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Keeping trees trimmed while they’re young can help them weather the storms ahead

Last month a storm with winds of up to 80 miles per hour uprooted an old tree at East 65th Street and Overton Avenue in Raytown.
Last month a storm with winds of up to 80 miles per hour uprooted an old tree at East 65th Street and Overton Avenue in Raytown. Special to The Star

A few weeks ago, during the wee hours of a Friday, strong storms with straight-line winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour blew through the area, causing the worst tree and power line damage since a 2002 ice storm. About 40,000 trees were damaged in Kansas City alone.

Most horticultural experts agree there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent tree damage from those types of winds.

“In the right storm, even the strongest of trees can go,” says Sarah Crowder, city forester for Overland Park. “If you sustain storm damage, I recommend calling an arborist who can do reconstructive pruning to ensure there aren’t any other breakages or weakened limbs in the canopy that you can’t see. You’re looking for cracked and hanging limbs.”

Most trees will, however, stand a better chance of surviving high winds if they’re regularly pruned and are a strong, slow-growing species, she says.

“The best way to create strong trees is by really maintaining them from the beginning, when they’re young. You should be pruning and training them to have better branch angles and picking a quality species.”

New homeowners would be wise to hire a certified arborist to evaluate large trees on their property, preferably during winter, when the arborist can see the arch of branches and get correct measures. The arborist can then thin out the crowns to make them less susceptible to winds.

Steer clear of weak species such as Bradford pears, silver maples and Siberian elms, Crowder says.

“Bradford pears get terrible damage due to the arch structure of their branches. Strong species are oaks, locusts and some maples if maintained properly, which is a big asterisk. You need to put time into them.

“A lot of people say: ‘I want a tree that grows fast,’” she says. “But that’s not always the best. Oaks grow slowly but are very strong. They tend to have a strong central leader or trunk, which has a lot to do with arch and strength of wood.”

The goal of pruning, Crowder added, should be to preserve branches with proper angles. Those that create a narrow “V” shape — rather than a preferable “U” shape — at their base can be weak and prone to a condition called included bark, which is when bark grows on bark, further weakening the structure.

“You want to encourage one strong central trunk by cutting off branches coming off in V shape and keeping those with better attachment,” she said. “It all depends on the tightness. Bradford pear branches all come off tight, whereas with oaks the branches are usually wider. That’s what you want to keep.”

She suggests checking out TreesAreGood.org, which has pruning diagrams. The University of Missouri Extension also offers tips on assessing tree damage and how to handle it. Here are a few them:

▪ Trees are amazingly resilient, and many recover with proper care and time. Despite the urge to do something drastic right away, be patient.

▪ Be alert for hanging branches that look like they’re ready to fall.

▪ For safety’s sake, bent trees and branches larger than 6 inches in diameter should be removed by someone with experience.

▪ Do not be pressured into hiring people with chain saws who knock on your door offering to remove or “repair” your trees. Ideally, tree-trimming companies should have on staff a member of a professional arborist association. They should also be insured for property damage, personal liability and worker compensation. Call the insurer for verification.

Go to the website Extension.Missouri.edu and search for First Aid for Storm-Damaged Trees for more information.

To reach Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian, call 816-234-4780 or send email to cgregorian@kcstar.com.

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