Tips to care for storm damaged trees

Farm Forum

The storms which hit the state this Mothers Day weekend left behind many damaged trees. In this column, John Ball, SDSU Extension Forestry Specialist and SDSU Professor addresses two of the more prevalent issues impacting trees across the state following the storm and reminds citizens to put safety first when cleaning up after the storm.

Use caution when cleaning up storm-damaged trees

Tree work is among the highest risk professions in the United States. The combination of working at heights, with heavy loads and power equipment creates an environment where incidents are common. Homeowners should also use extreme care when attempting to clean up broken trees and branches that occurred during the weekend snow and wind storms.

Some fallen branches are pinned to the ground under the weight of other limbs. Cutting a pinned branch may result in releasing the pressure creating what is known as a “spring pole,” as the bend branch springs back to its original position and strikes the person or their saw, in the process.

Chainsaws injures are also a common occurrence when tree owners attempt to do storm clean-up themselves. If operating a chainsaw all the personal protective equipment should be used and this includes a helmet, hearing protection, eye protection and cut-resistant chaps. Sturdy, cut-resistant boots and gloves are also necessary. It is strongly advised that tree owners limit their tree pruning to hand tools and remain on the ground.

Homeowners should consider hiring professional arborists to do the major clean-up effort as these individuals have the training and equipment to work safely in this hazardous environment.

When hiring a company to prune or remove your damaged tree, make sure to hire a professional. After a storm it is common for homeowners with damaged trees to have workers stop by and offer to do clean-up. Many times these individuals have little or no experience in doing tree work and may either injure themselves or damage the tree further.

Tree owners should hire only companies that have worker compensation insurance for their employees and general liability insurance. It is also a good idea to hire companies that have arborists certified by the South Dakota Arborist Association or the International Society of Arboriculture. For a complete list of certified arborists, visit

Ice damaged trees

Many trees in the Black Hills have already leafed out so this recent exposure to sub-freezing temperature may result in wilted foliage or foliage that turns brown or black along the margins. Affected trees may begin dropping their freeze-damaged leaves within the next week or two.

The trees that are just leafing out, such as the hackberries and honeylocusts, will be most affected as the newly expanding foliage is the most sensitive to freezing temperatures. Trees that leafed out earlier, such as the crabapple, lindens and silver maples, may often suffer a few browning leaves as their older foliage is more tolerant of cold. The trees that will be least impacted by the cold will be those that have not yet leafed out; such as Bur oak which is a native tree to the Black Hills and is also one of the last trees to leaf out.

Bur oaks in high elevation locations are still in the bud stage and these trees will escape injury from this recent cold snap. However, most tree species, particular trees in the communities along the edge of the Black Hills, have leafed out and may be injured by the cold.

Fortunately, if a tree drops its leaves following this freezing weather, it may soon sprout new leaves from adventitious buds. These “reserve” buds are produced by trees for just this purpose, a weather event, such as extreme cold or wind, which results in the loss of the new foliage. The new leaves should come out yet this month. If the tree has not re-leafed by the beginning of June, it was probably too weak to recover and probably will not survive.

As homeowners wait to see if their trees will recover, there is little a tree owner can do to help the defoliated tree. Watering, if conditions turn dry is probably the best treatment; however, do not overwater as saturated soils will reduce root growth. Fertilizing will not help and may even be detrimental for the recovery of these leafless trees. The best course of action is to wait it out and let freeze-damaged trees recover (or not) on their own.

Broken trees

The recent West River snowstorm left broken trees in its wake and many young trees were bent under the weight of the heavy snow. A common reaction is to go out and try to knock off the snow with brooms and shovels to reduce the weight. This is not a good practice as these additional forces can result in branch breakage. It is best to let the snow melt and allow the tree and its branches to slowly resume its natural shape. The snow will be quickly melting away since the temperatures are expected to be in the 40s and 50s for the week.

Once the snow has melted, it is time to assess the damage to your trees. Young trees, those less than 15 feet tall, may be saved with corrective pruning if only a few limbs or the tip of the terminals were broken. If the tree is broken near the base or more than one-third of the limbs are broken, it may be best to remove the tree and start over by planting a new one.

If the top of a young tree is broken from the heavy snow, prune it back to the highest upright branch that is at least half the diameter of the trunk. This limb will assume the role of a new leader. This technique works well for deciduous and evergreen trees as long as the snapped leader is less than about 3/4-inch diameter.

Broken branches on tree should be cleanly pruned back to the larger limb or trunk to which they are attached. This pruning can be accomplished with a hand-pruner for small branches, less than one-half-inch in diameter or a hand saw for larger branches.

When using a hand-pruner, prune with the blade side closest to the larger limb or trunk. Do not leave a stub nor cut into the limb as you close the blades. Making the proper cut is the best means of protecting the tree from decay, tree paints or wound dressings do not protect against decay and can even increase the possibility of decay by keeping the interior too moist.

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