Species characteristics are not the only influential force in the expression of surface rooting. Repeated water movements, hardscape restrictions and hardpan soils can also cause significant expression of exposed roots. Surface roots are not only objectionable to arborists and clients, but they also pose a trip hazard.

The perennial question from clients regarding surface roots is “What can I do?” Unfortunately, there is no one all-encompassing answer. Possible solutions include shoehorning low-growing perennials and ground covers amongst the roots, creating a new landscape bed that no longer needs traditional lawn maintenance, and placing wood chip mulch between the surface roots in a manner that replicates what occurs in a naturalized setting. In either case, it’s wise to avoid placement of topsoil over the roots, as this keeps them moister than normal and greatly reduces oxygen exchange, both of which discourage healthy root growth.

Tips for Proper Root Maintenance

  • Plant trees properly in suitable locations and remember to follow up.
  • Take special care with bare root trees, since the roots can dry quickly when exposed.
  • Digging a good-sized planting area helps loosen the surrounding soil and supports stronger root establishment.
  • Compost or wood chip mulch can be used to topdress around the tree and out to where roots will grow in the future.
  • Ensuring good soil-to-root contact will help the tree maximize water uptake.
  • To avoid root damage from motorized equipment, separate the tree from the lawn with a mulch ring.
  • Avoid excessive quantities of mulch; too much can stifle gas exchange and water infiltration into the soil.
  • Inspect and check all roots prior to planting.
  • When excavating roots with a hand tool, be careful not to damage the roots.
  • Avoid placement of topsoil over roots.

Read more: Guide to Protecting Tree Roots

Editor’s note: This article was originally published November 2014 and has been updated.

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Recovering from Winter Damage

Limb breakage caused by excessive winds is always a concern in winter. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

You may be prepping yourself for “the call” … the one where the customer just starts describing a malady on their tree that wasn’t there in late fall. Especially after a drought, this is a likely scenario. Unfortunately, these calls will not be rare, easy to fix or linked exclusively to the drought — quite the contrary. As a tree professional, your job is to determine what happened and how to provide the best solution. Fortunately, in many cases, a positive course of action can be devised that provides both good tree care and profits for your business.

The symptoms of callus formation and graying heartwood indicate that this is an old injury, not recent winter damage. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

The symptoms of callus formation and graying heartwood indicate that this is an old injury, not recent winter damage. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Distinguish from other damage

Determining the exact cause of the damage that occurred over winter can be difficult. Two indicators can be helpful in the quest to discover the cause: the uniformity of the appearance of the injury, and how long the signs and symptoms have been evident.

Though not always the case, winter injury tends to be uniform, at least at first glance. Since winter injury usually occurs due to an abiotic factor, it’s common for one side or a localized portion of the tree to be affected rather than the entire tree, such as in the case with pathogenic diseases or insect-related causes.

The symptom of a “fresh” injury is another key to distinguishing winter damage from existing maladies. Winter injury takes on a certain look that speaks out as if it just happened, as opposed to the grayed, dull appearance of older instances of insult to the tree. Tree tissues that are dried out, softened or responding to the injury in an attempt to compartmentalize the wound are good indicators of damage that has been present for a growing season or longer.

Sunscald causes a major disruption in cambial flow. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Sunscald causes a major disruption in cambial flow. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Types of winter injury

One of the most obvious winter injuries is desiccation, caused by a drying of the leaves, stems or roots. Most common on evergreens such as arborvitae, yew, pine and spruce, desiccation is most commonly caused by winds passing across the tissue surface repeatedly. Without sufficient protective layers in place, the inner cell sap evaporates, or is simply removed, and the remaining tissue turns from green to brown.

A common winter injury of deciduous trees is sunscald. During winters where intense sun causes a warming of the trunk bark on the south and west side of the tree, these tissues soften during the day. When cold temperatures return at night, the tissues are damaged slightly due to the warming/cooling cycle. Though not always the case, damage from sunscald seemingly occurs more often on thin-barked trees, such as red maple and white ash, in the first 10 or so years of growth. Several options exist for prevention of sunscald from placing a protective collar in place to painting the trunk with white paint to reflect the winter sun.

Mice, voles, squirrels and rabbits can cause extensive damage over winter. As these critters search for food, a tree trunk is commonly determined to be suitable, especially when other food sources are covered with snow and ice. The protective collars mentioned above are effective in reducing feeding damage as long as they cover the majority of the trunk surface.

Winter storms are one of the most frustrating forms of winter injury, as there are few preventative measures that can be taken to reduce it, yet the potential for significant injury remains high. When winter winds or extensive snow loading cause branches to bend beyond their capacity, the result is often breakage. In addition to the removal of necessary photosynthetic surfaces, limb breakage exposes inner tissues that are prone to decay, potentially causing a sturdy tree to change into a hazardous one, depending on where it is located on the property.

Breakage from a storm. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Breakage from a storm. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Especially in the North, construction projects are usually delayed until temperatures are conducive to ease in soil movement and manipulation in spring. However, in some cases, such as water line breakage, repairs must be made in winter, causing a severing of the root system and compaction of soil particles. These insults are injurious at any time, but when they occur in winter, the tree is less able to prevent drying and begin compartmentalization of the wounds.

In addition to the causes of winter damage that are due to definable factors, there are maladies that occur due to unknown forces, or a combination of the causes mentioned above. In these cases, the only real information that is available for assistance with diagnosis is that the tree was in good health in the fall, and in the subsequent spring it appears differently. Though it may not provide much solace in times of frustration over diagnosing these problems, consider that approximately half of the tree is underground, out of view, and may be more related to issues such as girdled roots or deep planting than winter damage.


Recovery from winter injury is directly tied to the cause of the damage. Unfortunately, in many situations, recovery steps involve minimizing the appearance of the symptoms and practices intended to prevent further damage instead of actions that will instantly cause the tree to improve.

Desiccation on tree tissues with a history of damage can be prevented, or at least lessened, through applications of horticultural wax products in late fall and during periods when temperatures exceed freezing. For the best results, these products should be applied every five to seven weeks and allowed to dry during daytime hours before freezing temperatures return in the evening. Trees with a high level of importance can be screened with burlap or plastic sheeting to reduce the effects of damaging winds. Once the leaf tissue has dried out, not much can be done to replace it. Corrective action is based on removing affected areas, making pruning cuts back to viable buds and green tissue.

When you think of winter damage, you think of desiccation. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

When you think of winter damage, you think of desiccation. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Recovery from feeding by unwelcome animals is similar to dealing with desiccation. In an urban area, choices for directly reducing the critter population are usually strongly restricted, leaving protective devices as the main course of action. When placing protective collars around trees several factors should be considered. First, the material should be tough enough to resist feeding by the animal, yet sufficiently flexible to prevent damage to the trunk. Collars made from PVC provide this balance better than other materials like kraft paper, vinyl wrappings and steel plating. Secondly, the collar should be a light color to reflect the warm solar rays, keeping the bark temperature as even as possible during the day and nighttime hours. Finally, the collar should protect the entire distance of potential damage, from the lower limbs to several inches into the soil.

Storm breakage recovery is mostly a matter of removing the broken limbs from the property and making clean cuts on the tree trunk to allow the tree to begin the isolation or compartmentalization process. In many cases, especially when the damage occurs close to or in the trunk, some level of uneven bark and heartwood cannot be prevented. When breakage occurs in the middle of a limb, using the traditional three-cut method works well to encourage recovery.

Winter construction projects can cause injury through root severing and compaction. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Winter construction projects can cause injury through root severing and compaction. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Removal and compaction of soil in winter can cause serious stress, depending on the size of the affected area. A positive recovery step is to make clean cuts on the roots that were torn or shredded from the construction equipment. Of course, in some cases this is not possible, as new or existing soil is placed over the damaged roots soon after the injury occurs. Yet, if feasible, this type of recovery step is one to endeavor to make.

Recovery from an unknown cause of winter damage is difficult to prescribe. However, in many situations, providing good plant health care and best management practices is a step in the right direction. The steps of proper mulch placement, soil aeration, separating turf from ornamentals/trees, keeping the soil moist but not dry or soggy, soil testing to determine nutritional deficiencies, placing trees where they have sufficient room to grow well, choosing disease-resistant trees, and planting trees in such a way that the uppermost roots are at or slightly above soil grade will go a long way towards assisting your customers in concerns of an unknown nature.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated.

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New Product Roundup: May 2017


Forestry Cutter Attachment

Bobcat’s new 70-inch forestry cutter attachment features up to 17 percent more mulching production, allowing for more work to be done in less time, according to the company. The 70-inch forestry cutter is approved for use with M2-series compact track loaders — T750, T770 and T870 — and the S850 skid loader. An additional 400-pound counterweight is required when using the 70-inch model with T750 and T770 compact track loaders. Approved skid-steer and compact track loaders require high-flow auxiliary hydraulics to operate the attachment. Similar to Bobcat’s 50- and 60-inch models, the 70-inch forestry cutter attachment can efficiently turn trees and underbrush to mulch, the company says. When the attachment is tilted forward, the material is thrown against the counter combs that reduce the wood to fine mulch and provide wear protection for the rear of the housing. An optional front gate can be lowered if the operator needs finer mulch.

Chain Saw

STIHL’s MSA 200 C-BQ is a lithium-ion, battery-powered chain saw that produces zero exhaust emissions and is quieter than its gasoline-powered counterparts, making it an ideal choice for areas with emission or noise restrictions. Powered by an interchangeable 36-volt STIHL lithium-ion battery, this chain saw starts instantly with the pull of the multi-speed trigger. The battery displays the charge level, so users can easily see how much power is available before beginning a cutting job. Low vibration keeps users from tiring quickly during extended use. The Quick Chain Adjuster feature enables the user to tension the chain without using any separate tools. The STIHL Quickstop Plus chain braking system stops the rotating chain in less than one second (when the rear handle is released).

Land Clearing Attachment

John Deere recently released its Root Rakes (RR72, RR78 and RR84), the latest additions to the company’s expanding lineup of Worksite Pro attachments. Optimized to work with John Deere G- and E-Series skid steers and compact track loaders and K-Series compact wheel loaders, these attachments can be a more economical option over dozer blades, the company says. The root rakes are designed for land clearing, ground leveling and moving materials away from buildings and obstructions. According to the company, these attachments are designed to easily gather rocks and debris, while allowing soil to sift through for minimal site and landscape disturbance and maximum efficiency. Built with alloy-steel construction, replaceable pin-on teeth and zinc-plated, pivot pins with protected Zerks, these attachments can resist impact that any ground materials provide. The root rakes are available in 72-inch (RR72), 78-inch (RR78) and 84-inch (RR84) width.

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