Thinking About Cutting Down Your Problem Trees? Wait For Winter

We Know It Sounds Odd ... But Here's Why

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A healthy and mature tree is something to be proud of. Not only is it lovely to look at but a well placed tree can increase property value, reduce heating/cooling expenses and help with privacy. That’s why it can be heartbreaking to see a tree in distress.  

While you sometimes have no other choice but to cut down your tree, there are many situations when a good pruning or trimming may be all your tree needs. And though it may come as a surprise to many, the best time to do this is in the winter. 

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Let’s take a look at why winter is the best time for trimming, pruning and cutting down trees. But first, here are some good indications that your tree is in need of some attention. 

Signs That Your Trees Need Trimming, Pruning Or Cutting Down

Trees are complex. Sometimes a seemingly healthy tree can come crashing down unexpectedly. Othertimes, a tree that looks like it is ready to fall, can flourish for decades with the right care. 

To help you decide whether or not it’s time to trim, prune or remove a tree from your yard, consider these signs and factors. 

PRUNING VS TRIMMING: Trimming and pruning are often used interchangeably but there is a difference. Trimming is done for aesthetics and to shape a plant. It can also help foliage grow thicker and faster. Pruning is done to improve overall health. This includes removing dead, diseased and damaged branches. Both pruning and trimming are important but each requires different tools. 

1. Dead Branches 

Deadwood - cutting down trees

Dead branches are generally easy to spot as they usually have missing or dead foliage. It’s also common for dead branches to have little to no bark. If you see dead branches in your tree, they should be removed. Dead branches are not only dangerous for you and your property. They can also negatively affect your tree and open it up to pests and disease. 

If there’s an excessive amount of dead wood, it could be a sign of increasing decay and may mean you need to remove it. 

2. Overcrowding 

Overgrown tree branches - cutting down trees

When trees and branches do not have enough space to expand and absorb sunlight, their growth can get stunted. If you have multiple trees that are very close together, you should consider thinning them out. 

You also want to inspect the branches of each tree. For deciduous trees, winter is the best time to do this as there are no leaves blocking your view. 

While standing under your tree, look up through the branches. If you can see little sky through the branches, you need to prune your tree. Similarly, if you see any branches that are almost rubbing together or creating a tight V-shape, they should be thinned. As the branches grow, they will expand into one another. This can increase the risk of breaking and decay. 

3. Infestation and Disease 

Pests and Infestation -  - cutting down trees

There are many different fungi, pests and diseases that can affect your tree. To help you identify problems sooner, it’s a good idea to be up-to-date on what commonly affects trees in your area. 

Typically fungus, like mushrooms, are a sign of rot inside the tree. The faster the fungus grows, the more concerned you should be. 

Pests are more difficult to spot as they do their work inside the tree. That being said, there are some signs you can look for on the outside of your tree. This includes holes, signs of boring, chewed or holey foliage, discoloured or flakey bark, wood dust, or frass (pet and insect poop). If you see any of this activity on or around your tree, you will want to investigate further. 

When it comes to disease, there are some common symptoms to watch out for. These include: 

  • Orange, yellow, black or brown spots on leaves 
  • Discoloured leaves or needles – usually yellow or brown 
  • Stunted leaf growth 
  • Early leaf drop 
  • Edge of leaves are turning brown 
  • Round/oval areas of dead sunken bark 
  • Leaves that are black and look like they have been burned 
  • White powder like substance on leaves 

How much of the tree you need to remove will depend on the extent of the problem and whether it could affect other trees on your property. 

4. Cracks And Hollows 

Hollows - cutting down trees

Cracks and hollows can open your tree up to infection, pests and decay. The good news is, when a tree has a cavity, it will try to heal itself. 

If the wood around the cavity is solid, there may be hope. If the hollow or crack is large or the cavity appears to be rotting, you may have to remove the branch or tree. You can also help trees thrive by cutting down branches with large cavities, even before they begin to heal. 

5. Root Rot 

Fungus on base of tree - cutting down trees

Roots can suffer from a problem called root rot. But because the roots are in the ground, it may be hard to spot. 

If you have a lot of fungus growing at the base of the tree, you likely have an issue with your roots. Leaves falling off from the inside of the tree before the outside is also a sign that there may be a problem. 

Roots can also be at risk if: 

  • The roots are exposed and being damaged by yard equipment 
  • The roots have been covered in 3 or more inches of soil 
  • There are vines growing over the base of the tree 
  • The area around the tree was recently excavated 
  • Roots have been cut 

Some of these can be more easily remedied, like removing vines or excess soil. Others can cause more permanent damage, which will shorten the life of your tree. 

6. Leaning 

Leaning - cutting down trees

Some trees grow with a natural lean. If the tree grew on an angle, the lean may be less of an issue. Especially if it is leaning away from anything of value and is a hardwood like an oak. 

If, however, your tree has a sudden lean it didn’t have before, that can be a sign of root rot, as well as storm or wind damage. In these cases, removal may be the best choice. 

PRO TIP: Trees leaning to the east are more likely to fall due to Ontario’s westerly winds. 

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7. Codominance

codominant tree - cutting down trees

A codominant tree is a tree with two or more trunks. Similarly, a codominant stem is when there are two or more main stems emerging from the same spot on the trunk. Unlike trees with a single stem or trunk, these trees are more likely to split over time. 

This can cause reciprocal damage if the branch or tree were to hit something. If the section that falls off is large enough, the remaining tree may also die as it will be unable to heal itself. 

8. Size

cutting down large trees

Some trees will never experience any of the above issues. In fact they may be so healthy that they continue to grow and flourish until they become disruptive. When your tree becomes too large, it may be time to prune it back or remove it. 

Some common reasons for pruning or cutting down trees that show no problem signs are that the tree is: 

  • Touching your house or another building 
  • Too close to a utility line (your utility provider should offer services to remove problem limbs) 
  • Blocking the view or casting too much shade 
  • Heavier on one side than the other (can cause the tree to split or lean) 
  • Leaving sap, needles, seeds or other unwanted droppings on cars, solar panels, etc. 
  • Growing into the neighbours’ property 
  • Stunting the growth of other trees or plants 

Now that you know many of the reasons for pruning, trimming and cutting down trees. Let’s talk about when it should be done. 

When Is The Best Time To Trim, Prune Or Remove A Tree? 

There’s a common misconception that tree maintenance should be done in the warm weather. This likely has to do with the fact that tree work is lumped in with warm weather gardening and yard work. But that isn’t necessarily what’s best for your tree. 

There are definitely situations where trees need immediate attention, regardless of the weather, such as a tree with a branch that is precariously hanging over your house. Flowering trees such as magnolia, apricot and lilac, also do better with warm weather pruning. 

But the majority of deciduous and coniferous trees should be removed, trimmed and pruned in the winter. This includes maple, oak, birch, aspen, apple, honey locust, evergreens and more. 

Why Winter Is The Best Time To Trim, Prune And Cut Down Trees

There are many reasons that winter is the best season for tree work:

LESS DAMAGE TO LANDSCAPE

In the winter, most plants are dead or dormant. The ground is also frozen and snow covered. This means that your landscaping, plants and root systems are better protected from falling trees and branches.

NO LEAVES

No leaves means better visibility. This makes it easier to assess your tree and access branches that need removing. Less leaf weight also means less physical labour and greater safety. 

LESS SAP

When you cut up a tree, sap sometimes flows out of it. This is called bleeding. While bleeding does not damage the tree, it can do a number on you and your equipment. Cutting in the winter can help you avoid a sappy mess with most trees. 

LESS STRESS

In the summer, your tree uses its energy to protect itself from heat, insects, infection, and other challenges. Cutting a tree during this time can stretch resources to their limits, causing your tree more stress.

In the winter, trees lie dormant. During this time, the tree conserves its energy and prepares for spring. While a tree still needs to send resources to protect and heal itself in the winter, it won’t need to steal or use up all that it has. 

IMPROVED HEALING AND GROWTH

Wound closure is optimized in the winter just before spring growth. This means that the tree will be able to better heal itself before it redirects resources to growing. And better healing means less risk of disease and decay.

Fruit trees are especially susceptible to problems if pruned or trimmed too early or too late. That’s because fall cuts can lead to false dehydration while spring cuts can affect bud development.

Cutting trees before the spring growth season will also ensure resources are going to the areas you have chosen to keep. They won’t be wasted on healing weak branches that are unlikely to thrive. 

LESS DISEASE SPREAD

Cutting a tree in the winter not only improves growth and healing. It also reduces the spread of disease and infestation to other branches and trees. That’s because most pests and diseases die or go dormant in cold weather. 

While summer trims, prunes and removals aren’t the end of the world for most trees, they do cause a lot of stress and can lead to bigger issues down the road. Instead, save the tree maintenance for the winter and focus on other warm weather tasks the rest of the year. 

Regardless of what time of year it is, take the time to inspect and care for your trees year-round. This will help them thrive so that you can enjoy their benefits for years to come! 

RELATED: 5 important steps you don’t want to miss when winterizing your cottage …

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