As many of us are aware, trees can play a vital role in even the smallest of homestead operations. Trees are to a homestead, what branches are to a tree.
Not only are trees probably the most useful vegetation on a homestead for basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and health, but they add considerable value to most properties for their energy savings, landscape and aesthetic appeal. This post will highlight a few basic tree care and maintenance tips which may be of use to you on your homestead. Keep in mind that no two properties are alike. Every homestead is different, regarding its plants, trees, soil and the climate where the property is located.
When considering tree care on a typical homestead, you should take a look at how the property currently functions or will need to function in the future.
You may begin by subdividing your homestead property into manageable zones. Within each zone, consider the location of crops, animals, trails/roadways, fencing or structures and any activities that regularly occur within each zone. Consider how plants, animals or structures will harmoniously coexist or be negatively affected by any particular tree or trees. Think about the four seasons and any possible seasonal impacts which may affect the trees, if any.
Consider the land’s natural typography and any prevailing climate characteristics within each zone. Note if any part of the zone is particularly windy, sunny, shady, hilly or flat, etc. Also take into careful consideration any possible flooding or irrigation issues that may possibly affect the trees.
Once the zones have been assessed, a more complete picture of the homestead should emerge and how it relates to the trees. Next, observe the general condition of the trees. On very large acreage properties, you may want to work in progressive stages of priority, addressing the immediate areas of concern first and then moving on from there accordingly.
Identify which trees are obviously in good or poor condition. You should safely remove, or have removed, those trees which are in very poor condition or have issues or concerns that are beyond control. Observe the following areas for generally maintaining a tree’s health.
Roots. Roots need oxygen and nutrients, as well as moisture. Keep young and newly planted tree roots properly watered and fertilized. This is especially important as young trees and their roots are getting established. Another important step is to apply a natural mulch made of wood chips, tree bark, oak leaves or pine needles around the base of the tree. Mulch allows an adequate amount of oxygen in, while preventing excessive moisture and nutrients from escaping out. The mulch should not be applied too close to the base of the tree. In other words, the mulch should not actually touch the tree’s trunk. Be sure to leave a space margin at the base of the tree to allow for ventilation. Also, be sure to apply appropriate measures of caution with any exposed roots extending up and out of the soil, as they may cause obstructions to people, structures or equipment.
Trunks. Watch for issues affecting the health of the tree such as cracks, peeling bark, fungus, dry hollowed out areas, moist decaying areas, excessive vines and insect infestation.
Limbs. Identify and support the area of a tree known as the “leader.” The leader is the tree’s main trunk. It is the primary structure from which its stability is built. You should aim to establish solid growth and development of the main leader, while eliminating or discouraging any competing leaders, which could negatively offset and impair the tree’s overall structural strength.
Branches. Keep branches evenly spaced and distributed to allow good air flow through. Good air flow helps to alleviate strong wind pressure, which creates wind resistance. Strong wind resistance could result in toppled and damaged trees.
Twigs. Address any wayward twigs that are growing in a direction counterproductive to good balance. It is far better to address any balance and stability issues early on, while they are still manageable, than if left to grow out of control, causing further and more complicated issues in the future.
Leaves. It is through the process known as abscission that trees begin to lose their leaves. The word originates from the Latin root word scindre, which is similar to scissors, meaning to cut. This hormonal process normally occurs during the fall and winter seasons, when the hormone ethylene is cut and begins to diminish. However, there are certain trees which shed their leaves in the spring and it is completely normal for those species. Those species normally include: Hackberry, Hickory, Holly, Live Oak and Southern Magnolia, but do keep an eye out for trees shedding their leaves excessively or inappropriately for the season.
Rather than purchasing mulch, use the raked leaves. Leaves make a naturally great mulch or compost. As they break down, they produce vital ingredients helpful for plant and tree health.
Leaves. Assess the tree’s overall health, then decide on an appropriate tree care plan for its general health and maintenance. Address any trunk, root, or branch issues early and often. Determine if any fertilizer or additional water or nutrients are necessary.
Planting and Watering
When planning where to plant a tree, strive for the best location as possible. This should be a location that will set the tree up for success. Plant a tree where it will not only survive, but thrive. You stand the best chance of success armed with knowledge. Know your particular tree’s water, soil, nutrients and sunlight requirements, as well as allowing the proper spacing necessary for full growth and maturity.
Each tree has its unique set of water requirements during different seasons, life stages and in different climates. Pay attention to the particular needs of specific tree species, as well as any irregularities which may occur.
Keep moisture conditions controlled by trimming through thick, dense branch networks. The trimming should aim to be modest, yet effective in allowing more air and sunlight penetration.
There is a particular pruning practice to be mindful of as it relates to disease prevention. When making pruning cuts, aim to leave a 45 degree downward angle, to encourage water runoff and to discourage pooling water or standing moisture from accumulating on the cut area.
Placing an excessive amount of mulch over the roots or mulch placed directly against the tree’s trunk can introduce moisture and fungus issues, setting the tree up for possible fungal growth and disease.
Timing Tree Pruning
Fall and winter is the best season for cutting. This would be the time when a tree is in its dormant state. The tree would have stored its necessary water and energy requirements until spring. Branches cut at this time would likely not impose any excessive requirements on the tree.
If possible, refrain from pruning or cutting during the warmer months. The practice can set the tree up for pest infestation, at a time when bugs are in higher concentration and attracted by the resulting open sap wounds left from the cuts.
Protecting Your Investment
Protect newly planted trees from deer and other small animals with protective wire mesh cages. A 4 foot tall cage encircling the tree’s base should keep most small animals out. Keep the cage diameter small and enclosed at the top to keep animals from crawling down or jumping in. The cage should also prevent persistent animals from digging under to the best extent possible. Of course each situation is unique, so construct the protection accordingly.
Trees are one of the most valuable resources on our homesteads. Basic tree care requires time and effort. They are best managed with proper care and consistency applied over the long haul. Trees provide for us well and are one of the smartest investment features on our homestead. The investment of time and effort put into basic tree care pays worthwhile dividends. Trees give back so much to us. We should, in return, give back to the land and our homesteads by planting more trees. Trees not only stand tall and proud, but they stand to serve future generations for life!
Monica White is a freelance writer, member of the Georgia Air National Guard, and an avid runner and cyclist who loves the great outdoors and all things DIY. She divides her time between Tampa and her central Florida property, where she’s growing a self-sufficient homestead.
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